I am constantly being asked when I first became interested in wildlife and how I became interested in photography. The answer to the first question is simple, I have been interested in wildlife all of my life. Being interested in wildlife is not something I set out to do, it was as normal a part of my life as breathing. My earliest recollections were of a consuming interest in everything in the natural world and that is still my consuming interest today.
As a small boy I had no interest in sports. Even today I would not walk to a window in my home to watch the Super Bowl or World Series if they were played in my yard. I do spend untold hours looking out those same windows, though, watching all the birds and other forms of wildlife outside them and recording their activities on film and in notes. I am not now, nor have I ever been, interested in cars or anything mechanical, although my dad was a marine engineer, a chief engineer on trips. My maternal grandmother’s family had all been bakers and my maternal grandfather’s family were whalers. My paternal grandmother’s family was mechanically inclined while my paternal grandfather’s people were farmers and storekeepers. No one in my family, to anyone’s recollection, had ever been more than casually interested in wildlife – until me. It has always been the driving force in my life.
I started taking notes of my first observations of wildlife and its activities when I was eight years old. I can pinpoint that precise time because I remember reading up on the yellow shafted flicker, which is what I was taking notes on, in a bird book that my uncle had given me for my eighth birthday. I still have that book and it was the first of over 17,000 reference books that I have in my personal library today.
My folks bought a farm in northwestern New Jersey when I was nine years old and that is where I spent the formative years of my life. I always say that I never got very far in life because today I live only fifteen miles from that childhood farm. On the farm I spent every minute I could spare, and a lot I could not, out in the fields and woods, scrambling along the cliff sides or down on the Delaware River, searching out wildlife.
In those early years during The Great Depression, a man working on the farm, if he could find work at all, was paid a dollar a day plus meals. Farm kids never had allowance money — at least those I knew at the time didn’t. I did a man’s work from the time I was eleven and was paid wages of ten dollars a month. I hand-milked seven to ten cows both morning and night and helped feed the cows, horses, pigs and chickens in addition to going to school. Summers I helped with the crops of wheat, oats, corn and hay. We cut firewood by hand and it was my chore to keep the wood boxes for the stove filled. That’s still my job today, as I heat my home with wood. I was expected to buy my own clothing out of that ten dollars, but my folks helped out some with that. Almost everything we owned or used came from a Sears Roebuck catalog.
In order to get the things I wanted for myself, such as guns, ammunition, traps, etc., I utilized my intimate knowledge of wildlife. I trapped. I trapped not only for the money the pelts would bring, I trapped to reduce the tremendous inroads the predators, such as foxes, raccoons and opossums, made on our chickens and corn crops. I hunted deer not only for the meat, but to prevent the deer from wiping out our soybean crops before they could get started. To be a successful trapper, you must know everything possible about all sorts of wildlife. You have to know who, what, when, where and how – and how to make wildlife do what you want it to do when it doesn’t do it on its own. These are the same attributes that one needs to know to be a successful wildlife photographer. It is this basic knowledge of wildlife that has allowed me to become the most published wildlife photographer in North America.
When I went to high school, I took vocational agriculture under Harry Schneiber. I owe a debt of gratitude to this man because each year he took some of the Future Farmers of America on camping trips across the country. It was during my sophomore year, when I was fifteen, that I took my first wildlife photograph. Even before I took that trip, I knew just what I wanted to do with my life. In one of my classes, each of us had had to go up on the stage and tell what we hoped to become. I wanted to be a professional wildlife photographer.
Although I went to high school for four years, I did not graduate because I had missed five months of one school year because I was working the farm during the war. Also, I was such a poor student in English that I flunked it three years in a row. It really gratifies me, exonerates me, to have written twenty-eight published books, to make a good part of my living by giving lectures and seminars, to be a charter member of New Jersey’s prestigious Literary Hall of Fame, to have been awarded the Outdoor Writers’ Association of America’s Excellence in Craft Award and to have been awarded a doctorate by Colorado State University for “the dissemination of knowledge”.
