February 5, 2013 | 7:00am
For decades now, Miami Beach resident "Wild Bill" Keeting has been doing everything in his power to get as close as possible to some of nature's most dangerous beasts. Unlike some of the grizzly-loving eccentrics who have been eaten before him, however, Keeting's main aim isn't to "become one" with the bears. He just wants to take photographs of their majestic hairy hides.
The 65-year-old retiree says his love affair with nature photography has lasted not because of the excitement of hanging out with heavily clawed, horned, and fanged creatures, but rather because of the justified laziness the occupation affords him. "What happened was, picking up an interest in photography gave me an excuse to sit around and experience nature," Keeting said.
Keeting grew up in the suburbs of Maryland. He built his career mostly in sales, but he spent some time in the army and working for the government as well. His interest in photography began at the age of 13, when his father gave him his first camera. His first subjects were random; he and a friend, whose family owned a camera shop, would mess around, snapping and developing pictures in their spare time. "We developed black and white film in my basement," said Keeting. "But I wasn't any good as a teenager."
Between high school graduation and the army, life got busier, and Keeting put down the camera for a while. "I lost interest in photography, and I think I even sold the camera," Keeting said. "I had other things going on."
In 1990, when Keeting was well into his sales career, he departed his Miami Beach home to take a trip out west. He bought a Volkswagen camper and planned to live in it for a month's vacation before reselling the car.
But nine weeks later, he still hadn't gotten his fill of the great outdoors. He camped out in national parks, hiked, and observed the plants, animals, and shifting skies around him. His first excursion had to end eventually so he could replenish his finances, but he kept the camper so that he could return soon after. He soon found himself out west again, crouching patiently in the grass with his camera, and he's since made a habit of taking these extended adventures into some of America's wildest and most beautiful national parks. "That first trip was when I said to myself, 'I'm not going to wait until I get old and retire to start living life the way I want to,'" he recalled.
Keeting's strategy is not to chase bears and other wildlife, but instead to sit calmly until he becomes part of the scenery. He's found that this is the best way to soak in all the intricacies of whatever land he's parked himself in. One of his most astounding experiences was witnessing an enormous grizzly sow lying on the ground in front of him, sticking her legs up in the air in the most vulnerable position a bear can assume, even despite the fact that her two young cubs were at her sides. "The fact that she felt that comfortable around me was just incredible," Keeting said. And he says it's only thanks to the fact that he'd become a fixture of her home that man and beast were able to reach that level of understanding.
"I'm generally impatient, but not nearly as impatient as a lot of people are. For example, when I was in the Olympic National Park, there's a .7-mile walk down to a couple of observation decks, and there's a lighthouse out there, and I was watching great gray whales, and puffins fly under water, and bald eagles fish. I even saw an orca way out at one point during the two days I was there. And I watched a family come down that .7-mile boardwalk, get on the 12-foot diameter observation deck, do a circle, and walk back up the trail. My only question was, 'What did they see?'"
The point is, the longer Keeting sits still, the more aware he becomes. "When you first walk into a room, you see only 15 percent of what's going on. But the more you're there, the more you see," he explained. Keeting sat overlooking the same spot the family had breezed by for a total of six hours over the course of two days. "Photography has given me an excuse to wait for the light to change, to see more things, to just experience and absorb nature."
Over the years, he's had adventures in Mojave, Yosemite, Jasper-Alberta, Glacier and Olympic National Parks, even venturing into Canada until it became too much of a financial strain to do so. He worked out a system that would allow him to live in South Beach for most of the year and then take these extended trips on a shoestring budget. "I would just move out of whatever apartment I was staying in and take the trip and live out of my van, which was cheaper than paying rent here, then come back and look for another apartment." This beach home/homeless cycle was his routine until last year, when he got set up with affordable partially government-funded housing on the beach.
All in all, he's been taking these wildlife photography trips for about 22 years. "It drew me into and connected me more to nature and life itself. And now, dealing with wildlife, nature became animated. This is all I want to do."
His blind passion for the pastime has long prevented Keeting from bothering to monetize his art. Only recently has he even begun to put his work on a few fine art websites
through which nature lovers can purchase prints
of his work. To view more of Keeting's work, visit the artist's Facebook page