Photographer Jim Schlett: National Parks Artist-in-Residence Success Insider



This episode of Big Blend Radio features national park photographer Jim Schlett and Tanya Ortega, founder of the National Parks Arts Foundation.

Since 2016, award-winning photographer Jim Schlett has been selected as an Artist-In-Resident at 6 National Park sites, and has 2 more scheduled in the second half of 2019. His photographs have been published in a number of magazines and publications, and are exhibited in various galleries and art shows, and won competitive awards. Jim’s interest in photography began with a graduation gift of a Polaroid camera from grade school in New Jersey. He has a great love of travel and his photographs include many images of our national parks, cityscapes, and nature in nearly all fifty states.

So what does it take to be a successful photographer and national park artist-in-residence? Here are Jim’s answers to our 10 National Park Artist-in-Residence Insider Questions.

1. What led you to become a photographer?
When I was in grammar school in NJ, my parents gave me a Polaroid camera, which was considered high-tech back in those days.   I quickly starting taking photos of family events, parties and even local sports.  In High School, I upgraded to a used 35 mm camera purchased in NYC.  I was the high school yearbook and newspaper photographer, also learning the many aspects of the “darkroom” side of the house.   I obtained an AA Degree from Middlesex County College in NJ  in 1973 and worked in a large commercial studio in northern NJ photographing  products for catalogues and newspapers and also doing weddings and portraits.    Due to the seasonal aspects of that kind of work, I joined the Postal Service, went back to school and obtained a MBA and was the Director of Administration for the Law Department of the US Postal Service.   That include managing the support for the law department, including technology, recruitment, training, facilities, contracting and internal communications for headquarters and 15 field offices.   I had always still been involved in photography and have been a member of the Board of Directors of the League of Reston Artists for over a decade.   In 2011, I decided to leave the Postal Service and “refocus” on my photography.   Since that time I have had an amazing time and had one former co-worker seeing all of my photographic updates on social media, tell me,  “what a great time you are having compared to the rest of us.” And I feel the same way.

2. Who or what inspires you?
The number one inspiration for me is our National Parks and nature.    The history of America also plays an important role in what I like to capture and try to image what actually took place in parks like Gettysburg, Manassas, and Lincoln’s home in Springfield.   Due to that interest, Ansel Adams and some of the artists, like Jackson and Moran who painted the National Parks in the early days, have also been something I continue to read and gain knowledge about the efforts they must have made to capture such images.

3. Describe your ideal viewing audience?
It depends, at many of the exhibitions I have had my work shown in, I usually make a connection with people who love the National Parks as well as historical sites.  I have had long discussions with viewers based on my images of Jefferson’s Monticello or the battlefield images of the Vicksburg National Park.  I still get a great charge out of total strangers who admire my work and then think enough of it to purchase it for their home. I recently had a neighbor who saw my work at a local art show, purchased a canvas print of the Shenandoah National Park and then proceeded to show all of the neighbors where he hung it in his house.  I also talk with viewers at shows and really enjoy hearing when they say how well I captured a particular park, like Gettysburg or Shenandoah.

4.What personal changes have you had to make in order to build your career?
I have utilized my business skills to organize my work and schedule, as well as plan trips and my agenda when shooting.  I have also managed to stay healthy and at some parks, I hiked as much as 15 miles in a day with 40-50 lbs. of equipment. My wife Gail has been a great help and loves the parks and hiking perhaps even more than me. She has also been known to spot a potential photo that I missed completely.  As a somewhat shy and reserved person, I have also learned be persistent, be more out-going and more engaging with others about my work.  In my residencies, thanks to that art and act of engaging others, I have met and become friends with so many fascinating employees, volunteers and visitors at the parks and exhibitions.  Some of those new connections, like ones at Gettysburg and Montezuma’s Castle, were actually highlights of the AIR program for me. I have also found that utilizing social media sites give my friends and new connections access to my daily adventures at the park and spark even more connections.

5. What do you consider your biggest challenge?
With the rapid and constant changes in technology affecting photography, staying current with those changes. I try to attend some live workshops and presentations throughout the year and constantly head off to the library to find books that give new perspectives, especially with post-processing of my work or just to remind me of the basics of techniques like subject, composition, lighting and posing. Staying healthy would be an added bonus for this lifestyle.

If you could invite any three people (alive or passed on) for a dinner party who would they be?
That would be such a tough choice with so many interesting and amazing people throughout time to pick from, but my first 3 choices would be Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Michelangelo. I think that dinner conversation would be most insightful and I would get to ask questions that historians have often pondered and thought about, not to mention the photo opportunities of such a gathering.

7. If you could switch careers for a day, what would you choose?
Two careers come to mind; being a park ranger at Gettysburg or using my finance background to manage a mutual fund.

8. What led you to apply to be an Artist-in-Residence, and more than once?
Sometime around 2014-15, a friend who was a photographer mentioned this program. I tracked down a great deal of information on the web and applied for the 2015 season. My first time out, I think I applied to 7 parks and no selections. Although no feedback is given on the non-selection, I made every effort to learn from each experience and gradually improved my application packages and in 2016 was selected at Whiskeytown National Recreational Area in northern California for a 3 week period. Once I learned of the National Parks’ AIR program, I made it a “refocusing” goal to be selected at one AIR each year. By the end of 2019, I will have been an Artist-In-Resident at 8 National Park Service locations. Through my research, I have also discovered other residencies and have been accepted at non-National Park sites, such as the Dorland Art Colony in California, which draws artists from all over the world.

9. What attributes do you have that make you a good fit for being a successful artist-in-residence?
I try to do a great deal of research both on-line and at the library about the park before my arrival. I make every effort to get to know as many of  rangers, employees and volunteers at the park as soon as I get there. They have a wealth of information and are very willing to share. They can also make great recommendations about possible locations for photos that may be little known. I am flexible with my time and usually ask the AIR Coordinator if they are in need of any special photographs while I am there and I make every effort to provide them with such requests. At one of the parks, one of the employees told me that I had set a new standard for future AIRs with regard to all that I had done there.

What is the most important tip you would pass on to another artist applying for an art residency?
If not selected, don’t give up, and remember that persistence pays off, be open-minded and engaging with the public and a willingness to absorb the wealth of information about our National Parks.

See Jim’s photography at


National Parks Arts Foundatio



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