Water World

There are photographers who are born to take pictures of the natural world. Discovering their passion at a young age, they spend hours outside experimenting with their parents’ cameras, idolizing outdoor-photography icons like Ansel Adams and Galen Rowell, and eventually attending specialized college programs to develop their skills. Quintessential artists, they suffer no distraction or delay in their single-minded devotion to their craft.

Then there’s Pat Clayton. “I used to be a carnie,” says the 36-year-old Bozeman resident, naming the highlight of a 15-year stint bouncing between odd jobs in four states and two countries. He’s peddled pumpkins, worked on a commercial fishing boat, and manned fireworks booths. Through it all, there was no indication that photography would become his main occupation, let alone his true calling. 

It wasn’t until a kayaking trip deep in British Columbia’s Purcell Mountains that Clayton decided to change careers—or rather, get one. While scouting waterfalls, he became engrossed by a school of 15-pound bull trout. “I thought it’d be cool to take their picture,” he says, and so Clayton went straight to his camera, racking up hundreds of hours on the water and eventually starting Fish Eye Guy Photography. The name comes from his renowned photos of different species of trout—undisturbed and in their natural habitat—taken throughout the western United States.

By any measure, Clayton’s streamside presumption was right—the photos are very cool. They capture a quiet intimacy with the fish that the hackneyed “grip and grin” snapshot can never achieve. Though some fish are more vibrant than others, each possesses a variety and subtlety of colors only revealed by the water and the physical environment in which they have evolved.

For those jealous photography geeks who want a piece of the underwater action, here’s what you need to know: there’s no top-secret equipment or technique. “I use a standard SLR camera. It’s a hand-me-down Canon 5D with a waterproof housing,” Clayton says. “I’ll sometimes anchor down the camera and use a remote to snap the shots. Other times, I’ll use a boom with a homemade extension cord attached to the remote.” In the end, he explains, it’s all about quantity—“burning through your camera’s shutter life in ten days of shooting.” As it goes, achieving that delicate combination of shutter speed, light conditions, and aperture is even harder underwater than it is above. Clayton admits it’s a crapshoot: “It usually takes 10-15 days of shooting before I get a keeper. For every successful shot, it’ll take sometimes 100,000 failures.”

But the triumphs truly outweigh the disappointments—his images are so arresting and distinctive that Clayton earned an immediate reputation around southwest Montana as “that underwater fish guy.” It’s a title earned through thousands of hours on the water, where the peculiar becomes the norm—like the time Clayton came up for air and observed a group of tourists bolting upstream after being charged by a grizzly, bear spray stuffed deep in their packs and their pants covered in urine. Or when, while shooting in especially high winds on the Bighorn River, he watched the rough weather send a couple’s driftboat cartwheeling downstream. “The guy’s wife yelled at him for a good four hours,” Clayton says, laughing at the memory.

Fish Eye Guy’s colorful career began at farmers’ markets and art shows, where he sold prints to locals intrigued by this new and compelling perspective. Soon thereafter, he started submitting images to magazines and conservation groups; his work soon garnered notoriety nationwide, in particular with Trout Unlimited (TU). His unique photos poignantly depict the coldwater fisheries that TU works to protect and restore.

Now a celebrated local photographer, Clayton’s wayward days seem to be behind him, as he builds on his experience to branch into different areas of photography. “I’m slowing down on the fishing photos because they take so much time,” he notes. “My last one took twenty 16-hour days.” Instead, Clayton spends the bulk of his camera time on skiing and other popular outdoor activities around southwest Montana. “I’m enjoying working with the younger outdoor generation a lot,” he says, “on the ski hill and on the river. I’m thankful to all the people that let me go out with them and mess around with my camera.”

Find Clayton’s work at the Altitude Art Gallery (134 E. Main) in downtown Bozeman, fisheyeguyphotography.com, and on Fish Eye Guy Photography’s Facebook page.