Monday, March 29, 2010

Florida Forever

This time last year I was paddling up Trout Creek alongside the St John's River photographing for LINC and Florida Forever. This year I was assigned to an area just north of my house in Key Largo surrounding the Crocodile Lake Wildlife Refuge. Sounds pretty cool right? I thought so too and was excited for a good excuse to get to close and personal with some American Crocodiles. I soon found out, however, that the target conservation zone rested just inland of the mangroves and I would be photographing instead, the hardwood tropical hammocks.

Consisting of over 100 species of trees and shrubs, this specific area has more plant biodiversity than most states. My favorite species of trees, the strangler fig and gumbo limbo thrive here and are at risk from development efforts.

I visited the area over a period of two weeks, and admittedly, had a difficult time producing an image I would be proud to publish in a calendar. The dense tangles and busy backgrounds of the canopy made it exceedingly problematic to isolate a subject.

Gumbo Limbo trees have a flaky reddish bark and are often called the Tourist Tree as they peel in the sun.

Walking several sweaty miles through poisonwood (a worse version of poison ivy) and mosquitoes, I finally found two locations with a group of gumbo limbo trees which I photographed just before the sun went down. Something was missing, so I decided to get creative. Andy Goldsworthy creative.

This image came about after a full day of looking for a subject. You can call it desperate, but I call
it creative. It took me about two hours to gather all the yellow leaves from the gumbo limbo trees and
arrange them around the trunks. I really like this kind of art and I have a feeling this won't be the last time.

For a conservation calendar, however, I needed something a little more subtle and not so contrived. So I went back to the Crocodile Lake Refuge office and borrowed a Stock Island Tree Snail shell from site manager Steve Klett. These little guys have had a tough time staying alive. From habitat destruction, to introduced fire ants, cats, and pesticide spraying, they were believed to have gone extinct in their native range. Snails don't get much notoriety, so I decided to make this one my poster child for the tropical hardwood hammock.

I needed some assistance on this one. Adam Chasey and Garl Harrold helped make this image possible.
Adam controlled the flashlight which lit up the hollow snail shell and Garl provided the foliage. The
bokeh in the background comes from the setting sunlight dappling through the tree canopy.

While this photo was not what I imagined when I started the project, I enjoyed the creative challenge of making an image in an aesthetically difficult place.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Fishing (not to be confused with catching)

I can't think of anyone who took the cold snap this winter more personally than Pete Frezza. A widely published National Audubon biologist, the research manager at Tavernier Science Center, and reputable catch and release fly fishing guide, he has nurtured an intimate relationship with the Everglades and South Florida since high school. During the second week in January temperatures reached and sustained an all time low in the Florida Keys and Everglades National Park. The sudden freeze affected local fishing businesses, agricultural industries, and most notably, fish and wildlife within the Florida Bay and Everglades National Park area. For an entire month, dead fish, endangered American Crocodiles, turtles, and manatees continued to wash up on the shores. Although exact numbers are impossible to glean from such a large area, while accounting for variety of species scientists estimate the death toll in the hundreds of millions... Ahhem... That's Hundreds of Millions.

Even larger species of fish like this tarpon could not escape the cold. We found this one washed up
at the boat ramp on the C-111 canal at Manatee Bay. I've never held a fish this big, which would explain the schoolboy smile.

For conservation biologists like Pete Frezza who have spent their lives trying to preserve the fisheries and wildlife of the Bay areas, this event seemed, simply, unfair; especially for such a self destructive catastrophe to come from Mother Nature herself.

Finally, after two dark months of reflection and acceptance, Pete has returned to the Everglades optimistic and yet, patient. I had a chance to go out with him this weekend to scout for pockets of surviving snook and redfish in the backcountry of the Everglades. It would be my first official saltwater fly fishing trip.

Pete and I explored all afternoon boating and pulling through the rivers and clandestine creeks finding small groups of healthy (but not hungry) fish. We spotted a total of 4 redfish and around 30 snook in places Pete had seen completely decimated only one month prior. While no fishes tugged at the end of our lines, we were both excited to see survivors and hopeful for a slow but steady recovery.

