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Clicking with Nature: Jozsef Szentpeteri's painstaking wildlife photography

With the Tamburitzans as his ticket to America, a 24-year-old Hungarian seeks fame and fortune for his images of nature

Sunday, June 10, 2001

By Bob Batz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Can a 24-year-old guy from Hungary just dance his way into the United States and become a world-famous wildlife photographer?

That's what Jozsef Szentpeteri is shooting for.

You'd believe he has the drive to do it when you consider the effort he puts into getting some of his shots.

Photographer Jozsef Szentpeteri (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

To photograph hawks, for example, he has scouted nesting locations months in advance, set up a special camouflage tent high in a neighboring tree, and then spent days hiding inside it, tied to a branch so that falling asleep doesn't take on a literal meaning.

Even on the ground, he can barely move in his tiny tents, where the only bathroom facilities are wide-mouth jars.

To photograph birds such as kingfishers, he's spent hours -- up to a day -- in icy water, protected from ravenous mosquitoes by a spray so potent it has made him sick.

To get close enough to photograph birds called bee-eaters, he camps in his car. The birds -- found only in Europe, Asia and Africa -- are accustomed to cars, and quickly get used to them, but this has its own problems: Bee-eaters are most active in the daytime sun, when temperatures in a car can climb to 140 degrees. So Szentpeteri practices, sitting for one to two hours at first, until after a week "finally I can spend my five to eight hours a day, what I need," as he puts it in his accented English.

"It is a pretty hard physical training."

It's even harder to make a living as a nature photographer, especially in Hungary, where good-paying jobs of any kind are scarce. He'd gone after his master's degree in biology and ecology at the University of Debrecen, thinking he would become a scientist, and had taught himself photography "to make myself more valuable." Photography became his calling. And so after graduating last year, he decided to go to the United States to seek opportunities.

His ticket, it turned out, was the Tamburitzans folk ensemble at Duquesne University, which a friend had seen in New York. He knew nothing about Pittsburgh but was an experienced folk dancer, so he checked out the group on the Internet, applied and got accepted along with a partial scholarship.

After arriving here last summer, he stayed characteristically busy. In addition to being a full-time biology student, he performed with the Tammies -- his big part was the best man in the Hungarian wedding -- while also working 30 to 40 hours a week in university food service. That didn't leave much room for a social life.

The handsome single guy, who in 1997 finished fifth in an international "Mr. University" pageant, rolls his eyes and says, "I'm living as a priest here."

A natural history

Even while out of nature, his natural instincts never left him. Tamburitzan spokeswoman Darlene Fejka recalls one night during training camp when the group went to the movies and everyone was standing outside the theater chatting. "Well, almost everyone," she says. "There, tiptoeing through the landscaping along the building was Jozsef, in search of yet another specimen to observe. His discovery -- some sort of iridescent bug, with a lovely blue hue -- and Jozsef was caressing the little creature as if it were the most exquisite of all creation."

"I know one place at the river Tisza," explains photographer Jozsef Szentpeteri, "where the kingfishers are quite frequent in the autumn, when the colorful leaves are a magnificent background. While I was taking pictures of this kingfisher, a blackbird arrived on the same brush to eat its fruits. While the kingfisher watched, the leaves started to fall down. I just pressed the button on the camera, and from many, many shoots, I had one successful moment." (Jozsef Szentpeteri photo)

Despite the rigors of his schedule, he managed to do some photo-related networking, with auspicious results. McMurray photographer Michael Haritan, a Tammie-turned-Tammie parent who still does the group's photography, helped him scan his slide portfolio and invited him to show it to his class at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

Szentpeteri also showed his work to Curt Chandler, Post-Gazette associate editor/photography, who teaches photography at Duquesne. Recognizing his "exceptional talent," Chandler was happy to help him, which led to a meeting with editors at National Geographic. They also liked Szentpeteri's images and told him that if he puts together full stories in the future to submit them for consideration.

Meanwhile, one of his photos -- of a fish and its offspring -- won an honorary mention in the United Nations Environment Programme's International Photographic Competition on the Environment 1999-2000, which is co-sponsored by photo equipment maker Canon Inc. Szentpeteri was one of 110 honorary mentions, but that's out of 16,650 entries from 7,877 people in 160 countries.

