Making an escape into a career Peninsula

Stationed in Cam Ranh Bay during the Vietnam War, 18-year-old Pat O’Hara counted the moments until his comrade received his regular care package from his parents in Kansas.

It wasn’t the snacks O’Hara looked forward to — it was the nature magazines that his friend’s conservationist parents would send, glossies that were filled with photographs of landscapes and ecosystems.

“I used to look so forward to those packages,” recalled the Northwest native, who grew up on Mercer Island. “I would escape in the photographs.”

While in Vietnam, O’Hara purchased a 35-millimeter camera and began snapping pictures of the war-torn world around him.

“I didn’t know about all the details of photography but I was always thinking about composition,” O’Hara remembered.

After the war, O’Hara completed degrees at Central Washington University and the University of Washington, all the while using the spectacular views at both campuses as backdrops for his photographs.

“I spent a lot of time photographing by the Yakima River,” O’Hara said.

After working a string of jobs that were related to the environment — he was director of youth conservation at Washington’s outdoor education center Cispus, the staff advisor for the student outdoor program at Western Washington University as well as an employee of the U.S. Forest Service — O’Hara said he “took the leap” to opening his own photography business in 1978.

His talent earned him a large photo spread in Backpacker magazine just one year after opening the business. The advertising department at Kodak saw O’Hara’s spread and contacted him about using his pictures for ads, starting a long-term relationship.

O’Hara downplays his talents.

“I got some lucky breaks,” he said of his career, which has spanned three decades.

Although O’Hara said he has dabbled in abstract and still-life photography, he doesn’t do portraits. He does, however, enjoy doing trying new methods with the other types of photography.

“I’ve always been interesting in experimenting,” O’Hara said. “I’m always visually aware.”

Looking back on all he’s accomplished, O’Hara has two projects he said remain “unfinished” — one in the country of Georgia, where Eastern Europe becomes Western Asia, and the other in Northwest Alaska.

Although O’Hara discovered his love of photography in the sandy beaches of Vietnam, he credited the Northwest for cultivating that love.

“I wasn’t into photography (growing up), I wasn’t a backpacker,” he said. “But just the everyday effect of the forests, the beautiful water … it all had an effect on me.”

Photographer Pat O’Hara, who has won countless accolades including the Lifetime Achievement Award from the North American Nature Photography Association, will be speaking at the Olympic Peaks Camera Club meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday, May 22, at Dungeness Community Church, 45 Eberle Lane, Sequim. The meeting is open to the public.

For more information on O’Hara and his work, visit
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