Whitewater Portraits with David Zickl

David Zickl, Whitewater Photographer shares his joy for making guide portraits, lessons from the river and how culinary school adds to the experience.

After coming across photographer David Zickl’s portrait work in one of our favorite publications, Adventure Journal, we reached out to learn more about his unique take on Grand Canyon river guides. His response… “You know, when people  ask me to write words I generally refer to this quote by early 20th century photographer Lewis Hine.”

“If I could tell the story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug around a camera.”  

Lewis Hine

Turns out there’s plenty more going on behind the lens than David first admits…

Astral

You’ve said,  “The experience of making these photographs is the adventure,” how do you define adventure?

David Zickl

To experience and see something that you’ve never seen before that makes you feel something you’ve never felt before. There might be a certain amount of risk and danger involved that is mentally manageable.

Astral

You’ve become friends with a lot of the guides who are subjects in your photos. What unique characteristics of a river guide makes them interesting to capture in a photograph?

David Zickl

They all seem to come with a good amount of humor mixed in with some common sense. You can see it in their faces and it comes through in their expressions and actions as they are rowing the rapids. They are either laughing and smiling or they have looks of intense focus. Sometimes all I hear is their infectious laughter as I’m looking through the viewfinder. You know there is no place else they would rather be than in the Grand Canyon between April 1 and October 31. Rowing rapids is more about setting yourself up for success at the top of the rapid. It’s not about your age, your physical strength or your gender. 

Some of the absolute very best boatmen I know hands down are women!! And a few of them are tiny. They read the water extremely well and know where to be and how to get there. That is their strength and wisdom. That wisdom appeals to me and comes through in the photographs I have made of them.

I enjoy the act of making photographs and interacting with my subjects. Seeing a glance, a gesture, an emotion or an expression of someone who has opened themselves up to me…that is the reward. The final image is a constant reminder of that experience.

Astral

Is there an image, or story behind a specific image that stands out to you from the collection?

David Zickl

The first image that I ever took with this technique was of veteran boatman Brad Dimock in his fabled red dory “Cataract”. Pretty sure Brad had been rowing and repairing that dory for over 40 years at the time and now it’s close to 50. That morning Brad said I could ride the bow and try to photograph him in the big rapids of the day, which I did. However, I wasn’t expecting the volume of water that would come crashing over the bow, flooding the entire boat and completely soaking me and my camera. My camera screen and systems were blinking all kinds of warning signs and I thought for sure my photography for the trip was done. At lunch I toweled it off as best I could, pulled the card and battery then let it bake dry on the hot black schist while we had lunch and did a hike. When we returned, I put it all back together and surprisingly it worked.  

I scanned through the photographs I had made and I hadn’t quite gotten the perfect moment, so Brad and I, and our passenger David Baum, headed out for the afternoon. It was more of the same. Hold on, keep Brad in the frame, crash through huge waves, get soaking wet. Repeat!

After I had dried out my camera that night in camp, I was lying on my sleeping bag looking at the tiny screen on the back of Canon scrolling through the images of the day. Then wow… look at that! Look at those strong powerful hands gripping the oar handles… look at that intense focus in his face as Brad is waiting to make his entry move… look at his passenger wondering it he’s going for big swim or not. It seemed like I had captured a perfect moment in time on the river. That is the image that I use as my benchmark for the rest of the portfolio. It’s by far my favorite and it’s the one that made me say ah hah…..now you’re onto something.

Astral

 How many trips down the Grand Canyon have you completed?

David Zickl

 This past October 2022 was my 21st Grand Canyon River Trip over 9 seasons. 

20 commercial trips with Arizona Rafting Adventures(ARZA) plus one 21 day private all dory trip in the fall of 2020 that Brad invite me on.

All of the photographs I have taken are of  AZRA guides and I want to thank them for all the opportunities they have allowed and for supporting my project by giving me access to themselves and their resources.

Astral

What lessons can the world learn from the canyon?

David Zickl

 Try to be humble. 

Astral

As a graduate of culinary school, what’s your favorite meal to cook on a river trip?

David Zickl

I really like getting up before sunrise and starting the coffee and cooking breakfast for a group of 30 guests and guides. French Toast, pancakes, eggs to order, whatever. I also like baking in a Dutch Oven and always strive to achieve the perfect Pineapple Upside Down Cake. I nailed it twice this past summer.

Check out David’s Chili Recipe
Astral

 Is this a collection that we should expect to see grow, or do you have a new project you’re focusing on?

David Zickl

Yes I hope that my friends and colleagues at AZRA will continue to invite me on their trips as an assistant so I can continue my photographic journey with them. Seems like the new project now is that they’ve got me rowing boats. This past October, I spent my 60th birthday rowing the entire 226 miles over 15 days. It wasn’t without incident, but I made it through with the help of my dear friends who guided me through all the entrances and the potential obstacles. Thanks for that AZRA Team!

They know my drybags are always packed!

David Zickl

Adventure Photographer “I enjoy the act of making photographs and interacting with my subjects. Seeing a glance, a gesture, an emotion or an expression of someone who has opened themselves up to me……that is the reward.  The final image is a constant reminder of that experience.”

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