RELIEF — When Dean Hill takes his art out of Appalachia, his admirers are sometimes surprised that the light and color come from Kentucky.
The beauty of the landscape, he said, can hold its own against any other place in the world.
So Hill is an ambassador for the loveliness of his home place. He thinks he's the only full-time fine art photographer who is from Eastern Kentucky, focusing on Eastern Kentucky.
He finds a story in a wisp of fog coming off Paintsville Lake, in the way a bird looks.
"I don't think you have to be from here to appreciate it," Hill said in an interview at the home he built himself on the north end of Paintsville Lake in Morgan County.
And he should know — he grew up a couple of miles from where he lives now, but between then and now, he's been almost everywhere else.
After getting a degree in forestry from the University of Kentucky, he joined the Peace Corps and went to Thailand. He bought his first camera on his way there in Hong Kong, and he took pictures across the Himalayas and Asia.
Since then, he spent 20 years wandering and working. Hill worked as a youth counselor in Idaho, a fisherman in Alaska, a logger, on a strip mine, as a "tree guy" in Lexington, always with photography on the side.
About 10 years ago, he and his wife, Karen, decided to start a photography business on the side, and year after year the business grew. It is now a full-time job for both.
Karen Hill manages his gallery, printing, framing and scheduling. She's the one who calls him an ambassador.
"I'm always astounded ... the reaction people have when they see his photographs," Karen Hill said.
She said the colors and the care Hill takes to capture the essence of a thing in the camera give his work a style that is recognizable alongside other famous Kentucky landscape artists, such as James Archambeault.
Much of that work is about waiting, Dean Hill said. He wanders the hills, finding spots where he thinks something might happen, and then he waits for the right time, the right light, the right season. There are a few spots, some around Cave Run Lake, for example, where he has been waiting four or five years for a good photograph.
He waits for a photograph that will say something.
"There's a story in the photograph," he said, that a camera can capture and that no amount of digital reworking will fix. So he must wander and wait.
The landscape is evolving before his eyes. Land that used to be farm fields when Hill was a child has now been allowed to grow wild in nature preserves.
"I think that there is a growing awareness that our natural resources can be geared towards people coming in here" from other places, Hill said.
Hill has been expanding his work outside Eastern Kentucky, though he is still captivated by Appalachia. His first book, Spirit of Appalachian Kentucky, is now sold out. His second book, Spirit of Appalachia, contains photographs from West Virginia, Virginia, Tennessee, and a foreword by Silas House.
"I am thankful for Hill's wise eye and the photographs that it produces because he is able to capture everything we feel for this place in one single shot," House wrote.
Hill said he wants to keep moving up the Appalachian mountain range into Pennsylvania, New York, even to the coast of Maine. But home is in his blood, as it is for so many Eastern Kentuckians.
"It's an interesting place," he said. "It's got a uniqueness and a character you don't find anywhere else."