Pete Frezza fly fishing in Tarpon Bay

Friday, March 12, 2010

Insert Foot Here

Ironically, the following morning after posting an entry about the convoluted ethics of nature photography I found myself, quite literally, blurring a line that I thought I had so clearly drawn. A fellow coworker, having seen my giclees, asked if I would optimize and print an image of a roseate spoonbill (the birds we're studying) as a gift for another friend. The file came from a different photographer so I made sure to get the artist's permission before agreeing.

When I received the file I thought it would need a standard resizing or some minor color and tonal adjustments. After opening the jpeg, however, I was surprised to see that a beautiful moment between a spoonbill and her chick, soon to be proudly decorating someone's living room, was rudely obscured by a menacing, rogue branch.

Image property of National Audubon
Photographer: Brennan Mulrooney

I tried several methods to lessen the limb's presence in the photograph, methods which I guarded in my moral arsenal as legitimate, fair, and truthfully representative of the moment. No matter how much I dodged, burned, or accentuated the background, I could not bring the attention away from the branch.

Surrendering, I accessed the clone stamp to begin effectively erasing the branch, replacing its pixels with surrounding patterns. At first, I tried a couple of small sections laughing to myself how easy it was without formally committing. After a minute, the top and middle section were finished, seamlessly, and more and more I started convincing myself, that this was the way the image was meant to look. I even created scenarios in my head of why the photographer didn't just move two feet to the left. Perhaps he was already climbing in a tree and couldn't change positions without scaring the birds. Maybe there were other branches looming just outside the left frame. I vindicated the ill-fated photographer with a few clicks of the mouse. I thought about how many otherwise great images I had thrown away simply because a twig, a telephone wire, a piece of trash, or an unwanted blemish snuck its way into the frame.

Image property of National Audubon
Photographer: Brennan Mulrooney

Once I was done, I looked at the two side by side and wondered if I were the photographer, would I discard this image with the other undesirables simply on principle or would I accept this face-lifted version of the truth as another piece of art? Would the integrity alone of throwing this image away pay higher dividends in the long run? Or, would I have more to gain by allowing myself complete creative flexibility? I don't know.

I'm usually very quick to draw my lines in the sand and stand assuredly on one side but this wonderfully constructed moral dilemma helped reveal a little further the ambiguities of art, especially in the digital age.

I eventually printed out the retouched version and urgently gave it to my coworker as if it carried a curse.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

If at first you don't succeed...

Photoshop. Right? At least that’s what I’ve been hearing lately. If there’s one question I get more than any other when showing my work it’s always the eager, “Wow, is this Photoshop?” While I used to take this as a compliment, nowadays I’m more concerned than anything else. I love having the chance to explain my images face to face but I wonder how many people see my website and for lack of conversation, draw their own conclusions about my methods and ethics. The tools are so sophisticated now it’s often hard to tell the difference between a photo illustration and a natural history photograph. We are, after all, artists, and who’s to say that a distinction should even be made? I can’t say I’m not tempted; my conscious is at constant war with my wallet, as is the case with many photographers. Sometimes to land the image, you have to stick with it for hours, days, or months even, and such an investment gets pretty expensive. From fickle weather, to bad light, I have taken the two-hour drive of shame from the Everglades back to my house countless times without a photograph I’m proud to turn into a print. Though, I must admit when the elements align and the creative eye is tuned and patient, magic does happen. I guess when it comes down to it, I would much rather offer my gratitude to the lively landscape before me than the glowing screen of my computer.

So in the old-school spirit of try, trying again, here is a glimpse of the creative process behind satisfying a picky conscious.

The goal was to show the Everglades daisies in bloom amongst the cypress trees.

Two weeks later I came back to try it with a new lens.

The following week...

Two months after the first image...

And finally, more than two months and eight visits to the park, I came up with this one.

I spent over three hours at this swamp lily waiting for clouds which never came. It took laying down on my back and sediment-thick water seeping into my ears... but I think it was worth it.

This image has been an idea in the making for a long time. I first wanted to do something like this two years ago in Honduras but could never find the right tide to do it successfully. Luckily, Everglades National Park has plenty of mangroves which aren't all subject to tides. I took this one during the full moon in January but wasn't happy with the color, the displacement of the light, or all the distracting elements around the mangrove.

I waited for the next full moon and luckily it fell on a still night so I scouted for an entire day before finding a clearing with an isolated subject.

Finally, an image two years in the making: Midnight Mangrove.