What was I Thinking?
Fifteen years ago, I was in a used bookstore in Maine and stumbled onto a beat-up, paperback copy of Rachel Carson’s The Sense of Wonder. It had been out of print for years. Rachel Carson is the patron saint of the modern environmental movement. Her book, Silent Spring, is on many top-ten most important books of the 20th century lists. But on her deathbed, she said that this series of short essays she wrote to inspire adults to share their love of nature with children was the most important thing she ever did. She was talking about saving the planet long before we knew it needed saving. She said that children who loved nature were our only chance.
I picked it up and started reading and right there, in the bookstore, I turned to my wife and said I was going to illustrate a new edition of this book. I did. It took me three years.
I had to convince the Rachel Carson estate, her agent and Harper Collins Publishing, but it happened. I’m one of the lucky ones drawn into the vortex of the Rachel Carson community of which I will always be a proud member. A decade later the book is still in bookstores and all of the National Park gift shops. It’s a wonderful, wonderful book. The writing is beyond superb.
I always look back on the year it took me to shoot that book as one of the happiest of my life. Four times—once every season—I went on a ten-day road trip alone just to take beautiful nature photographs. I’m as jealous as you are just thinking about it. I drove the entire length of the Skyline Drive in Virginia at two miles an hour, pulling over to the side of the road whenever I felt like it. I went to Maine twice just to walk the coast line with my cameras. A good friend loaned me a log cabin in central Pennsylvania to use as headquarters in the woods for winter walks with my incredible new camera and tripod. It was majestic.
I spent hours on a spring Sunday morning waiting for the proper configuration of water bugs for the photograph you see here to happen. I kept watching and shooting pictures long after I knew I had one good enough for the book.
The question that’s always haunted me after the project was over was, if it made me so happy, why didn’t I just get out there and do this all the time. I have the same dozens of excuses you have—full-time job, spouse, kids, a garage to clean, banks. Stuff. It’s dawned on me that it was the being out there that was the best part. Having a book to show people and give as a gift is wonderful, but it was all about the doing.
When I get the book out and start reading and see this picture, I’m right back there. I know what I was going on in my brain.
I was thinking I just love being alone with my camera.
My friends, Gerald and Brenda, were getting married and I brought my camera.
I always bring my camera to weddings. Here’s why: I know too many people who have hired too many wedding photographers and not been happy with the most important photograph of the day. Somehow, unbelievably, they got married without someone taking a photograph of the bride and groom that the bride and groom love. Trust me, it happens. That’s why I bring my camera.
Before I go to the wedding of friends, I call the bride and groom and ask them if they can give me a few minutes at the wedding for me to take a portrait. I don’t mean to toot my own horn here, but you wouldn’t believe how often it’s my three-minute portrait that ends up on the mantle or the bedroom bureau years after the wedding.
My formula is simple. Find some nice light— that requires scouting—and then tell the couple I’m ready when they are. I tell them where I want them to go and, when it’s convenient for them, we go there.
I want my photograph to do two things; I want to flatter them and I want to show future generations what they looked like on their big day. That’s it.
This plan requires respect for protocol. Regardless of your photographic credentials, you are not the most important photographer at a wedding. Someone is making their living that day and they need to be respected. My policy is to stay out of their way as much as possible and still get what I want. A sensitive touch is sometimes required.
I shot this picture with a point-and-shoot. Wedding photographers don’t have much problem with people using point-and-shoots; people with single-lens-reflex cameras hanging around the edges of weddings can cut into profit margins, however.
So it was, with a careful eye and respect for another photographer, that I followed Gerald and Brenda outside to watch their official portrait session. When the photographer was finished, when he said that he had when he needed, I positioned myself for some beautiful lighting and the proper background and took three pictures. I had already taken test exposures and chosen my f-stop carefully.
The end of the story is this: a framed 16 x 20 inch print of this picture is the first thing you see as you enter Gerald and Brenda’s new home (OK, so it’s a nice point-and-shoot). I tried to find a way to say that without sounding like I’m bragging or putting another photographer down, but facts is facts.
After I watched the other photographer complete his task, I was thinking that I was glad I could be there for my friends. I was thinking how important it is to share whatever photographic skills you have with people you care about.
I haven’t had much luck as a photographer returning to a situation to improve on my first attempt. Something’s always different. It’s either the wind or the clouds or the light or somebody put a scaffolding up since I was last there or whatever. Something’s always different. You need to make photographic hay when the sun shines, because neither the hay or the sunshine may be there tomorrow; believe me, I’ve gone back many times to find them both gone. You need to treat every opportunity like it’s your last opportunity. It’s sound advice, trust me. Certainly, convincing yourself you can come back and shoot a picture later is just bad photography policy.
So it was with some reluctance I went back to my neighborhood arboretum to re-shoot a picture I shot yesterday. The first attempt was with my iPhone. I was on a walk with my boys; mostly we needed to get out of the house. I wasn’t in serious photographer mode; I just saw the scene and grabbed the shot. When I got home, I ran the picture through the Instagram program that puts some really nice filters on the pictures and adds mood that just wasn’t there in the first place. It’s a lovely iPhone photo; it’s a little gem, actually. But I went to bed last night wishing I had taken it with my ten-pound, multi-thousand dollar Canon from atop my eight-hundred dollar tripod. I told myself if the light were right the next day, I’d go back. (There aren’t enough trips to the arboretum in my life, anyway.) The light was right the next day; in fact, it was perfect. So back to the trees we went; me and Alexander and Teddy after I picked them up from school with a snack for bribe.
For my return trip to be considered successful, I would have to like the second photograph more than the first. I had sort of fallen in love with what the Instagram program had done to the picture so I decided to take a different picture—the same picture, but different. Black and white would make that happen, then I could love them both in different way. Guilt free.
The scene was really beautiful on Day 2, but there was something that wasn’t quite the same. I couldn’t put my finger on it when I was there, but as I look at the two pictures next to each other now, I actually think one day’s growth on the trees has reduced the look of lace in the tree branches I saw the day before. Call me crazy, but good photographs ride on little details like one day’s growth.
I like both pictures. I went to the arboretum two days in a row with my boys so what’s not to like? I still stand by my original premise, however. Get it while you can. The time is now.
I remember checking into this hotel right around noon which was a little odd to begin with. Check-in was almost always an evening event. It was a first-floor room that didn’t smell quite right; this was not the Four Seasons. My car was just on the other side of the window. I recall a drastic temperature shift as I walked into the hyper-air-conditioned room after just minutes before being baked in raw one-hundred degrees sunlight. I think it was Texas.
I’m not sure how long it took me to notice that the far corners of the room were glowing with light bouncing off the opaque plastic curtains. I was standing in semi-darkness when I decided to get out a camera and take a picture. It was an odd transition. One minute, turned off by the artificially frigid darkness, to setting up a tripod trying to create art the next.
It was mysterious and simultaneously mundane; a strangely spiritual combination. The scene and my mood had been transformed by light—by radiation. The references to white glowing light are numerous in so many religions and had you been in that room it would have been easy for you to understand why. It was a powerful effect.
Somehow, in the span of a few minutes, I had come to see a slightly depressing side of our culture with new eyes. I had found beauty in a most surprising place. I was thinking that I must be surrounded by it, if only I would take the time to notice.