Photo Caption: Wally Pacholka's image of Mars is one of TIME magazine's "Pictures of the Year." A second image will be receiving the same accolade from LIFE magazine.
Samuel Goldwyn has nothing on Wally Pacholka. The world famous movie producer is almost as equally famous for his Yogi Berra-ish turns of phrase as he is for producing dozens of great movies such as Pride of the Yankees, and Wuthering Heights.
Two of my all time favorites quotes from Goldwyn are: "I read part of it all the way through", and "If people don't want to go to the picture, nobody can stop them."
It was Goldwyn that coined the oft quoted truism "the harder I work the luckier I get". While Mr. Goldwyn may be the person who first coined the term, OCA's own Wally Pacholka has been the living example of it during the past few years.
When I ran Halebopp.com back in the late nineties hundreds of amateur astronomers from around the world sent me their best images of the comet which I included in my Comet Hale-Bopp photo gallery (still online at www.halebopp.info and still producing more than a thousand hits per week). There are some pretty special images in that gallery. But only a few were as unusual and dramatic as the image submitted by one our own local astrophotographers, Wally Pacholka. Wally's shot was an eerie wide field shot of the comet taken with stark but haunting rock formation in the foreground. (See "The Rocks Reach Out" in volume five of the Comet Hale-Bopp Gallery at the above site).
"The technique was discovered by accident", says Wally. "In 1996, while I was photographing Comet Hyakutake, a group of boy scouts build a huge fire in the campsite next to me. When that image was developed, I said to myself "Wow! Look at how dramatic that shot is with the desert scenery lit up". Ever since then, I light up the foreground scenery. Over the years, I even evolved from building huge bonfires to using a flashlight."
Those of us who have been in OCA for a few years have watched Wally take this simple yet dramatic technique and parlay it into a nice little business and world wide recognition for his work. A 1997 image of Comet Hale-Bopp garnered his first TIME magazine "Picture of the Year" award. Later the same image was included in TIME's "Images of the Century".
Wally has continued to develop his technique and now he has received a double honor. Two of his Mars images have been selected as being among their "Pictures of the Year". One of the honors comes from TIME magazine. The other comes from LIFE magazine. As my college aged daughter would say, "how cool is that?". To which I would reply "way cool!".
Beyond the fact that the images are dramatic, to what quirk of fate should we attribute Wally's astronomical success? Well, Goldwyn would put it this way, the harder Wally worked the luckier he got. Here's the story in Wally's own words:
"Since I was 'downsized' from my career accounting job and had some time on my hands, I had actually traveled to the scenic and colorful Valley of Fire State Park [Ed. Note: where both the new Pictures of the Year were shot] six times (700 mile round trip each time) over several months specifically to shoot Mars as I wanted to shoot Mars from a place that looked like Mars. I also went there specifically to attempt to get a 'Picture of Year' image. I knew that this 50,000 year Mars event was a 'Picture of Year' event and that the major magazines were all going to each have somebody's Mar's image. I wanted that image to be mine. Not only did I travel to Nevada's Valley of Fire, but I traveled the American Southwest extensively to Mammoth, June Lake, Hume Lake, Sequoia, Yosemite, Death Valley, Joshua Tree, Corona Del Mar, and a grand tour of Utah covering Arches & Canyon Lands national parks as well as Monument Valley in Arizona. "Of all the places I visited, nothing compared to the 'Valley of Fire' with it's martian-like landscape and incredible natural rock formations like Poodle Rock and Elephant Rock. My biggest fear was that the magazines would just go with the Hubble image. However, having the experience behind me that the public in general enjoy seeing something that they can relate to, I stuck to my simple equipment set up (35mm camera on tripod) and simple formula of capturing heavenly events (Mars in star-filled sky) with a scenic landscape that looked like Mars.
"Incidentally, I missed the LIFE 2001 'Pic of Year' (by an inch) when they called desiring use of one of my Leonid meteor shots of the 2001 storm. It went all the way to production day, but was rejected when the layout manager changed the spread from a one page to a 2 page spread, which caused my dead center meteor to fall into the gutter of the 2 page spread."
Liam Kennedy asked Wally how he was notified about the selections. Again, Wally tells it best:
"That is a long story. In the 1997 TIME Hale-Bopp Pic of Year as well as the 2001 LIFE Pic of Year ('Nomination' I call it) both TIME & LIFE found me through Astronomy Picture of the Day (http://antwrp.gsfc.nasa.gov/apod/astropix.html). I get most of my publications by the way through the incredible exposure of APOD. Whenever I have a good image, I post it to the OCA site and then sent it on to APOD for possible inclusion in their vast database that is reviewed constantly by magazine photo researchers. This year APOD selected four images of mine, giving me wide exposure worldwide.
"However, that being said, after all the driving I did this year, having taken 4000 plus images and absolutely knowing that the major magazine were going to have somebody's 'Picture of Year' image of Mars, I certainly was not going to sit at home and wait for the phone to ring. I aggressively (with tact) campaigned each of the major magazines, contacting every source I knew within each organization, asking who the contact person was for their 'pic of year' edition. I got nowhere with US News & World Report and nowhere with Newsweek. For both LIFE and TIME, it was a slow process; with repeated emails weaving through their vast organizations (they have dozens of photo editors/researchers).
"Once I got someone with interest, I emailed small jpg files for them to review and also gave them my web site. Then they requested 'a hi-res image' and then a wait and see game that was really tough on the nerves. It was yes/no for a couple of weeks. You never know anything until you see the thing in print. Overall, they really liked the 'man on the street' or 'man in the desert' view point or composition of my images. That if anything is the secret to my success.
"All my astrophotography technique goes back to my parents and friends constant question to me 'So you've been out to the desert again, what do you see out there anyway'. I force my images to answer that question. 'Mom/Dad, this is what I saw last night.' That's what magazines want. They want what their readers can relate to. They want to see the sky event yes, but with some touch of earth to give them a reference point."
We all want to thank Wally not only for his great images but for giving us, his fellow amateur astronomers, some great insight into what it takes to be the lucky one whose shots grace the pages of the great magazines of the day. I'm headed out to the garage to find my old tripod.