Unlike many of the winners, Szentpeteri was able to go this fall to New York for the awards ceremony, where he wound up sitting with top Canon executives. He hit it off with President and CEO Fujio Mitarai, who hooked him up with Canon USA Inc.'s professional markets director Dave Metz. Metz took Szentpeteri, as Canon's guest, to do some more networking at the North American Nature Photography Association convention in Las Vegas in January. In March, Metz also lent him $5,000 worth of camera equipment to use this summer while he's home -- even helped him get, through Fuji, free film.

"I was just happy to give the kid a hand," says Metz, who adds that such assistance is unusual because Szentpeteri is from abroad and still a student. "If he can make something out of it, God bless him."

Szentpeteri got to practice with the best equipment he's ever had while touring with the Tamburitzans in the American West this spring. Late last month, he went back to Hungary, where he plans to spend the summer shooting more film -- 200 rolls -- than he's been able afford in his whole life. Then he'll return in September, at least to return the equipment.

He considers his brief time in the States and says, "It was very lucky." He adds that "it is really the world of opportunities. I could do a lot -- much more than I expected when I arrived." Where it will lead, though, is a picture that's still developing.

Camera ready

Szentpeteri was already a standout student at a high school that specialized in biology when he bought his first junky camera and started using it with five minutes of instruction from the salesman.

But he took to photography the same way he'd taken to the outdoors when he was growing up in a farm town near Debrecen. Jozsef and his brother and sister had roamed the fields and woods, had gone fishing with their father (an agricultural engineer) and had raised fish and frogs in an old bathtub. He was a natural naturalist.

Before he owned a camera, photography was "a mystery to me," he recalls. "It's beautiful, but it's just not possible that I could do it."

Still, building on what he'd learned from drawing natural subjects, he started taking photos of spring flowers and other plants. Before long, he realized he had a gift.

Szentpeteri has seen plenty of tree frogs resting on leaves from below. But usually, they are sitting in such a position that their silhouettes are shapeless. "So I was waiting under the leaf until the frog was ready to jump, prepared its legs, and I took the picture." (Jozsef Szentpeteri photo)

"I could see nature not just as a biologist or a human amazed by natural beauty, but as a photographer who could compose."

He insists he is no artist. "The only artist in wildlife photography is the nature."

While the best shots capture creatures in, say, one-one-thousandth of a second, Szentpeteri, like other wildlife photographers, must spend much more time to make them.

First, he must get out in the field and find his subjects. It helps to cultivate sources who know the habits of local wildlife, such as the cow- and sheep-keepers. But you have to know the protocol. As he explains it, a farmer will ask: "Where did you came?" And a traveler like him will answer, "From home," which means he's carrying a bottle of palinka, a strong brandy that can help loosen the flow of information.

Szentpeteri first studies the creatures' habits using binoculars, a notebook and a pen. When he does pick up a camera, it's first to make many test photos. He even practices techniques at home -- "room work," he calls it -- to figure out the best way to get just the shot he wants. In the field, he'll sometimes increase his chances by placing a clear container of minnows in a stream to attract a kingfisher or by placing a branch near a bee-eater's cliffside home.

Subjects he plans to pursue this busy summer include the European tree frog -- a species he's already photographed quite a lot -- and the "Tisza flower," the annual bloom of mayflies on Hungary's Tisza River. The rare Danube meadow viper may be another story that he could submit to Geographic or one of the other publications he researched here.

He says he'd prefer to live in Hungary, but he still hasn't sorted out his various interests. In fact, two Hungarian universities have offered him full doctoral scholarships in botany that he is considering.

He also wants to get back to work with the Tatorjan Foundation for Nature Conservation, which he started to preserve endangered plants there. He has worked with Hungarian authorities to identify plants being sold on the black market. More than once, he has caught someone doing something illegal -- such as digging sand and destroying bee-eaters' nests -- and gotten into actual fistfights.

"You don't want to be beat, that's all," he says with a shrug. "I'm not a fanatic."

Although he wants to be a heavyweight wildlife photographer, he doesn't want to give in to the people who tell him he can't also be a biologist/ecologist and a dancer and pursue other interests from choreography to embroidery.

But his passion for photography is clear when he talks about how it feels to be in the "flow" -- when he's looking through the lens at his wild subjects and all the preparation, even the pain, disappears.

"These moments are so beautiful," he says. "There is nothing else in the world, just the object and me. We are connected."

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