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Through the Eye of Chris McGowan

Updated: Dec 12, 2022

Photographer Chris McGowan’s viewpoint is simple: step out there with a camera and capture the moment.

From the splendidly detailed feathers of redwinged blackbirds, immortalized in the softest light, to a unique arch cloud coil of a Chinook formed over the skies of the cityscape, to the mottled-gray, mystifying countenance of a great horned owl – these are some of the things that catch McGowan’s eye.

His range of subject matter includes long-ago cast off churches in the exposed meadows and tiny pygmy-owls in the spring thaw, the thousands of snow geese and tundra swans and waterfowl hovering at Freezeout Lake, and the fall colors of the bright yellow tamaracks at Morrell Falls. In one striking picture there is a faint, black silhouette of a car on a dirt road, its headlights pouring out light through the gaps of a deteriorating homestead.

McGowan’s work is as much verbal as it is visual; a polished and vivid narrative alongside familiar-yet-complex subjects makes the images appear fresh and unexpected.

“I’m trying to add my own element and my own artistic spin,” says McGowan, who was born in Poplar and raised in Helena, where he now resides with his wife and two daughters. “I like to make the image from start to finish, and even though image manipulation can get a bad rap, it makes for some interesting photos.”

While his talent at capturing such scenes has boosted McGowan’s status as a photographer, he is instead careful not to get too attached to results, reveling in the joy of the full experience, the camping, the camaraderie with his buddies, and the family trips that coincide with his adventures.

Going Digital

McGowan explains that he has been experimenting with various cameras since about 2005, but that his interest was raised to a new level in 2009, the year his wife, Zoe, bought him a digital camera. He invested numerous hours in figuring out all of its settings. Intrigued, he kept teaching himself the most recent techniques of photography and digital-photo software, absorbing all of the up-to-the-minute upgrades.

For the past several years, McGowan’s curiosity has expanded to the point that he now organizes his own field workshops where he guides students to a number of Montana’s most dazzling state parks, national parks and wilderness areas.

“I am honored to see my photography in publications that promote adventure, and to be able to promote both nature and wildlife conservation through photography. Those are the best feelings.”

Indeed, photography has made McGowan a much more graceful naturalist and also a greater student of subjects such as ornithology, geology and natural and social history. For example, his attention is often pulled toward photographing “lost” churches. In the process, he researches the written and photographic records of the communities that gave rise to the structures.

Another instance of photography’s benevolence recently taught McGowan exactly how shrewd and even vain a raven could be after one posed for a series of photos, with the bird expecting a reward from his provisions.

McGowan recently trekked to Abraham Lake in western Alberta, Canada, in the wintertime, to document the release of methane bubbles, a quirky act of nature galvanized by the decomposition of below-the-surface organic matter. The thick ice on that day was anything but translucent and blowing snow further obscured the desired reflection. Yet McGowan says he came away with a plethora of striking images, and considers the trip a success.

He has many photos of the Canadian Rockies, where Lake Louise’s iconic ice-castle sculpture resides and from the strange, scenic separation of ice at Nilan Reservoir in central Montana (a misstep there plunged the photographer knee-deep in the frozen water). Virtually all of McGowan’s photos are immersed in the widest capacity of the environment.

The Future through the Lens

Looking to the future, McGowan says he has “a bucket list of owls to photo,” adding that he is often goaded by his feelings to re-examine and even reconfigure some of his previous photography.

Indeed, Chris says he sees the act of photography as being all about revision, something he equates to an ingredient of inspiration. One of the pleasures that Chris discovers while teaching photography classes and workshops is that he often deals with a group of learners who have no shortage of enthusiasm and look at him as a font of inspiration.

Besides developing a technical glossary, McGowan’s students soon learn that to their teacher, photography gives artists a noble pretext to amble.

“There is a church along the Hi-Line that I found out about,” says McGowan, discussing a recent endeavor. “It ended up that I camped nearby it, and I waited for the sunset, miles from the closest town. The conditions there are always different – the weather, time of year, the time of day, the amount of light – every time you go back. To me, that’s part of the artistic side of photography. I don’t photograph people. To me, photography is landscape and adventure, and, of course, seeing new things.”

Slowly but surely, click by click, crop tool by crop tool, McGowan is creating a veritable photography database, whittling a handful of favorites out of the approximately 20,000 images that he amasses yearly.

“Another goal for me is to build a name as a photographer, and one day to retire from my full-time job [as the head of Montana’s National Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committee electrical apprentice program], and then transition to photography full-time.

“More specifically, I’d like to re-focus on simple images, and try to focus more on keeping things simpler, as far as elements in photography, and working on detail. I’m not in such a rush anymore, and I don’t mind letting the photos cook for a while, or adding hours to the process. I’m more patient now, tweaking smaller elements for emphasis. I’ve learned to slow down and become more precise, and more targeted, and to roll with it.”

No matter how successful Chris turns out to be in the future production of his art, his raison d’être will surely be piloted by the same minimal objectives that have made his photography singular.

“Do what you love, enjoy what’s around you, and hopefully someone notices it.”

—Brian D’Ambrosio

To see more of Chris McGowan’s work, visit

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