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The Lens of Adventure

Local photographer is armed with his late father's traits and tremendous life experience

Dave Bell has some stories. His wit and grit have taken him all across the country for fascinating jobs and adventure but it's his role as a father that keeps him right here in Missoula, raising his family.

Dave, you say that friends, family, and teachers encouraged you to take the photography route. Can you tell us what kind of encouragement you received that steered you toward this passion and business? 

Having a person with a camera in the room was pretty rare, which meant I was the go-to for capturing life as a teenager and family events. I was often encouraged to “get a shot of that.” I carried a camera everywhere. It was either BMX handlebars or a camera in my hands. In high school, I took a black and white photography class and pitched the idea to the yearbook teacher about being the photographer. She said I needed to be able to write so I drafted up a couple samples, bugged my bookworm sister for edits, and submitted it to the teacher within a week. Shortly thereafter, I was in. Being a part of several yearbooks during high school was very important because it was a creative outlet and demanded deadlines, and I love deadlines. When friends or family members stopped by our house, I would show them my green photo album with carefully placed 3x5 prints. This dialog with a few close people extended well past high school. Those around me were smart, positive, and caring about my goals of being a photojournalist. My dream was formed among the bookshelves of my grandma's house, drooling over National Geographic images and dreaming about being on assignment. You only need a couple of tried-and-true people in your life who aren’t afraid to check in, tell you what they think and understand the artist’s mind. 

You've worked with newspapers, ad agencies, film crews, and small businesses for the better part of two decades. Tell us what this kind of work has meant to you over the years. Perhaps you have a favorite assignment or project? 

Photography started as a hobby and became work fueled by passion. I enjoy working in team environments, solving problems, exploring and meeting people of all backgrounds. The discovery process of hearing client needs and dreams keeps life interesting and unique. I’m an optimist and motivator and I like to see things through from start to finish. Favorites are tough! While working as a photojournalist in the Northwest I was exposed to a ton of diversity which I am very grateful for. One memorable time period included covering the funeral of a little girl who got hit by a car while using a crosswalk. It was tragic. After covering the ceremony, I had to cross town to cover a baseball game. Days like this and additional contrasting events really shaped my perspective of community and the variety of experiences that can happen in a single day. 

A recent favorite photo assignment was working for Clear Water Services, LLC out of Everett, Washington. They sent me to Ludington, Michigan, which is beautiful, to photograph welders building large-scale water filtration units. Seeing these craftsman work and relaying that to their marketing department helped reshape the dialogue they have with prospective clients and internal communications nationwide. I love this type of work.  

You're a Griz alumnus! What degree did you obtain from the University of Montana and how would you describe your experience of staying in Missoula post graduation? 

Go Griz! Bachelor of Arts in drama, with an emphasis in design and technology. The unofficial degree is working with multiple moving parts. Missoula was my home before attending the U of M and I’ve been fortunate to stay. It’s been challenging to find work at times but the benefits of staying in town far exceed those of moving. 

On your website it says that you've ridden your bike from Seattle to Washington D.C. and hiked Mount Whitney, twice. Share with us the sense of adventure behind these travels. 

Freedom, endurance, sweat, exhaustion, and happiness. There are some things in life you’ve just got to do. These adventures, especially biking across the country at 21, prepared me for the mental toughness I rely on. I’m an athlete and take that strength and team perspective in all that I do. I’ve got to stay in shape to carry photo gear and cover enough ground to get the shot. Plus, one of my “dad duties” is being a horse. 

For a guy with such a rich and colorful life full of adventure and exploration, it seems that everything is dull in comparison to fatherhood. You seem to have a softness in your heart when it comes to being a dad. Can you tell us how fatherhood has redefined you? 

Sarah, my wife, was rushed into an emergency c-section three months before her due date. I vividly remember standing in the hallway with Sarah's sister waiting in anticipation. The double doors opened and the nurse maneuvered a bed down the hall. She turned to me and said, “It’s a girl!” I instantly felt like heaven above put armor on me and gave me a massive pat on the back. The mission was clear: Take care of her at all costs. I followed the nurse into the NICU unit. My daughter was a teeny, tiny 2 lb 14oz. Her whole hand could barely wrap around my finger and she was hooked up to oxygen and lots of other wires. I was star-struck. Sarah and I waited patiently at Community Hospital for three months for Katelyn to gain weight and be cleared to go home. When discharge day finally came, we drove super slow in the snow, wondering if our new found freedom was real. Words cannot express the gratitude and relief we shared leaving the hospital. 

Parenthood is uncharted territory. Can you describe a time that has really challenged you as a father? 

Being in the NICU was like basic training for the road ahead. Katelyn has shown us what strength is many times since. Six years ago, we were at Seattle Children's Hospital for the second time. She lay there silently breathing after having open heart surgery. I think Sarah and I both earned parent black belts that trip.   

You say that you recall the depth of your late father's patience, his unwavering reliability, and the sweetness of his motivation. Can you explain how these impressions guide you day to day? 

These traits are my compass. We all have the ability to listen better and speak up more. To forgive ourselves for past experiences and to respect others. When I do this, I feel I’m strengthening my patient mind, becoming more reliable, and able to better encourage friends and family.   

In raising your daughter, do you see yourself becoming more like your late father? Perhaps you say the same things he did or have the same mannerisms? 

I snort like him. It’s a problem in our house but thankfully our dog Molly reverse sneezes. I’m not sure what the difference is. My dad was well-read, made one-off comments, listened more than he talked, and enjoyed partaking in a variety of discussions at the kitchen table. He liked keeping up with technology, working in the garden, woodworking, burger joints, and politics. I miss our conversations very much. Most importantly, he kept in touch with family and friends. He was inspired by them and enjoyed working on a variety of projects simultaneously. That sums me up in a lot of ways.   

Lastly, it seems like a special gift to keep and hone the traits we love most about our parents. Is there something in particular that you hope you pass down to your daughter?  

Patience is the currency dreams are built from. Be gentle with yourself and others. Keep your space clean and walk the dog. 


Dave’s wife, Sarah Bell, answers what she loves most about her #GirlDad husband:

  • The gift of time. Dave loves being a dad and he invests his time in Katelyn's life. 
  • Laughter. He cracks Katelyn up with his jokes and doesn't take life too seriously. 
  • Stories. Dave has the ability to tell funny, creative, and quirky stories to Katelyn, welcoming her edits and suggestions along the way. Listening to her giggle while her dad brings the characters to life is one of my most favorite things.
  • Teacher. He's curious about life and is willing to explore and teach Katelyn important concepts. 
  • Kindness. He models how to be a good person and respect others.
  • Adventure. Fly fishing, skiing, playing at the park, rock climbing, forest hikes, sand castles, bike rides, lemonade stands, he's there for it all, experiencing the moment, teaching concepts, and making memories with her. 
  • Love. He protects her with fierce love, lets her dance on his shoes, and is there for her every step of the way.