Hall of Fame baseball pitcher Randy Johnson is a passionate and skillful photographer pursuing wildlife, music concerts, and travel photography. When Johnson retired from Major League Baseball in 2010, he returned to his photography major (photojournalism) from 1983 to 1985 at the University of Southern California.
“And I thought it was one of the greatest places to bring a camera. And because it’s unpredictable, the animals are unpredictable, and they won’t pose for you. What you get is what you get.
“I’ve been [there] five times and still looking all the time for the perfect picture from Africa. I just got back one month ago. But the first time was in 2010 or 2011; after that, I went…seems like every other couple of years.”
Johnson, a Hall of Fame pitcher, shares his forty-year passion for photography in his first solo show, Randy Johnson: Storytelling with Photographs, at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York. The exhibition features 30 large prints of wildlife and people he captured during four separate trips to different regions of Africa, including trips to Ethiopia and Rwanda.
Separated from Elephants by a Few Blades of Tall Grass
Johnson (born 1963) has researched and admired many photographs of large-tusked elephants at Amboseli National Park, crowned by Mount Kilimanjaro in Kenya. The more he looked at the photos, the more he wanted to be there in their midst, capturing their majestic images. He was also there as recently as one month ago.
The name “Amboseli” comes from a Maasai (local ethnic group) word meaning “salty dust,” and it is one of the best places in Africa to view large herds of elephants up close.
“It was my dream after seeing so many other photographers that had been there,” explains Johnson excitedly. “They obviously had opportunities, some opportunities greater than mine. But I just wanted the same opportunity, a different perspective with my camera, and the freedom to get out of my car safely and take a picture.
“And nothing be in between me and the elephant, [just ’a few blades of tall grass between me and four to five tons of elephant, all in the name of getting a photo’ as he writes on Instagram]…You can tell when you’re in a car and when you’re not.
“I got out of the car. And then there are times when I’m kneeling down. At other times, I’m lying on the ground on my stomach, and I may have a longer zoom lens. And because it might be safer to be a little bit distant…maybe 20 or 30 feet. And then there were times where I might have been, you know, five feet or ten feet away, and [you] just got to be prepared to get up and move quickly [if the situation demands it].
“Well, being motionless is important, but they’re aware that you’re there. Elephants are very smart. But when they see you, they usually avoid you and don’t walk toward you unless you’re inhibiting their space. And they’ll let you know that you’re too close by flapping their ears and giving you [an indication to] back up if you’re not a threat. They’re not going to walk towards you. Probably, they’re going to avoid you or walk around you.
“There were opportunities and times where I would lay down when they walked towards me. And I wanted to see if they would continue to walk towards me so they could get closer, and my picture would be more dynamic from that [low, close] angle. But looking through the viewfinder, I could see that they must have realized I was there. They would stop 40 or 50 feet away and just look at me. And then, when they continued, they would divert from me and walk away. They wouldn’t continue to walk straight. So, they’re very smart.
Some photographers feel that the sound of the shutter can alert elephants, but Johnson disagrees.
“I don’t think the shutter…the sequence of picture taking bothers them. I don’t believe it bothers them that much.
“I never really, unfortunately, got to see the elephants I wanted to see in an environment where I could get close. There are a couple of pictures on my Instagram with elephants — one is called Craig. See how big [he is]. There’s a black and white picture. And there’s a colored picture of him I posted, two photos. You can see how big his tusks are.
“There are pictures of photographers that I follow on social media. And they’ve been to Africa and been lucky enough to get very close to him [Craig]. And where they might be 10 feet away, five feet away, lying on their stomach. And when you see a picture at that angle with an elephant that big, it’s so much more dynamic to see a picture shooting up at the elephant than being in the car and 20 feet away.
“Yes, I hoped that I would be able to get something dynamic and different. I did, but not as great as I wanted it. But I’m fortunate that I was able to experience it to some extent.
“If you don’t have access to certain opportunities, you won’t get those pictures you may want. I was inspired because I saw other people’s photos. I tried to get similar images, but I didn’t. I just didn’t have the same opportunities as they did. It’s kind of close, but not the same. So, access and opportunity are pivotal.
“And my [guides, but no photo assistants in Africa] are telling me if I’m getting too close or starting up the car and keeping a good eye on me.”
Elephants will pick up dust with their trunk and throw it on their body. And that cools them off. It makes for a fantastic picture if you can get [it right]…I couldn’t recreate what I’d seen, but I tried.
“I just follow various photographers. I don’t have a favorite photographer. I just appreciate all wildlife photographers for what they do. I know it’s not easy. You’re dealing with an animal you can’t control in the wild. Sometimes, some photographers can make incredible artwork by taking photographs, and I get great inspiration from seeing other photographers. I like going to Africa because I will see their work. And I think it’s so great that I tried to take my own photographs.
“I have visited Africa about five times now. I just got back one month ago. I went there for three weeks to Tanzania, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Before [I have traveled to] Rwanda, been down in Cape Town [Capital of South Africa] and Namibia.
