Photographer Jake Rajs - New York Marathon

What Photographer Jake Rajs Taught Me About Life

Award-winning photographer Jake Rajs taught me the art of being still

Jake had a camera in his hands. He confidently held a Nikon film camera with a lens the size of my preteen torso. My eyes were wide, my ears were open. I wanted to know everything I could from this man who was about to marry my mother. This was my first memory of photographer Jake Rajs.

To skip the boring stuff, Jake soon married my mother and became my stepfather. For a little while, anyway. While the marriage wasn’t forever, some of the things Jake taught me would be.

Even years after the divorce, my siblings and I stayed in touch with Jake. We called and text to catch him up on our lives, and he always returned with his own stories of his latest adventures.

Yellowstone National Park
A couple rides horses through Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. [Photo by Jake Rajs]

Just a couple months ago, on Jan. 22, I sat in the lodge of Mount Snow in Vermont. I was enjoying a hot lunch after a morning of snowboarding when my phone lit up with a text from my mother. Jake had stage 4 lung cancer.

As I let the unwelcome news about this earthly hero of mine sink in, I found myself thinking about what qualifies as “forever.”

Jake is still here fighting, infectious smile and all. While a time table is not necessarily the most stable thing in these situations, his attitude on making the most of whatever time he has left certainly is.

None of us have forever. But if you’re lucky enough, you can share something with someone that last for their forever. Jake has done that for me.

Photographer Jake Rajs – a life of quiet discovery

Photographer Jake Rajs met adventure early on in his life.

He was born in Poland in 1952. Eight years later, he traveled by boat to New York. As he approached this new world, he was awed by the sunrise that lit up the city. He saw it as his personal welcome to the “land of magic.”

I’ve heard him tell this story many times—every single time, I see elation in his eyes as he relives that moment.

It only makes sense that a child who’s traveled by sea and moved continents would later take up travel photography.

Adirondack Balloon Festival
Hot-air balloons dot the sky at the Adirondack Balloon Festival in Glen Falls, New York. [Photo by Jake Rajs]

Capturing the too-often overlooked

Photographer Jake Rajs specialized in travel photography. He was best known for stunning architectural and landscape imagery. He ventured throughout the world to capture the spirit of places some only dream to visit.

His work is masterfully captured in more than 17 art books, all still in print.

He has created award-winning photographs that have been featured in more than 10,000 publications including, Time, Life, Newsweek, New York Times, Esquire, Town and Country, Men’s Heath, and National Geographic.

“None of us have forever. But if you’re lucky enough, you can share something with someone that last for their forever.”

Jake’s fine art prints are in museums and private collections worldwide.

I have six or seven of his books lining my shelves; plus, one massive copy of These United States on my coffee table. The 240-page book showcases some of his best work. Colorful prints of buffalo roaming the South Dakota Badlands, dust dancing in the sunset in Arizona’s Monument Valley, and railroad tracks carving through the Wyoming plains.

It even features a forward written by Walter Cronkite! WALTER CRONKITE!

Reader’s Digest said of Jake’s work, “Not since Ansel Adams turned his lens on the Snake River has a photographer so glorified the American landscape.”

Patience and an appreciation for nature

When I was 13, I started saving up for my first camera, busing tables every day during the summer. Jake taught me how to let the camera serve as an extension of myself.

He told me stories of waking up at 3 a.m., driving two hours, and standing with a tripod on top of his car, just for one photo. His stories, and just the way he lives life, has taught me patience and discipline in a world that moves so incredibly fast. 

He once told me, “you’re not a real photographer until you’ve been arrested.” While I know he was joking, there is a level of truth to that statement.

More often than not the best photo is beyond a line that maybe you shouldn’t cross or on top of building that you don’t have access to. “Ask for forgiven, not permission” he jokes. 

Patience paired with the appreciate of nature was easily the most valuable lesson he taught me. He could sit at the dinner table and reminisce of a shoot he did years before. You could see the emotion wash through him simply talking about the colors of the sky. The excitement and reverie he had for what is all around us was infectious.

Portland Head Light
The historic Portland Head Light in Fort Williams Park in Maine was first used in 1791, at the direction of President George Washington [Photo by Jake Rajs]

The art of being still

I don’t want this piece to come off as grim, but to serve more as a small showcase of this man’s work over 40 years.

His lessons and appreciation for stillness and nature will never leave me. His prints that hang on my walls will travel with me from apartment to apartment and eventually from house to house.

It is certainly an interesting time in the world right now, and I could get lost in stories about the man who first introduced me to the world of photography. But I hope, for whoever reads this, that they take a moment to scroll through Jake’s photos.

Practice what he taught to me over a decade ago: the art of being still. I know thats difficult in a world where we consume information at speeds unseen before but right now as life slows down a touch, it might just be a good thing to appreciate what’s right in front of you.

Spanish moss drapes oak trees at Boone Hall Plantation and Gardens, an antebellum plantation near Charleston, South Carolina. [Photo by Jake Rajs]
An abandoned one-room schoolhouse stands in Great Plains near Winifred, Montana. [Photo by Jake Rajs]
A pick-up truck travels through Monument Valley in Navajo Nation, near the Utah-Arizona border. [Photo by Jake Rajs]
Photographer Jake Rajs - Douglas, Wyoming
Wyoming. Railroad tracks in Douglas, located on the North Platte River near Laramie Peak and the Medicine Bow National Forest

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  1. Sean, this is absolutely beautiful and I appreciate this more than you know. My father is a beautiful man and he will live forever. I sat with him today, holding his hand and telling him that he has imprinted so many souls and will continue to do so throughout time – he will never truly leave this Planet, as he has left us with so many beautiful photographs. I am so happy he was a part of your life and I am so happy you shared the biggest part of his life with him ; photography. I know he enjoyed teaching you all the things as much as you enjoyed learning them.

    I am lucky to call him my father . I am lucky to have traveled with him, captured pictures with him and was able to see the beauty of life through his eyes. He taught me to see the world in a different way.

    My dad saw things in different ways, the sun would be shining on a building and most people would just keep walking by, but no , not my father! My father would stop and enjoy how the light was reflecting off the building at the most perfect angle, the colors of the building and how they worked perfect with the sunlight, the small things that the “normal eye” would never see. And then of course, we would stand there and he would take 1000 pictures (ha!)

    This man is a true artist. An artist that I am lucky enough to call my father. Jake Rajs, My Father, will always live and he will always be in our hearts. Who ever he has met – he has left an imprint. The man is art himself. We love you Dad.

    Thanks again Sean. Biggest of love to you and your family.

  2. In your earlier days Sean, you would often post some pictures from the shore lines of New York or all of those many pictures on Tumblr and Flickr. That is how I began to improve my techniques from my first no, second digital camera. Well, they both turn out to be Canons and each has its own unique features and abilities. Though before merging to the digital world I was for years using film – both Black & White and Color…developing the film in a Dark Room and then printing the pictures. I still appreciate both mediums of picture taking. Yet my best work is using a microscope and camera. Then viewing that world to put forward from there on film and as a picture. That process also requires a lot of patience, precision and time to sort through: preparing the specimen on a slide, adjusting the lighting, the mounting of the camera on the microscope, refocusing, taking a multitude of pictures, because you really don’t know which one will come out as the best for your project.
    With that said, I now have another reference source to go to at my local book stores to find some books with pictures of Mr. Rajs and learning something new!