Spring 2005 Forward to a Friend

by Mark Carroll

Please pardon the pun, but nature photography can be a strange animal. More pointedly, nature photographers are strange. We camer-toting, outdoorsy people would happily disappear into some unknown, wild place for a month searching for an elusive frog as if it were a yeti.

But here’s the boon. Weeks of hard slog in the field can be transformed through the camera into sharply focused life lessons. One spectacular moment behind the lens can exchange drudge for wisdom – nicely illustrated by the resulting image.

Each of these photographs reminds me of a lesson learned while working as a nature photographer.

Nature is messy. Sometimes the seemingly straightforward task of taking a photograph can be stymied by an overwhelming mishmash of shapes and patterns and colors. Overlook the hidden calm in this visual storm and risk missing the picture. Or, worse still, try to shoot everything and end up with a confusing image that really shows nothing at all.

I found myself lost in this photographic no man’s land after a few days meandering on the back roads of Tennessee. Maybe it was the gas-station diet of Twinkies® and stale coffee, but I was definitely off my game. Photograph after cluttered photograph seemed to develop with no true focus.

Then, as subtly as a soft bend in the Natchez Trace Parkway, a solution presented itself. Alone in a foggy meadow stood a simple tree. Like a carefully composed photograph, the fog had distilled the scene down to its essence, reducing the tree to nothing but pure form. It had simplified the world.

I took my cue. Off went the radio and the cell phone. The coffee grew cold in the car as I walked into the quiet meadow, carefully composed and – in the spirit of that simple tree – shot a single picture.

The camera is a reason for exploration. It is a filter of life, providing a window through which others see what a photographer has seen or, ideally, feel what a photographer has experienced. That is certainly no small task. It’s hard enough getting a passable shot of your mother-in-law’s poodle in a Christmas sweater, let alone honestly capturing a place as rich in culture as the small country of Laos in Southeast Asia.

Having never been to the region before, I initially just observed as I traveled through the country’s thick green jungles and thatch-roofed villages. I wanted to know the place first – to sit with locals and douse the acrid smoke of the burning season with a few belts of lau-lau (the local moonshine). Then I was going to draw on these intimate experiences to create images that went beyond mere snapshots, images that were imbued with the soul of such warm people and simple living.

Granted, a photograph can never truly reproduce a place or an experience in all of its complexity, but it can, through thoughtful observation, sometimes come close.

Embrace nature’s gifts. At the end of a long day (at the end of a long week) of sea kayaking under the south Florida sun, my shoulders and my attitude had become as fiery as so much sunburn. I had a simple vision of flopping down in the comfort of soft sand and being done. Nothing more.

Instead, a retreating tide left me slopping my kayak through a knee-deep slurry of muck just a few hundred yards shy of shore.

After more than a few missteps and choice curses, my cloud of grumbles unexpectedly lifted. The sinking sea had revealed a beautiful bed of turtle grass barely submerged beneath a mirror of glassy water.

The tide, in essence, had forced me to slow down and enjoy the process, however muddy. I photographed paying little attention to the facts that I was sinking in quicksand and that my boat was drifting away behind me.

A subject really makes or breaks a photograph. Everything else is just pudding.
I was mowing the lawn when a timid green snake slithered out from under some unseen rock. I grabbed a quick shot and realized that photographing a green snake on a lawn is like shooting a polar bear in a snowstorm.

Dropping down eye to eye, things were quite different. A seemingly natural change took place. Not only had my perspective of the world changed, but my perception of the animal had as well. On some fundamental level, looking that snake in the eye had defused the creepy-snake factor and instilled in me an increased sense of respect for the animal. Note: Do not try this technique with cornered sharks or self-conscious flounder.

The green snake slowly made its way up a nearby redbud tree and posed motionless on a perfect complementary bloom of purple flowers.

Try the road less traveled. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park packs in about nine million visitors annually. Last autumn, they were all at a single overlook for a quick fix of fall color. A line had formed at one particularly desirable bottleneck, which, on the plus side, gave me a little time to think.

Had our instant-access, drive-up culture reduced one of nature’s remarkable displays to little more than a visual treat at the end of a fast-food line?

I made a run for it.

Down the road, a sympathetic ranger pointed me in the right direction, and I disappeared down a less-used path on a long day hike, searching for some quiet, obscure autumn moment in the backwoods of the Smoky Mountains.

Trust your instincts. For a trip through Patagonia, I had loosely arranged my itinerary around a few stunning images I had seen of wild, llama-like guanacos that populate South America. For some reason, they had connected with me. The guanacos came to represent Patagonia as much as the wind.

Chance brought me to a fire-warmed hacienda and into the company of a wild-haired trekker named Perro Loco. Perro Loco was ... well, loco. He jokingly brandished a knife (at least I think he was joking) and used it often to make his point while speaking.

“This is where you will find guanacos,” he said, as he carved a circle into my map.

By morning, Perro Loco and his knife were gone. I headed out and, days later, came to the spot he had cut in my map. Amazingly, given the source of information, a herd of guanacos grazed on a nearby hillside. Few times before had I felt so honored to be among wild animals. This was the Patagonia I had set out to experience.

Weeks later, on the final morning of my trek, I awoke to a blinding snowstorm outside my tent. As I stood there concerned and alone, I realized that my time with the guanacos had been, in many ways, a reward for embracing uncertainty and allowing chance to be my guide.

Mark Carroll is a Tennessee-based wilderness photographer and writer, as well as the owner of a 2000 Subaru Outback. Check out more of his photography online at www.outerside.com