“And so, a variety of places in Africa. It’s not just about the animals. There’s so much more to see. So that’s when research comes in. It helps to appreciate other photographers because many can inspire you based on what they’re photographing. And many times, I’ve gotten great ideas for travel based on some of the photographers I’ve seen.
“I probably won’t go again for a couple more years. I like traveling, but I’ll give Africa a rest and see someplace else. I will go back hopefully again later.
“I don’t know [where I’ll go next]. I just got back. I’m still going through all my photographs that I took for three weeks, like getting caught up now. Now that I’m back home, I’m busy with family and my children. I’ll start thinking about where I might travel when I get closer to next year. There are so many beautiful places that I would like to visit, but I get inspired usually by just getting on social media and looking at people’s photographs.
“Wherever I went, I went there for a reason…because I went to a specific area in Africa to see and take pictures of something in particular. And that’s all based on research before I go. I’ve enjoyed it everywhere I’ve gone in Africa for different reasons. I don’t have a favorite place. I’ve gone back many times, but when I go back, I go to other areas to see different things.
“Elephants and lions, I enjoy seeing so much; they’re fun photographing. And, like anything, it’s challenging. The elephants will allow you to photograph them much more easily than lions. Lions are harder just to find. First of all, during the day, they’re usually sleeping. So, it makes for a difficult photograph.
B&W vs Color
“The way I see something when it goes to black and white from color, I think you made the picture more desirable. I believe, in some cases, that makes it look timeless. You could have taken the photo in the ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s — you never know. I think that’s the beauty of a little grain and a black-and-white photograph. Certain pictures dictate whether they should be color or black and white. That’s just my theory.
“I’ve been tempted [to buy a Leica monochrome camera]. I do have a Leica M240. I have several different types of cameras. It’s a rangefinder, but it’s not a monochrome. I don’t have any monochrome cameras.
“After I download photos, one of the first things I do with specific pictures is look at it in color and then in black and white. Which is more pleasing to the eye? And that is usually my first start in post-production.
My Favorite Photos
“Two of my favorite pictures are in my house. And the images are rather big. They are around 30×40 inches and framed. One picture I took with my Pentax 67 [released in 1969 and called 6×7 before 1990] And it’s a picture of Seattle back in the early 90s. It was around 1991-92 when it was snowing in Pike Place Market. And back then, I enjoyed shooting black-and-white films.
“There was an old newsstand/magazine stand. I had my back up against the far wall. So, I could see the gentleman selling [the newspapers]. And that was half the picture. The other half of the picture went out to the street, where you could see the snow, the stop sign, and a couple of people walking. It is just a timeless picture because it’s black and white. It didn’t snow in Seattle very often in that area anyway. One of the gentlemen walking down the sidewalk has an oversized black trench coat and a big hat. It looks very ominous, with the slow shutter speed making him slightly blurred. It’s one of my favorite photos to this day. I still have it in my house. I miss film.
“There’s another picture I took even before that. I was in college, walking down an alleyway behind some fraternity houses. I saw this old Mini Cooper car sitting in a dumpster! It looked like there must have been a dozen kids that probably picked it up the night before when they were partying and must have thrown it in the dumpster as a joke. Maybe it was somebody’s car, and it was a joke or something, I don’t know. But that was black and white. And I still have that in my house. So, two of my favorite photos are from the 80s and 90s. And they’re framed, and then I have a couple of animal pictures from the 2000s and from 2022-2023 in Africa.
Film vs Digital
“I’ve scanned [and printed] several pictures that started back in my college days. Then, all I shot was film because that’s all there was. I was working for the college newspaper. Most of those pictures I have are old concert pictures. I still have some of those slides and negatives. I’d have to get them scanned.
“The two pictures, one from Seattle [bookstore] and the Mini Cooper, were scanned. And those started originally on black and white film. And then there are other digital pictures that I take, and I enlarge those as well. I wish I had more film pictures from back in the 80s. But unfortunately, I had a career after that in baseball, and of course, many of them [photos] got misplaced, destroyed, and thrown away. Still, I’m thankful I had an opportunity to have film cameras and shoot things back in the day. It was a lot of fun.
“If you shoot film [today], you obviously are shooting it for a reason. It takes more patience and time; you don’t have instant gratification. It takes time to take the picture, and you hope and pray that the exposures are correct. And then you have to get the film developed. And that takes a little while unless you have a darkroom. And it’s just a longer process.
“So that’s probably one reason people don’t do it as much. And then everything that I just said are some of the reasons why people still love film photography. I love it because it just has a different look. You can’t recreate film photography, even with many apps like Photoshop and Lightroom. When you see someone’s picture from the 70s, you don’t need to know it’s film; it’s just that look. And it’s kind of grainy and has that great, timeless look.
The Gear Behind the Photos
“In Africa, I have used Canons. I don’t remember which Canon I took the first time I went in 2010. I’ve advanced in different camera gear since then, better Canon cameras and different telephoto lenses. There’s been a natural progression over time, and we’re talking 13-14 years. I’ve advanced in picture-taking and gotten better cameras over time.
