Fins Feathers Photos: Blog en-us George Cathcart (Fins Feathers Photos) Sat, 12 May 2012 03:23:00 GMT Sat, 12 May 2012 03:23:00 GMT Fins Feathers Photos: Blog 120 89 Some Recent Achievements
I’m traveling right now, and the idea of migration is much on my mind. But I’m going to mull that over a little longer and interject a little commercial here today for some recent achievements I’m happy about.

Hunley1 First, several months ago I was asked to photograph the Hunley, the Confederate submarine that sank in Charleston Harbor after sinking a Union blockade ship in 1864. The sub was recovered in 1999 and has been undergoing very careful conservation in a warehouse in North Charleston ever since.  The Friends of the Hunley had recently done some work that had changed the appearance of the sub in its tank and wanted new underwater photographs to show it off. I got the call and had a great time planning and executing the  shoot. I don’t know when the organization will start using the photos in brochures and so on, but here’s a little preview until they do.

Lifting Off
Second, I recently submitted two photos to the Photography Club of Beaufort (SC) for their entry in the Merrimack Valley Camera Club international interclub nature photography salon and competition. My photograph of a red hind being cleaned by a Pederson Cleaner Shrimp was selected as the best entry in the Marine and Freshwater Life Category. My other entry, Liftoff, depicting a Great Egret just as it takes off, dripping water from its feet and reflected in the pond, scored high enough to be included in the salon exhibition. 

Hanging Cormorant
Finally, just this week I was asked by Wild Rescue if they could use my photo of a cormorant hanged by monofilament as their “poster child” for this year’s Worldwide Fishing Line Cleanup Campaign. I photographed the cormorant during my visit several months ago to central Florida, where I got some wonderful images of birds, as well as the cormorant that was killed by some carelessly discarded fishing line.

Of the three, I’m probably most proud of the last one, because I do want my photography to make a difference. Wildlife kills by discarded fishing line and other debris are tragic and preventable. I hope my photograph will inspire someone somewhere  to keep that in mind and do something about it.

]]> (Fins Feathers Photos) Sun, 08 Apr 2012 09:11:00 GMT
Can Photographs Make the Ordinary Interesting?
About a week ago, I posted a gallery of pelican photoson my Web site. A few were white pelicans, which are inarguably beautiful. A few more were of adult brown pelicans, which have lovely heads of white and ochre, and grizzled edges to their primary feathers. But the majority were of immature brown pelicans, whose coloring is brown all over and pretty drab.

A couple days later, a friend commented on the Pelicans gallery: “This is a bird that I never considered attractive and only photographed if nothing else was around, usually sitting atop pilings at the marina .... But you have changed my thinking by capturing the beauty of their coloring, especially with wings spread and glinting under the sun. I will look twice the next time I see one.”

This was the highest compliment I could ask for. My first objective as a photographer is to get people to see things differently.  The real challenge is to show you a new way to see something familiar, uninteresting or even ugly. 

Some of my favorite photos over the past couple of years are birds that most people, and most photographers, don’t look twice at.  Take, for example, this crow.
Crows are probably the most common bird we see, with a raucous cry (can’t really call it a song) and apparently uniform colorlessness.

But one afternoon as I came back from shooting shore birds on a sandbar in Port Royal Sound, this bird perched on a branch and watched me pass.  The lowering sun caused her feathers to shine, and you can even see a subtle purple on the wings. 

If that catches your attention, are you willing to look more closely at this bird, maybe read up on it and learn that crows may be among the most intelligent and socially organized of all birds? I hope so.

p168618110-3 Another example is the vulture. Again, a very common bird, carrion eater, nasty looking curved beak, wrinkled featherless head. To many people they are ugly.  But when I saw this black vulture resting atop a power line pole in South Carolina's ACE Basin, I saw and tried to capture the bird's dignity and even sense of purpose (who else cleans up after us, after all; think about roadkill).

One of the most strikingly "ugly" creatures I've photographed was this snapping turtle, which was making its way beside the dirt road in Bombay Hook National Wildlife Refuge in Delaware one day last spring. I learned later that snappers often travel some distance over land to find sandy soil in which to deposit their eggs. 

p1024022772-3 There is something primitively sinister about this animal, but I find myself drawn to the eyes, wide, dark and aqueous.  I do not see a threat there, but rather a certain amount of awareness, curiosity and fear. Your mileage may vary. In fact, contrary to common wisdom, snappers normally flee when they encounter humans out of the water. This one just sat patiently while I photographed it, then continued its search for a nesting place.

