VERMONTVILLE - After being forced to retire for health reasons from the state Department of Corrections six years ago, Vermontville resident Richard Gonyea knew he had to find a new focus in life.
"That's when I got back into photography because I needed something to keep my mind off of things," the 48-year-old Gonyea said.
Gonyea was born with a birth defect that makes him vulnerable to kidney infection. A kidney infection can permanently damage your kidneys or the bacteria can spread to a person's bloodstream and cause a life-threatening infection.
Richard Gonyea of Vermontville rarely leaves the house without his camera after rediscovering his passion for photography.
(Photo courtesy of Richard Gonyea)
Gonyea says he has had more than 50 operations for the serious ailment but it was always one he could fight through to live life the way he wanted when he was younger, venturing into the woods and particiapting in sports like basketball and soccer.
"I never relied on anything," he said. "The only thing doctors ever recommended was not playing football."
Gonyea didn't let it stop him from getting a job with the Department of Corrections, where he worked at a number of prisons until winding up at the now defunct Camp Gabriels in Brighton.
"I remember when I went through the physical, the doctor said, 'Can you do it?' I said, 'I know I can do it; just let me prove it to you,'" Gonyea said. "The doctor said, 'Alright, I'll let you in.'"
Standing 6-feet, 5-inches tall and weighing 300 pounds, Gonyea is an imposing figure. He recalls that he once was able to lift a dryer by himself.
But life has changed as he has gotten older and he had to retire from his correctional officer job in 2005 after 22 years, just short of receiving a full pension. Gonyea is not as active as he once was and his kidney problems are worse and often on his mind.
After retirement, the situation depressed Gonyea at times. Recognizing this, Gonyea's doctor suggested that he develop a hobby so he wasn't sitting around the house thinking pessimistically about his future. He needed to continue pursuing his passions in life.
So Gonyea decided to revisit an activity that he first learned while attending Saranac Lake High School.
"It was my senior year, and I took a photography course from Mike Kilroy in high school," Gonyea said. "That's what got me rolling."
Gonyea said he then bought a camera and his passion for photography "blossomed from there."
"Then I went into the Department of Corrections, so I kind of got away from it," he said. "I still was doing photos, but not like I did."
Work kept him busy, and later so did raising a family with his wife, Joy, a nurse with whom he has two children: Brandon, 13, and Danielle, 10.
So the camera really only came out during holidays, Gonyea said. But that has totally changed recently and he is once again frequently taking photos. Now Gonyea does portrait photography for his friends, wakes up early to catch the mist rising over the mountains visible from Harrietstown Hill and photographs the little things that most other people hardly notice.
"(I) look at the world differently with everything that's gone on in my life actually, with the medical issue and the things that I'm facing," Gonyea said. "The camera is always ready to go. It goes with me everywhere. It's always in the car because you never know what you are going to see. Because we live in an area that's full of photography."
Gonyea said he especially likes nature and wildlife photography. He's always had an affinity for country life. He used to raise his own pigs, cows and turkeys for food. He was also a hunter. But he can't do that anymore. Instead, now he enjoys taking photos of butterflies, flowers, caterpillars, and, of course, moose, deer, bald eagles and even turkey vultures. "Everything is a picture," he said.
Gonyea also likes sharing his photos. He frequently submits photos to the Enterprise for publication, and he's even entered a few photography contests. In 2010, he won honorable mention in Adirondack Life's annual photo contest for capturing an image of two bucks butting their velvet antlers together. That photo was taken in the blueberry patch in his backyard.
He also received second place for a turkey vulture image in the wildlife category of a photography contest sponsored by Adirondack Medical Center.
"I had a friend of the family say, 'Why do you want to send that ugly picture up there?' I said, 'Because it's different.'"
Turned out the judges agreed with him.
Gonyea is also enrolled in a three-year online photography course with the New York Institute of Photography in New York City, from which he has learned a lot.
Some of that knowledge he shares with students at the Bloomingdale Elementary School as a volunteer. He said one thing he teaches them is "green screen" photography, which allows photo editors to combine elements from different images into one photo illustration.
"The kids like the picture of the moose," Gonyea said. "They want to ride on it. So with the green screen ... you can actually put those kids on the moose. Or they'll want to fly over the school or the ice castle."
For the most part, Gonyea doesn't make money off his photography, except for some large prints he sells at the J.C. Penney Merchant Catalog store in Saranac Lake. He does it mainly for pleasure.
Recently, he took photographs of the "The Hobbit," a childrens' play held at the Lake Placid Center for the Arts. He sold photos but gave the money back to Rising Star Productions, which organized the play.
"My wife is always saying to me, 'You always give everything away.' I say, 'It's alright. If something was to happen to me, I guess I left a mark on the world, right? My name will be around. That's the way I look at it. (Photography's) been great to me.'"