“The last few times I’ve been there, I had the Canon 1 DX Mark II. And this year, back in spring, I bought a couple of new Canon cameras, their mirrorless Canon R3. Yes, and so I brought it to Africa this year. I’ve shot primarily with Canon, but I also have a Leica, but I don’t bring it to Africa, and I have a film camera, the Pentax 67, which also I don’t bring to Africa as it’s too big and bulky.
“Cameras kind of dictate when I’m going to use them. If things are fast [moving] and I need quick images like at motorsports or Africa, I use my new purchases because they’re fast with autofocus.
“If I’m out in the desert here in Arizona, the Grand Canyon or something? I might bring color or black and white film [on Pentax 67] because nothing is moving. The images are just there – cactus, the trees, the hills, and I can just take my time.
So, what was in Johnson’s camera bag on the last trip to Africa?
- 2 Canon R3 bodies
- Canon EF 600mm/ f4
- Canon EF 200-400 /f4 w/built-in 1.4 converter
- Canon RF 70-200 f/2.8
- Canon EF 16-35 f/2.8
- Canon EF 24-70 f/2.8
- Canon EF 85 f/1.2
- Canon 1.4 x Extender
- Canon Mount Adapter EF-R
- 2 Pocket Wizards III
- 1 small flex tripod
- 4 extra R3 batteries
- 1 external hard drive for storage, 8 TB
- 16” Apple laptop
“I had an array of lenses for the three weeks I was there, based on any situation and circumstance I may need. Not everything is close. That’s why I brought so many different lenses from experience.
“I have a lot of faith that the lenses I use the most are the ones that most photographers use — the 24-70 and the 70-200. I’m lucky enough to have many big lenses, too. I have the 400 and 600. But you don’t need those very often. But when you go to Africa, it’s nice to have them. I got them because I went to Africa more than once.
“I shoot in RAW. And I do that because it doesn’t matter how much information the file takes. I bring multiple CFexpress cards. Depending on how big of an image I plan on enlarging, it’s also essential to have a big file for editing.
“Everything that you see on Instagram I’ve edited. But there are a lot of times when I may on more important photos, have someone take a look and do something that may need to be done. I don’t do Photoshop, just Lightroom, and basically, all I do is sharpen the picture and turn up the clarity a little bit, straighten out the horizon line, or turn something from color to black and white. That’s all I do when it comes to editing.
“Some of the photos [in the Fenimore Art Gallery in Cooperstown] I had someone help me edit. Because there were things that I needed kind of cleaned up a little bit and sharpened, and they were going to be presented as large photographs, and I wanted to make sure that everything would be presentable in a gallery.
“Everything that I have is in folders in my Lightroom. And I think it goes back to about 2010 to the present. So that’s 13 years. I probably have around 100,000 photos… of wildlife, concerts, landscapes, motorsports, drag races, NASCAR, and all my travel worldwide.
“On the Pentax 67, [using 120 film] I use Delta 400 ISO [Ilford] and the HP5 Plus [400 ISO Ilford] for black and white and Ektar Kodak [100 ISO] for color. I don’t know how good the film is [looking inside his fridge in the basement]. It seems like a little over a year and a half old.
Getting Started in Photography
“I enjoyed it at a young age. In high school, I took some classes. Then, when I went to college, I studied photojournalism in 1983 at the University of Southern California. I worked for the Daily Trojan, the college newspaper, where I would get assignments and then be able to go into the darkroom and develop the film, make a proof sheet, and then work with the photo editor. And that was just the beginning of what I inevitably would enjoy. And now it’s become a passion. Obviously, after college, I went on and played baseball. So, this ball took up much of my time because I was trying to perfect my craft and understand pitching. And I was very fortunate to play for a long time. But when I retired in 2010, I picked up my camera again, started traveling, and enjoyed retaking pictures.
“I had a couple of different film cameras. I had a Canon A-1 and a Pentax K1000 [made between 1976-97 and sold over 3 million]. I don’t have either of those cameras anymore, but I still have a medium-format Pentax 67 film camera. I take that when I want to take pictures of landscapes like the desert where I can just take my time and get the exposures correct, and I’m not rushed.”
Johnson has photographed top music concerts and artists like Aerosmith, U2, KISS, ZZ Top, Elton John, Billy Joel, Judas Priest, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Guns N’ Roses.
So, we ask him if he had to choose between shooting Aerosmith or Africa, which would it be?
“At this point in my life, I would probably go back to Africa,” says the 6-foot-10 “The Big Unit,” [nickname] whose fastball has been clocked at 102 mph and even killed a bird in flight (which ended up on his photography logo)!
Randy Johnson: Storytelling with Photographs at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York, is open till December 3rd, 2023.
About the author: Phil Mistry is a photographer and teacher based in Atlanta, GA. He started one of the first digital camera classes in New York City at The International Center of Photography in the 90s. He was the director and teacher for Sony/Popular Photography magazine’s Digital Days Workshops. You can reach him here.