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John Karl Stennes.
John Karl Stennes.
Herald photographer John Stennes retires after 36 years photographing region’s news
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Grand Forks North Dakota 375 2nd Ave. N. 58203

John Stennes, the Herald’s chief photographer, is retiring Monday, after a near-36-year career in which he’s created a photographic history of Grand Forks and the Red River Valley.

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“I’ve had the opportunity to photograph everything from popes to presidents to the Super Bowl,” he said.

He photographed Pope John Paul II during his 1984 trip to Winnipeg, as well as Presidents Carter, Reagan, Clinton and George W. Bush.

And he covered Super Bowl XXVI in Minneapolis in 1992, when Washington defeated Buffalo 37-24.

His farthest-ranging assignment was a trip to Helsinki, Finland, in 2004 for the World Junior Ice Hockey Championships to cover the eventual champion U.S. team that featured UND hockey stars Zach Parise, Drew Stafford and Brady Murray.

“They were fun. The Herald provided the opportunities,” he said. “But the assignments I enjoy the most are the barber in Halstad (Minn.) or the farmer who lost his crop in a hailstorm and can be philosophical about it.”

Stennes’ retirement on Monday coincides with that of Herald columnist Ryan Bakken, who also started at the newspaper in the 1970s. Bakken wrote about his own retirement and career in a column a few weeks ago.

Memorable, challenging

Stennes also was one of the Herald photographers who chronicled the Red River Flood of 1997 and the accompanying fire that consumed much of downtown Grand Forks, including the Herald building.

“I’m proudest of what the Herald did at that time,” he said, “and that manifested itself in a Pulitzer Prize, but at a great expense to the community.

“One of the biggest losses of my life was losing 20 years of my work, my photographs, my negatives. It was a big personal loss. The Herald lost its archives. That was a loss to the Herald and to the community.”

Stennes doesn’t have a favorite photograph.

“It’s like picking a favorite child. You can’t do that,” he said. “I have a lot of memorable photographs.”

One of them was a photo of a tornado he captured in June 1988 near Finley, N.D., while on his way back to Grand Forks from an assignment at the Wells County Fairgrounds in Fessenden, N.D.

“I saw the funnel in my rearview mirror,” he said. “I stopped to get a quick photo and then get out of there. I felt the wind, and then it rained hard. I got back in my car. Then, it was gone. It happened so fast. I got out and saw that my car was at angle on the highway. It had moved, maybe 45 degrees. I wasn’t scared until I saw that.”

Stennes lists the three biggest industry developments he’s experienced during his Grand Forks career:

  •  The early 1980s, when the Herald switched from publishing an in the afternoon to a morning publication.

“There was a day when you’d shoot a basketball game at night and go home and sleep and develop the photo in the morning,” he said.

  •  The transition from building newspaper pages in a back-shop composing room to producing the newspaper on a computer from an editor’s desk.
  •  The switch from film and negatives to digital photography.

Overall, Stennes said, he has enjoyed most the variety and the opportunity to meet everyday people throughout the valley.

 “It’s just the chance to meet people, sitting down with them for a few minutes and learning a little about them,” he said. “I’m grateful to everybody who has allowed me to drop into their lives, not always in the best of circumstances, and have been willing to share a part of their lives.”

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