Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Click646 & The ILCP in SC

For anyone in the Carolinas or bordering states who are interested in learning more about conservation photography, it may be worth your while to attend the upcoming Click646 event in Greenwood, South Carolina on October 16 & 17. Cristina Mittermeier, who is the founder and Executive Director of the International League of Conservation Photographers, will be delivering the keynote speech on the evening of Friday, October 16th. A selection of her images, which highlight her conservation efforts from around the world will be on display along with additional images from the ILCP. Tickets are on sale now and can be purchased here.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Turtle People and the Other Half

It has often occurred to me that there are two types of people on this Earth: Those who, upon seeing a turtle attempting to cross a road, stop their vehicle and safely transport it to the other side, and the others who choose to ignore the hapless creature or engage in even more villainous vehicular acts.

To some, this may seem like an unfair judgement. After all, isn't it our God given right to use the land to build roads, communities, parking lots? What is the loss of one turtle, a cold-blooded reptile? And yet, I'm reminded of Psalm 50, which says: “For every beast of the forest is mine;...I know all the fowls of the mountain; and the wild beasts of the field are mine.”

I found a slider in the road on my way home this evening. It was undoubtedly the largest one that I had ever seen before. Its shell was a beautiful gun-metal gray and the lines that ran up its neck and face were as vivid as fresh paint. Picking it up, I began to count the rings on one of its shell scutes. If the number (25) was anywhere close to its age, it was over twenty years old, making it only eight years younger than me! Considering all that it surely would have gone through to survive for that long in the wild made this one spectacular animal.

The protection of small wild creatures like turtles (or snakes, lizards, butterflies or birds) is such a simple act of kindness. I am struck by how often we mistake our size and station for an excuse to do as we please in life; as if anything other than providence to the least among us is acceptable behavior.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

When a Spider is not a Spider

My childhood best friend's family had several acres of fields and woods behind their home. We spent a great deal of time riding our bikes there, fighting monsters (I swear they were real), and exploring. Many great things came out of this magical time with one possible exception: a sudden case of arachnophobia that came on as strongly and steadfast as spider's silk. Before that, I wasn't exactly fond of spiders but I certainly didn't have such an adverse reaction to them. Like millions of people around the world, an ancient distrust of eight legged creatures sprang to life in my psyche that seemed to be unshakable.

It happened like this:

One normal afternoon my friend and I –both around 10 years old at the time– were in the woods hunting down a large white gorilla that had somehow managed to find its way South Carolina. We began to follow a meandering creek deep into the forest when suddenly, we noticed the top of the great ape's head barely peaking up over the side of an overturned tree. In an instance, adrenaline began to course through our veins and decided that perhaps that day was not the best one to confront the beast. Abandoning our swords and our courage, we ran madly towards the safety of home. I'm sure that I could hear the pounding footfalls and ape's manic breathing getting closer and closer by the second. Then, in the event that would change my life for several years, I ran through what seemed like an endless series of spider-webs. My head became incased in what I perceived to be a writhing mass of spiders and in a flash, all simian threats were suddenly forgotten.

For several years, my imagination began to grow around this event –like an oyster with its pearl– but this was not a thing of beauty but rather a dark distortion of what had actually occurred. I found myself held-captive by an unwarranted fear of spiders.

Those of you who have followed this blog for some time now may be surprised to learn about this little admission (the arachnaphobia not the gorilla, of course) considering all of the invertebrate photos that I've posted over the months. Well, I can freely admit to this phobia now because I decided several years ago I was tired of such a pointless fear when truly scary creatures, like politicians (politicophobia) were on the loose in large numbers. So I kicked it for good. How did I do this? By 1.) Dissecting the fear and getting to the root of what is was really about 2.) Realizing that it was based on ignorance and irrational behavior 3.) Reading about and observing spiders in the field. 4.) Acknowledging that if I was ever going to become a nature photographer of any caliber, arachnophobia could not be on my resume'.

As it turns out spiders are absolutely amazing animals. I am especially fond of the Salticides, or jumping spiders. I must admit that I do sometimes get a little edgy with larger species like brown fishing spiders but at the same time, I find myself absolutely fascinated by them. Recently, I have become entranced by the Mygalamorph species found in Southeastern, U.S. and plan on photographing more of them next spring.

So many people today are afraid of nature in general without any justifiable reason for their fear –other than perhaps seeing warped tales on television. After experiencing this fear first-hand, I know how difficult it can be to conquer.

At one point in humanity's history, these strong evasive feelings likely served the greater purpose of survival. However, most of you who are reading this piece today are so far removed from any sort of natural danger that the time has come to let these worries go. Once all of the wild creatures in the world have been eliminated because of blind misunderstanding, we'll only have one another to deal with and that will truly be something to fear. As it sadly appears, we are already well on our way of taking care of that threat as well.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Just Passing Through

Several months ago I wrote about an image (see below) that I created using an under-exposed image of a deer in dappled sunlight. At the time, I had only begun to experiment with my 'tapestry' technique and wasn't sure where I wanted to take it. Just recently, I've begun to revisit the concept and have been encouraged by the direction and the results that are materializing.
This technique relies on the soft forms and native noise that develops within an image when it is underexposed at a very high ISO. Of course, you can add noise to an image in Photoshop –which I've done with the image of the goose– but to my eye it looks somewhat less organic. Once the image is converted to a duo-tone, the high RGB noise blends together and adds quality to an image, rather than subtracting from it.
I'm compelled by imagery where the details of the subject matter are almost irrelevant, which allows the viewer to focus more on the emotion of a scene or moment. I am also interested in photographically exploring the idea of the Living’s transience within nature and time.

