ROGER JENSEN'S PHOTOGRAPHY
All photos are copyrighted © 1952-2001 by the estate of Roger Jensen and used with permission. Reproduction or distribution is strictly prohibited.

"Gosh, it's for the awe at what you are seeing. I was born loving storms."
-- Roger Jensen

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  • ROGER JENSEN
    a storm chasing pioneer

    by Tim Marshall
    Roger Jensen was born in Fargo, North Dakota on September 5, 1933. He grew up as an ordinary child who liked planes, trains, and steam engines. However, Roger also loved storms. He became fascinated with the majestic thunderheads on the plains, especially when illuminated by the setting sun. To him, there was no better experience than seeing a storm out in the open, feeling the wind, smelling the inflow air, hearing the sound of distant thunder, or tasting the success of a great photo opportunity. Yes, he knew that a storm can be absorbed by all the senses. Roger was hooked on storms at a time when he was only eight years old.

    The early years
    Rogersí family moved to a farm near Lake Park, MN around 1945 where they raised wheat and milked cows. This gave Roger the opportunity to view storms out in the open -with no obstructions. Roger worked on the farm for the next 30 years raising all kinds of vegetables and flowers. A greenhouse was built adjacent to the house where Roger grew ornamental flowers and cacti. Roger sold these items along with farm produce from a truck. He called it "truck gardening". In 1950, he and his family moved to the Seattle area. There, the teenager obtained his first camera, a Kodak Pony #828. He began photographing towering thunderheads over the Cascade Mountains. Roger loved the mountains, especially Mt. Rainier, but he still yearned for the plains. Roger worked the summer of 1952 building and improving trails at Mt. Rainier National Park as a member of a trail crew. On his days off, he would climb the mountain -sometimes with his brother Shannon. They once climbed to 12,000 feet. Roger also got a chance to fly around the mountain and took numerous slides which he kept until his death.

    Roger was glad, however, when the family decided to return to Fargo, North Dakota. He began chasing storms during the summer of 1953. He and/or his father occasionally took the family DeSoto and headed out to storms within about 50 miles of their home. On June 20, 1957, a violent supercell produced a series of tornadoes from Fargo, ND to Detroit Lakes, MN. Roger witnessed the storm from the farm, eventhough, he was too busy to chase it. The third tornado in the series struck Fargo, about 32 miles west of their farm. The tornado cut a swath of destruction that was five city blocks wide and 20 blocks long damaging or destroying about 1300 homes. Roger witnessed F5 damage for the first time. He was amazed at the power of a tornado.

    In 1960, Roger bought a single lens reflex, 35mm Miranda "S" with wide angle and telephoto lenses which he used from then on. He read books on photography and learned how to compose a picture and use the F-stop on the camera. He bought a polarized filter to deepen blue tones and bring out the crisp, cauliflower appearance of a thunderstorm updraft. Roger used Kodachrome 64 slide film religiously. His dad died in 1963 but Roger and his mom continued to work on the farm. One of Rogerís best chases occurred on June 31, 1967 when a derecho moved through central Minnesota. Roger followed the storm to Minneapolis where he took a fantastic series of pictures of a tiered shelf cloud approaching the city.

    the roaring 1970s
    The 1970ís were the most productive decade for Roger as he took thousands of slide images during this time. Some of his best work was with fall foliage, sunsets, and flowers from the greenhouse. Roger showed his cloud photography to those in the local weather service and television media and they were impressed. This gave him added confidence to continue his photography. Dr. Richard Scorer contacted Roger and utilized some of his photographs in the Clouds of the World published in 1972. In the summer of 1974, Rogerís mom sold the farm and they moved into an apartment in Detroit Lakes where Roger began working for Swift and Company, a turkey processing plant. Roger began corresponding with the folks at the American Meteorological Society (AMS) and they published his photographs in the Bulletin of the AMS in 1973 (Vol. 54, No. 1), 1975 (Vol. 56, No. 7), and 1977 (Vol. 58, No. 6). He also wrote a nice narrative to go with the photographs. Roger was very proud of his accomplishments.

    Rogerís big tornado day was on June 28, 1975 when he photographed a large barrel-shaped tornado near Felton, MN that moved slowly north-northeast. The tornado traveled only six miles in 25 minutes! Roger filmed the tornado from the south. The tornado only destroyed a barn and was rated F-2. That same evening, Roger photographed the most brilliant, orange-colored mammatus at sunset and sent his stunning photographs to Weatherwise Magazine where they were put on the cover of the October 1976 issue.

    Roger corresponded with famous meteorologists like David Ludlam, Alan Pearson, Tom Skilling, Bernard Vonnegut, Joe Witte, as well as the office of Dr. Ted Fujita. He became a local celebrity when the Becker County Record newspaper did a nice story about him on January 22, 1979. Roger expanded his photography by traveling around the country. He visited several National Parks including Yosemite and photographed many of the waterfalls there. Upon returning back to Minnesota, Roger photographed four inch diameter hail, the largest hail recorded in Minnesota up to that time.

    the 1980s: a run of bad luck
    The 1980ís were a reversal of fortune for Roger. His mother died in 1980 and he became depressed. In January 1981, Roger collapsed in his apartment. Someone found him and rushed him to the hospital where he spent one week in intensive care and was given the last rites. A series of tests revealed Roger suffered from chronic diabetes. He recovered and returned to work at Swift and Company learning to give himself insulin shots every day. Roger continued his photography taking some of his best fall foliage pictures in the early 80ís. He also heard of another storm chaser, David Hoadley, who had a newsletter called STORMTRACK and they began to correspond.

