Today, photographer Chad Copeland lives a fascinating life, shooting in exotic locations around the world on assignments for the likes of National Geographic and Outside magazines. And when he’s not traversing the globe in search of shots or footage for documentaries, Copeland, of Bend, can be found by wife Brooke Copeland’s side at their new Sunriver shop, Copeland Gallery. The space features large, high-definition prints of Chad’s captures of humpback whales, toothy sharks, towering glaciers, aquamarine waters, verdant hills and much more.
He’s come a long way from his childhood in Southeastern Idaho, where 30 years back, he was primarily a lonesome boy.
“I was alone at the house, alone in the world,” said Copeland, 37. His sister was 10 years older and busy with school, while his parents “were kind of living their own life.”
Then, at 10, he found a camera — a Polaroid camera that kept him company and nurtured his imagination. Never mind the fact that it didn’t have any film.
“I kept asking for film for the camera, and my mother was like, ‘You’re just going to have to look through it. Film’s expensive. Have fun imagining,’” he said. “I started creating these elaborate ideas and stories in my mind based off of this kind of funny thing I was looking through, this window I was looking through.”
After high school, he joined the U.S. Air Force first flying Cessnas, then graduating to trainer jets and F-15s.
Copeland was deployed numerous times during his decade in the Air Force. His first overseas flight was in Korea.
“It was interesting because their highways double as backup runways when primary installations are taken out by enemy ordinance. So when you fly over their I-5 or Highway 97, you see every few miles a place to park a jet in a structure called a flow through.”
Copeland describes himself as having a love of air, land and water, which is clear in his photographs that he takes in the sky, on the ground and beneath the sea. But it took a while to mold a career around these interests.
Elmendorf in Anchorage, Alaska, was among Air Force bases where he was stationed.
While in Alaska, “I would go on these beautiful hikes at Ruth Glacier and Matanuska Glacier, and I thought to myself, if only I could get a camera up there. And so you just keep pushing forward until your dreams are born.”
Around 2005 and ’06, he began to realize those dreams, developing his own drone technology in his garage. However, the civilian meaning for the term “drone” wasn’t yet in popular use.
“When people brought it up, in my mind I was thinking, ‘Predator Drone.’ And so you want to stay away from that. ‘I don’t fly drones; I fly cameras,’” he said.
After the Air Force, Copeland took a job as an air traffic controller.
“I loved the work. I really did. You know, I’d been to war a handful of times,” he said. “The people that were in ATC, none of them had been in the military, really — maybe one guy had — but they hadn’t been to war. The reason why I say that is because the amount of stress and pressure that is put on you, you have to know what to do with that. And the military taught me how to manage.”
Copeland had an affinity for the work, and still speaks fondly of it. But the work began to have impacts on his outside life.
“There was kind of this negative presence,” he said. “My mind has never been sharper. I’ve never been smarter than when I was an air traffic controller. Because you’re forced to think way in front of everything. All conversations outside of air traffic control were unbelievably slow,” he said.
“That personality, I was bringing it home to my friends and my family, and I didn’t like how that felt.”
So he quit.
“I thought, ‘I just want to get back to my roots, and my roots are outside.’ The outdoor industry was really attractive to me. I’d been making photos for a while at that point, and (I) really focused everything on photography, aviation and drones,” he said. “And when you listen to what’s natural to you, it seems to work a little better.”
The determination to meld his interests began to take flight.
“I got this aircraft off the ground, and I was able to remotely actuate the shutter while the thing was in the air. So I was sharing images here and there, and I got this phone call.”
On the line was National Geographic, offering him a ticket to Asia.
“They said … ‘We’d like to send you on an assignment to China,’” Copeland recalled. “Because in China there’s really no general aviation. I think there’s two Cessnas, and one of them doesn’t work. When I was there, the entire time I was there, I didn’t see a single helicopter either.”
He worked with journalist McKenzie Funk and photographer Carsten Peter on the July 2014 article “Empire of Rock,” shooting Moon Hill in Yangshuo, and the pillars of Shilin Stone Forest, known as the First Wonder of the World.
“That was my first assignment,” Copeland said.
Microsoft ‘People of Action’
Some of his other clients have included Red Bull, the BBC and Microsoft.
On Black Friday 2014, he got an evening call from Marylee Johnson-Burman, a design program manager at Microsoft.
“She said, ‘I work for Microsoft, and we’re rebranding what our visual brand is. We’re looking for a person who is a person of action, who is an action photographer. That’s the lifestyle they live. We need that person to go out there and capture what it’s like to be a person of action,’” recalled Copeland.
Because of his association with National Geographic, they were considering him out of a pool of about 200 photographers. She asked him to send his five best photos. While he’ll now tell you that’s a horrible thing to ask a photographer, he told her, “Sure, no problem.”
“She said, ‘We need it by tomorrow morning,’”
“At the time I had a million and a half images to sort through,” Copeland said, recalling how he spent the night awake, and eventually sent her 56 images.