Although the renowned photographer Edouard Steichen once said that “Photography is a lie from start to finish,” I don’t for a minute believe that these photographs misrepresent the subjects in any way. My goal is to represent my subjects so faithfully that the viewer immediately recognizes and at once is startled by what she sees.  In at least one case, it appears I may have succeeded. 

The next step, which will be the topic of a future blog post, is for the viewer to realize, at least unconsciously, that the moment of recognition is the same experience she has when looking into a mirror. 

]]> (Fins Feathers Photos) Sat, 24 Mar 2012 20:51:00 GMT
Camera Therapy
Camera Therapy is an essential part of my health routine.

I first became aware of the therapeutic effects of photography when I was traveling the West along the route of the Lewis and Clark expedition. I had drafted a novel about the expedition and was revising it as I drove back roads along the Missouri and Columbia Rivers, trying to see at least some of the landscape as the explorers had seen it. I was also taking a lot of photos.

Photography was an important but rarely indulged hobby at the time. It was the stage of my career when I was working at unpleasant and non-photographic jobs to save enough money to retire and do what I'm doing now, traveling and photographing the world I see. I had taken a leave of absence to work on the Lewis and Clark novel.

Upper Missouri just below the Breaks
One afternoon I was walking through a campground in a meadow near Helena, Montana. Wind howled across the treeless landscape and the sun played dodge 'em with fluffy clouds, alternately lighting and shading the craggy mountaintops surrounding me. A pair of mule deer grazed at the edge of the meadow.

I was carrying my camera and trying to capture the scenery, and not doing a very good job of it, but I was suddenly overwhelmed by a feeling of perfect bliss. For the first time in a long time, I felt complete, like I was who I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to do, where I was supposed to do it.

At the time, I attributed this to the whole experience I was engaged in, traveling, writing, exploring new things, learning and absorbing all of this experience into my core existence. Photography was just part of it. The last time I had felt that way was when I was hiking the Appalachian Trail with my camera in 1982.

It didn't occur to me until later that the camera was the reason for that bliss. When I began to approach retirement a few years ago and knew that I would soon have the opportunity to fulfill this long time photography dream, I began spending as much of my free time as I could out shooting or toiling away at the computer trying to perfect my images. It was a stressful time. Big changes were happening in my life -- divorce, kids leaving the nest, and the stress of continuing to work in a job that grew more boring and less fulfilling day by day.

And that's when I realized that the time I was putting in with the camera was more than just practice. The process of finding and photographing local birds and wildlife was exposing something else: me. The person who had to hide in someone else at work came out jubilantly when I picked up the camera and went walking. I was fully me again.

Then a few months ago, I discovered why it works like that, when I came across Carl Jung's explanation for the difference between the conscious and the unconscious minds. The conscious mind, he said, can be trained. The untrainable unconscious mind belongs to the collective unconscious, which Jung felt was the same in everyone. Much of Jungian psychology revolves around finding one's unconscious.

lc driftwood pile and misty ridge
And there it was. My conscious mind deals with all the technical aspects of photography, which have always been easy for me for some reason. Camera controls, exposure, focal lengths, white balance, all those numbers things I get because I trained myself to get them.

The rest of it, from pre-visualizing the image to finally presenting it, come from the unconscious. Art works when it comes authentically from the unconscious. The receptive viewer sees a work of art not only consciously, but also unconsciously, and in that moment connects with the artist's unconscious and feels the collective unconscious.

At least that's how I think Jung would explain it.

I explain it this way: In order to make photographs, my conscious and subconscious minds have to get along. They have to communicate, collaborate and cooperate. There has to be harmony within the space between my ears and between the head and the heart.

And photography is one of the few activities where this happens. The rest of the time the conscious and unconscious are fighting like little children, and sometimes all you can do is put them in time out and shut the door. But when I can, I gather the cameras and the backpack and the tripod and head to the nearest refuge for fresh air and communion with true nature -- both the world's and my own.

That's camera therapy. Maybe I can get my health insurance to cover the cost of my next big lens.

]]> (Fins Feathers Photos) Tue, 28 Feb 2012 07:06:00 GMT
Unnecessary Beauty It was one of those totally relaxing afternoon dives on a shallow site off the Caribbean island of Saba. Sun rays danced over the sand and the reef, revealing tiny coral polyps and neon bright anemones as they made their living catching microscopic plankton as it drifted helplessly by.

I was shooting macro, as I did on nearly every dive that week, so I was on the lookout for exactly those little creatures. Underwater macro photography exposes the crown jewels of the coral reefs. Hard corals form the hard base of the reef on which everything else depends, for food and shelter. Nestled in closely with the corals are other small creatures, including anemones, Christmas tree worms, tiny crabs and shrimp, zoanthids, crusting sponges, nudibranchs and small fish. 

