March 2024
Craftsman, Teacher and Artist
Ross Hilmoe, Master Printer

For this month’s artist feature I’d like to introduce you to someone whose skills and effort have been largely unseen outside our community of artists, as a craftsman and teacher as well as a maker of great art. And for me this one is personal. 

When I arrived in Prescott in 1994 I was still doing a fair bit of work behind a camera, so once the furniture was in place my first supply run was for film and chemistry, and I found Bradshaw Mountain Photo on Gurley Street, with its staff of friendly, knowledgeable people led by owner Phil Ball. Within that first month, if I recall correctly, I happened in during the lunch hour to find someone I hadn’t met covering the counter.

Ross Hilmoe was the store’s darkroom technician, a compact, wiry longhair with a quick wit and easy manner. We had a good chat, I bought some stuff and left, but as I crossed the street to my car I decided to go back in and ask him whether he’d like to hang out sometime. We quickly became good friends, and through Ross I found my tribe in Prescott. Those connections led me to just about everything I’ve done since. I expect it might be that way for many people here and around the state.

In the days when most adults were still trying to figure out how email might be useful, Ross, Phil, Randy Swedlund and the rest of the shop staff were an important nexus of support for the large community of art and commercial photographers here, including some well known outside our little town as well.

Ross’s skills as a photographer and photographic printer, I quickly came to discover, were top-notch, and the shop’s reputation kept him busy with copy work in particular. Ross made many of the images in the archive and exhibits of Sharlot Hall Museum, many recovered from old glass plates and damaged negatives and prints. To document their work for marketing and catalogs, Ross was the first call for many local artists, drawn to his sensitivity to detail and color second to none, as well as his integrity as a craftsman.

Watson Lake Dam

Service points the way

“When I was fourteen I knew I wanted to be a photographer,” says Ross, but opportunities were thin for a poor Milwaukee street kid in the early ‘60s. School was no help, but he got through it, and on graduating from high school he immediately shipped off into the Air Force.

“The military was a family tradition,” he says, and for many men it was a path to a career. If you volunteered, “they said you could choose anything you wanted, and I chose photography.” In stereotypical military manner he was sent to Denver and assigned to electronic intercept, listening for Russian radar blips on twelve-hour shifts. A year went by, and his superiors eventually asked for volunteers to fill a shortage of base photographers. “That’s what I put in for!” says Ross, and put his hand up. The next day he was a photographer, “after a year of bitching about it.” Through six weeks of specialty training he took advantage of the base facilities and equipment, picking up a 4x5 Graflex camera and practicing in his spare time as well, with free run of its professional-level darkroom.

USO show with Anita Bryant, Joey Heatherton, Bob Hope, Phyllis Diller and the Korean Kittens, Thailand

Ross came from street life, but says, “I don’t cuss around women, I never have.” During a phone call to his high-school sweetheart, someone came on demanding he clear the line in richly profane terms. Indignant, Ross fired back, chewing out the interloper at length for his rudeness. It turns out the assailant was his sergeant, and a captain also heard the exchange. Within three weeks Ross was on his way to Thailand.

“They thought it was a punishment,” remembers Ross, “then I found out that Thailand was Paradise.”

At the Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base in Udon Thani, on the edge of the jungle not far from the Laotian capital Vientiane, Ross was put to solitary work in his own darkroom, processing film and printing images from surveillance flights and gun cameras. The Vietnam war was in full swing, but life west of Cambodia seemed far from it. He sweated out the days in the darkroom and, as young men will, partied away the nights till his hitch was up and he went home to Milwaukee. But the experience influenced the rest of his life.

Watson Lake


He married the girl and went to work for Pohlman Studios, an established commercial photography operation. But he needed a second job, his wife worked two jobs as well, and they still were barely making enough to survive. “Patsy decided that I needed an education,” and persuaded him to go to college on GI Bill funding. They chose ASU “because it was cheap,” he says, and they moved to Arizona, taking night jobs in a pizza joint.

Ross was studying photography in the art department, and a couple of teachers in the department “saw something in me,” he says and pushed him in an unexpected direction. “You’re gonna be an art teacher,” they promised, and handed him a list of classes they’d already signed him up for. He went with it, and graduated with a teaching certificate in 1971.

Half Dome in Cloud

For six years he taught art to elementary-and middle-school kids in Mesa schools as an itinerant teacher. He discovered that his street-kid roots and counterculture look gained him credibility among the students, and he was frequently able to win their trust and respect where other teachers couldn’t. Some of those students have been lifelong friends. During this time his creative outlet was mainly silversmithing, selling jewelry on the side.

On the road

But now single again, Ross was drawn to see more of the world up close. “I knew there was something out there besides a job,” he says, and on the small income from renting his Phoenix house he quit teaching to travel, first backpacking across Europe, then taking up road life in the Southwest again, living in his Chevy Suburban, picking apples in Washington in summer, selling silverwork in Bisbee for a year. One spring, on the way northwest again, he and his girlfriend decided to take a break for a few days in Prescott, camping on a creek in the woods. The days turned into weeks, then months, and the town became his new home base. “I knew it was an art community, and that was all it took to make up my mind that we were gonna live here for a while.”

Church roof, Taos

“I started going to everything having to do with the arts, gallery openings, everything, and I heard there was an opening for a photography teacher at Yavapai College.”

“Theory is one thing, but teaching’s another, and I didn’t really have the knowledge I needed to teach. So I started going to the camera shop, Bradshaw Mountain Photo, and asking questions. It kinda became a home for me.”

“I never did like jobs,” he says, but eventually “Phil Ball asked me if I wanted a job. My whole body was itching, and I asked ‘why me?’ He said, ‘you come in here all the time asking questions, and I’ve taught you everything I know, so it’s about time you take over,’ with all he’d been teaching me.” After being on the road for three years, “I just decided it was time to settle down for a while.”

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone NP

“And then somebody called me, looking for someone to teach photography.” The adult education department at Yavapai College needed a teacher to work in Seligman, and when fall of 1980 came he accepted on the understanding that it would give him a lot of flexibility. “The great thing about extension classes is that the students will do anything to get a teacher to come and give them something to do on a week night.”

Honing his craft

The jobs offered the freedom Ross needed to take off on shooting trips. The images on these pages came largely from those trips. They illustrate that his artistic and technical aspirations have been shaped by the classic black-and-white work of Edward Weston, Ansel Adams and other pioneering photographers of the 1920s and ‘30s, taking advantage of the depth and range of subtlety that slow, larger-format film provides.

Eva with Kali

The shift to digital photography eventually eliminated demand for his traditional silver-process work, and for the past decade or so Ross has been feeling the creeping effects of Parkinson’s disease, slowly eating away his physical capabilities and stamina, to where he can no longer make the art he loves.

Ross names his image of Mammoth Hot Springs in Yellowstone National Park as his favorite. The greats in the field had long spoken of their ability to see a scene and fully visualize the darkroom result. “It was there I realized that I could see the final print in my mind, and could make it happen.” He sees it as the culmination of his lifelong ambition to “become a master printer.” Working diligently toward that goal for over 20 years, Ross says, “I’m confident in saying that now I can take a negative and come out with a piece of art.”

Grain Silos, rural Washington

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