David J Swift / The Soul of Jackson Hole

David died unexpectedly while skate skiing in Grand Teton National Park on January 16, 2018. He was 69. David had been photographing the valley since the 1970s.

by Brantley sydnor // PHOTOGRAPHY BY DAVID J SWIFT

I first met David at the hospital. My two chihuahuas, Ani and Cecil, and I were newly minted Pet Partner volunteers at St. John’s Medical Center, and David was to take the required photos of us. I expected something staid and perfunctory—after all, it was a photo shoot at a hospital. I soon realized this shoot was going to be special. As I connected with David’s firm, unaffected handshake and smile it took only a few minutes for me to decide he was one of the most genuinely charming and witty people I’d ever met.

Drowsy nurses watched from the cafeteria as David snapped photos of me on the fly, showering me and the pups with praise and energy as he tossed his thick mane of hair from his eyes. In front of David’s lens, we were supermodels on a runway instead of volunteers striding down a hospital hallway. I felt beautiful and seen, and that was David’s real magic as a photographer, and as a person: Whoever he was talking to immediately became the only person in the room. He quizzed them about their life, eager to know all about their work, passions, love, and adventures—and he actually listened to the answers; David was a great listener.

As we became friends, David also became my mentor. David is the reason I am a photographer. He handed me the keys to his office, told me to stop by anytime, and that he would teach me everything he knew if I just showed up. Shortly after his mentorship started, I asked David why he was investing his time in me. Again with his twinkly eyes and chuckling grin: “I’m old and bored and need a project. I need some inspiration. You’re young and alive with curiosity. I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned in the photog biz over all these years. What’s in it for me is to see you succeed.” 

I showed up at his office a lot and ventured deeper into the photography world. Anything he had was mine to learn and work from—his office, his equipment, his expertise. David taught me aperture and in return, I helped him get organized. This was no small feat, as David’s love of photography was matched only by his love of not throwing anything away. He saw the value in all things and treasured every single photo, article, letter, and thank you note. He so dearly loved his family, friends, and clients and cherished every memory and photograph he created with them.

A valuable lesson David taught me is to not take myself too seriously. He led by example and would rarely sweat the small stuff. David understood that life is short and wonderful and meant to be experienced. “Go fast. Take risks” were often his parting words to me. He was a natural artist that celebrated the entire spectrum of life’s experiences through his friendships, travel, writing, music, and photography.  

What I, and the entire Jackson Hole community, loved about David is what people love about his work. He was genuine, spunky, and eternally young at heart with an insatiable enthusiasm for adventure, light, and beauty. His photos capture this—the unfiltered allure of everyday moments and people alive and free. David expressed passion and charisma in all he loved to do—from taking pictures to riding his bike, meeting friends for tea, and skate skiing in his beloved Tetons. 

Brantley Sydnor moved to Jackson Hole in 2006, met David in 2011, and founded her own studio, She B Photography (shebphotography.com) in 2017. 

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