The self-portrait was made in an area of our field where I've found several Civil-War era bullets. I've often stood on that spot and wondered about who fired the shots and what (who!) they might have been firing at. I also think about the Native Americans who would've walked the land well before that. In the great span of time I'll become someone else's ghost one day as well. It is a humbling thought that I hope will be conveyed in this body of work.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Mowing with the Dictator

Am I alone in wondering just why our Western culture is so obsessed with lawn care? What is it about taming tiny blades of grass with a rapidly spinning blade that gives homo sapiens such feelings of utter satisfaction? These are questions that I mutter to myself, as I mow my own lawn (or the limited area that I begrudingly do maintain.) Is it all a great power trip, a way to keep up with the Joneses or something deeper and more ancient?

Author David Quammen, in his essay entitled "Rethinking the Lawn," confesses that he once believed that the American Lawn was part of a Communist plot meant to turn we statesiders into mindless drones. He later goes into several very intriguing explanations for the phenomena, including one linked to evolutionary biology known as the savanna hypothesis, which was proposed by a biologist named Gordon H. Orians. In a nutshell, this hypothesis draws a link from the modern suburban humanity all of the way back to the plains of Africa where "savanna-type environments with scattered trees and copses in a matrix of grasslands should be highly preferred environments for people and should evoke strong positive emotions." In short, less vegetation = less hiding places for predators = higher visibility = improved conditions for human survival. The problem is, I like tall grass and only seem to find more and more satisfactory reasons to let grass grow tall. Where does that put me on the evolutionary scale of life?

When my wife and I lived in the city, there was more pressure to keep a somewhat manicured front lawn. Nosey neighbors would dob you in to the council if things got too out of hand (in quotations) and even the good ones began to squirm a bit if one let anything got long enough to sway, ever-so-slightly, in the breeze. Once I let a milkweed grow up to seven feet high in my yard just so I could listen to the neighbors discuss its massive height when they thought that I wasn't around to hear. It was pure joy, let me tell you!

Playful vindictiveness aside, I noticed another thing that began to occur as my lawnspace was diminished and replaced by native plants, wildlife began to populate the backyard, seemingly overnight. First it was the butterflies, followed by the spiders, and then the birds, and then toads, and snakes, and on and on it went. I was the proud owner of my own private sanctuary. Something quite unexpected also began to happen; I began to make better and better photos. Because so much of my work has always been macro-based, I no longer needed to travel long-distances to find great subject matter –it was already there.

I feel very fortunate that our country neighbors are tolerant of my unpopular desire to let the field grow tall – although I believe that they think I'm a little odd for doing so. However each day, as the sunlight strikes the broom sedge golden, or a morning fog hangs heavy across the dew-covered wildflowers, I hope they will begin to see the beauty that was just waiting to be unlocked during all of those years of heavy mowing. Each season, as more new plants turn up, more cottontails appear and more deer hide their young in the undergrowth, the more affirmation that I feel. Then again, I might just be an odd and easy meal for a predator that will never turn up.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Camera Traps–Self Portraits for Shy Beasts

Photo copyright Steve Winter/National Geographic
For elusive, shy and remote wildlife, camera traps often prove to be the ultimate solution for photographing these species. In the past couple of years improvements in trap technology, coupled with more efficient lighting and strobe systems, have allowed for some absolutely incredible moments to be captured that would have previously been impossible.

Those of us who follow photographers who utilize camera traps will undoubtedly be familiar with the brilliant work of National Geographic's Michael Nichols. His images of forest elephants in Ndoki are truly amazing. Nichols' ground breaking work has been followed up by a new generation of wildlife photographers including fellow ILCP member Carlton Ward, Jr. and fellow NG shooter Steve Winter, whose snow leopard images from the Afghan mountains created quite a bit of media buzz last year. One image in the series won the 2008 Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award. In my humble opinion, these are some of the most beautiful trap-made images to date.

One of my favorite new series of images is by Joe Riis, an emerging member of the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) who has recently received praise and excellent exposure for the images that he has made of migrating pronghorn antelope in the American West. Because of his keen understanding of the antelope's migration patterns and and his ability to utilize camera traps on the fly, he has been able to make a series of images illustrating this ancient occurrence for the first time in history.

For anyone interested in learning more about the "how-to" side of camera trap photography, I would recommend a visit to the blog Camera Trap Codger, which has a lot of useful info for the beginner!

Thursday, September 3, 2009


Note: The following images are from a personal project that I've worked on over the past 2 1/2 years:

It was in April of 2006 that my family first heard the exuberant honking of two Canada geese coming from the direction of the pond behind our home. At that time, we had no idea how much of a part of our lives the pair would be become.

That first year, the boisterous waterfowl only stayed for a few weeks, aggressively defending the one-acre pond against any other approaching pair. Then, one day they suddenly left and we expected to never see them again; for better or for worse, we were wrong.

The following spring, the pair returned about a week earlier than they had in 2006. However, this time, they appeared more confident, and even began to walk up the hill from the pond and 'spy' on our daily activities. Little by little, they came quite close –we were in love. However, the feeling wasn't always mutual. The pair, comprised of a small female and a tall but standoffish male, was dubbed ‘Grumpy and Shy’ by my oldest son. Shy was the male and Grumpy –a very appropriate title– was given to the overly aggressive female. In fact, she was so willing to nip at our shins that we assumed that she was the male; that is until she began to nest.
We eagerly watched the young female as she tossed leaves and soft down onto her back and then shook the nesting material down around her feet, slowly building up a nest over a period of days. My wife, who had never really been a bird lover prior to this event, became enamored by the process and read everything that she could about the life cycle of Canada geese. Anxiously, we counted the days until when the eggs were supposed to hatch. In early May, we saw our first glimpses of the five beautiful goslings that Grumpy had hatched.