ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Landscapes Inc.: Larry Ulrich, Photographer


You may not know Larry Ulrich's name, but chances are you've seen the world through his eyes. His images of the redwoods, North Coast coastlines and other landscapes show up everywhere -- on calendars and magazine covers, in advertisements, on posters for Humboldt State University and in Sierra Club publications. His vistas even show up as screen savers and refrigerator magnets. Stop by the Redwood National Park Visitor Center and you'll find his photos of the redwoods emblazoned on coffee mugs, bookmarks and picture puzzles.

The Ulrich Trinidad home, nestled in the redwoods at the end of a road, is also headquarters for Larry Ulrich Stock Photography Inc., a company that markets Ulrich's images worldwide and represents nine other photographers.

Need a photo of the Golden Gate Bridge, a lighthouse or a rustic covered bridge? Ulrich has dozens. Maybe you're putting together a tourist brochure on the Monterey area. Call an 800 number and a van will deliver 100 images to your office the next day. (It happened during our visit.) You want a Bavarian castle, a tropical island or Mount Everest? No problem. Ulrich has just the shot somewhere among the 64,000 transparencies in a fireproof vault. (Marguerite Powers is shown in the vault in photo below at left )

[photo of vault]If you've lived in Humboldt County for a long time, you might even have one of Ulrich's original prints on your wall. He got his start selling his photos of trees, flowers and beaches at craft fairs.

Ulrich's entry into photography was almost accidental. At the end of the 1960s he had joined the Air Force Reserve and was spending his weekends at Travis Air Force Base in a radar shop alongside four photo fanatics.

"Photography was all they would talk about in the shop. They'd bring in their cameras and their pictures. And I got interested."

When a coworker at his weekday job went to Japan, Ulrich was offered an opportunity: high-end photo gear at low prices. He turned to his radar buddies for advice.

"They made me a list -- two bodies, four lenses, tripods, filters. I gave the guy 500 bucks and I had everything I needed to be a professional," he said. "And I had never shot a picture in my life."

From the beginning his focus was on shooting nature.

"The first time I shot a roll of color film it was in Humboldt County," he recalled. "I came up here to visit friends and the first pictures I shot were in the redwood forest. In fact, the first exposure on the roll was something I later ended up selling. I loved photographing the rain and the wetness, the saturated colors. That became my focus."

[photo of redwood grove] Trail into the woods at Ladybird Johnson Grove in Redwood National Park

In June 1971 he quit his job in the Bay Area and took off on a long trek. "I walked through the Sierra Nevada Mountains for two weeks and hiked the John Muir Trail. I wanted to shoot pictures of nature and just get away from it all."

On the trail he met up with an old friend from high school, Paul Barron. By the end of the trip they had decided on a plan: to move up to Humboldt County and start a business. Their product was driftwood.

"Larry would go down to the beach with a backpack and fill it up with wood, then sell it to tourists," said Donna, his wife and business partner who met him around that time.

"I developed a clientele," said Larry. "I had all these nurserymen and people who made candles. And I'd go to flea markets in the Bay Area with a trunk full of driftwood and set it all out. At the same time I would set out a portfolio of matted prints."

Donna was impressed by his photography. She was attending San Jose State University and talked him into getting a bunch of prints together for a campus craft fair. It was fun and they made some money. "So we started selling prints at all kinds of craft shows, then on the street."

Donna was an ideal partner. She liked traveling, loved the woods and didn't mind being Larry's assistant, handling the film and "making sure he didn't drop the lenses in the creek." And she didn't hesitate when it came to spending dawn to dusk on a city sidewalk selling prints to strangers.

With the print business they moved into production mode. They found a lab that would do 8 by 10 color prints for $1 apiece. A friend let them use a mounting press and suggested a source for frames in quantity.

[photo of Larry and Donna] Larry and Donna at a craft fair in the '70s.

The photos gained in importance, but they weren't ready to abandon the driftwood. Barron had picked up a catchy new technique from another street vendor.

"This guy would make little bird sculptures from the driftwood using cones from digger pines. The Christmas of '72 we set up this whole production line down in Hayward. We were making $700-$800 a day off these things we called `sturdy birdies.' One of us would set up on the street in San Francisco and the other in Berkeley."

Before the holidays were over they had cleared over $12,000. Part of the money was reinvested in the photo business.

"Paul had taken a big load of driftwood down to L.A. and while he was there he found this guy who sold us like 5,000 feet of picture frame molding and a machine to cut the frames. I went out and bought a used photo processing system, a basket processor where I could do 30 prints at a time. I set up a lab and we went into production."

Within a couple of years they were selling 3,000 to 4,000 prints a year -- all produced for under $4 a piece.

