Renowned photographer, CMU alumnus reflects on journey to wildlife photography
Central Michigan University alumnus and award-winning photographer, Steve Jessmore discussed his career and recent change in photography to a virtual audience April 5.
Jessmore began by noting photography surrounded him all his life, but it became his passion in an unusual way. As a teenager, he loved attending concerts and experiencing live music.
At 16 years old, he became a staff photographer for the Saginaw News.
“I shot over 100 concerts before I left high school,” he said. “Freddie Mercury from Queen, I saw twice, and Kiss – all of these great bands that I just loved in the 70s… I got to photograph.”
He eventually enrolled in CMU but for health professions, not photography. His last year, he took one photojournalism class he regularly skipped since his roommates were in it.
“I finally took four or five tests and aced every one and the teacher said ‘Mr. Jessmore, so glad you could be here with us today.' I finally realized he knew who I was, started going to class and I really loved it.”
After graduating in 1981, he became a full-time photographer at the Saginaw News.
“It was a dream career for me,” he said.
He spent 15 years in Saginaw, nine years in Flint and six years in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
“I got to go into places and tell stories which I really love. I got to be creative within the confines of journalism,” he said. “I got to share all these people that trusted me to share these moments, and share them with the world.”
Jessmore eventually began shootings sports. He covered the Buick Open – a PGA tour held in Grand Blanc through 2009 – for 15 to 20 years and a world series. He is a five-time Michigan Press Photographer Association Photographer of the Year.
His positive mindset drove his work ethic and inspired him to author a column series while at the Flint Journal. Each piece told a positive story about a Flint resident making grassroots efforts to improve the city.
Around 2008, Jessmore returned to his alma mater to show the campus through photographs. He said his favorite part was the challenge that came from finding new ways to shoot the same thing.
In 2018, Jessmore left CMU, remarried and moved to Grand Rapids.
He reached out to several photojournalist friends that worked in public relations at various universities. The first person he made contact with was at Grand Rapids Community College. He has been with the college since.
Jessmore said 2020 started off on a high note, but quickly digressed thanks to the pandemic. He remembers the day nearly all of his clients called him to cancel appointments for the rest of the year.
He went from around 100 in 2019, to six in 2020.
One day, when he walked by his deck at home, he saw birds in a tree outside and thought to himself ‘I’ll just take some pictures, they’re pretty cute.’ He posted his photos on Facebook and built from there.
An assignment he photographed about the difficulty of finding kayaks during the pandemic inspired him to purchase his own.
He began taking his cameras with him on his kayak rides to shoot the wildlife around him. Social media followers noticed his new photography subjects.
“I had no intentions other than learning and getting better at something I wasn’t very good at,” he said. “I would post them, and people are like, ‘Man, you make me so happy… I can’t go anywhere and you’re bringing outside to me, thank you’.”
He fell in love with bird photography. He said most of his photographs are taken within 1,000 feet of his Torch Lake cottage, under a specific tree on his property or from his kayak.
Jessmore's dedication to bird photography paid off when his work swept both professional awards in the 2021 Audubon Photography Contest. He said the biggest reward, however, was the response from people around him.
“It’s taken me places where I never dreamed that this would ever take me because I really thought I had my reward with everybody just being happy with the pictures I was posting,” he said.
The Park Library will feature Jessmore’s work in a summer exhibition called “Birds Doing Stuff”. The exhibit will be open after May 20 through July.