Bob Taylor, world-renowned nature photographer, painter, woodcarver, poet and ever the consummate naturalist, died on Thursday, August 15, 2013 after a valiant struggle with colon cancer.
While Bob was best known for his images of polar bears, great gray owls and prairie bison, he photographed a wide variety of wildlife around the world. Bob loved to travel and he led numerous photo tours and workshops for countless nature photographers and nature enthusiasts. He led trips to northern Canada in Wager Bay to photograph polar bears in summer habitat, to Cambridge Bay to photograph muskox and to Igloolik to photograph walruses and bowhead whales. He also traveled to Alaska, the Galapagos Islands, Pribilof Islands, Egypt, Holland, England,Ecuador, Trinidad, Tobago, Kenya and Tanzania. His African Safaris were very popular and he led tours there for some 29 years. I think all the folks I know in Winnipeg have been on one Bob Taylor trip of one type or another!
I remember Bob from when I lived in Edmonton during the late 1970’s just as I was getting serious about photography. At the time I was involved with the National Association for Photographic Arts and one of our mandates was to promote good Canadian photography. My colleague Gilles Delisle - an excellent nature photographer himself - and I were well aware of Bob’s reputation as a well known Canadian nature photographer and we invited him to come to the John Janzen Nature Centre in Edmonton to speak to our group. His presentation was quite a revelation to me, discovering about how much a specialized field of photography ‘wildlife photography’ was. Illustrated with slides from a variety of animals, Bob proceeded to explain to us that being a serious wildlife photographer was a very demanding profession requiring much patience and a great deal of time observing behavior, setting up blinds and learning the technical craft of photography, to speak nothing of the specialized and expensive equipment needed to document these often secretive and elusive creatures. Reality set in for me at that moment and I realized I would not become a wildlife photographer – the rigors of wildlife photography were simply too much for me. Little did I realize however that each field of photography has its own challenges as well as its own rewards! From that moment on however, I have always had a deep appreciation for a great wildlife image.
Born on June 16, 1940, Bob spent his early years in the Toronto area. Bob developed an interest in natural history at very tender age, collecting frogs and salamanders, much like little boys and some little girls do. Bob always acknowledged the influence and support that his parents Alice and Ross had on his interest in nature, as well as on his art. At 14, he landed a summer job at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto where he and world-famous wildlife artist Robert Bateman worked as junior volunteers cleaning skeletons, banding owls and stuffing specimens. When Bob met Bill Carrrick, the museum photographer and a cameraman on a Disney film called ‘White Wilderness”, his journey into photography began. In 1963 he majored in science photography from Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto. He then spent time working at the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History in Regina to help develop the audiovisual department. He later moved to Winnipeg in 1967 to take on the position of audiovisual supervisor at the Manitoba Museum of Man and Nature. He worked for a year with Manitoba Natural Resources as a wildlife extension specialist just before he made his final career switch to become a self-employed, freelance photographer around 1975 when he opened a photography gallery in Osborne Village in downtown Winnipeg.
Bob photographed commercially for select clients but mostly loved photographing nature during his many travels around the world. Very early on, he traveled to Churchill to photograph polar bears. He became a long-time Frontiers North Adventures guide and helped develop a then very young eco-tourism industry with his early, and then rare, intimate photographs of polar bears along the Hudson Bay coastline. He marketed most of his images through his own efforts, avoiding the stock agencies.
Above all, Bob was a devoted naturalist. Through his great story-telling abilities, his photography expertise and experience, he influenced countless photographers through a few generations. “He was clearly my mentor in the early days of my photography” recounts Dennis Fast, another very well respected nature photographer. “He was always a patient teacher”. Dennis was eventually asked by Bob to take over the photography workshops in Churchill which Bob ran for years as a volunteer for the Churchill Northern Studies Centre. Besides his ‘photography stills work’, Bob was also involved in the production of several films, mostly documentary shorts of nature subjects.
Bob was known for his strong ethics for always respecting the safety and integrity of his wildlife subjects. “We always have to be very respectful of wildlife: we never, ever jeopardize our subject or the welfare of our subject to get a picture. Never.” He was as dedicated as they come.
Birding was also in Bob’s blood. He was recognized as one of Canada's most well-known birders. He travelled to Point Pelee National Park in southwestern Ontario for 51 consecutive springs to photograph migrating songbirds! I have only made the journey once but I actually ran into Bob at Point Pelee in 2008 while walking one of the trails. I later encountered him again in Rondeau Provincial Park a few days later when I captured the attached image of him and his friend George Holland bird watching on one of the boardwalk trails. In consort with Dr. Bob Nero who was beginning the banding program for great gray owls, Bob mastered the technique of photographing owls by focusing their attention on mice being reeled in with a fishing rod. Today, that technique is widespread.
Woodcarving was another passion of Bob’s. In 1986, he helped launch the Prairie Canada Carvers Association. I was even commissioned to photograph Bob on assignment showing him carving a bird in his home studio.
