Local photographer faces tragedy and finds triumph behind the camera lens

Area photographer Royce Nowlin chats with Olivia Sorensen, Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-Ontario foundation and marketing director. Nowlin’s photos were chosen by the hospital to decorate the walls of its new medical/surgical wing. (The Enterprise/Pat Caldwell).

ONTARIO – Like his photos that adorn the walls of the new surgical wing at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario, Royce Nowlin’s life can be divided into striking images of memory and place.

There is the 8-year-old boy dodging through the crowd on a busy Friday night in Salinas, California, with a shoe shine box. Sounds cloak the boy and burn into his memory, such as 1950s country and western music spilling out of the honky tonks.

One night, an old man came along, framed against a cloud of neon from taverns and bars, looking for a shine.

The man was drunk and Nowlin shined his shoes.

“You know who that was, right?” a friend asked.

Nowlin shook his head.

“That was John Steinbeck,” said the friend.

More than 50 years later Nowlin still chuckles at the memory.

“I didn’t know anything about John Steinbeck,” said the Weiser man.

Recently, Nowlin stood in a waiting room next to the new medical/surgical wing at Saint Alphonsus Medical Center-Ontario and talked about the twists and turns of his life and his newest journey as a photographer. Down the hall more than 70 of his photos – landscapes that depict local landmarks and images of the American West – decorate the new hospital wing. The photos mark the latest passage for the Weiser man in a life that has had more than its share of surprises, tragedies and triumphs. 

One of the clearest snapshots from Nowlin’s life comes into focus on a street in Kansas City, Missouri, in 1986. By then Nowlin was a middle-aged man, a refugee from California working for the Kansas City Public Works Department.

As Nowlin’s work crew toiled in the summer sun to repair a street, a drunk driver came on, missing city equipment but hitting Nowlin.

 “Broke both legs. Eight ribs,” said Nowlin.

His life then became hospitals, rehabilitation and pain. He spent nearly a year in the hospital in Kansas City and then moved to North Carolina for more physical therapy, he said.

After North Carolina he wanted a change of scenery. He could walk now, though perhaps not as well as before, but he kept seeing another image in his mind – Weiser, Idaho.

Nowlin lived in the small Idaho town for a time in the early 1980s. He liked the small-town feel of the place so Nowlin and his wife, Barbara moved there in 1990 and he started a lawn care business.

He later attended Treasure Valley Community College where he suddenly found a love for photography. He liked the college atmosphere of the campus, too, and developed an interest in business.

Then he became sick, infection setting in where he had had stomach surgery.

He ended up with another long stint – nearly half a year – in a Boise hospital. When he returned home, he considered his college education over.

That was when Ted Fink, a photography professor at TVCC, stepped in, said Nowlin. Fink arranged for Nowlin to keep the credits he already earned and go back to school.

Nowlin was still weak and struggling. His doctors prescribed a steady regime of physical therapy at a gym. Nowlin tried it.

“I didn’t like the smell of people,” said Nowlin.

Nowlin decided to take up hiking as a substitute for the gym. One day he took his family on a trip to Jump Creek, near Homedale, and set out to hike to a waterfall.

“I walked half that distance by going from rock to rock,” said Nowlin.

One day, he snapped a few pictures.

“Someone said your pictures look pretty good,” said Nowlin.

The hike at Jump Creek kicked off what has become more than just a pastime for Nowlin. He traveled the West, touring national parks and shooting photos that that capture a peculiar beauty. 

He said he never set out to be a great photographer.

“The point was just to go on hikes and get better,” said Nowlin.

When Nowlin returned to school after his last hospital stint he restarted a friendship with Fink, who recognized Nowlin had more than a passing interest in photography.

“He asked a lot of questions and you can tell when someone asks a lot of questions they are interested. It doesn’t happen that often,” said Fink.

When Saint Alphonsus Ontario officials began to consider how they would decorate the new wing, they reached out to Fink. He steered them to Nowlin.

“We knew we needed someone with local landscapes. We built the space and then looked at where the art work would be,” said Olivia Sorensen, Saint Alphonsus Medical Center Ontario foundation and marketing director.

Sorensen said she began to coordinate with Nowlin more than a year ago.

Sorensen said buying Nowlin’s photos was a way for the hospital to support a local owner.

Some photos show lonely landscapes while others depict local barns or stunning images from Yellowstone National Park. There are photos of lighthouses near the beach and pictures of the sun turning high desert hills into a vision of scarlet.

Since that day down in Homedale, Nowlin has snapped more than 800,000 photos and “worn out nine cameras.” He said he prefers Nikons and now uses a Nikon D850.

“But it took me a long time to get that,” said Nowlin.

His talent made him successful and he sells his photos across the region, but it isn’t easy, he said.

“To make a living in photography you really have to find a niche,” said Nowlin.

Nowlin’s niche is the West, from landscapes and wildlife to rodeos.

At critical junctures of his life, Nowlin persisted through adversity, a persistence that turned a passion into a profession.

“A drunk driver ran over me and I thought it was the end of my life and it turned out to be the start of something better,” said Nowlin.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.

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