In my trapping, I specialized in fox. As mentioned, the foxes made terrible inroads on our poultry flock and, although the price of all fur was low, there was a three-dollar bounty on fox. They were also the greatest trapping challenge. When I was nineteen, I took about sixty-five foxes, both red and gray. The bundles of dried pelts looked so beautiful that my friend, Art Wilkens, wanted to photograph the furs before I sold them. We spread them out on a snow-covered, inverted canoe with a green background of rhododendron bushes. The transparencies were just beautiful, so much so that I decided, then and there, that I had to get a good camera of my own. I bought a Kodak 35mm camera with the money I got from the fox skins and bounties. The camera did not have an interchangeable lens, but the lens was coated, the first such lens that Kodak had made.
Within six months, I had outgrown the camera’s capabilities and needed something more advanced. At that time, Allan D. Cruickshank and Roger Tory Petersen were doing all of their great bird photography with a Super D Graflex. I had opted for that camera but, at the last minute, I changed my mind and got an ALPA camera, the Rolls Royce of the 35mm cameras. That camera not only had interchangeable lenses, but also long telephoto lenses. I worked day and night at every spare job I could get in order to be able to pay for that equipment, and it was well worth it. Good equipment always is.
In the spring of 1950, when I was twenty-four years old, I began writing a nature column for a local weekly newspaper, illustrating the column with black and white photographs. I was paid the princely sum of two dollars per column.
However, the column taught me the discipline of having to meet a deadline, and my writing career was launched. That fall I was contacted by the Portland, Pennsylvania Garden Club about giving a nature slide presentation, and my lecturing career was started. The next spring I did my first school lecture for Harry Weber, who was principal at the Port Colden School in Washington, NJ. Twenty years later I would be doing over two hundred school programs a year, sometimes doing three a day. I lectured in the Port Colden School for thirty-eight consecutive years and have given over four thousand lectures and seminars to date.
After my folks sold the farm, simply because we did not have enough tillable soil to really make it pay, I worked in the shipyards with my dad. I cut timber and I worked in a hosiery mill and then, for seventeen years, I worked as a camp ranger for The Boy Scouts of America. While working as a camp ranger in the winter, I guided wilderness canoe trips into Quebec for seventeen years during the summer. I also was Chief Gamekeeper for Coventry Hunt Club. All of these jobs kept me in the out-of-doors where I did wildlife photography at every opportunity.
I wrote my first soft-cover book in 1957, my first hardcover book in 1962 and have now written twenty-eight books, all heavily laced with my own photographs. I have written many columns and magazine articles for over fifty years.
In 1965, I gave up my scouting and guiding jobs and, ever since then, I have devoted my full time to freelance writing, photography and lecturing. For more than twenty years I have printed, or had printed, over 100,000 black and white photographs each year, with which I set up files with eighty-seven magazines. My photographs appear in at least fifty publications each month. I have over 1,800 magazine and book covers to my credit and once had five magazine covers in one day.
Years ago, having gotten tired of trying to adapt fishing vests to my photographic needs, I designed my Rue Photographic Vest. That led to other specialized equipment, such as our blinds, camera stocks, Groofwin etc. These, in turn, launched our catalog business. Today my son, Len Rue, Jr., runs Leonard Rue Enterprises, Inc. while my wife and I operate Leonard Rue Video Productions, Inc. I spend four to five months each year just photographing.
I have been to fifty-two countries, some of them many times, to all fifty of our states, nine of the Canadian provinces and all seven continents. My son and I have lead photographic tours and we do all day photographic seminars together.
I have been truly blessed. I lead a life that makes most folks envious, although most of them would not want to work as constantly, or as hard, as I do. This has all been possible through my love and knowledge of wildlife, which I have captured with my camera, my words and my pen, and my self-discipline and perseverance. Your camera, along with self-discipline and perseverance, can take you down these same paths, and beyond.