When Wally Pacholka found himself laid off for the fourth time, he decided the planets were aligned for a career change. Rather than burnish his resume with his latest feat--setting up yet another corporate accounting system so user-friendly that it rendered his expertise obsolete--Pacholka looked to the heavens for employment.
From Maui to Monument Valley and from Yellowstone to Yosemite, Pacholka travels the country capturing extraordinary time-exposure images of the night sky. Souvenir note cards featuring his photographs sell like T-shirts at more than 30 national parks. Magazines purchase his masterpieces and, on occasion, hire him for freelance gigs.
At age 60, the itinerant grandfather continues to hone a successful niche from his boyhood passion.
Growing up in a rural Quebec town awarded Pacholka a sparkling view of outer space. "My parents could hear me crawling around the roof of our two-story house in the middle of the night," Pacholka says, chuckling. "They didn't quite understand my fascination with the stars. When I was 13, I bought my first camera for $30 at a pawnshop. I wanted to show my parents and friends the amazing things I saw while they were sleeping."
Catastrophe struck, in the eyes of 16-year-old Pacholka, when his engineer father took a job at Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach, Calif.: "I couldn't see the stars anymore due to the city lights."
Fortunately, he soon acquired a driver's license and discovered the nearby deserts, where stars shone brightly against the stark backdrop of otherworldly rock formations. Everyone expected Pacholka to end up at the Jet Propulsion Lab. "I took one astronomy class in college and was bored silly," he admits. "It dealt with the physics of how stars were made. I enjoy looking at stars and sharing what I see." Instead, he majored in mathematics and accounting at California State University, Long Beach.
For 30 years, Pacholka worked as an accounting controller at a procession of manufacturing companies. "I was pretty good at setting up accounting systems and computer systems," he says. "Ironically, after about five years with a company, they would tell me 'Thanks, but we don't need you anymore.' They could pay someone half the price to maintain what I'd burnt the midnight oil developing." He continually scrambled to support his young family.
Throughout it all, Pacholka never lost touch with night sky photography. On weekends and vacations, he visited national parks to shoot the solar system juxtaposed against such familiar sites as Mount Rushmore and Half Dome. In 1997, Pacholka's spectacular photos of Comet Hale-Bopp over Joshua Tree appeared in National Geographic and Time Magazine's annual photo issue. NASA purchased some of his unique images for posterity.
"Most photographers and astronomers took out their longest lenses and telescopes to get close-ups of the amazing comet, which graced the skies for more than a year," Pacholka says. "However, I use a simpler method--a 35mm camera on a tripod with only a standard 50mm lens. This approach allows me to capture the landscape as well as the sky."
In 2002, a few years after Pacholka made a name for himself in "astro photography," his last employer, General Dynamics, cut him loose. At last, the timing seemed right for him to pursue night sky photography full time. "I couldn't have done this earlier, when my kids had soccer games and band concerts," says Pacholka. "Nor could I have afforded to take the financial risk when my son and daughter were in college."
As with most fledgling businesses, the first two years brought uncertainty and slow sales. Then he had a brainstorm: He decided to turn his photographs into greeting cards that tourists at national parks could buy for $4 or $5 apiece.
Last year, customers snapped up about 25,000 of the note cards nationwide--as well as matted photographs . Added to freelance assignments and sales to magazine and book publishers, Pacholka netted $120,000--similar to his pre-entrepreneur wages.
"Wally found a niche previously undiscovered," says Chad Moore, manager of the National Park Service Night Sky Program. "We had been ignoring the other half of the scenery--nighttime. Today he has many emulators, but it's still easy to spot a Wally Pacholka image. He is an artist."
Pacholka works his magic with a steady camera and a slow shutter speed--usually around 10 to 30 seconds-- recording colors and detail that the human eye cannot perceive. The sky looks cobalt blue instead of black; the Milky Way looks like a plume of smoke; planets look like suns.
"You can take a really good picture of a comet using a big zoom lens, but it doesn't give any perspective," Pacholka says. "I like to shoot the sky above landmarks so that people can relate." Even so, those terrestrial natural wonders appear surreal, and sometimes sci-fi. At Nevada's dramatic Valley of Fire, for instance, he "shot Mars from a place that looks like Mars."
"I'm competing with hundreds of other photographers," Pacholka says. "But my knowledge of astronomy gives me an advantage. I know when Jupiter is going to rise and when Mars is going to set."
Even in the darkest hour of the darkest (yet twinkling) night, Pacholka could not fathom returning to the corporate world he left behind. "I now believe that self-employment is the only way to go," he says. "No matter the salary, you will be happier and more successful if you love what you do."
More photos: Visit Wally Pacholka online at astropics.com.