Montana State University

Spring 2011

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Mountains and Minds

Resonant expert April 25, 2011 by Amy Stix • Published 04/25/11

Students long remember Dan Wise's lessons and passion for photography
Some people reach the peak of their careers by plotting their every move right from the start, from selection of college classes to acceptance of that first entry-level job. For others, the road to success is more circuitous--maybe even accidental. In the case of Montana State University adjunct photography instructor Dan Wise, whom students regularly call the best teacher they've ever had, his accomplished academic career can be traced, in part, to appendicitis.

"It all came by accident," laughed Wise, when describing how he got his start in photography.

On his 18th birthday, as the Vietnam War raged, Wise enlisted in the Navy, with the ultimate goal of becoming a Navy Seal. But, soon after he joined, his appendix burst. Once he was released from the hospital, Wise said, "I had a choice of being a ceremonial guard, a bomb handler or a photographer. And I chose photography."

Wise was assigned to an intensive course of photographic training.

"Instead of going out and shooting with a gun, I got to shoot with a camera," he said. He was assigned to work for the admiral in charge of the Navy's Antarctic Support Team, based in Christchurch, New Zealand.

Wise shot "anybody that the U.S. government was wooing for monetary and other support for Antarctic exploration," including visiting astronauts, congressmen and senators. When he wasn't in Antarctica, Wise was stationed in Washington, D.C., at the Naval Photographic Center, which he described as "the largest photo lab in the world."

After completing his naval service, Wise made a road trip to his hometown of Fond Du Lac, Wis., where he discovered that his journey to photography might have actually started not in his appendix, but in his DNA. While helping his mother clean out her attic, he found an old camera and boxes of film and undeveloped negatives that had once belonged to his father, who died when Wise was eight years old. Until that moment, he had not known about his dad's pastime. "The first real photography equipment I had was his," he said.

That equipment traveled with Wise when he moved to Bozeman in 1974 with a friend who was starting college at MSU. Wise also enrolled, and his love for the outdoors drew him to the university's wildlife management program. But, that same friend soon introduced him to Rudi Dietrich, photography professor emeritus, who reinvigorated Wise's dedication to professional photography.

"There was no way I was not going to study under him," Wise said of their first meeting. Under Dietrich's tutelage, Wise completed a bachelor's degree in film and television, with a photography emphasis.

"He's still my dearest mentor and friend," Wise said of Dietrich. "If it wasn't for his passion, I wouldn't have the passion I do."

That sentiment is shared.

"We have a mutual kind of respect for each other," said Dietrich, whose career with MSU spanned 30 years. Dietrich said that he respects that Wise challenges his students to work hard, yet, long after they graduate, many of Wise's students maintain contact with him.

"They feel he's honestly interested in them as human beings," Dietrich explained.

But before he began teaching, Wise completed a stint as a public relations photographer for the University of Nevada-Reno, moving on to work in retail photography as manager of one of Salt Lake City's largest camera stores. He later managed Bozeman's F-11 for five years. In 1991, Wise accepted a job with MSU's School of Architecture as a photo technician, archivist and gallery director. That fall, he added "instructor" to his list of titles, when Dietrich asked Wise to teach MSU introductory photography classes.

"How do you turn Rudi down?" Wise laughed, adding, "I dedicated myself to becoming the best teacher I could become."

It didn't take him long to achieve his goal.

"There isn't a single time when I look through the camera that I don't think of Dan Wise. He taught me to see," said Todd Smith, who graduated in 1999 with an architecture degree and photography minor. Smith, who owns an art gallery and furniture design studio in upstate New York, calls Wise one his most influential mentors, valuing not only his teaching ability, but his friendship as well.

Junior Heather McKenney, who has worked as a teaching assistant to Wise for the past two years, calls him "a great professor." Often, she said, Wise "believes more in the students than they believe in themselves. He wants to make you a better photographer, and he wants to make you a better person."

McKenney adds that when she entered MSU, "I had no idea what I wanted to study." She credits Wise, in part, for her decision to major in photography. "I had a great experience with Dan as a professor. I never looked back."

For his part, Wise said, "The beauty of my work is I get to work with the people I do."

In 2003, Wise's expertise as an instructor of beginning and intermediate photography--and the 500-level photography he teaches in the School of Architecture, where he is entering his seventh year as an instructor--was formally recognized with an Excellence Award from the Alumni Association and Bozeman Chamber of Commerce. He has also been nominated for the President's Teaching Award three times.

Wise continues to teach black and white film photography to beginning students because "It's the foundation for everything we do here...and makes for a more knowledgeable photographer." He said his best reward comes when he stands before a class of novices.

"Photography is the perfect vehicle for discovering who you are," he said. "Two people standing in the same spot won't make the same photograph. How cool is that? How blessed could I be?"