Everything is there for a reason (unless it's an invasive species, which is another topic for another day). Everything there eats and is eaten. A coral reef is a great place to learn how ecosystems function. And it is all about function. Except for the beauty.

And that's what struck me on that afternoon dive. Maybe it was because it was so relaxing. I was enjoying near perfect neutral buoyancy, moving by the tiniest flicks of my fins, as close as you can get to that zen state of not just being one with the water, but actually being the water. 

feather duster orange I was drifting slowly through a narrow crevasse peering closely at the shady side when I spotted a feather duster worm so tiny and so orange I almost didn't believe my eyes. I wasn't narced, not at 30 feet deep. It was real, and about the size of my little fingernail. It was tucked in among brain corals and rope sponges that made it hard to photograph, but I did my best and got a few images worth keeping.

And as I backed away and continued on my aqueous meander, one word popped into my mind and wouldn't go away.


Usually I have asked that question in despair, trying to understand the reasons behind greed, cruelty, violence, destruction, betrayal and other human traits. But now I found myself incredulous that this world could be full of such beauty, and that most of it existed for its own sake. 

The reef would still function if it were all drab and muted. It would function differently, to be sure. Science has explained that some of those colors and patterns help creatures identify each other or serve as warnings about things that will kill. 

But when you look closely at these things, you see patterns and colors that go way beyond function. They are more intricate than the anti-counterfeiting patterns on folding currency, more colorful than the wildest acid trip, more breath-taking than a gothic cathedral. And they are not just in the smallest creatures, but in the close-up details of the larger animals as well. The question is, Why?

If you have read this far thinking I have an answer to that question, you're going to be disappointed. Everyone will have a different answer, and it will be right. For me, it's enough just to realize that there is incomprehensible beauty and goodness in nature. 

Maybe its purpose is to balance the incomprehensible ugliness and evil that we humans are capable of. But I'm pretty sure that when we are gone, extinguished from the planet along with the dinosaurs and passenger pigeons, the beauty and goodness will still be here. 

Unnecessary beauty exists for its own sake, for its own purposes, whatever those are. It doesn't need us, doesn't need to be appreciated by us. It was in the ocean for millions of years before we evolved into hominids and developed the technology to find it and be astonished by it. And it will be there for millions more after all our technology has rusted

So, why it's there is really not that important. It just is.

What is important, I believe, is that we're just lucky, or blessed or whatever you want to call it, to be able to see it, if only briefly. 

That is the why that deserves pondering. 


]]> (Fins Feathers Photos) Tue, 07 Feb 2012 18:15:00 GMT
Gators as a Rule It happens nearly every time I'm photographing birds at a wildlife refuge in the Southeast. Someone will pass by, see my camera on a tripod pointed into the sky or toward the top of a tall tree, and ask me if I've seen any alligators.

I'm usually polite and restrain myself from pointing where my camera is and saying, "Well, not up there." Smart ass doesn't always go over well with strangers, especially in the South.

I've found that straightforward factual doesn't necessarily generate much better reactions from the questioner.

"I haven't really been looking for them," I told one young guy at Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge. "To be honest, I don't find them all that interesting. They just sit there like logs." The guy scowled and drove off as his pretty girlfriend laughed. I had a feeling she had told him something similar not long before.

gator But it's true. Sorry, but most of the gators I see are doing what gators do about 99 percent of the time: nothing. In summer, they are as likely as not to lie in the water with little more than the top of their heads protruding from the water, motionless, in a perfect Zen state. On warm days in the cooler seasons, they may haul themselves onto a bank and lie motionless in the sun, soaking up radiation and vitamin D.

So, as a rule, I don't pay much attention to alligators other than  to be sure I'm not about to set my tripod up on top of one, which might cause action of a sort I'd rather not see (and probably wouldn't get a chance to photograph).

But there are exceptions to every rule. One day last summer as I was following the Wildlife Drive that winds along the old rice dikes in Savannah Wildlife Refuge, I came across a genuine spectacle near one of the trunks that levels the water between ponds. At least 20 gators were gathered in an area about half the size of my apartment. A couple of other photographers were already there, snapping away. I could see that some of the gators were baring their teeth, which is a little something at least, so I stopped and grabbed a few images.

Suddenly there was an enormous splash, then another, and another. I looked around to see what was going on. Dozens, maybe hundreds of good-sized striped mullet were swimming around in the same area, occasionally jumping out the water, as mullet like to do. In this case, for many, it was a fatal mistake.

