Nature photographers are driven by the challenge of capturing the natural world in a photograph combined with the satisfaction of producing and displaying the piece. In addition, often the photographer (speaking for me anyway) has a very personal connection with the photograph. The photograph can transport the photographer back in space and time to the place it was taken. I have a photograph of ice along Horse Creek in Southern Illinois, taken in 1978. I can recall the details of lying on the ice, with screw in magnifiers on my camera, attempting to capture the ice – water interface while accompanied by my friend Craig Steiner, like it was yesterday. I even recall the coat I was wearing. Weird! That same thing happens with many if not most of my photographs. So, photography challenges my technical abilities in capturing an image, my artistic ability to compose and produce a balanced final photograph, which then can take me back in time and space and evoke incredible memories. I find that very addictive. This connection between image and memory makes me a ‘visual’ learner, of which I’m certain. I’ve often wondered if I’m a visual learner because I’ve been doing photography for 55 years, or if I’m a photographer because I was born a visual learner. My hunch is the latter.
A good example of the interface between the technical challenge of photography and emotions are displayed in two independent photographs, each of a Great Egret, a common bird found along waterways across much of the US.
The Technical Side of Photography – ‘If I’m so Great Why Am I Standing in the Rain?‘.
For a technical discussion I reference my Great Egret piece, ‘If I’m so Great Why Am I Standing in the Rain?‘. the photograph was taken in September 2013 on St. George Island. It was a blustery day with winds, an overcast sky, and rain. In other words, a great day for photography! My subject, a Great Egret, was moving restlessly between piers along the wetland, attempting in my opinion, to get comfortable. I set up 35-40 yards away with my camera, a 1200mm lens (a Canon 600mm f/4 L series lens, with a 2x extender), mounted on a Gitzo Monster tripod.
The lighting sucked, the wind had everything moving, and I was shooting a 1200mm lens at f/8.0 with a 1/50 second exposure in the rain. To put this in perspective a rule of thumb for estimating shutter speed in handheld camera photography is ‘1 over the lens size’. In the above case that would suggest I would need a shutter speed of 1/1200 of a second if I was holding the camera. While I was using a tripod to eliminate handshake, my heartbeat, and my breathing from creating vibrations, and a blurred photograph, during the 1/50 of a second that the shutter was open, the tripod would not eliminate the motion caused by the wind, or any movement of the bird. I knew that there was a very distinct chance that I was not going to be able to get a great photograph of the bird I was chasing.
Regardless, I’m trying to photograph a restless bird that was as anxious to dry out as me, in terrible conditions meaning a very slim chance to produce a good photograph. So, what do you do when that happens? You take the photograph over and over and over and over, changing aperture (depth of field) shutter speed (to allow for the changed aperture) and ISO setting (film speed, which relates to ‘graininess’). I’m not exaggerating when I say I shot that bird over 150 times over that morning, repeatedly running up and down the aperture/exposure/ISO settings in effort to best capture the image. After wearing both myself and the bird out, I then spent hours and hours reviewing the images, and comparing and editing in effort to really bring to life the egret. Of the 150+, 145+ were not useable due to several factors, usually blurred subject, or composition (the damn bird would ne pose). The remaining 5 ranged from my scale of ‘ok’ to very good. In short, I spent between 15-20 hours photographing and producing 150 photographs to get five I liked.
All that said, the final print ‘If I’m so Great why am I Standing in the Rain‘ is one of my favorite photographs, partially because I know the back story. And it resonates with people because it has a very cool feel to it. Because of the huge lens, the low light and the resultant very slow exposure, the wind buffeted bird’s feathers are captured as they blow. As result they are blurred, which adds a great dynamic to the piece. I can’t count the number of times people argue with me that it must be a painting, simply because the feathers are blurred.
More humorous, at times anyway, are those who tell it what a lucky shot it was.
Someday I’m going to have a flock of attack seagulls…
So now let’s move to the emotional side of photography. I already provided my take on the correlation of photography and memory. I can look at a photograph from 50 years ago and be taken back with clear memories of that place and time. In doing so you can’t avoid the emotions it invokes, whether it’s the friendship and camaraderie of the people who you shared that time with, or the mixed feelings of happiness and grief of seeing family and friends who are no longer here. That’s the power of photography. Whether it’s the horror of war as captured by Nick Ut’s ‘Napalm Girl’ of a burned and naked child running from napalm in Vietnam, or the joy of your daughters breaking into an impromptu dance on a beach in Oregon, the emotion of the visual image is an incredibly powerful thing.
The above two examples, ‘Napalm Girl’ and my ‘Daughters, Sisters, Friends – The Sundance’, are on opposite sides of the emotion spectrum, with both universally relaying emotion to the person witnessing them. The first is almost unbearable to look at, while the second inevitably makes people smile.
But there are also photographs that only resonate with the photographer because the image doesn’t visually relay the emotions of the time and place from where it was taken. The Great Egret of Delacroix is truly one of those.
I spent my career responding to environmental emergencies, including natural disasters. These experiences created memories, good and bad. Without a doubt the worst memories are from our 2005 response to New Orleans, and surrounding gulf parishes, following Hurricane Katrina. I have clear memory of standing on Canal Street, in a closed locked down city with 1,800 dead, no electricity, and the smell of all things bad.
As a visual person, I have some very haunting visual recollections from the Hurricane Katrina response, with maybe the most powerful being the ‘FEMA Cross’, which was essentially an ‘X’ which was spray painted on flooded homes as they were inspected. The four areas between the line then held coded messages, including the bottom quarter which indicated whether a body of a resident was found inside. That’s an incredibly powerful visual image. The death of a person, who sought shelter in their home during a horrific storm and flood, reduced to a painted code on their home. It’s far too emotional to use as art.
Instead, I went to the bayou country, in part to escape the city, and in part to witness the damage there. The bayou, without the emotional impact of the human tragedy within New Orleans, also was devastated by the storm with 10% more of the historically damaged and fragile wetlands lost.
In and around Delacroix, a traditional bayou fishing town, the damage is apparent. Homes were heavily damaged and abandoned, fishing docks were gone, and the landscape was dramatically changed, with more open water than ever before, resulting from heavy erosion caused by the Cat 5 storm at it blew the coast apart.
Yet there stood the Great Egret of Delacroix, balancing on one leg on a pier. The egret was staring at me. I stopped and quickly took a couple photographs. I then just stood and studied the bird. The heavy overcast sky, the grays of the sky, the bayou, and the bird, and leafless branches on the adjacent tree all added to the mood. I couldn’t help but feel that the bird was a bit defeated. I know I was.
But that emotion is mostly lost in the photograph. It’s a bit solemn, but the emotion is in my memory of the time and place. That photo will always take me back there.