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Picture Purrrfect

By Warren Francke
Photo courtesy Larry Boersma

Larry Boersma

It was more than 50 years ago that Larry Boersma rode shotgun in a borrowed Cadillac convertible, chauffeuring Omaha University’s Ma-ie Day Princess in a parade through downtown Omaha. The day is memorialized in five pages of photos in the 1953 Tomahawk yearbook, edited by Boersma.

Perhaps only a handful of former classmates know Boersma today as an award-winning photographer.

Back in the ’50s he certainly was known for his work with publications, as make-up editor for the Gateway and as a member of OU’s Press Club and Student Publications.

Some kept track of Boersma as he took his OU degrees (BA, 1953; MA, 1955) to teach at Omaha’s Tech High, then to start a journalism program at Adams State College in Colorado. Fewer followed his path to New York City, where he made it big in the magazine business.

Boersma progressed from advertising sales to marketing director to vice president and associate publisher for such magazines as Better Homes and Gardens, Ladies Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post and Photo World. The latter was owned by Penthouse, but Boersma’s meetings with publisher Bob Guccione didn’t involve the “Pets” featured in girlie layouts.

“He lives a fairly conservative lifestyle,” Boersma says of Guccione. “We’d meet in his town house once owned by Judy Garland, and I’d sit at the dining room table with the head of his Rhodesian Ridgeback in my lap.”

But his career path took two more turns, and none of the fellows who worked with him on the Gateway or Tomahawk staffs pictured him huddling in Montana snow waiting patiently to photograph the elusive Canadian Lynx. Or quietly getting acquainted with an Arizona wolf pack he’d been told was too wild for close contact.

Boersma’s magazine marketing career in Manhattan would have made an interesting enough story. It’s even more so since his 1977 move to California to take up pet photography and become an expert in capturing on film the wild animals of North America.

Sierra Club award winner

Two days before this writer called to catch up with his adventures, word came to Boersma that he’d been selected by the Sierra Club as the 2005 recipient of its Ansel Adams award “for superlative use of still photography to further a conservation cause.”

His work—under the pen name Larry Allan—includes photo-illustrating more than a dozen books with such titles as “Lynx,” “Wolf,” “Coyote” and, most recently, “Creative Canine Photography.” He’s also made a “venture into the 21st century” with a CD photo essay, “Keep Wild Animals in Our Lives!”

The output would have pleased the late Danny Langevin (BS 1954), son of Omaha World-Herald photographer Eldon Langevin. “I learned photography from Danny when he was my photo editor on the Tomahawk,” Larry says.

Photography was part of the package when he replaced Lloyd Berg (BGS 1952) at Tech High and again at Adams State, where he doubled as journalism head and public relations director. It came back into his career with involvement in two magazines, Photo World and American Photo.

His departing gift from Guccione featured a year’s worth of photo supplies, but that alone didn’t jump-start his new career. It also took the loss of a prized Pembroke Welsh Corgi, a show dog named Harmony that died young.

She’d won honors at the Westminster Kennel Club, then was gone “with no great photos to remember her by.” Larry decided, “Since my wife and I felt that way, we bet others would like portrait-quality pictures of their dogs.”

He studied lighting and other facets, then set up booths at dog shows with wife, June, working alongside. They added cats, horses and birds (producing a cockatoo book) and “built quite a nice business.”

For the record, cats are toughest. “You kind of accept what they give you,” Boersma says. “I cover June with a piece of fabric, and she invisibly holds the cat.” One session with a national champion Maine Coon saw the cat bolt and hide after every shot. The couple created cover images for such magazines as Dog Fancy and Cat Fancy. Their ragdoll cat, Rikki, a long-furred 15-pounder, made the cover of the 2004 Barnes and Noble cat calendar. “She just settled in our cactus garden when June tapped on the window, and she looked up and I snapped.”

‘Expert Tummy Shaver’

He doesn’t just take pictures, but works in many capacities with animal causes.

Boersma became “an expert tummy shaver” when he started San Diego’s feral cat coalition, which once spayed and neutered 300 feral cats in one day, a task done carefully with welder’s gloves.

Finding that he worked well with animals, he gradually headed into the wild and found that it took “years worth of work” to illustrate such juvenile books as “Lynx.” (June does text under the pen name Jalma Barrett.) There also was “lots of travel” from their longtime San Diego base. They headed for Montana and Canada, seeking sightings from forest service folks. “Lynx are very reclusive, and you hardly ever see two together.”

His images of a mother with two young cubs were easier “cuz momma has to take care of those little guys.” He keeps his distance by using doublers to increase a 500mm lens to 1,000mm, using top-of-the-line Canon and Minolta cameras.

And his favorite lynx in the book, a youngster ready to pounce from a perch in a yellow-leafed tree, was easiest of all. “Tiger” was being hand-raised by a Canadian farmer, who rescued the cub when its mother was killed by a car. “It leaped into my lap when we were having coffee on his porch and started to purr like a Mack truck. It would hide under my car, hit me on the back of my leg with a paw, then race off.”

The most difficult shots required sitting in the Montana snow, wearing many layers and remaining still for hours before catching a Lynx pouncing on a rabbit.

He didn’t yet use the more sophisticated long-range lens when he met that Arizona wolf pack. “Fortunately, some people, and I’m happy to say I’m one of them, just don’t seem to scare animals as much. In time, the wolves grew more and more comfortable around me. One stood up on my chest, and I got noseprints on my lens.

“I was told they didn’t like people, but when I came back a couple years later, they came up to me like a long-lost friend.” He’s had no mishaps with his subjects, despite carrying no weapons into the wild. His usual companions: his wife and a cattle prod.

Feeling they’d “really done the west,” the Boersmas recently moved closer to their four children, to Sarasota, Fla., where he’s already had the opportunity to snap two panthers. He’ll have a hard time, though, topping the image on his conservation disc.

Among the 134 photographs of 55 North American species is a mountain lion leaping from rock to rock in Utah. Camera solid on tripod, he focused on the rock, anticipating the leap. Five images include two paws still on the launch rock, two paws on the boulder where it landed, and the one on his prize-winning disc: the cougar caught in mid-flight with only sky above and rocks below.

Another memorable image freezes a coyote in full howl at a full moon. But it wasn’t only the marvelous photos that led to his Sierra Club honor, an awards committee member said. His conservation essay added to its impact.

His experience lately has made Boersma, 73, “much more of an environmental advocate.” The title, “Keep Wild Animals in Our Lives!”, highlights his hope that “people will understand that the world and its critters don’t belong to us.”

The CD begins with him wearing a wide-brimmed western hat narrating observations on the wonders of wild creatures: the threats to a snarling grizzly, a buffalo rolling in a dust bath, a fierce-eyed eagle, a nursing coyote, a nuzzling wolf mother, a cougar carrying her cub in gentle jaws. Even striped skunks among yellow dandelions.

It helps that Benson High’s late Gunnar Horn (BA 1934) sparked his journalistic drive, and that he double-majored in writing (then a joint degree between journalism and English departments) and natural sciences. He later earned a doctorate in marketing in Sussex, England, and even studied mystery writers there.

But the photographic interest inspired while editing the university yearbook began the journey. Its most recent stop was Sept. 9 in San Francisco, where he received the Ansel Adams Award.

There, at least one more fellow grad will learn of Boersma’s photographic prowess. Presenting him with the award will be Sierra Club President Lisa Renstrom, also a UNO alum (1982).

Email Author Warren Francke at