Gator grabs mullet 4
Those normally motionless gators responded to the mullet by displaying blazing quickness, lethal accuracy and chilling gruesomeness. I increased my shutter speed and spent the next 30 minutes capturing some of the best action shots I've ever gotten as gators snatched mullet out of the air or right at the surface and feasted like Thanksgiving.

(See more from this amazing afternoon on the Web site)

Another exception occurred just a few days ago. It's been freakishly warm most of the winter here in the South Carolina Lowcountry, and gators have been basking in the sun every day at the Pinckney Island NWR near Hilton Head. One in particular has been occupying a sand bar in Starr Pond, where water levels are suffering from a lengthy dry spell.

Gator grin Yesterday, he was up on the bar much closer to the bank where I was trying to get photos of a mystery duck that's been residing in the same area. Violating my own rule, I aimed my lens in his direction and was delighted to see him lying quite still with his jaws agape, displaying, and perhaps airing, his teeth. And what teeth, ivory white lowers, oddly red uppers (stained from his last meal?). After a bit, he turned his head in my direction and let me shoot right at him. I changed position to get him in profile from even closer, and he continued to cooperate until he got bored, closed his mouth and eyes and went back to sleep.

You can judge the photographic results for yourself.

Meanwhile, my rule of thumb will stay intact, but I'll always take a look and see if that log in the water is showing some photogenic animation.

]]> (Fins Feathers Photos) Sun, 29 Jan 2012 15:03:00 GMT
Accurate knowledge vs. Ignorant Bliss
So I decided to take the path of least resistance, pose a question with a mild ethical dilemma. As a photographer, there are more difficult ethical dilemmas than this one, and I'll deal with those later. But this one was also fun.

Last April, I spent a few days photographing wildlife in the Ding Darling National Wildlife Refuge, on Sanibel Island, on Florida's Gulf Coast. Ding Darling is easy to shoot because there is a road through the refuge that provides good views of great bird habitat, with lots of birds habitating there. Near where the one-way road exits the refuge, there was an active osprey nest. On my final visit, I decided to get there about 90 minutes before sunset and set up to shoot the male osprey bringing a fish back to his babies.

p863649146-2 There were two chicks in the nest, and the mother was perched in a nearby tree, keeping an eye on things while Dad was out fishing. The babies were nearly ready to fledge. One kept standing on the edge of the nest, flapping his wings just for fun. It was only a matter of time before Dad came home with dinner.

I set up the camera on my tripod with a 400mm lens and a 2x extender. I had to focus manually, and I wanted minimal camera shake, so I locked up the mirror and put a cable release on, and then just waited. And waited.

After about an hour, the chicks started getting excited, and suddenly I head the distinctive osprey cry as Dad approached the nest and announced his arrival. Almost immediately, he was there, flapping his wings to control his landing, and I hit the shutter release and fired off a dozen shots in full burst mode. Perfect timing. I was ecstatic.

I started taking down my gear. It was late, and I was hungry. As I opened the trunk of my car, a car with Minnesota license plates and five middle aged people inside pulled in and parked behind me. They followed the direction my camera was pointing and saw the nest, which was a good 75 yards away, high in a dead tree. One of them pointed his binoculars at the nest and cried out, "Eagle! It's a bald eagle!" The others ooohed and aaaahed, and gazed toward the nest.

And there was my ethical dilemma. What was my obligation here?

I could opt to improve their knowledge and ensure they would come away from the experience smarter and wiser. Or I could keep silent and let them believe they had seen an eagle. Now, as  former journalist, of course, I always feel a certain responsibility to the truth. But as a compassionate human being, I'm also very sympathetic to happiness.

I thought about it for a minute, and I finally decided to keep my mouth shut.

To tell them that what they were looking at was not in fact an eagle but rather another of the most interesting and powerful predators in the avian world, would have ruined their day. Already they were thinking of how to tell their friends back in Mankato about the eagle they saw on Sanibel Island. Who was I, and what was the truth, to be so arrogant as to take that away from them? Let them tell their story, inaccurate though it may be. It would do no harm to them, to me, to the ospreys or to any eagles.
Another way to look at it would be the way the chicks in the nest looked at Dad when they realized he had come home not with the fish they were expecting for dinner, but with a stick. Take a look at the face of the chick looking at Dad. That's how those people from Minnesota would have felt if I'd told them the truth.

I hope they are still telling the story back in Minnesota.
]]> (Fins Feathers Photos) Sat, 21 Jan 2012 10:59:00 GMT