Tom Murphy has been there, done that: completed six trips to Africa to photograph mountain gorillas; made images of— and been chased by—grizzlies in Alaska; photographed Adélie penguins as they swan dived off icebergs in Antarctica. In the more than four decades he’s been a working photographer, the 71-year-old has published 10 books of his work and had images printed in National Geographic, Audubon, The New York Times Magazine, and Time, among other publications. He’s taught scores of workshops and was the first person licensed to lead photography tours in Yellowstone National Park.
And if he’s in the mood, he’ll generously tell an eager listener the stories behind his most dramatic and beautiful images. Today, however, he’s agreed to talk about some of the photographs he didn’t make. He sits back on an old maple school chair in his cozy Arts and Crafts style office in Livingston, Montana, pauses and smiles before beginning a story about the one that got away.
Actually, there are a lot more than one that got away,” says the award-winning wildlife and nature photographer. “After all, I’ve been doing this a long time.
A few years ago, Murphy, who lives an hour or so north of Yellowstone, was leading a photography tour into a remote part of the park known as the Thorofare. As he piloted an inflatable boat across Yellowstone Lake, he heard a flapping in the skies and looked up to see three bald eagles flying fast out of the willows.
“I’ll never forget it,” says Murphy. “The first eagle was carrying a huge Yellowstone cutthroat trout in his feet and was climbing higher and higher into the sky, flying as quickly as he could. A second eagle was chasing after him and soon crashed into him, forcing him to drop the trout. Then, like an acrobat, the second eagle swooped down to catch the fish as it was spiraling down to the lake below. Incredible!”
“But there’s more,” continues Murphy. “As the second eagle gained height with its hard-won dinner in its claws, the third eagle attacked it, knocking the trout out of its grasp. Then it swooped down, caught the tumbling fish in mid-air and flew away with it. I’d spent more than 40 years in Yellowstone but had never seen anything like that.”
Although he wishes he could have captured the scene on film, he’s not a man to harbor regrets. His explanation hints at why he’s become known as one of the world’s most devoted conservation photographers: “No, it’s enough that I’ve been privileged to see all this wildlife and explore the way so many of the world’s animals live,” he explains. “It’s been an honor to witness what their lives are like and discover how smart and adaptable these animals are. And if I do manage to make a picture that shows viewers how beautiful and interesting they are, perhaps I can convince people that they are worth saving.”
Murphy has loved being outdoors, immersed in nature, all his life. Born and raised on a 7,500-acre cattle ranch in South Dakota, he went to college with plans of becoming a chemist. “But it didn’t take me long to decide that I had no interest in living the rest of my life in a chemistry lab,” he explains.
“I missed being outdoors and exploring nature.” He dropped out of college, “banged around” a bit, and eventually discovered photography when he bought a camera to record what he saw on backpacking trips.
He finished college, earning a degree in anthropology from Montana State University, but still hoped he could make a living from photography. He moved to Livingston in 1978, where he opened a photography studio and began exploring—and photographing—nearby Yellowstone. He’s still at it.
To support himself and his wife, Bonnie, he drove a school bus, photographed weddings, and did portrait work. But Murphy’s main interest was exploring Yellowstone, and he immersed himself in its wildness, its vastness and, especially, its wildlife. First, he had to learn as much as he could about his new 3,472-square-mile neighborhood. He’s explained, “As a wildlife and nature photographer I want my work to be as informed, true, and complete as I can make it. To do that I need to understand the natural world by participating in it in all seasons as completely as I can. I need to be near the edge of survival since my subjects are sometimes at that same edge.”
In 1985, he amazed everyone (and terrified some) who knew him by announcing he was going to ski across Yellowstone in the dead of winter. Alone. With just a thin nylon tarp for shelter, not a tent. Fourteen days later he emerged from the trek. He had covered 175 miles, lost 13% of his body weight (18 pounds) and survived one of the park’s worst winter storms in decades; for 12 of the 14 days he had encountered blizzard whiteout conditions and temperatures as low as minus 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
“It wasn’t fun,” says an understated Murphy, “and I didn’t do it because I loved to ski. I did it because I wanted to see the backcountry and how the park’s animals coped with those wintry conditions.” He pauses then adds, “And, of course, I just like being out there. I even like being out in bad weather; it’s more interesting. But I’m kind of an oddball."
That’s Tom for you,” jokes noted writer and longtime friend Tim Cahill. “He survived this crazy, impossible trip and brought back images from Yellowstone’s backcountry that moved and inspired us."
“His photographs are not simply stunning or striking; they are also knowledgeable and even wise."Tim Cahill
Murphy visits Yellowstone 80 to 100 times a year. Sometimes he just sits and watches some of his favorite animals, the bison or elk, to learn how they act and react or what they’re doing when this or that happens. “You have to understand animals to be able to anticipate their actions,” he says. “Besides, I don’t have to be making pictures all the time.”
Cahill, who wrote about Murphy in his acclaimed travel book, “Lost in My Own Backyard: A Walk in Yellowstone National Park,” claims he has long been in awe of the photographer’s vast knowledge of the region’s natural history: “[He] knows the flora and fauna and the natural rhythms of the place in a way that he knows the beating of his own heart. Walking with him through Yellowstone on a summer’s day is an education: He can tell you what this flower is, why that coyote is leaping, where the wolves den, and what the bears are eating. Consequently, his photographs are not simply stunning or striking; they are also knowledgeable and even wise.”
Coronavirus-related restrictions have temporarily slowed Murphy’s international travel, but there’s still much to discover an hour’s drive away in Yellowstone. Its 2,221,766 acres make it bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. And it’s home to the largest concentration of mammals (67 species) in the lower 48 states. So, he has plenty of wildlife and hidden places to explore and photograph.
Winter is Murphy’s favorite time in the park. “It’s the quiet that is so remarkable,” he explains. His green eyes light up. “During my 1985 ski trip across the park, when I was in one of the most beautiful and most remote sections of Yellowstone, I stopped in my tracks and held my breath for a moment. Then I heard thump, thump, thump. It was my heart beating. It was that quiet.
“At that moment I felt that I was intimately connected to this wild part of the world. I cannot wait to get out there again!”
Robert Kiener is a writer in Vermont.