© Arizona Highways
The Light of DawnPhotography is an art form that's been dominated by men, many of whom might be described as curmudgeons. Dawn Kish is anything but. Animated, ebullient, sparkling, bouncy, bright and sunny … all of those adjectives can be used to describe one of our favorite photographers.
By Kathy Ritchie
Dawn Kish hasn't even finished her cup of coffee before she decides to slide out of her orange flip-flops and jump into bed. "It's my cloud bed," she says with a huge smile. Kish scoots over to the right, making room. Clearly, the girl wants company. And that's the thing about Kish — she has a remarkable ability to make you feel completely at ease, like you're a long-lost friend.
Her cozy, queen-sized bed sits in a white, elevated U-shaped frame, which Kish designed herself. Fuzzy turquoise pillows line the back and sides; her bed sheets are blue zebra print. Kish has a thing for wild-animal prints, especially leopard, which can be found throughout her house or draped on her back. On one wall hangs a black-and-white image shot by outdoor-adventure photographer Bill Hatcher. He's one of her mentors. A bright blue oil-and-pastel painting, courtesy of an old roommate, occupies another wall. There's also a photo of an almost unrecognizable Kish (she was sporting a green mohawk at the time) with her sister, and another shot of Kish and her best friend, photographer Raechel Running, in New York.
"We have a crazy connection," Kish says. Photos of her beloved cat, Trigger, are everywhere. A two-tiered record rack stands near the door, with Blondie and The Clash on top.
As Kish leans back against her bed, feet dangling over the edge, toes painted bright green, she grabs a magazine from a nearby stack and starts flipping through it. "I love having coffee and reading my National Geographic, looking at all the cool pictures."
Kish is a lifestyle and outdoor adventure photographer; at least that's what her website says. In truth, she's an artist. And since she was 17, Kish has been photographing the world around her.
Born in Pennsylvania, Kish was 7 when she, her mother and her sister moved west the old-fashioned way — on a train. After graduating from Coconino High School in Flagstaff, Kish started working at a downtown café. And that's where her story takes a sharp turn, one that only happens in movies or to other girls, girls like Kate Moss.
In 1987, well-known Flagstaff-based photographer John Running discovered Kish.
"He comes down to the café and meets me and says, 'I'm a photographer and I'd like to do some portraits of you. Are you interested?' " Kish took his business card and tucked it into her back pocket. Later, as she and her mother were doing laundry, the encounter came up in conversation. Her mother was floored. "She was like, 'Oh my God, he's the best photographer in town, you'd better get your portrait done.' "
Modeling was never part of Kish's plan, but as John Lennon wrote, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Running had an upcoming magazine shoot and he needed a model. At 6 feet tall, Kish fit the bill. She agreed to pose for Running if he'd teach her how to be a photographer. "I didn't know anything about photography, but I learned right away," she says. "John was fantastic. He was so creative. I learned life lessons from him. I learned how to be around people — maybe that's why I'm so good around people."
Kish's big break behind the camera was just as serendipitous as her venture into modeling. A friend was writing a piece about snowboarding for a niche publication and invited Kish and an ex-boyfriend along for the ride. The plan was for the boyfriend to snap some photographs to go along with the story. Kish happened to make a few of her own images, and she sent them in to the magazine. The editors used hers — and only hers. "It was an eye-opener," she says. "I thought, Maybe I have something to offer with this photography thing."
Nearly two decades have passed since Kish's first photograph was published. "I didn't know I was going to be a photographer," she says. "Photography didn't come naturally to me. I didn't have a bunch of luck on my side — some things came my way, but overall, it took a long time."
Kish sits on the floor of her home office, riffling through piles of magazines that contain her photographs. Her boyfriend, novice photographer John "Verm" Sherman, walks in. She leaps up and gives him a hug, then plops back down in a chair. As she talks about her life, her travels and adventures, you can't help but admire her. She has guts. She's persevering in an industry that's dominated by men. Kish is surrounded by her own photographic masterpieces, including her image of a Hopi boy playing in mud, which she took on her first assignment for Arizona Highways in 2005. "I look at Arizona Highways as this piece that represents Arizona," she says. "I love Arizona … and I really wanted to be a part of that."
In addition to shooting for Arizona Highways (see pages 8-9, 24-27 and this month's cover), her award-winning work has appeared commercially (think Prana and Patagonia) and in well-known publications such as National Geographic, National Geographic Traveler and National Geographic Kids, as well as Outside, Backpacker and Sports Illustrated. And she recently sold seven prints to Northern Arizona University's new Health and Learning Center.
For all her success, Kish stays humble. "People ask me, 'What should I do?' Well, be yourself," she tells them. Kish has certainly mastered that. She is, after all, the girl who signs her emails with "Cha, cha, cha." Maybe because life is a dance, not to be taken too seriously, or maybe because you can't worry about who's watching.