Annapolis photographer keeps focus after more than four decades

By THERESA WINSLOW, Staff Writer, Photos by Joshua Mckerrow

Published 05/01/11

Richard Olsenius had a gun pointed at him during a Minnesota hostage crisis. And again when Cambodians were fleeing the Khmer Rouge.

He never stopped snapping pictures.
Richard Olsenius, 2011 USPS postage stamp, photo ©2011 Joshua McKerrow

The same held true when he fell through the ice in the Arctic and lived under the threat of guerilla uprisings in the Amazon.

And at an age when many people are retired or slowing down, Olsenius still has his camera at the ready. The only difference today is he also brings along a video recorder, and then composes original music to accompany his films.

The 64-year-old Annapolis resident's images have graced newspapers, magazines, books and DVDs - not to mention galleries, museums and embassies in Zambia and Romania.

But the work that might end up with the widest circulation is his smallest. A photograph by Olsenius of Voyageurs National Park in Minnesota graces an 80-cent international stamp issued a couple weeks ago. "This is going to be my most famous, littlest thing I've ever done," he said.

Olsenius was raised in Minnesota and began his career working for the Minneapolis StarTribune. He's done work for National Geographic magazine since 1985, first as a contract photographer and then as a photo editor. Although he now runs www.americanlandscapegallery.com, he still does some freelancing for the magazine.

The Voyageurs photo chosen for the stamp was taken 20 years ago, and Olsenius had no idea it was up for consideration by the Postal Service. The shot shows the water just after sunrise at the park when a veil of fog was lifting.

Olsenius was struck by the way the light reflected off stones in the water. "It's the subtleties in landscape that catches my eye," he said. Colleagues said his penchant for capturing something special in what otherwise could be mundane is what makes him special.

"Richard would come back with pictures of streets I'd driven down my entire life and see things in a way I'd never seen them," said Kent Kobersteen, former director of photography at National Geographic who also worked with Olsenius at the Minnesota newspaper.

Bonnie Wilson, former curator of the Minnesota Historical Society, said she never considered going to Alaska until she saw images Olsenius captured there. "The first word that comes to mind is peaceful," she said. "His images speak to something we all want that puts us into a good state of mind."

Olsenius does less traveling these days, but remains busy with a variety of projects. He's working on a collection of photos and video he took of winter in the Chesapeake. "I don't want to let beauty and imagery pass away," he said. "I want to bring it into the next medium."

His previous collections have included images of dogs and their owners, high school life, tall ships and lighthouses, just to name a few. He also collaborated with Garrison Keiller on a book called "In Search of Lake Wobegon."

"The way I've always thought of Richard is that he's is techno-Renaissance man," said Joanie Surette, who runs The Eastport Gallery. "He has an artists' touch with the finesse of all the digital technology."

Screening room

"This is my clubhouse. I do a little bit of everything here."

The home office Olsenius operates from has an excellent view of the water and the woods, features he frequently takes advantage of to get new material.

He does a lot of his work at a desk circled with computer monitors. There are nine in all, along with a keyboard and a couple guitars.

Bill Marr, creative director at National Geographic, said his friend's willingness to embrace new technology sets him apart. "A lot of photographers don't have the patience to get into that," Marr said. "When Richard gets fascinated with something, he's going to seek it out and see it all the way,"

The next frontier for Olsenius are tablet PCs.

"What's got me interested is the transition from computers and laptops to the tablet devices," he said. "It creates a more intimate connection between the person and the device. You can share work even more completely."

He divides his career into two phases. The first was dominated by gritty black and white photos of people and places. The second is comprised mainly of his color landscapes. "As I got older, the noise and clutter of street photography was pushed aside by the voice of the landscape and things bigger than the human race," he said.

At some point, Olsenius wants to pause and catalog his work. Just not now.

"I feel young," he said. "I've just started to figure it out and I'm comfortable in my own skin."

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