From a steel mill in Pittsburgh to the fjords of Greenland

January 30—PLATTSBURGH — Photographer Denis Defibaugh’s beginnings in his art began like most photographers in childhood at the time.

His first plastic camera was shot on his immediate world – family, pets, natural world – which he documented.

“I still document now,” said the RIT professor emeritus of photography.

“So it hasn’t really changed much.”

The photographer and author’s exhibition, “North by Nuuk: Greenland after Rockwell Kent” opens February 1 and runs through March 11 at the Burke Gallery, Myers Fine Arts Building, SUNY Plattsburgh.

He is giving an “artist talk” on February 2 from 7 to 8 p.m. in the Yokum building, room 202.

An exhibition reception will be held on February 3 from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Myers Lobby Gallery.

Defibaugh never really considered photography as a career choice.

After two years in the voluntary draft during the Vietnam War, Defibaugh emerged without a tour of the country and a Pentax Spotmatic camera, his first SLR.

When he separated from the military in 1972, he returned home outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to work at a steel mill there.

“Every lunch we would meet with the workers,” he said.

“These elders who had been in the factory for about 40 years. They would blame me for working in the factory. They said, ‘Why don’t you go and get an education? And I’m like, “I’m going to go to school. I’m just trying to make money to do this.”

“He says, ‘What are you going to school for?’

“I said, ‘I want to go to school for photography.’

“He says, ‘You should go to RIT.’

“I say ‘RIT? I’ve never heard of RIT.’

“He says, ‘It’s a very good photography school.’

“I’m like, ‘Why is this so good?

“He says, ‘I don’t know. They teach the zone system there.

“I said, ‘What is the zone system?’

“He says, ‘I don’t know, but you have to know.

“He’s an old man, a really great guy. He spent his whole life in the steel mill.”

Within two weeks, Defibaugh traveled to Rochester and met with the RIT admissions office.

In 1974, there were tons of students. He was unlucky.

Two weeks later, Defibaugh received a phone call. He was there if he came.

“At that time, it was like the beginning of August,” he said.

“I wonder how I’m going to do this? I can’t refuse. It would be crazy. So I said yes, and started school in September. That’s how I got into photography.”

At RIT, he studied advertising photography and graduated with a Bachelor of Science in 1977.

After a career as a photographer and teacher in Georgia, Colorado and Texas, he returned to his alma mater to teach in 1987.

A decade later, he graduated with a Master of Science in the Graphic Arts, Typography and Design program.

Defibaugh always taught photography until his retirement in 2020.

He took a leave followed by a sabbatical in 2016-17 to follow in the footsteps of artist Rockwell Kent in Greenland.


Kent’s stays in mid-1929 and early 1935 now provide a window into Greenland’s past.

Defibaugh’s sojourn in the 21st century, 85 years later, captures the evolution of Greenland.

In the dead of winter, his favorite season in Greenland, Defibaugh decided to go out into the fjords and photograph icebergs stuck in the distant ice.

“I start walking in the fjords, and I hear, ‘Denis! Denis!'” he said.

“It was these two girls who lived there. Every time I went out to photograph, the kids somehow found me.”

Defibaugh and the Inuit girls headed for the icebergs.

As always, he also let them take pictures.

“These girls are just plain fearless,” he said.

“They’re not afraid of anything. As we walk, one of the girls says, ‘Danger. Danger. Ice bear.’ I said, ‘Yes, we’re going to the iceberg.’ She said, “No, no, no. Ice bear.” I go, “Polarbear. She says, ‘Yeah.’

“”These girls are fearless, and you could tell they were really nervous, and they wanted to turn back. I said, ‘Okay, let’s go back.'”

Defibaugh has never seen a polar bear in Greenland.

“It was snowing and you couldn’t see very far because of the snow and everything was white,” he said.

“She felt like there was danger. The possibility was there, and I felt like if those girls were scared, then I should be.”

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