Interview With Bill Fortney

Kentucky-based photographer Bill Fortney talks about being an official Fujifilm photographer, his 49 year career and how photography has made it evolve over time

You have been in the business of photography a long time. How long has it actually been?
This year I am celebrating my 49th year as a working professional. A lot of mileage on this old dog.

How did you get started?
When I got out of college, I had majored as a teacher and became a high school teacher and football coach. I was a freshman coach that first year and we set a record that has never yet been broken; we didn’t win a game and didn’t score in that entire season. So, I thought I needed a different career.

I went on to become a newspaper photographer. Photography was my hobby first before it became a career. Throughout my life my father had a camera. He took pictures and would show color slides on the kitchen door. My brother and I would pop corn and watch the slides. The door he showed the slides on was yellow and, oh boy, were those images warm.

I photographed everywhere I could. When I started teaching I took some of the money from my income and bought my first camera.

How did you begin your photography career?
I shot on and off for three to four years for the newspaper. The last job I worked on was a mining disaster, where twenty-five miners and fifteen rescuers were killed. After witnessing first hand a tragedy of that magnitude, I went home and told my wife I couldn’t do it anymore. I couldn’t photograph more tragedy. From there, I moved to public relations work and then into commercial photography, working for a regional medical center on their magazine and travelling throughout their facilities doing photography.

After that I started a workshop company called The Great American Photography Weekends. There were just a handful of people doing workshops back then. My feeling was that there were many people who would love to meet their photographic icons, but those workshops were very expensive, I wanted to make it more available to the general public. We set it up so that the speakers would lecture, go out and do some field work and end with a photography contest. I think we only charged $150 for it, back in the nineties. We eventually became the largest in the country, hosting workshops throughout USA, with photographers such as Galen Rowell, John Shaw, David Muench and Art Wolfe. They were the backbone of nature photography and, getting to work with that kind of talent, I learned a lot from every one of them. That was when I think I really blossomed as a photographer myself.

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How has your photography evolved over time?
I’m glad you asked that question, as it is something I preach on. When I was young, I looked up to those people I just named. I wanted to be them. It didn’t take me long to realize I couldn’t be them, I needed to be me and try to be the best I could be. Over the period of my career I went from photography being something I wanted to be known for, to something that I loved to do and did for the joy of it. If someone came up to me and told me they enjoyed my work, I appreciated it, but I still did it because I enjoyed it. If others came up and told me they didn’t like my work, that wouldn’t affect me either, because I was doing it for myself.

Shoot what you enjoy and photograph what you like to photograph, I tell my students. You should always try to improve but, if you are happy with your work, you shouldn’t need it to be validated by other people.

How do you stay inspired?
I love the whole process. I have told my wife that, when I’m gone and they have buried me, I would love to be holding a camera in my casket. I have spent my whole life holding a camera and releasing the shutter is still magical for me; hoping I look at the LCD and have something I am proud of, but enjoying the process even when I don’t take a great picture. The biggest part of it for me is the fellowship with other photographers, as I enjoy being in the field and watching them have the fun I’ve had throughout my journey. I enjoy giving advice, showing them something they were previously unaware of that can help them make better photographs. For me, it has all been about the relationships.

When did you start using FUJIFILM gear? What first attracted you to the X Series?
Many years ago, when I was an NPS Technical Rep for Nikon, I had to undergo shoulder surgery. The recovery was lengthy and during this time I simply could not shoot and carry the weight of the full frame cameras and lenses, so I had to look for an alternative.

When Fujifilm released the X10, I saw it and secretly bought it.
I fell in love with the quality of the images and the sharpness of the lens. Before long, I had the X-Pro1, three lenses and later an X-E1. By the time I retired from Nikon a year later, I was effectively already an undercover FUJIFILM photographer.

What FUJIFILM gear are you using now? Do you tend to gravitate towards the GFX system, or the X Series?
I am an X Series guy. I own two X-T2s, two X-Pro2s and an older graphite X-T1. There is an X-H1 on the way and an X-T3.

I understand you are responsible for an annual FUJIFILM Summit. What is it called?
Jack Graham and I run FUJIFILM workshops to help other FUJIFILM shooters get more out of the system. We also hold an annual summit along with other X-Photographers. We call them FUJIFILM “X” Photography Summits.

Does that mean it is solely for FUJIFILM X-Photographers or for FUJIFILM camera owners also?
It is open to anyone with any brand of camera, but is of special interest to FUJIFILM users.

What kind of training takes places on these retreats?

Field sessions with hands-on help, critique sessions of the attendee’s work and lectures by X-Photographers on the team. Representatives from Fujifilm also give teaching sessions on setting-up their cameras. The events have been very positively reviewed by the attendees, with lots of great comments on the summits. Since we emphasize learning to see and improve composition, I’ve had a number of students tell me it was a turning point in their work.

Is there a single piece of advice that you think helps beginner photographers more than any other?
Learn the basic concepts well and then practice, practice, practice! It is not rocket science, but it does require disciplined study and practice.

Do these Summits continue to teach you, yourself, something about photography?
I always learn from my students. We all see the world in different ways and seeing how others approach photography still teaches me, all the time.

Has your approach to photography or post-processing changed over the years?
Constantly. As technology and software grows and changes, we must as well. It is a lot of work, but very exciting. Fujifilm’s X Series system continues to get better and better and more advanced!

What does the future hold for you?
More of the same. Helping others and learning more about ourselves. Living the dream!

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  1. Thank you for this interview! I met Bill when I took a bunch of the GAPW workshops back in the 90s. He is truly one of the nicest people I have ever met in photography and what a great teacher and inspiration! What great memories I have from those workshops! Thank you Bill for all the great images and memories! I hope you are doing well!

  2. Really interesting interview.

    I’ve just switched from a Canon 5D Mkiii and L series lenses to a Fujifilm X-T3 – the former were just too heavy now. The financial hit was painful but I do not regret switching, I love my X-T3.

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