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Herald photographer John Stennes retires after 36 years photographing region’s news

John Karl Stennes.1 / 5
One of my most memorable images is of this funnel cloud taken on June 19, 1988 near Finley, N.D. Returning from an assignment is Fessenden, N.D I stopped to take this picture and soon found myself riding out the storm in my car on North Dakota Highway 200 south of Finley.2 / 5
A flight aboard a tanker stationed at the Grand Forks Air Force Base in the late 90's provided this image of a new B2 bomber approaching the tanker for a mid-flight refueling over western North Dakota.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD3 / 5
This photograph from a Golden Gloves match at the old Ralph in the 1980's remains a favorite of mine because this one instant tells the whole story of the fight without seeing a single blow landed. You know who won, who lost and how bloody the fight was.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD4 / 5
Hundreds of classmates and friends gather in the front yard of McCain Endres on Thursday night May 23, 2013 for a candlelight vigil to remember the 16-year-old Grand forks, N.D. Central student who died in a motorcycle accident.JOHN STENNES/GRAND FORKS HERALD5 / 5

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.

“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.”

Kevin Bonham

Kevin Bonham covers regional news, mostly from northeast North Dakota, for the Grand Forks Herald. A North Dakota native who grew up in Mandan and Dickinson, he has been a reporter or an editor with the Herald and Forum Communications for more than 30 years. Find his articles at: He welcomes story ideas via email,, or by phone, (701) 780-1110.  

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