Despite an outdoors photography career spanning nearly 50 years, George Lepp’s most visible achievement happened nearly by accident.
A zoomed-in portrait of a western honey bee, sitting on a ragwort flower and dusted in its pollen, which Lepp took in 1994, has been honored by the U.S. Postal Service this month. The portrait is included in a collection called Protect Pollinators. The stamps showcase bees and monarch butterflies. The 20-count sheet of 49-cent Forever stamps, which also feature the work of four other photographers — including Michael Durham from Portland — was released Aug. 3.
“That photograph has gotten more notoriety in the last couple weeks than most anything I’ve done,” Lepp said with a chuckle while being interviewed at his Broken Top home. “It’s pretty bizarre.”
Lepp took the photograph in 1994 in central coastal California, where he lived at the time. He used a Canon EOS A2 camera with a 100-millimeter macro lens and Kodak Ektachrome E100VS film.
Lepp achieved the photo by taking two flashes attached to a macro bracket, whose design he later patented and sold as a mail-order product. The handmade device allowed him to use a smaller lens opening to get a better depth of field.
The image is one of thousands Lepp has sold to agencies for stock photography use throughout his career. The USPS approached the agency, Photo Researchers, inquiring about portraits of bees and monarchs, said Lepp. He is signed to the agency.
“(The Postal Service) just happened to pick mine,” said Lepp, who is also signed to Getty Images.
Lepp declined to say how much he and the agency were compensated beyond it was “not a huge amount,” nor anything resembling the five figures some of his images have fetched in the past.
“It’s more of an honor than winning a lottery-lottery. It’s just an honor to have something on a U.S. stamp,” he said.
A strong sense of conservationism has informed Lepp’s career, which has taken him throughout Africa and all over the Western Hemisphere, including Antarctica. Lepp, 73, has photographed countless endangered species, including cheetahs in South Africa and polar bears in arctic Canada. Sometimes he inadvertently catches his likeness in his subjects’ eyes.
“Photography has been a window,” Lepp said. “I’ve gone with a lot of biologists all over the world. All because of the photography.”
In the U.S., Lepp doesn’t have to travel far to seek out endangered species. The rusty patched bumble bee, which can be found in the Northeast and Midwest, was placed on the endangered species list earlier this year.
The populations of pollinators such as butterflies and bees have been greatly reduced by insecticides and human encroachment on habitat. Worldwide, roughly 40 percent of invertebrate pollinators, including bees, are threatened by extinction, according to a 2016 United Nations report.
Despite threats elsewhere, the Lepps’ backyard, which borders Broken Top Club’s ninth hole tee box, brims with wildlife. On a recent afternoon, varieties of bees bobbed through their potted yellow potentilla and families of California quail streamed through their yard. Not all wildlife there is serene, however; sharp-shin, Cooper’s, and red-tail hawks steer Eurasian collared doves and northern flickers into the Lepps’ windows, which incapacitates them and facilitates their capture.
“A hawk knows what a window is, but the doves do not,” he said, adding that he’s applied special stickers to the windows to curtail the incidents.
In Central Oregon, Lepp is involved in several local wildlife protection and awareness efforts. He documents wildlife at the High Desert Museum, particularly its Raptors of the Desert Sky outdoor flight program. Smith Rock State Park Welcome Center recently engaged Lepp to use high-resolution video to chronicle the nesting stage of two bald eagles and their eaglet, which are situated in the western corner of the canyon. The cutting-edge 4K video technology and an elevated angle afforded Lepp a crisp and intimate look into the nest life of the young eagle. He nicknamed it Solo, since the other egg was infertile. As the eaglet grew, it became increasingly antagonistic to the parents — particularly its father.
“That eaglet was just awful,” Lepp said with a laugh. Canon USA will also use the video, which required Lepp to log 120 hours of footage over the course of four months.
“It’s really cool in a sense that there is so much detail with 4K video. There are details that I never noticed while looking through the camera,” he said. “You’re right there with them in the lens, even though you’re 200 feet away. It’s so neat that I’m able to bring this stuff that nobody has seen.”
Photography led Lepp and his wife, Kathryn Vincent Lepp, also a photographer, to move from Colorado Springs to Bend. George is a member of The Canon Explorers of Light program, which organizes the appearances of 40 photographers at camera clubs and universities throughout the country. Central Oregon Community College and the Cascade Camera Club brought Lepp to participate in a seminar in 2011. The photographer was so wowed by Central Oregon’s natural beauty that he persuaded Kathryn, with whom he co-authors a bimonthly column in Outdoor Photographer Magazine, to relocate here the same year. They chose their house by whether it could accommodate his 44-inch printer.
“It’s one of the best places in the country” for outdoor photography, he said. “The amount of subjects I’ve been able to photograph here is fantastic.”
He spared no time involving himself with Central Oregon institutions such as the High Desert Museum.
In addition to photographing their birds of prey, whose images often appear in Canon USA catalogs, Lepp directs a photography class in which 10 students learn the basics of avian photography. Lepp doesn’t charge the museum for his expertise, which quickly fills the workshops. Lepp said he’s glad that his instruction earns the museum much needed resources.
“It costs a lot of money to feed all those critters,” Lepp said.
Teaching is necessary work since the stock photography market has been saturated with billions of images. As a result, Lepp said sometimes he receives 12 cents per image use. While the proliferation of digital photography has drastically changed the industry, Lepp embraces change. The instantaneousness of modern technology allows students to learn the photographic process much more quickly. It’s fun, too, for the masters.
“I’ve been doing this for 60-some years, and now photography is much more exciting,” Lepp said. “It just keeps getting better.”
That one of his hundreds of thousands of photos wound up on a postage stamp still strikes Lepp as something “super unusual and out-of-the-sky blue.”
“I never thought about it. If you’re a person (honored) on a stamp, you have to be dead,” he said, adding that most nature stamps are drawn or painted. He recalled a stamp-related scene in the 1996 movie “Fargo.” A protagonist’s husband, who is a wildlife painter, enters a mallard portrait in a USPS contest, hoping it gets selected for a top-value stamp. When it’s tagged for a 3-cent stamp, he’s crestfallen. No one cares about such a low-value stamp, he grumbles to his wife.
“Oh, for Pete’s sake, of course they do,” his wife says in consolation. “Whenever they raise the postage, people need the little stamps — when they’re stuck with a bunch of the old ones.”
While Lepp never harbored the same ambition, he’s nonetheless willing to indulge in a bit of faux self-aggrandizement.
“Hey, my stamp is Forever,” Lepp said with a laugh.
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org