A job of a lifetime began Monday for 33-year-old Jarob Ortiz, a coveted position he never imagined would be his. Ortiz has become the official photographer of the National Park Service, and during its centennial year.
"Each one of those interviews I spent about 7 days leading up to those things studying about 6 hours a night, just making sure I would be as good as I possibly could,” Ortiz says.
Ortiz says the National Park Service photographer job today is less about capturing sweeping images of its acclaimed natural landscapes, and more about taking photos of historic and occasionally endangered spaces.
“With Ellis Island, which I think is going to be one of my first projects, they want me to go through and document it as it is now before they do the restoration project, so they can see the before and then once it’s done, document what the after is,” Ortiz says.
His work will live on in the Library of Congress.
Ortiz describes his approach to a project as a combination of science and art. “It’s a little bit of both; I think that’s why I was drawn to it. I liked art ever since I was a kid. I used to sit around and watch my grandma paint when I was a little kid. I’d just sit there...eat graham crackers and just watch her paint,” he recalls.
Early on Ortiz was also drawn to architecture. That’s where his dad comes in; he was a police officer and knew the city well. “So when I was younger he would drive me around the city – take me to the deepest parts of the north side, we’d go down to the port of Milwaukee. We would wait for ships to come in. Even though I didn’t know it at the time, it put that bit of heritage inside of me,” he says.
It was years before the pieces fell together.
He considered several careers and even joined the Air Force for a six year stint.
His future came into focus serendipitously, when a friend enrolled in a photography class. “He gives me this transparency and I said, ‘What do I do with this?’ 'Hold it up to the light man!' So I pick it up and I look at it in the light and it was just instant. I need to start learning about this,” Ortiz says.
Ortiz gravitated to the black-and-white camera technique the famous Ansel Adams used. Picture him, back in the day, ducking under a heavy curtain.
Adams also shot magnificent images of national parks, such as the Grand Canyon, for the Department of Interior. “I saw the camera that he shot with, the 4 by 5 view camera. (I wondered), 'Where can I learn how to learn this camera?'” Ortiz says.
A family connection reemerged.
In 2010 as Ortiz found what he needed at Milwaukee Area Technical College, and his brother enrolled at Madison’s technical college to study digital photography.
Together they launched an ambitious project to document once grand buildings in Gary, Indiana.
“They have all of these historical buildings that are on the National Register, very historic buildings but they’re all abandoned and in ruin and there’s hardly any photographs that exist of these places. So my brother and I thought somebody just has to take these photos now….They don’t look as good as they should or as they once did, but it’s our heritage, it’s something that has to be done,” Ortiz says.
They traveled to Gary whenever they could, scraping together the funds to do it.
“He would go down there with his digital camera, and here I am walking around with this old camera, so it was like this wild thing going on there,” Ortiz says.
That experience and the resulting portfolio figured prominently in Ortiz’s evolution, and today represents another stage as he starts his new job with the National Park Service.
“I’ve never been to D.C., so this is pretty crazy. I’ve never been to the east coast ever before. They’re going to be sending me places that I would have never seen and now I’m going to be seeing them all the time,” Ortiz says.
Ortiz has tucked another dream into the back of his mind – that one day the photos he and his brother shot of Gary, Indiana’s historic buildings might find their way into the Library of Congress.
Who knows, Ortiz's life has been full of surprises.