"We wanted to sell them cheap," said Donna. "We figured people deserved to have art on their walls. We called them `People's Prints.' The other artists and photographers would come down and have $100 or $200 price tags on their pictures. They'd get mad at us for selling so cheap."

While they were learning how to create a low-cost product, they also had to figure out what sort of pictures the public was interested in buying.

"The public was a great teacher," said Larry. "When I first started selling stuff, I printed up the things I liked. We'd put 25 pictures out and some of them would never sell. We learned from that what people's tastes were."

[photo of oak silhouette against sunset] Valley oaks on a Dry Creek Valley ridgetop hear Healdsburg.

While his arty close-up of a "sneeze weed" plant sat on the shelf, the landscapes sold like hotcakes, particularly shots of the redwood forest.

"The first couple of years I was in business I had one picture that made up 50 percent of my sales. It was a picture taken up in Prairie Creek; I called it `The Rainforest.' It had this ethereal, magical kind of quality. With that one I would stack them up in the booth and I'd sell four or five every day. That's what got me so excited about being a redwoods photographer. Pictures of the redwoods sold so easily, especially good ones.

"The public likes elements that grab them, things they can relate to like rainbows and sailboats. And they like nostalgia. I had a shot of a fire hydrant in a ghost town, I'd sell those to firemen. And people like recognizable scenes. They want to look at a picture and think, `Oh, I've been there,' or maybe they feel like they want to be there."

Selling on the street was lucrative, but there were parts about it they didn't like.

"The buses would go by," said Donna.

"The dirt," Larry adds.

The transition out of print sales began in the early 1980s. They did several major crafts shows and harvest festivals up and down the West Coast ("indoors and lots cleaner"), then decided to do a redwoods calendar.

Their first attempt was a bust. The calendars were delivered two months late and many were not saleable.

"Some were printed wrong, some had missing pages. We had to hire someone to sort through all 8,000 of them."

But they were still ready to escape from the hard work of street vending and exposure to chemicals that came with printing hundreds of photos.

"I began to understand the concept of stock photography more clearly," Larry said. "After the disaster of the first calendar, I met a guy locally and we formed a partnership, Semper Virens Press. We decided to print a redwoods calendar ourselves with printing done by one of the major printers in the world in Japan." And it was a successful venture.

[photo of Golden Gate bridge] Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach

"From that we decided to start producing note cards and calendars that included other people's work," said Larry. "We started buying photographs from other photographers. Though that I was meeting some of the big names in the industry -- David Muench, Bob Clemenz, Jeff Gnass, primarily landscape and wildlife photographers. Most were large format [4-by-5] shooters like myself.

"Donna and I had a five-year goal, to get out of the print business and get into licensing our work." Following the advice of their new friends, they made their goal with a year to spare.

When they put some energy into selling their stock of images they had an advantage. "We had been shooting photographs for years and we had a lot of images no one had ever seen. Whenever we sent out a portfolio to a publisher we'd sell at least something."

They began with companies that produced calendars and note cards and the occasional ad agency or magazine.

"We started establishing a relationship with environmental magazines -- Sierra Magazine, National Parks and Conservation -- and with a lot of natural history associations who were producing books and publications for their own bookstores and for the national parks."

As they developed a pool of clients they would get want lists.

"We'd call and say `We're going away for a month; will you need anything while we're gone?' They'd say, `We're doing a rainbow calendar or a Rocky Mountain calendar' or maybe an Oregon engagement calendar. They would tell us what subjects they were looking for," Larry said.

"And from those want lists we figured out where we should be going," added Donna. "At the time we weren't going any further east than the Mississippi. We didn't travel too far in the beginning."

"We knew these companies were going to do these calendars year after year," Larry continued. "We planned our trips based on what we didn't have in our files. So our clients taught us what we needed to shoot."

[photo of Bavarian castle] Neuschwanstein Castle in Germany built by mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria

After establishing a solid base for Larry Ulrich Stock Photography Inc., they moved into the business of representing other photographers beginning with a Humboldt County photographer.

"It really started with Ron LeValley. I ran into him on the Plaza one day and he said, `Larry, you know I'd really like to start selling my work. Could you give me an hour of your time to look at my work and see if you can give me some suggestions.'

"I had known Ron for a long time. I knew he ran a tour company, Biological Journeys, and I knew he shot pictures. But I had never really seen his work. He showed me a lot of bird pictures -- he's a fanatic birder -- and he showed me whale pictures and stuff from Australia, koala bears and other wildlife. I said, `Well I've never done this, but if you want I can take a couple of hundred of your best pictures and try and sell them for you.' We came up with a contract and I duped a bunch of his slides and started marketing his work."

