Saturday, November 28, 2009

Something to Chew On

Is it possible for conservation-minded nature photographers to create work with an artistic slant and still maintain good standing among their peers? More importantly, is it possible for these photographers to positively support the causes that they hold dear, without crossing the line into morally and ethically questionable territory? After all, the world is full of skeptics and any opportunity to denounce certain efforts will surely be pounced upon. These are questions that often keep me up at night.

Everyone has their viewpoints and I am certainly not the wisest in the bunch. However, it seems to me that if photographers cease to feel comfortable exploring creative ways to shed new light on the natural world and its wonders, plight and existence to the viewing public, then are we not ultimately bowing to fickle public perceptions anyway?

I can think of no other photographer that I hold in higher regard than Jim Brandenburg. He has done it all and has shot his fair share of powerful, documentary style images for National Geographic and other high-standing organizations. However, in recent years, artistically toned books such as the incredibly inspiring "Looking for the Summer," have captured the public's imagination. I would wager that this isn't due simply to the subject matter, as painful as it may be for some to admit.

And what of the Frans Lanting's and Art Wolfe's of the world? Does the work of these two goliaths of nature photography, whose work is laden with creative uses of lighting, motion blurs and the like not constitute artistry? Are these two bodies of work now rendered null because of the invention of digital photography and Photoshop? I seriously have my doubts. Besides, if anyone really wants to find out whether an image is authentic or not (like this chronically Googled, truly amazing shot by Thomas P. Peschak) they always have Snopes.

In a perfect world, everyone would be in love with nature just for what it is. The problem is that many (if not most) people simply don't see the natural world like those of us who spend our time desperately trying to show others what it is all about. We know it is amazing and vitally important but there are so many who don't...and don't care, I suspect.

How about the photo at the top of this post? I didn't anything to alter the physical nature of the scene. However, what I did do was use a warming gel on my SB900 flash to change the mood of the image. I also used a wide-angle lens, which altered the angle of the trees to some degree. Does this count as morally objectionable manipulation?

Please share your thoughts with me on this if you wouldn't mind. It would be insightful to hear how other photographers, and non-photographers for that matter, react to this issue. I am certainly still trying to find my own way through the wilderness and company would be most welcome!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Winter Blend

Although winter isn’t quite here, it is fast approaching, which sometimes makes the subject matter that I love most quite scarce. However, one thing that I can always count on when I need a pick me up is time spent in a nearby shrub swamp.

I love freshwater wetlands of all kinds but I particularly enjoying slogging through flooded fields, swamps and creeks. This is something that I share in common with author David M. Carroll. I recently spent a morning photographing sparrows and hermit thrushes, which find the shrub swamp a rich resource for food in the leaner months.

I’m always amazed at how cunning birds can be when they don’t want to be noticed and sparrows are no exception. Although there aren’t too many birds friendlier to man than sparrows –perhaps with the exception of the Kea– these small passerines are amazing at blending into their surroundings and sitting in loose vegetation mere feet from an onlooker without being detected.

There are a lot of photographers who prefer to produce tightly cropped images of birds (often employing the derogatively termed “bird-on-a-stick” approach) but I enjoy showing a bit of habitat whenever possible. I was first inspired to do this many years ago after seeing a 'small in the frame' photograph by Chris Gommersall of a male winchat perched on the end of a long stalk of grass. To my eyes it was pure poetry.

Perhaps in a less poetic photograph, the small song sparrow featured in the image above happily made its way through the grasses and frost covered leaves appearing to be quite unconcerned about my presence. I wanted to showcase its ability to cryptically blend into its surroundings while foraging. I couldn’t have asked for better company on a cold, frosty morning!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Digital Graffiti

I've often wondered why people through the ages, from cultures all around the world, have found it compelling to write their names on buildings, trees, rock walls and other public spaces. This isn't a new phenomena to be certain.

I've witnessed Maori graffiti in New Zealand and Native American carvings estimated to be nearly a thousand years old just minutes from my home. Other examples show up in Mulka's Cave in Hyden, Western Australia and we've all heard of France's famous Lascaux.

What is the driving force that compels mankind to strive for a lasting legacy; to carve expressions of puppy-love into the bark of the biggest beech tree? In many instances –especially in times past– I'm sure these things were done to stake a territorial claim not unlike the Vogelkop bower bird of New Guinea, which builds a most beautiful structure to make its presence known. Other marks have undoubtedly been made out of a desire for self-expression of a more artistic nature or for documentary purposes as well.

There is a beautiful granitic outcrop about fifteen minutes from where I now sit that has been painted again and again by visitors. The vandals come in the late hours and cast out their undying affections like multi-colored nets across the surface of the rock. In spite of this, the view is still amazing but I can't help but feel that some of the magic has been robbed away.
As I write, I am struck by the thought that maybe even this blog is a sort of digital graffiti. Possibly my own way of saying "Hello world, here are my thoughts, don't forget me when I'm gone." We are funny creatures indeed.

Monday, November 16, 2009

People Patterns

When my wife Kari and I were in New York last week we had an opportunity to visit The Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village, which claims to showcase “18 miles of books!” Personally, I was in heaven but had to soon retreat before my bank account began to stretch as much as my overstuffed suitcase.

I happened to find a really cool little book by Welsh artist and writer David Wade entitled “LI: Dynamic Forms in Nature.” In this quick read, Wade explores commonly occurring patterns and forms found throughout nature. I’ve always been fascinated by the Golden Section but find this much easier to grasp since I am dreadful at mathematics.

Browsing through its pages, I was reminded of just how connected all aspects of nature really are. Regardless of how much time we may spend convincing ourselves that we are exempt from the need to be a part of creation, it just doesn’t add up. That is a sum that even I can formulate correctly!

As we walked through Central Park, I marveled at the throng of people who flocked there to be amongst the trees. Even in a city like New York, where there is an opportunity to feed every imagined human desire, the need to connect with something deeper cannot be shed.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Tapestry Unfolds a Little Further

As of late, I've continued to experiment with my 'Tapestry' series. Although it may look like a dreary, photographic rendition of something akin to Picasso's "Blue Period," the actual tone of these images isn't intended to be depressing at all. In actuality, the images are more about the passage of time and our place in it, particularly in natural settings. Risking pretentiousness, I might say that in a way I'm trying to capture the past in the present. Read previous posts about the technique here.
My wife and I were able to spend this past weekend in New York and were fortunate enough to see the Robert Frank's "The Americans" exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. I was familiar with Frank's work but must admit that I was really blown away by the collection. Several of the images particularly struck a chord with me because they seemed to be more about the essence of the moment rather than the subjects that they portrayed –exactly what I've been reaching for in this series. Some images were quite dark, and the subjects were treated as a vehicle to express some deeper emotion. They definitely gave me the encouragement that I needed to explore this experiment further.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Let's Talk About Grassroots Conservation

On Sunday November 15th at 3:30 pm I'll be giving a presentation for the Upstate chapter of Carolina Nature Photographers Association on the topic of grassroots conservation photography. The meeting will be held at the Greenville County Library.

The tone of the talk will be very casual, fun and (hopefully) inspiring! I'm really looking forward to sharing a bit of my story with members of the photographic community here in Upstate, South Carolina and I hope to see you there too!