Cortez photographer retiring after 27 years at local papers

Thursday, July 27, 2017 12:16 PM
A fire destroys a house in 2008.
Mark Fisher flips off the bronc in the bareback competition at the Ute Mountain Rodeo in 2008.
Tommy Taylor and Jackie Ramsey lead the charge onto the basketball court after Montezuma-Cortez High School beat Durango in 2009.
Fox pups frolic in a field.
An eagle chases an osprey that carried a fish.
The Dove Creek Pick ’n’ Hoe pig chase.
Jonathan and David Patchek try to hold on as Kole Yeoman prepares to saddle a wild horse in a Ranch Rodeo at the Montezuma County Fair.

For the last 27 years, award-winning Journal photographer Sam Green has been the eyes of Montezuma County, documenting everything picture-worthy — from county fairs, schools, nature and sporting events, to car crashes, wildfires, perp walks, protests and police standoffs, plus everything in between.

But now he’s symbolically heading into the sunset of one of his own stunning photos, retiring after a 40-year career in the newspaper business, the past 15 with The Journal.

Green got started in photojournalism during high school in Kansas. He earned a degree in journalism from Kansas State, and was the photographer for the Kansas State Collegian for four years. He and his wife, Melinda, were editors and owners of the Dolores Star from 1980 to 1996. Green become the lead photographer for the Cortez Journal in 2002.

“In middle school we made pinhole cameras out of oatmeal boxes, and I’ve been taking photos ever since,” he said.

Over his local career, many assignments stand out. Shooting sports was one of Green’s favorites.

“I focus on capturing the athlete’s face at the peak of the action,” he said.

Photographers are required to be out of the newsroom most of the day, and can find themselves in unique and crazy situations. Green said during his time in Montezuma County he’s been in a hot-air balloon 10 times, photographed many wildfires, interviewed and photographed the Hells Angels at Stoner Ranch, been in Division of Wildlife helicopter flyovers and accompanied Montezuma County sheriff deputies on a drug and weapons raid.

“We went in with the cops at 5 a.m., they set of flash-bangs, and brought out the suspects, so those were good action photos,” Green said.

He waited an hour before the Hells Angels let him into their gathering at the Stoner Lodge to talk with them and shoot photos of the motorcycle gang’s infamous leader, Sonny Barger.

“The FBI was on the hill watching it all because one of them was a fugitive, but the Hells Angels told me there were no criminals at the party,” Green said.

On another memorable assignment, he was in a helicopter that was rescuing cattle stuck in snow in the Dolores Valley.

“They were hoisted up one by one,” Green said. “In the good old days, photographers had more access.”

Then there was a close call during a controlled burn as he was following federal firefighters with the drip torches taking photos.

“I turned around and realized I was surrounded by fire, so I ran out of there,” he said.

Green will continue to freelance for the Journal when he is not wake-skating at McPhee Reservoir or visiting his family and new grandchild.

“Sam has taken a lot of really wonderful shots,” recalls Cortez Mayor Karen Sheek. “I’ve always been amazed to open up the paper and see one of his spectacular photos. He has a good eye and was always at the right place at the right time. He deserves retirement, but it is a real loss to the newspaper and the community.”

If it was newsworthy, Green was there, unobtrusively snapping away no matter how troubling the scene was, whether a contentious public meeting, massive wildfire or violent car crash.

“He has always been very professional, and did quality work,” said Cortez Police Chief Roy Lane. “We never had one officer complain about him. I hate to see him go.”

Over the years, local fire and police departments would recognize Green’s vehicle as he pulled up to the scene.

“We knew it was him because he is tall and always wearing shorts, even in winter,” Lane said.

Green’s knack for capturing the human side of local culture was evident, and his calm, friendly demeanor put people at ease.

His vibrant photos brought out the best in his subjects, who were often photographed doing something they loved, whether acting in a play, riding a bucking bronco, rafting a river, opening a new business, or farming a field of alfalfa.

“He chronicled life in Cortez, and his images never looked staged,” Sheek said. “The action shots he took of rodeos always amazed me.”

When he arrives on a scene, Green said he typically waits a spell before taking the photos, “because when people see a camera, they get kind of stiff, so I wait until they resume doing what they were before I got there so it is more natural.”

For reporters, it was always a secure feeling traveling to a news scene with Sam, knowing he would get quality pictures and video for the story. His experience in journalism was also an invaluable backup for helping tell the story of what happened, who is who, and verifying what was said.

“For the reader to see the crime scene, moment of triumph, or disaster in Sam’s photographs gave the story more realism,” said Journal reporter Jim Mimiaga. “His close-ups of wildlife and interesting scenery always impressed me, and reminds us of the natural paradise we all live in.”

For wildlife, it’s all about patience, and “carrying a camera everywhere you go. Once I see wildlife, I usually have to sit and wait for a while, even hours, until something interesting happens,” Green said. Fifteen years at one place in one job is a long time in the news business. It’s a lot of miles, a lot of stories and a lot of lives.

“Sam showed us how we live, in the best and worst times — the joy of a New Year’s baby and the sorrow of a family’s loss, a team’s victory and defeat, a town’s boom and bust. Sometimes, he just showed us the natural beauty that surrounds us,” said Journal Managing Editor Trent Stephens.

For years, Sam has been the most popular guy in the newsroom as his fans clamber to get copies of photos taken of them, their family members, or an epic scenery shot.

Sam often recorded moments in our lives in a quiet, organic way.

“I recently stumbled upon his photo of a toddler who was showing her mom artwork on a wall, then a photo taken years later of that girl dancing on the Fourth of July, grown but still growing,” Stephens said. “Through his work, he became part of our lives, and we became part of his.”

“Now, it’s Sam’s time,” he said. “And we wish for him the time of his life.”