Viewfinder: Todd Klassy
Todd Klassy’s road to being a photographer began by shooting people on telephone poles. With a camera, that is. He quit this job to become a freelance photographer and now, after a couple years traveling the country from farm to farm, the gamble is paying off.
Todd Klassy is a commercial farm and ranch photographer based out of Havre, Montana. We spoke to him while he was on the road in California.
Daily Yonder: Tell us how you became a photographer.
Todd Klassy: Well, in 2005, from about 1990 to about 5 years ago, I worked [for a company] responsible for building telephone towers. I didn’t climb towers myself, but I found it important to be able to check on my crews. I went and bought a camera with a long telephoto lens so I could zoom in on the antennas on the towers and take pictures and make sure that they were doing weather-proofing correctly and adjusting antennas correctly.
When I first got the camera…I didn’t know a damn thing about cameras. I went up one night and just shot the exact same scene in about a million different settings and came back and looked at them on my computer and I finally figured out what to do. Then on the second night I went up, you know even a blind squirrel finds an acorn, I happened to capture a really cool image. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “Wow, that’s pretty amazing.” I was kind of hooked ever since. It became a therapeutic thing. I would get up early in the morning before the sun came up and just drive around and make photos and it was something that would take your mind off work or troubles at home or things like that. It was enjoyable.
I don’t make as much money as I did in telecom, but it’s more gratifying. I was working 80 hours a week. Probably 80 hours a week doing cell towers and [with photography], I’m working the same amount but it’s more enjoyable, so it’s a little bit easier on the psyche, I guess, than what I was doing before.
It’s a pretty cutthroat world out there right now in photography. You can’t shake a cat without hitting a ton of photographers.
That’s another reason why I came to eastern Montana, because there just aren’t a lot of photographers there. I mean there is in western Montana where you know, you’ve got people that are photographing Glacier National park, or in Yellowstone, but they kind of photograph the same things. Eastern Montana was kind of void. The agriculture aspect of this region, ranching, cowboys, cowgirls, wheat, chick peas, barley, was something that was, I can’t say lucrative, but it was certainly something that was needed in a lot of magazines, advertisements and stuff like that, so I kind of found my niche out here.
What’s your typical work schedule?
From April to November, I’m basically on the road full time. I have to work out of an RV during those months, so I’m generally only passing through Havre sometimes during the course of the summer months. The rest of the time I’m roaming from the Dakotas to, right now I’m actually talking to you from California. I’ll be photographing wheat harvest and some vegetable harvest here in much of California before I return back to Montana. I’m on the road a lot. Then in the winter months, I kind of stay in Havre and other places.
So you’re like a nomad for the most part of the year.
Yeah, for a big chunk of it, yep. The reason I did that is that, Montana, if I’ve got to drive 200 miles every shoot, then go 200 miles back, that’s not cost effective. So why don’t I just drive up to the ranch or farm, park in the farm or ranch, almost every single time the farm or ranch doesn’t have a spot to park on their property, and my RV’s got solar panels and a generator, and a composting toilet. I put in a desk instead of a dinette, and an internet package, and I have a fancy water filtration system, so I don’t even need to be parked on the grid. I can be completely 100% off the grid as long I’ve got water, it can be a stream, I’m good to go.
Then I’ll go and I’ll loiter there and I can spend an extra few days photographing whatever it is I’m photographing. Then I look at my calendar and then I’ll head somewhere else.
What’s it like living in Havre, Montana?
I grew up on a farm in southern Wisconsin that was about 30 miles from Madison, Wisconsin. I thought I was a hick growing up. You don’t realize that you’re rural until you come to Montana. [In Wisconsin] I could go into Madison, eat sushi, go to an opera. You can do just about anything, but here in Montana, the next largest city from Havre, you have to drive basically two hours. It’s remote.
I’ll drive two hours in Montana without passing a single car. That’s not uncommon at all. It’s very remote. The more you’re out here it doesn’t feel as remote as it did when you first got here, but it’s pretty remote.
What is your average kind of project like? How long does it take? Walk me through what your process is for an average job.
Well, there are two different ways I shoot. There’s the assignment work where somebody calls you up and says, “We need you here to photograph for two to three days to accomplish X, Y, and Z.” Then when you don’t have those assignments or jobs, you go out on your own and you make photos that are appealing to your client base. Typically, what I do more often, I’m sitting down and I look it up. I create an agriculture calendar. So, in the western United States, when does harvest begin for this crop, when does planting begin for this [one]? I lay out a grid and I start making contacts in areas where people that are, like, potato farmers, and then at that time of year, I’ll move.
For example, my brother got married [in California]. I decided to stay here for an extra three to four weeks so I could photograph the wheat harvest and get some vegetable and nuts and the crops that you can’t really photograph anywhere else but California. Then I’ll go up to southern Idaho and that’s when wheat harvest kind of starts there. Then there are the Dakotas.
Then it starts with winter wheat planting and the like. When you’re working with a tractor company or things like that, you have to lay a grid of, “Okay, I need to find somebody who’s cutting wheat, and then I need to find somebody using this brand of tractor.” If I’m doing work for John Deere, you don’t want somebody who’s got a John Deere tractor who’s [using a another brand of] drill. You kind of really have to do your homework and try and find a farmer who’s willing to let you come out and photograph stuff that fits those particular needs. Then you make those photos and then you share them with business, agri-businesses and magazines and the like. They’ll buy them. It’s like you’re on spec [speculation] work, you have to make [money].
The challenge is you have to make great photos. Otherwise they’re not going to buy them.
As someone who spends eight hours a day in an office, by a computer, that sounds pretty incredible. I’m pretty jealous.
Well, my office is pretty amazing every single day. It’s not the easiest of lives, either. It’s a little lonely, but if you’re okay with that, which some people are and some people aren’t, then it works. [There are] struggles, everyday is different. You pull into a place, I’ve got to figure out where I’m going to get water, I’ve got to figure out, make sure I don’t run out my batteries, make sure I’ve got enough solar power. The way you live is different, sometimes that can create some challenges. For the most part it’s fun, especially since it’s a new adventure.
If you had to choose, what is your favorite thing to shoot?
Whatever sells. To do what I’m doing you have to sell photos, and if you don’t sell photos, you’re not in business. I actually like what I call abstract landscapes. I enjoy doing that sort of thing. Making photographs of things other people don’t seem to see. I enjoy that a lot.
I also enjoy photographing things that are not necessarily extinct, but could very well be soon. It might be an old grain elevator or an old school house that is rotting away in the countryside. Things like that. It’s kind of poignant and it’s kind of sad, but I also know that no one will ever make that photograph again. That way it’s kind of neat.
That’s one reason I photograph cowboys, because their way of life is going away too. Dairy farmers, the old family farms, they’re going away. I’ve photographed, now, a lot of Native Americans, and their way of life is changing too. Even the people, there’s certain segments of our population that do certain things and they’re not going to be around forever either.
OK, what am I missing here? What else do you want to add that I’ve not touched on?
Photography is an interesting way to make a living. It’s not easy. It’s not something I would recommend to almost anyone. It’s enriching. I think that it’s my legacy. Long after I’m gone, the goal is to have some of my images that will survive forever. That’s kind of a neat thing to think about because more often than not, when someone passes, not too long after that you become dust in the wind and then you’re kind of forgotten. If you think about it, even our grandparents and our great grandparents, we have a few stories to tell about them, but once we’re gone, those stories are gone too.
If I can create an image that maybe isn’t very important today, but will be important 100 years from now to show the way of life at this particular milestone in life or in our country’s history, that’s kind of neat to think. The legacy aspect of it is very important to me.