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MN photographer coming to share captured nature

Cold temperatures force bald eagles to flock to Colvill Park on the Mississippi River in Red Wing, Minn., where they can find open water and food. Joe Rossi took the photo January 2008. He will be speaking about his nature photography Feb. 11 in the Detroit Lakes Library. Photo courtesy of Joe Rossi1 / 3
A frosty Joe Rossi. Photo courtesy of Joe Rossi2 / 3
The letter 'a' from the book 'Minnesota's Hidden Alphabet.' Joe Rossi will speaking about his book and other nature photography on Feb. 11 in the library. Photo courtesy of Joe Rossi3 / 3

For the last few years, the Detroit Lakes Library has celebrated Polar Fest by hosting polar explorers to speak about their adventures.

This year though, "we're taking a different track," said Deb Wahl, public services supervisor for the library.

They have invited photographer Joe Rossi to share some of his nature photos he's taken over the last 30-plus years. He will be speaking on Monday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. in the DL Library.

Finding focus

Rossi, 60, said he had never really had a good camera when he was young -- just a Kodak point and shoot, he said.

"At that time, I was going to be graduating from high school and the in thing then was to get a little electric Smith Corona typewriter. That was the last thing in the world I wanted," he said.

So, he asked his parents to get him a camera for graduation instead.

"They had a little Pentax 35mm camera for sale at Johnson Corner Drug in Bemidji, and I convinced them that would be the perfect thing, not a typewriter."

That camera was just the start of a lifelong hobby and career for Rossi.

"I thought, 'you know what, if I'm going to do something for a living, I'm going to do something I really love.' That's when I decided to become a photographer."

He graduated from what is now Bemidji State University with a major in mass communications with a photo emphasis.

His first job was with the Marshall Independent newspaper, followed by the Worthington Daily Globe and then on to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, where he was a staff photographer for 24 years.

And about 40 years after picking photography as his career, Rossi said he still loves the craft.

"It's like everything, it becomes a bit different when it becomes a 40 hour a week job, but still, I've always really enjoyed it."

Nature's Alphabet

Years ago, photographer Kjell Sandved published a book he had shot of various butterflies, showing that each letter of the alphabet was represented in the details of the wings.

Rossi said it was cool and inspiring, but he needed to find his own alphabet.

One day he was visiting his parents in Bemidji, and they had some ferns growing in their backyard.

"As they were emerging, they were the perfect letter 'P.'"

He took a picture and thought he'd do an expanded nature's alphabet. The idea got shelved for quite some time though, mainly because he was still working full-time at the Pioneer Press.

Once he left there though, he decided to share some of his nature photography with Minnesota Conservation Volunteer Magazine art director Lynn Phelps.

Phelps asked Rossi if he had any story ideas, and Rossi told him about the alphabet idea he had.

Rossi ended up shooting the alphabet project for the conservation magazine. It took him about 14 months, and it ran in the magazine in 2008.

One of the people working at the magazine also worked at the Minnesota Historical Society Press and suggested Rossi turn the project into a book.

After David LaRochelle agreed to write copy for the book, it was published in 2010 as a children's book called "Minnesota's Hidden Alphabet."

"They wanted me to find a letter 'Q,' and I said, 'Do you know how hard it is to find a letter 'Q'?' I would be awake at night.

"It was one of those things, I told my wife, if I can find a letter 'Q,' I know I can get this done."

To get the pictures, Rossi said he would go out a couple hours at a time, and usually, he would look specifically for a particular letter. If he found a different letter, that was an added bonus.

"You really have to concentrate, you really have to walk slowly, and you really have to look carefully."

Rossi is working on a bog project now, documenting it at various stages. He doesn't necessarily have plans for the pictures, but he has some ideas. Bogs may get a bad wrap for just being mossy and filled with mosquitoes, but there's much more to them, he said.

"It's just such an incredible variety of plants. It's things that you can't even imagine grow on this planet, let alone in northern Minnesota."

Journalism v. nature

"I think right now I really enjoy the nature work. I did photojournalism stuff for about 31 years, so I still really love photography, but I just really always enjoyed doing nature stuff. I always enjoyed the pictorial work."

Now, he said, he's still involved in photography, but just a different aspect of it.

Since leaving the Pioneer Press in 2007 and moving to northern Minnesota, he formed Joe Rossi Photography, LLC, and works as a freelance photographer.

Rossi said he got to do more of the nature photography while at the Daily Globe because he replaced Jim Brandenberg when he left the newspaper to work for National Geographic, so the paper featured a lot of nature photos already.

He said the Pioneer Press had some nature photography, but focused more on people and news photos, which was fine, too, he said.

Now that he's gone from newspapers -- for which he's won multiple awards over the years -- he said he misses covering professional sports and the extended feature stories.

But, besides variety, there are other advantages to now being able to take his time and shoot nature.

"I want to get a certain shot but the light isn't right. Well, now I can wait until the light is right. With the newspaper, it's like, well, they needed it 10 minutes ago."

Coming to Detroit Lakes

"A lot of people think winter is the dead time of the year," Rossi said.

He plans to show those who come to hear him speak Feb. 11 that that's not true at all.

He will also talk about the alphabet book and his other projects.

"I encourage people to just get out. Don't expect to get it done in a month. It's something you just keep working at. I'm still taking alphabet pictures -- I'm not sure why, but I am."

Rossi will be speaking Monday, Feb. 11, at 7 p.m. in the Detroit Lakes Library. It is free to attend. Don't forget to bring your Polar Fest Passport and write down the explorer code to be eligible for a prize package.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.