Mendota Heights Photographer Lives Life of Adventure

Bernard Friel, called "best-kept secret," will display nature photography at Saint Paul's Art Crawl next weekend.

Photographer, attorney, adventure traveler, and all-around inspiring guy Bernard Friel has built an incredible life here in Mendota Heights. Friel’s nature photography has earned him many accolades and awards, and has been featured in magazines, catalogues and on greeting cards.

Friel’s work will also be featured at Master Framers Gallery in Lowertown April 29-May 1 as part of the Saint Paul Art Crawl.

While adept in many areas of nature photography, Friel’s specialty is capturing birds in flight. A recent achievement was capturing a photo of a pileated woodpecker. “That is the biggest of all woodpeckers with a wingspan of thirty inches, and I got a shot of him in flight head-on,” said Friel.

How does he manage to capture such fast-moving imagery? The photographer let us in on one of his techniques: Friel encourages the birds to fly though the trigger beam of an infrared device by placing it near feeders and nests, which activates the camera and flash. The birds then “take their own picture” with a high-speed flash on for only 1/30,000 of a second.

 “Believe me, for every one successful photo you see, there are a couple hundred pieces of junk,” said Friel. He said that capturing the images in hair-trigger speed is getting more difficult with digital cameras, because of their shutter delays.

Owner of Master Framers, Roger Nielsen, raved about Friel’s work. “He’s a fantastic photographer with credentials like you wouldn’t believe. He’s been involved in a lot of national photographer's associations, and has taken absolutely fabulous photos,” said Nielson. “He is kind of like a best-kept secret. I have been to his home, too, and it’s like one big photography studio. He’s got birdfeeders all over the yard, he’s an avid gardener, he is just an incredibly interesting guy.”

After suffering a heart attack in his late thirties, Friel devoted himself to good health, taking up running, focusing on a healthy diet, and diving into some serious adventure travel.

By the time he was in his 60s, he was heavily involved in mountain climbing, had already tackled Rainier a couple of times, and climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro when he was 67. Now in his 80th  year, Friel’s adventures have taken him river rafting, backpacking, kayaking and deep into largely unexplored areas of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area.

A friend and adventure buddy of 35 years, Ed Hanton, said being friends with Bernie (who close friends call “Wampy,”) is quite a rush. The two first met at an athletic club when Hanton took up running, and since then they have been involve in “more adventures than I care to talk about,” said Hanton.

 “After I retired, I got a call from Bernie who said, ‘Next, we’re going to New Guinea to search the jungles for downed WWII aircrafts.’ And I thought, ‘Oh why not! What else is there to do,’” laughed Hanton.

 Friel’s enthusiasm is contagious—Nielsen will also be joining him on a canoeing trip to the Boundary Waters this year.  Friel will be an expert guide; he spent six years as a promotional trip photographer for Outward Bound International, documenting the Boundary Water Wilderness Canoe Area of Minnesota.

 Friel’s interest in photography dates back several decades. “We didn’t have much money when I was growing up, so we had neither car nor camera, and I think the first good camera I had I was already 35-years-old,” he said. “I got involved in cataloging everything I did, my family, neighborhood parties, the law firm’s events, and my travels. But my primary interest is in birds—although I don’t call myself a bird watcher anymore—I am more interested in getting pictures of birds then seeing one. If I get a good picture, then I’ve seen it!”

Friel grew up on the corner of Selby and Snelling in Saint Paul, an experience he beautifully documented for the Ramsey County Historical Society in the 2008 article, “Growing Up in Saint Paul.”

Friel and his wife of 56 years, Damaris, purchased a home on Mohican Lane in Mendota Heights back in 1957, when the area was mostly rural. He then began practicing law with the firm Briggs and Morgan in August of 1956, focusing on municipal law, municipal bond law and litigation, and is still “Of Counsel.”

 Friel relishes living in Mendota Heights, where he now has 7.5 acres with a large vegetable garden and orchard. “Mendota Heights is a charming place, very low key. We have good planning, a great police department. It’s been a very comfortable place for us to live."

 The proximity to the cities, while still having a rural feel, is a big attraction as well. “I remember delivery people coming to the house and saying that driving up the driveway was like going from the cities to Ely in a moment. Until about 1985, I could go out my door and cross-country ski in the wintertime over a whole afternoon without ever crossing the street or my own tracks,” said Friel.

The easy journey to work at the law firm was also a pleasure. “It was a wonderful commute to downtown Saint Paul, never any traffic. In fact, in 1979 when we opened a Minneapolis office, my partners asked me if I would go over and help open the new office, and I declined. They wanted to know why, and I said it would be bad for my health. They asked, ‘What do you mean, bad for your health?’ I said it would be bad for my health to spend 45 minutes stuck in traffic on the freeway twice a day, and I never did go over to Minneapolis.”

Friel and his wife recently returned from spending several weeks at Crescent Beach on Siesta Key in Sarasota, FL., where a big draw for their annual visit is the richness of the arts community.

 “Judged on the way most people look at making a living, most artists don’t make a good living, and they don’t always have the best of everything. But they tend to make the best of everything they have, and often don't need a lot because they have their art.”

Friel said his favorite artists include photographers Eliot Porter and Ansel Adams, as well as his wife, who was a ballet dancer into her late ‘60s. He is also a great fan of Baryshnikov, as well as The Big Bands—especially singer Sarah Vaughan—who he saw perform at the infamous Blue Note in Chicago one summer. At that time he was working as a cook and dishwasher on the dining car of the “Empire Builder,” an Amtrack train that travels from St. Paul to Chicago, Seattle and back—his summer job before he graduated college in the ‘50s.

Friel’s friends find him a great inspiration, “We’ve shared some interesting and unusual times,” said Hanton. “Whatever he takes on, he becomes an absolute expert on. ... He used to say, ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing to excess.’ That’s Bernie, but excess doesn’t mean overdoing it, it means learning everything about it. There is no beginning and no end to this clown,” joked Hanton.  


If you go:

What: The Photography of Bernie Friel

When: Friday, April 29-Sunday, May 1

Where: Master Framers Incorporated

262 East 4th St., #102, Saint Paul

Details: 651-291-8820 website


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