    In February 1985, Roger left Swift and Company as the company closed down. Two months later, Roger fell gravely ill again and was admitted to the Ebenezer Caroline Center, a hospital in Minneapolis. Doctors discovered a bone disease and tried to treat it with antibiotics to no effect. A staph infection complicated matters and Roger became bedridden in May 1985, and lost a lot of weight. His recovery was slow and he remained in the hospital for five months! Roger returned to his apartment in September 1985, but not for long.

    On January 30, 1986, Roger returned to the hospital with an infection in his left foot. His diabetes was out of control and Roger needed assisted care with nurses who could take blood tests twice daily to monitor his condition. Thus, Roger entered St. Maryís Nursing Home on February 3, 1986 where he remained until May 5, 1986. He seemed to be doing better and he moved to a new apartment in Detroit Lakes, MN in May of 1986. However, an infection again developed in the left ankle and foot and he was hospitalized on August 21, 1986, then transfered to St. Maryís nursing home on September 4, 1986. Roger would remain in a nursing home the rest of his life.

    In January 1988, the infection in his left leg worsened and it had to be amputated below the knee. It took Roger several months to learn how to use the prosthesis, but he was walking around well by August 1988. His health steadily improved and he resumed photographing the fall foliage in open areas around the nursing home. Roger learned that David Hoadley had turned over STORMTRACK to me, and Roger and I began corresponding. It was clear to me from the beginning that this man loved storms. We exchanged photographs and talked to each other many times by telephone. David Hoadley visited Roger and was equally impressed with him.

    the 1990s: rebound and big moves
    David Hoadley interviewed Roger and wrote a biography that appeared in the March 1990 issue of STORMTRACK (see Vol. 13, No. 3). Soon after this article was published, many chasers began writing Roger: Bill Barlow, Charles Bustamante, Jack Corso, Jon Davies, Warren Faidley, Drew Farmer, Tom Grazulis, Richard Keen, Bill McCaul, Colin McIntyre, Alan Moller, Gene Moore, Jim Reed, Gene Rhoden, as well as Ed and Jerrine Verkaik. Roger loved the attention and the respect paid to him as the first of our kind. In 1992, Tom Grazulis published the book Significant Tornadoes and utilized a photograph Roger took of the Felton, MN tornado. Around that time, Roger was forced to move into a small nursing home in Detroit Lakes but he was not happy. He frequently wrote about heading south for a warmer climate -one that had severe storms more often. However, Roger had strict requirements for new nursing home. It must have an "unobstructed vantage point" ! That is, the home had to be surrounded by open fields with no power lines. Gene Rhoden researched nursing homes in the area but couldnít find one that would meet Rogerís demands. Then, Gene found a nursing home southwest of Sherman, Texas that was up on a hill surrounded by open fields and they would take Roger!

    Roger made the big move to Texas in 1996 and loved it. He saw more storms than ever before and he was a lot closer to other storm chasers. In November 1996, I met Roger for the first time. Gene Rhoden, Bruce Haynie, Carson Eads and myself took Roger out to dinner and we had a great time talking for hours about storms. I interviewed Roger and wrote an article that appeared in the November 1996 issue of STORMTRACK (see Vol. 20, No. 1) entitled: "An evening with Roger Jensen". Roger said he would like to attend the storm chaser picnics each May and we arranged for him to get a day pass. Roger loved to meet other chasers, show photographs, and tell stories.

    In April 1999, Roger left the nursing home in Sherman to move closer to Dallas. A large church and apartment complex were constructed in the open spaces around the home that completely blocked Rogerís view of the horizon. He spent three months at another nursing home in Ennis (just south of Dallas), but didnít like it there as there were too many obstructions. So, Roger moved to a nursing home in Terrell (just east of Dallas), where there were open fields all around. Roger loved the place and the home gave him the freedom to take pictures of storms in the adjacent fields. Roger was a big hit at our 2000 picnic. He loved being interviewed by the media and was glad that Dave Hoadley attended. It was a happy time for Roger. He shot hundreds of slides of storms, more than any previous year.

    a peaceful ending
    Roger died suddenly and peacefully in his sleep on April 26, 2001 bring to an end almost 50 years of loving storms. His death occurred only two weeks prior to our STORMTRACK picnic, an event that he really looked forward to. Roger took about 8,000 slides during his life. I am indebted to his brother, Shannon, for allowing me to review Rogerís slides and keep some of them. I was amazed to see so much diversity in his work and that he kept every slide back to 1952 when he worked at Mt. Rainier. Roger kept every letter sent to him which indicates how he valued every contact. Those chasers who wrote to Roger are to be commended for taking time out of their busy life to share a moment in time on a subject we enjoy. Rogerís remains were cremated and will be scattered near Mt. Rainier, the first place where he photographed the majesty of mountains and storms. I will never forget what Roger told me why he photographed storms all of his life: "Gosh, it's for the awe at what you are seeing. I was born loving strms."