Friday, May 29, 2009

Farewell South Carolina

My time as a naturalist at the Francis Beidler Forest has come to an end. Looking back on my journal and browsing through a full portfolio of images I can say with some degree of confidence that I made the best of three months with Audubon. If I were to quantify this time it would break down to something like this: three full moons, two seasons, twenty-six guided canoe trips, one music video in the swamp, four large-mouth bass, one plane ride, five visits from friends, one leech, one completed guidebook, one redesigned brochure, eighteen swamp stomps, and 6,000 photos.

In one last effort to convey to the world the importance and sanctity of this little oasis, I have compiled a video highlighting some of my favorite moments I shared with the swamp. Enjoy.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Flyin High

There are many ways to see a swamp. You can canoe. You can kayak. You can walk on a boardwalk. You can slog through the water. You can even hop from cypress knee to cypress knee. Or, you can fly.

Buddy Wehman, a retired pilot lives just outside Harleyville, SC and keeps his 1939 Fleet biplane in a hanger at the Summerville airport. After months of looking at aerial Google maps I wanted to see for myself the braided channels and towering trees of the 1,600 acres. I love anything that changes my perspective. My main motivation, however, was to document the dichotomy between old growth forest and clear-cut lowcountry.

On Monday morning I met him at the airport and we waited an hour for the fog to dissipate. To kill time he dissected the simplistic anatomy of a biplane and told me about the time the propeller nearly severed his femoral artery. All alone, he used a belt for a tourniquet and drove himself to a hospital 30 minutes away. I figured I was in good hands should our plane crash into the Hudson, or in our case, the Edisto. Any fears or uneasiness about flying in a seventy year-old plane quickly vanished once I put on the leather hat and goggles.

Flying high over the eastern edge of Harleyville we had a great view of the wetland transition zones. This whole area is located along the Four Holes Swamp watershed draining some 500,000 acres of land. As seen in the photos below the dividing line between secondary growth and primary forest is pretty abrupt.

Imagine 60 miles of this landscape once again connected, uninterrupted, and allowed to flow freely to the Edisto River. National Audubon and other conservation groups are slowly buying up pieces of private land to revert logged sections back to old growth. This sort of thing takes a lot of money and of course, a lot of time.

This is what is known as Mellard's Lake. The house I live in is at the middle bend just on the left.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Buy One Get One Free

I had to share this with you. Two friends came to visit me in the swamp and excited to be in a state where you can buy fireworks year-round we came up with the great idea to have a roman candle fight on the water. Fortunately at the Hot Spot gas station everything was buy one get one free. So I put the Gator Cam to good use and recorded the ensuing chaos. 

Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Art of Howism

Critics often talk about the fine line separating documenting and reporting, or taking pictures and making photographs. When looking at one of my images, viewers automatically receive the who, what, where, when, and why of every image. Hidden on the other side of the view plane, however, sits the methodology, the artistry, and the personal. Unless accompanied by an article or caption, viewers must infer for themselves as to how the photograph came to be. Precisely at that moment, when the audience is forced to look inward and interact with the piece, we as photographers have created art. Nature photographer Nancy Rotenberg calls this going “beyond the handshake” of the common snapshot. Regardless of its name, we can distinguish the two because of this illusive dimension. I used to tell my students in Honduras that with photography it’s more about what you decide to hide from the viewer than what you include. As artists and natural historians we have all the power to lure you into our little worlds through such simple tools as composition, happenstance, ethereal lighting, or jarring perspectives.

I do not claim to have mastered these techniques, but I’ve become increasingly cognizant in the field while experiencing the evolution from snapshot to photograph. I want to give you a glimpse of this process; a behind-the-scenes pass so you can see all that goes into the making of a single printed image. And perhaps this is counterproductive. Maybe the whole appeal is not knowing. But maybe, as I did with Jason, you will see that it’s in the filings, the discards, and in the “how” where artistry resides.

There's a log out in the middle of Mellard's Lake and when the water level drops gators and turtles use it as a sunning station to thermoregulate during the day. Since the alligators here don't see people too often, they are skittish and won't let you get too close. I love watching them through binoculars, their mouths forming a long grin. So I wanted a gator photo that portrayed life on a log.

To get the image I wanted I needed to not be behind the lens. So I mounted the camera on a boom arm which was lashed down to the floating log, hoping the gators wouldn't knock it over with their tails.

At first I had the camera rigged to a wireless trigger system where I could fire the camera from my house but this would only work half of the time. I would take the transmitter out with me when I took groups out paddling but too often we ended up in the photo. That's me in the closest boat. Also, when more than one gator climbed on the log it would tilt the camera and throw off the alignment of the horizon.

So I decided to cut the sky out of the photo and just concentrate on the log. I got rid of the radio triggers and replaced them with a timer which would take a photo every 15 minutes during the day so I wouldn't have to continually return just to take one photo. This allowed for gators to get accustomed to the camera and the constant clicking of the shutter. It wasn't long before they were right under the camera thankfully not hitting it with their tails.

The camera would take pictures all day. I wrapped a plastic bag around the body and left the lens exposed. While this might not be the safest thing, I've always told myself that the minute my camera stops me from taking a picture I need to rethink my priorities. A little sprinkle never hurts and in fact causes some dramatic imagery.

In the office it became a daily amusement to find what the Gator Cam would come up with. 11:30 AM proved to be the best time for the sun's position in the sky and the amount of reptiles sunning on the log.

Finally after a few weeks, I checked my camera to find the image I had envisioned. A reptile's paradise and a grinning gator.

So for the second series, I found this Prothonotary Warbler nest on a sweet gum tree just right off the boardwalk. The mom and dad kept coming back with grubs, spiders, and mayflies to feed its young. Typically the chicks will only stay in the nest for 10 days so I had to work fast in order not to miss this opportunity.

So I tried a telephoto first and although the idea of a nest and some chicks might be there, I wasn't satisfied with the message. So I went for a different approach. Setting my camera on a remote trigger system I was able to peer down into the nest without disturbing the birds or preventing the parents from feeding their young. After two minutes mom and dad paid no attention to the camera and returned to their frantic search for food.

I waited for the father to come back because it's the more brightly colored of the birds to offset against the shadows of the nest. A little fill flash lit the red mouths of the young begging for first dibs.