The Ulrich stable of talent soon expanded, first with the addition of the Blacklocks, a family of photographers from Minnesota who had a large catalogue of photos of the Great Lakes. One by one they added new photographers, mostly those who had a body of work that covered a unique subject or a geographic area where Larry and Donna had not photographed.

"I found there were a lot of great photographers who didn't know how to market their work," said Larry.

"And they didn't want to be business people," Donna added. "William Neil is a guy from the Yosemite area. He is really good and was doing lots of posters and books, but his stock photography was suffering because he wasn't into doing it."

"A lot of them didn't want to be bothered with the idea of having employees," said Larry. "Once you get serious about stock photography, you have to have someone at the phone every day. Clients don't want to get an answering machine when you're out in the field. When they call the office, they want stuff on their desk the next day."

That's where Marguerite Powers comes in. She runs the stock photography office and she knows the catalogue inside out. Clients can get a glimpse of what they have to offer at www.larryulrich.com, but they will only find a small portion of the thousands of images the company has on file.

While this interview was in progress, a call came in from someone producing a brochure on Monterey. Powers knew what questions to ask and right where to look for the images.

Ulrich Inc. is not as large as some stock companies. Powers describes the business as "a boutique" compared to the giants in the industry. She says what makes the business work is an ability to offer a higher level of service. That, and a collection of great images.

[photo of redwood snag silhouette against rainbow sky]The redwood snag on Highway 101 north of Trinidad

The cream of Ulrich's images of the North Coast are gathered in a new book, a dream project years in the making. This weekend Larry and Donna celebrate the publication of Beyond the Golden Gate: California's North Coast.

In 1987 Larry approached a publisher with the idea of doing a photo book on the North Coast. He wanted to call it Behind the Redwood Curtain.

"They told me it would never sell, but asked, `Do you want to do a book on the whole coast of California?'"

The result was the book, California Coast ("quite a challenge not being a Southern California boy"), and it was successful, especially in Southern California. Ulrich went on to produce or contribute to a number of other books, including the popular, Big Sur to Big Basin: California's Dramatic Central Coast, by Chronicle Books, which focused on a specific portion of the shoreline. But Larry said, "In my heart this new book was always the one I wanted to do."

Its genesis came on one of the Ulrichs' trips photographing southwestern deserts and canyons. Larry and Donna were camping with a writer friend and Larry proposed an idea for a book of flower photos, but had no publisher.

The friend suggested Jane Freeburg, who runs the Santa Barbara-based Companion Press. A call from a phone booth in Gila Bend, Ariz. was the first step toward a new series of books that began with Wildflowers of California. Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest and Wildflowers of the Plateau and Canyon Country followed and finally Freeburg warmed to Larry's old idea for a book on the North Coast.

Larry and Donna had a fine time sorting through thousands of pictures and came up with a "big ol' pile of ideas" for each page. They had a lot to choose from, having spent nearly 30 years looking for "quintessential images" of the place they call home.

One of the firm's most popular stock images: the Trinidad Memorial Lighthouse.

They enlisted Fortuna-based writer Roy Parvin (profiled Sept. 21, 2000 in a Journal story, "A Writer's Road") to compose an introductory essay after reading a piece he wrote for a Montana magazine, Northern Lights. Parvin crafted a loving paean to the coast and the woods based on his observations as he explored by car, on foot and in a canoe. His insights are a perfect compliment to the Ulrichs' vision of the region.

What do Larry and Donna look for when they are in the field? Sometimes it's the tranquility of a landscape, sometimes it's that perfect combination of view and foliage, but most often it's the light.

"If you look at my work, the most important thing is the light. The subject is often secondary. It has to have rich colors, it has to be saturated, there has to be a smoothness."

In the late '70s, when the Ulrichs were perfecting their technique with the large format 4-by-5 camera, they were the subject of a student film by Phil Wright, the same friend who had taken Larry on his first photo trip into the redwoods. The film was called Inner Light.

"That's what I always said about redwoods. It was the reason I photographed them on wet days. The light would come down and reflect off of all the wet surfaces, reflecting back into the shadows, creating an inner light."

Lately the Ulrichs have found they are taking a lot fewer pictures, partly because it has been so dry lately, but also because they have covered so much territory over the course of nearly three decades. With shots of most of the United States in their files, they have begun taking international trips.

"You really have to look at the collective photographic mind when you go out and shoot," said Larry. "You have to look at what you've done and at what others have done. Then you have to go beyond your own creativity and hopefully beyond your competition's creativity. We have to keep taking it one step further. In our shared vision when we travel we are always trying to go that extra step."


Comments? E-mail the Journal: ncjour@northcoast.com

North Coast Journal banner

© Copyright 2001, North Coast Journal, Inc.