“The Gunnison Gorge is a hidden little gem that most people around here don’t even know about,” Durnan said. Today, Durnan captures his love for the outdoors in his widely acclaimed photographs.
Durnan’s river log is as long as the best of them, listing family canoe trips on Virginia’s Rappahannock to his Class V adventures in Nepal.
“I guided on the Karnali, the Sunkhosi, the Trisuli, the Bhotekhosi,” Durnan said. The rivers originate in the Himalaya and, fed by monsoon rains, flow through massive granite canyons on their way to the lowlands. The Bhotekosi, in particular, originates in the high Himalayan region near Annapurna, one of the highest peaks of the world. “If you count the 8,000-meter peaks it flows down from, those are some of the deepest canyons in the world,” Durnan said.
Traveling the world by river offers a unique opportunity for cultural engagement. “The rivers are all very remote, at least from paved roads and civilization, but not from people,” Durnan said. “People live all along the rivers there, which mean you get to have some really amazing cultural experiences.” Traveling by river on weeks-long expeditions meant that Durnan and his passengers got to see a part of the country that most tourists miss.
The rivers themselves present unique boating challenges as well, comparable only to the Grand Canyon in the United States. Durnan cited Class V rapids – one step from being practically unrunnable – flowing at thousands, even tens of thousands of cubic feet per second.
“There were no river gauges, no dam control, everything was a guessing game,” Durnan said. One big monsoon rainstorm could send the river into flood stage in the space of a day or less.
“Probably our biggest epic trip was on the Karnali,” Durnan said. “When we got there the river was in total flood stage; none of us had ever seen it that high. We had 30 clients with us, and we’d all hiked two days already to get to the put in,” with another retinue of sherpas carrying the boats and supplies. Durnan and the other guides faced two options: cancel the trip and hike back out, or go for it. They decided to go for it.
“In ten days on the river we had over 30 flipped boats,” Durnan said. “Our food supplies got wet and went bad, and we had to buy everything, from grains and rice to chickens, from the villages on the way.”
At night on trips such as that one, children from the villages, and sometimes adults, would come down to the river and spend time with the boaters in their camps.
“We were like aliens descending on these villages with our brightly colored rubber boats and gear,” Durnan said.
After his third season in Nepal, Durnan went to New Zealand to boat with some Kiwi buddies, where he met a couple of folks who worked for the BLM in southwest Colorado. When he got back to the States, he called them up, and next thing he knew the truck was packed and he was headed for a place called Montrose. It would turn out to be the perfect stepping stone to his new career as a full-time professional award-winning photographer.
Durnan began taking photos in high school, but until 1996 he never aspired to be a professional photographer. When he moved to Colorado in 1997, he discovered the perfect place to develop his new trade as an outdoor adventure photographer.
“The diversity here is amazing,” he said. “We have the most stunning mountains in Colorado in my opinion. Two hours away, you have the best sandstone rock climbing at Indian Creek, and all the beauty of southern Utah.”
For four years, Durnan worked summers in the Gunnison Gorge, and in the winters he traveled the world with his camera, from Asia and South America to Alaska and other U.S. destinations. He quit his job in the Gorge to make photography his full time work.
Durnan’s work continues to garner acclaim, even as he moves from providing advertising imagery to the outdoor industry to more fine art work. Currently Durnan has a show hanging in the Reed Photo-Art Gallery in Denver’s Art District, where he shares gallery space with famed Colorado photographer John Fielder. He’ll have another show later this spring at the Dairy Fine Arts Center in Boulder.
Locally, Durnan has shown his work at the Coldwater Gallery of Fine Art and at the Ridgway Library. Durnan has received awards for his work, including the Juror’s Award from the Center for Fine Art in Fort Collins for a black and white image of horses working a Ladakhi field.
As he begins to feel more settled in Ridgway, Durnan hopes to do more work locally including portraiture, architecture, fine art, and local advertising.
“Advertising photography is my background; I did it for years – for the national outdoor industry,” Durnan said.
Durnan also teaches workshops through Weehawken Creative Arts and leads travel photography courses to the Himalaya and the Galapagos.
“I teach photography skills and tips on how to come back with photos that people actually want to look at,” Durnan said. “That’s one of the defining points between snapshots and good photography. The way the camera works is not the same way as your mind works. I teach how to evoke the emotion of the viewer that you intend to evoke. That’s the stuff that I really love to teach.”
You can see some of Durnan’s work as well as a complete schedule of local and international workshops on his website, richdurnanphoto.com. For more information, contact Durnan at 970/626-4138.