In the last four years, Deonne Kahler has produced a remarkable series of photographs of the U.S. National Parks system. With an unsentimental but expansive eye, she aims to capture what she calls the “soul and personality” of these wild and often breathtakingly beautiful places. “There are 412 monuments and designated spaces in the system,” she says. “I’ve hit 130, so I still have a long way to go. I’m interested in the smaller ones. It’s a kind of incessant curiosity. Okay, it’s designated, but why is it designated?”
So for at least five months of the year, she packs up her trailer with her equipment and an affectionate brown-eyed mutt named Sam and takes to the road in search of a new national park. “It’s like a giant treasure hunt for me,” she says.
Kahler was not initially destined to be a photographer, and indeed spent most of her life pursuing other interests. Even as a small child growing up in San Diego, CA, she was a singer and performer and was recruited to be in a musical repertory group right out of high school. College, she reports, was “a disaster,” and she attended three before getting a business degree from San Diego State.
She headed for San Francisco right after the earthquake in 1989 and got a job as an assistant for “a very charismatic British guy who was head of the cardiology department at Stanford.” At the same time, she returned to singing and performing, writing her own music and performing in local clubs. “There was a paper I used to read about women in business in San Francisco,” she says, “and I started training with a nonprofit to help women start small businesses.” Eventually she became program director and wrote a column for a magazine called Bay Area Businesswoman. “I was very into the feminist scene,” she says. “I was not doing photography at all—I was writing and performing as the lead singer and songwriter in a band. It was the most creative time in my life.”
Eventually she started her own business, managing the books and helping with planning for other businesses. “I’ve got a really good mind for numbers and always have,” she says. “All my clients were creatives, graphic designers and typographers. These were the glory days in San Francisco, a time of boutique-y agencies, before Google and Facebook took over.”
She bought a house in Oakland, and lived there for five years. But after a total of 15 years in the Bay Area, she thought, “I’m done. I’m really done. I don’t know what else I want to do here. I didn’t want a bigger house. My business was at the point where I would have had to hire staff. For me, 15 years is a long time to spend in one place.”
In Kahler’s mind, there were only two destinations: New York City or Taos, NM, which she had visited a few times on road trips. “They both have a thriving creative culture, but I wasn’t ready for New York,” she confesses. So she headed for Taos. “I packed up the tiniest U-Haul you can rent, and I had a bicycle, a futon, a road map, and a boom box.” After four months she knew this was where she wanted to be, so she sold the house in Oakland, tripling her original investment.
In Taos for four years, she worked as “the most overqualified receptionist you can find” for a mortgage broker and wrote for the local newspaper. Then New York beckoned again, and Kahler decided to pursue an MFA in creative writing at Queens College. “The program was about being surrounded by people who take writing very seriously,” she recalls. “I had a terrible college experience, getting through by the skin of my teeth, and I wanted to prove to myself that I could be a good student. I wanted to immerse myself in classes.” She held down three jobs but wrote a memoir and finished the degree.
And then it was back to Taos, where she acquired the trailer and started taking photos of the National Parks. Two different professionals told her she had a strikingly good eye. “But I was still thinking, I’m a writer,” she says. Then four years ago she submitted some of her work to a AAA contest for the organization’s monthly magazine and came in third with a black-and-white photo of Salinas National Monument. More prizes followed and she was soon on the road for a good part of the year.
“I always loved visiting national parks,” she recalls. “One of my best first memories was of going to the Grand Canyon when I was four, leaning over the railing and looking out.”
Kahler works with a Pentax medium-format camera that weighs seven pounds, but “gets a lot of gorgeous detail and creamy tones. So I use that when there’s not a lot of hiking involved.” She also has a Sony full-frame mirrorless DSLR, which she plans to take on her next trip, to Tanzania in June, where she is traveling for three weeks with her mother.
For the time being, a change of focus seems to be in the works. Deonne’s mother, Janet Kahler, and members of her Rotary group in Rapid City, SD, have been sponsoring three students and a teacher from the town of Arusha in Tanzania, and the oldest is about to graduate. “I’ll have my camera and will try to immerse myself in the community and the Serengeti landscape,” she says. “I’m thinking that when I go on the road I can do a presentation about the school and the Rotary’s support. I like this idea of the everyday hero—people who are doing good work for the environment, for humanity. These small actions add up over time.
“And this is one way for me to give purpose to my travels. I want to make beautiful pictures, but I’m also after something deeper than that.”