While his vocation to the priesthood was developing at The St. Paul Seminary in St. Paul in the early 2000s, another passion was taking root in the mind, heart and eyes of Father Paul Kammen: photography.
“When I was in seminary, I got a Canon Power Shot (camera) and started taking pictures around the area,” said Father Kammen, 44, who grew up in the Twin Cities. His pursuit of photography “got a little more serious” as he moved toward ordination in 2007. He bought his first D-SLR (digital single lens reflex) camera in 2005. While helping at Our Lady of Guadalupe in St. Paul, he photographed flowers on the parish grounds and also went over to the State Capitol for more photographic exploring.
His first parish assignment after ordination was at Holy Name of Jesus in Medina. He walked a network of nearby trails, including a loop in Baker Park Reserve.
His daily time in the outdoors led him to a simple conclusion: “This is beautiful.”
Today, people are saying the same thing about his nature photos, which can be viewed and purchased on his website: fatherpaul.smugmug.com. The images are a mixture of landscapes and wildlife, with nearly an equal balance between the two. He has traveled to numerous state and national parks, including Yosemite in California, Yellowstone in Wyoming, Glacier in Montana and Banff in Alberta, Canada. He also takes many photos locally, focusing mainly on birds. That pursuit is near the top of what he likes to capture with his camera.
“I love all birds, but I’m especially crazy about warblers and owls,” said Father Kammen, pastor of St. Joseph in Rosemount. “About a couple years ago, I was a guest on a podcast called ‘Warbler Crazy’ with some photographers from New Jersey where we talked about warblers and owls, and eagles and raptors. I really love the owls in the winter and the warblers in May and June and early July.”
More than 15 years of serious photography has helped him see and appreciate the spiritual side of capturing nature. In a time when people are spending more and more hours in front of screens, he is increasingly moving in the opposite direction, taking many spare moments behind a camera’s viewfinder — and finding God in the process.
“It’s a faith-building experience for me,” he said. “You see these things in nature that are just the incredible beauty of God.”
He can’t help but invest hours framing and recording images of this beauty.
“It just kind of recharges me and reminds me of God’s presence,” he said. “It gives me peace and refuels me for whatever’s ahead — gives me time to think and be alone with my thoughts.”
He is able to set aside the rigors of parish work at least once a year for extended trips, usually to a national park. This month, he has a 14-day trip planned to Banff, one of his favorite places, and neighboring Jasper National Park. He was invited by an experienced nature photographer and professional tour guide to travel the parks with him. Father Kammen’s web gallery from previous Banff trips includes photos of iconic spots in the park, including a sunrise on Moraine Lake in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. To get shots like this, Father Kammen often arrives at a spot a half hour or more before sunrise, which means lugging his photo gear nearly in the dark.
He has learned the price that needs to be paid to get quality images, and he is more than willing to pay it. This includes spending thousands of dollars on good equipment. He now has two Nikon cameras with several lenses, ranging from an ultrawide angle to an 800-millimeter super telephoto. For the telephoto lenses, which can be heavy, he has a sturdy tripod.
The telephoto and tripod combination is his go-to setup for birds. It allows him to photograph them from a distance, plus get super-tight shots in which the bird fills the frame. He has hundreds of images on his website of birds such as warblers, owls and eagles. He can find many of these birds locally, and one spot he likes is the Minnesota Valley National Wildlife Refuge in Bloomington. He goes there and other places with Father Tom Margevicius, director of worship for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, who is a birding expert. During those excursions, stretching back about 10 years, Father Kammen has learned about many different bird species from this priest who taught him at the seminary. It wasn’t too long ago that he didn’t even know what a warbler was. Now, he has a web gallery containing more than 250 images of them.
When it comes to warblers, he uses the word “obsessed.” To describe what this looks like, he uses an anecdote about one particular warbler search not long after he arrived at St. Joseph in 2015.
“There was a rare warbler seen for our neck of the woods — a prairie warbler,” said Father Kammen, who previously served as pastor at St. Joseph and St. Peter in Delano (now called St. Maximilian Kolbe) from 2011-2015. “I drove over there (where it had been spotted just a few miles from the church), got to the field at six in the morning.”
He had planned to find and photograph the warbler and get back to the church in time to celebrate the 8:30 a.m. Mass. Instead, he wandered around the area looking for the prairie warbler and got lost. He found someone with a car and asked for a ride back to his own car. The person obliged, and Father Kammen got home just in time to take a shower and celebrate Mass.
“I didn’t get the warbler” that day, he said, noting that he later confessed his humbling episode in a homily during Mass. “I did get him in Florida once, but not here (in Minnesota).”
There are also the surprises that come with photographing wildlife, like the time he was driving down a road in Glacier National Park in September 2016 with one of his ordination classmates, Father Mark Joppa, and happened upon a rare sight.
“We were just there watching a field, and we saw this grizzly (bear),” Father Kammen recalled. “This mother grizzly just came out of the brush.”
Although the bear was about 100 yards away, Father Kammen pulled out his telephoto lens and filled most of the frame with the bear, which paused briefly in a perfect broadside pose. It was the first time he had ever photographed a grizzly, and one of those images is a favorite.
The experience points to an important lesson he has learned in his years of photographing landscapes and wildlife.
“Always expect the unexpected,” he said. “You never know what you’re going to see when you go out and look for a bird. Some days, you might get nothing and it might be very frustrating. Other times, you might have given up, and then all of a sudden, the bird you were looking for is there.”
He is happy when people buy his images, but said he is not viewing the website as a money maker. Rather, he likes donating framed prints to parish festivals and other fund-raising efforts, and he even gives away one family photo shoot per year — outdoors, of course.
Whenever he can, he encourages people to get out and experience the beauty of the natural world, with or without a camera. It is there, he believes, people will discover what is known in theology as the “natural knowledge of God.”
“I’m fond of Bishop Robert Barron (recently appointed to lead the Diocese of Winona-Rochester), and he often will talk about finding God in the mountain,” Father Kammen said. “That’s kind of what I relate to. I just get away from the meetings, and from the phone calls and the busyness of parish life for a bit, and go out with my camera — sometimes with another photographer friend — and just take it all in and enjoy the vastness of it all. And, I say, ‘Wow, there must be a God.’”