Story by Megan Whitehead | Dec 28, 2016

Photographer Jim Rathert shares his love of regional wildlife.

Jim Rathert

His love for photography was inherited from his father but became much more — a 21-year career, to be exact.

Jim Rathert was the photographer for Missouri Conservationist, the magazine published by the Missouri Department of Conservation, for over two decades and has made a name for himself as one of the best wildlife photographers in the region. He has an eye and appreciation for nature, especially in Missouri, and his passion is taking photographs with a purpose.

Rathert’s path hasn’t always been an easy one. In keeping with his love for nature, he began working in wildlife research for the DOC in 1970 before a short-lived break in the insurance business. That break was a turning point of sorts for Rathert and his family — he realized that the need to follow his passion was greater than the need for stability. The Ratherts, now a family of three, moved back to Jefferson City, where Rathert was rehired by the DOC in 1984 as their official photographer. The rest, as they say, is history.

He photographed countless wildlife species native to Missouri throughout his career before retiring in 2006. Don’t let that retirement designation fool you: Rathert is quite busy, despite being “retired” for a decade now. He has become a role model to all those searching for a way to turn their calling into a career. He’s built a successful business selling his art in the form of what he likes to call “useful products” — mugs, mousepads, coasters, and more.

Before finding his niche, Rathert, like many artists, realized that selling prints of his work at a couple hundred dollars apiece wasn’t panning out like he hoped. Rathert tried to bridge that gap between fine art and everyday pieces, first with calendars. Though the venture wasn’t necessarily successful, it did help Rathert come to a valuable realization — he should make a product with a shelf life longer than twelve months.

Countless hours of research and hard work later, Rathert found his niche. His specialty these days is artisanal mugs that are durable, long-lasting, microwaveable, and dishwasher-safe. These mugs allow anybody to use Rathert’s artwork everyday. The key to his success has been making products ranging from five dollars to 20 dollars that are enduringly usable. Rathert takes pride in handling the process of his products from beginning to end, from the actual act of photographing his subjects to graphic design and all the way to production.

For those who might be wondering what goes into making one of these mugs, Rathert’s vivid photographs aren’t just placed onto the ceramic. There’s a craft in the graphic design work that goes into each piece, editing and reworking photographs so that they fit within the mug dimensions and constraints. The process Rathert uses to transfer the image onto the ceramic allows the image and color to become part of the mug, rather than just acting like a sticker and becoming susceptible to peeling.

The real satisfaction, Rathert says, comes from meeting people’s needs and providing something of great quality, both in design and function. But he’s also helped by the reassurance of gratified customers who run into him and describe the perfect gift and its happy recipients. “People will come back two or three years later and say, ‘I bought your mug for my mom or sister, and she just loved it from the time she opened up the box and uses it every day,’” Rathert says.

The most complete set of Rathert’s work can be found at Birds-I-View, on Ellis Boulevard.