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.