The year’s Harrison J. Schmitt Award winner, Gary Barchfeld, is neither a geologist nor paleontologist. He knows little about hydrogeology or oceanography. He doesn’t run or make policies for a mining or petroleum company, nor is he an educator, consultant or author.
He is a photographer.
But if the industry, if AAPG, had an official photographer the way the NFL has official apparel or the Olympics has an official soft drink, Barchfeld, who’s been taking photographs of those inside the profession for more than 40 years, would be it.
Promoting the Science
“My first job was July 4, 1973,“ he said with a laugh.
Speaking with Barchfeld, one gets the sense that every image he has ever taken since that Independence Day is remembered, catalogued and thought about. But what he does – what he’s required to do – has always been clear.
“A lot of what I do for AAPG Members, for example, is to promote the science taking place in their industries,” he said.
To do that, he needed to be flexible, needed to go where the work was and where the work was needed.
“There is a broad spectrum of photography. I always enjoyed the advertising, illustrative part, enjoyed climbing up on rigs. It was very creative to me, traveling the world to document and project a company’s image,” said Barchfeld.
Companies, he discovered, were not just different in degree, but in kind.
“I like to say I work for the largest private and public oil companies in the world.”
Some of the work, though, was remarkably similar.
“I am called upon to take pictures of their executives, but it’s documentation that has to be done very well, because you never know how important it’s going to be.”
It can be complicated, difficult work, but Barchfeld knows at its core, the task doesn’t change.
“And a lot of it is just taking pictures because pictures are important in today’s world.”
Some of the pictures that he has taken were during the coldest of days (-39 degrees in Edmonton, Alberta) to the hottest (109 degrees in the Salton Sea Desert in California).
Before he began his work for the industry, he worked as a staff photographer with the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company in Akron, Ohio, and was there during one of the worst crashes of the Indianapolis 500. He remembers to this day when a car hit a wall, its fuel spilling over the track and fans.
“It was horrific. I have a picture of the car upside down with another race car going under it,” he recalled.
You never know how important a picture is going to be.
His arc in becoming one of the top industry photographers has been remarkably smooth.
“It’s always been easy getting the work,” he said about arriving in Houston in 1973.
“My third interview was with the agency handling George Mitchell (Mitchell Energy) and we were hired before the guy saw my portfolio. It was a testament, I think, to our good work, our personalities before that. We always tried to be service oriented and reflect back to doing the best job you can for each individual client.”
The “we” in that is his long-time partner, Greg Zalar.
Their work endured, as did Barchfeld’s reputation. He has been the official photographer for the Offshore Technology Conference for the past 37 years and has been going to the event for 40.
But after that much time – much of it spent working with another longtime partner, the late Jon King Keisling, and traveling the world capturing images to document events like trade shows and executive functions – Barchfeld wants to slow down a little. Not because he’s tired or burnt out from the work, but simply because there are other things he wants to do, like run for city council in his home town.
Documenting the World
Having turned 70 in May, Barchfeld said, “It’s time to let younger people do this. And I think when you have a gift, a skill, you should give back.”
The new generation of photographers, whom he mentors, will have to know more than he did, he insists.
“Used to be you’d do a job, bring the film back, send it to the lab, process it, send contact sheets, then deliver the product two, three weeks later. Now, I have to bring a computer guy with me so we can download it in the morning so that before lunch they can send out tweets.”
Through it all, he has always loved the work and still talks about how lucky he is to have done it.
“I am one of the most blessed people in the world to have found a profession I love and that people respect,” he said.
And while he may be slowing down, he is still enthusiastic about every job he does – his other community and freelance work – and still remembers and relishes the pressure.
“You have to get every job right, and sometimes you only have seconds to get it right. Once, I was the lead photographer at an All-Star game and the commissioner of baseball was there, the mayor, the governor, Nolan Ryan was throwing out the first pitch. It was big time, I thought to myself, ‘It seems like every job you have has a lot of pressure to it. Wouldn’t it be great if just once you had an unimportant job once in a while?’”
He stopped and answered his own question.
“But then I remember nobody calls me for the unimportant job, so yes, I’m flattered that people want to give me the ball when there’s 20 seconds to go.”
So what about this city council business?
“You know, there comes a point in your life when you reassess and I decided to step up and work hard for the community. And since everyone had other things to do, I decided to. It goes to giving back.”
But once a photographer, always a photographer.
“When I go on vacation, as a busman’s holiday, I always take my camera, because the world fascinates me. And, whether it’s someone winning an award or the sun coming up, it is my job to document the world. I want to create that, possess that.”
As for the Schmitt Award, he said he was surprised, excited and genuinely humbled.
“AAPG has some very, very, very good people in its membership and to think they would give me an award like this, I thought ‘Wow!’ It overwhelmed me.”
But to say that nothing compares to it, though, is a stretch.
“I am the official photographer for the World Championship Barbecue Contest, which is probably the best job out there,” said Barchfeld.