A few days later, he learned it had come down to just him and another photographer. In the meantime, as Microsoft pondered its decision, he had a shoot in Iceland for The North Face.
As if to attest to his sense of adventure, he was outside in a raging storm, “a hurricane mixed with blizzard conditions,” he said. It was so windy neither party could hear the other.
“So I look over and there’s this shack,” he said. “I open the door and it’s completely full of sheep. I’m like, ‘OK.’ I go in and I close the door, and it stinks like you can’t imagine,” he said. “There are sheep all over my legs.”
It was Microsoft calling to say he would be the Windows 10 desktop photographer.
“I was silent there for a second. I was thinking, ‘That’s pretty rad.’ And then they go, ‘What’s that sound?’”
By Jan. 5, 2015, he was off on a job circumnavigating the globe, taking photos in the locations he felt were interesting.
“What I loved about that, and some jobs that are similar, is freedom. No artist will do very well when there’s this, like, pinning input. They just said, ‘Make up whatever you want to do, tell us what the budget is, and you’ll be good to go.’”
Photos he shot for “People of Action” are now on over 6 billion devices around the world, according to Copeland.
Last summer, he was walking through the lobby of a hotel in Greenland when he spotted one of his Window 10 images “on that desktop in the middle of nowhere,” he said. “It always surprises me.”
“I especially love the image where he’s flying in a small red airplane over the Great Barrier Reef,” Johnson-Burman said in a statement. “It really showed the spirit of ‘people who do,’ which was our tagline for the launch. He really embodies the spirit of an artist who loves what they do so much that you can see it shine through in his incredible images.”
If you’re lucky, Copeland himself may show you around the gallery, where he’ll tell you firsthand about how lucky timing led to the striking “Pueo,” both the title of a photo at the front of Copeland Gallery, and the name of an endangered, short-eared owl native to Hawaii.
“I was picking up my camera to take a shot because I loved how the light was playing here,” he said, pointing to shadows on the cliffs behind the bird in his photograph. “The assistant that I had, he’s native to Kauai, he’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh!’
“I said, ‘What?’
“He’s like, ‘Pueo!’
“And I said, ‘What’s a pueo?!’ And so I just started firing away and it flew right in front of us.”
Similar good fortune resulted in “Ghost,” a photograph he took in Antelope Canyon, near Paige, Arizona.
“The only way you can gain access to these canyons is with a native individual,” Copeland said. The Navajo tribesman accompanying him played a Native American triple flute, a particularly high note from which got Copeland’s attention.
“I was on a knee running two cameras. He hit this pitch, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s loud,’ and I looked up, and this sort of female ghost figure appeared. So I thought ‘Wow, that’s interesting,” Copeland said, imitating the sound of a clicking shutter.
There seems to be a good story for every photo in the gallery, which speaks to Copeland’s goal of selling people more than just a print.
“I want to share with them a really interesting story, and when they take that piece home with them, that story becomes a legacy,” he said.
To help people find stories of their own, Copeland also plans to lead expeditions.
“We’re showing people trips around the world on these walls. Any accessible or barely accessible location we can access, I’m willing to lead an expedition to one of those places,” he said. While he has an eye on summer 2019 trips to Kingdom of Tonga — made up of over 150 islands in the South Pacific — and Greenland, “I’m really happy to go everywhere.”
When in Bend, Copeland plans to be at the gallery most Wednesdays. He also offers Wednesday evening workshops for $100. On April 10, he has planned one on “Underwater Photo” and on April 17, “Gigapixel Photo.”
Central Oregon life
Recently, he’s been making trips to Mexico, where he’s shooting a documentary about poverty-stricken kids growing up in a landfill for Washington-based nonprofit Forward Edge International.
“Each time a new truck comes in to create a dump, there’s this ranking system, and in order to be ranked to get closer to the fresher food, some of these parents are selling or bartering their kids out for illicit favors,” Copeland said. “These kids are between, like 5 and 7 years old. And you see the impact.”
Before moving to Bend, the Copelands, who have two children — Asher, 4, and Ella, 7 — spent almost 10 years together in Seattle. Two years ago, they moved to Boise, Idaho, but then they found Bend.
Chad’s frequent travel may have been easier from Boise, but Bend offered them something more, Brooke said.
“It was the community, too,” Brooke said. “The sacrifice of losing that international airport was OK because of the community we found here.”
None of which means Chad plans to quit globe-trotting anytime soon.
“My place is in the world,” he said. “Not to sound cheesy, but I’m a global citizen. I’m not a citizen of just one place. … Inside there is this ever-raging fire to be out there, somewhere.”
“So some Wednesdays, he may not be here,” Brooke said.
“I probably won’t be going anywhere for a little bit,” Chad said. “But as I keep telling her, this is adventure photography, not planned photography. So anything can happen.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0349, firstname.lastname@example.org