Bob volunteered a lot of his time speaking at camera clubs and various organizations about his passion for birds, wildlife photography, natural history and Manitoba. While he traveled the globe, Bob was always happy to return home to Manitoba. He was a proud 'card-carrying’ Manitoban and a great ambassador for the province! In fact, his four self-published books were all about Manitoba in one form or another. They included ‘The Manitoba Landscape - A Visual Symphony’, ‘The Edge of the Arctic: Churchill and the Hudson Bay Lowlands’, ‘Manitoba: Seasons of Beauty’ and ‘The Great Gray Owl: On Silent Wings’. The latter book was the result of over thirty years of observation and photography of the magnificent great gray owl, Manitoba’s provincial bird. You can read more about his books, as well as purchase them at http://manitobabooks.com
Bob’s imagery was published worldwide in many venues, including countless books and numerous national and international magazines such as Life, Canadian Geographic, Reader's Digest, Equinox, International Wildlife, Photo Life, Birder’s World, American Birds, Photo Digest, Birds of the Wild, The Beaver and Art Impressions, to mention just a few. Readers of Outdoor Photography Canada magazine might remember a feature interview / profile in the Spring 2009 issue. In that interview, Bob talked with writer Kristin Kent about his life as a photographer. He pointed out that “The Photograph is not the ‘be all and end all’ for me. It’s about enjoying life and enjoying the experiences. I love working with nature and I love exploring. So the photographs have been a means for me to do that. Don’t get me wrong, I like producing great images. Ever since I was a kid I was drawing and painting and carving and all of that. Art is in my blood, you know.”
Bob received many honors throughout his life recognizing his work and dedication to natural history. Nine days before Bob passed away, Manitoba Premier Greg Selinger bestowed upon Bob the ‘Order of The Buffalo Hunt’, one of Manitoba’s highest honors in a private ceremony at Bob’s house. “For over half a century, Robert Taylor has made us aware of the stunning natural beauty that is literally at our doorstep in this province and of our northern giant the majestic polar bear,” said Selinger. “He has also travelled throughout the world capturing the wonder of this planet and the wildlife it contains. All of us owe Robert a sincere thank you for his lifetime of accomplishments". Previously, Bob had received a fellowship from the Professional Photographers Association of Manitoba, a Masters of Photographic Arts from the Professional Photographers of Canada and was accepted as a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of the Arts, one of only a few photographers to ever receive this honour. He also received 'The Queen's Silver' and 'Diamond Jubilee' medals as well as a Bronze Award from the Columbus Film Festival for the film ‘Assiniboine Forest’ and honored for 'Creative Excellence' from the U.S. Industrial Film Festival for the film ‘Prairie Insights’.
What readers who don’t know Bob very well may not know about him is that he had a great sense of humor. When I moved to Winnipeg in 1985, I reconnected with Bob. I attended many of his talks over the years and got to know him on a more personal level. For a few years, before I had children, my wife and I would host an annual New Year’s Eve party and Bob would invariably be the ‘star of the evening’. He loved to tell stories and was often joking. He could captivate an audience under almost any circumstance. I am reminded of a particular talk he gave where he arrived at his destination but his slides got misplaced! Not missing a beat, Bob began to tell his stories while pretending to have a slide on the screen. One story after another, he had the audience in stitches. How many of us could pull that off?
Time tends to pass us by. Over the years, even though we lived in the same city, I saw less of Bob. He was busy with his work and traveling the globe while I was busy with my family and with my own photography business and projects. In the last year and a half, perhaps because Bob spent more time in Winnipeg because of his illness, I ran into Bob more often, sometimes at the St. Norbert Farmers Market or at the Scattered Seeds Country Craft Show where he helped his partner Jennifer LaBella - also an artist - sell her books. A few weeks ago, I ran into Bob and Jennifer strolling through the Leo Mol Gardens and was flattered that they asked me to photograph the two of them in the gardens. That was the last time I saw Bob. Time passes by so quickly…
Bob LIVED HIS PASSION throughout a 40-year career. How many of us are so lucky! "He did a lot in terms of fostering awareness of the natural wonders of Manitoba. That will be part of his legacy," said Ted Muir, Bob's friend for more than 30 years, having met years ago at the Manitoba Naturalist Society - now Nature Manitoba. "He clearly has left his mark and for that, we are all thankful. The world is a better place, and Manitoba is a better place to be, because of Bob Taylor. For those of us whom he touched through his photography or his unbelievable generosity in helping people in advancing natural-history causes, he will be missed." His brother John, sister Lynda Armstrong and partner Jennifer LaBella will surely miss him. So will his many close friends and acquaintances. Farewell Bob.
A Celebration of Bob's life will take place at the Fort Whyte Alive Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba on Monday, August 26 at 3:00 p.m.
You may leave a comment at the Winnipeg Free Press' ‘Passages’.