Shots that Count
Ron Smith, Valley Morning Star, June 2003, © 2004
Mostly they wait. They wait in torrid heat or numbing cold. Rain drenches them. Snow covers them. Insects sting them. They wade shoulder deep in ponds and marshes or trod the desert and climb rocky slopes under the weight of tripods and cameras. These patient men and women are dedicated to making the ultimate portrayal of a living creature. It could be for competition in a photo contest like that of the Valley Land Fund, a book, an article, or a collection in a gallery. These, however, are not the true motivations. Why do they go through it all? Because they have to... just as a sculptor has to sculpt or a painter has to paint. It is an inner drive to depict what they love, the perfection of nature. They are probably never satisfied completely with the results in the same way that an artist is never content. That would be a defeat, because then there would be no advancement in their art. This is a personal quest for perfection. Their days and nights are filled with moments of excitement, disappointment, amusement and physical trial. That is what makes it one of the most absorbing pursuits in the world. And so they have stories to tell.
Dr. Steve Bentsen, a Valley photographer with a national reputation, reflects on some of the hazards involved. "I was photographing at a water hole one summer, and the hawks that came always saw me moving through the "camo" cloth, so I triple-wrapped one afternon and got myself so entwined that I couldn't gracefully exit the blind in a hurry. This worked well for the hawks but presented a bit of an issue when I sensed movement and looked down to discover that a rattler had joined me in the blind. The option was to hold still uintil he moved on. Another photographer, Tom Urban, was also camo'd next to me and could see my dilemma. He calmly offered me advice not to move...and went on shooting."
Another time, videographer and jornalist Richard Moore and Steve erected a scaffolding to photograph nesting hawks. They were both about 12 to 15 feet up the platform. Suddenly one of its legs began to sink in the sand, and the whole structure started to topple in slow motion. The sandy soil, however, which had caused the leg to sink, also made for a soft landing. If you run into Steve, ask him about the time he was smacked in the back of the head by a Great Horned Owl.
Laura Moore, also an accomplished member of the craft, was photographing with a friend. Their focus was on a mother bobcat and her three kittens. While Mom was facing away from the camera, one kitten started playing with her tail. Laura's friend was so impressed she uttered an exclamation, and the kitten bolted for cover. The mother spun about and growled at the blind for at least 45 seconds. This was both memorable and unnerving, but the real threat came from Laura and was directed toward the "friend." She was not happy about missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Who knows how long the family would have played there? This could account for the fact that many photographers go solo.
Besides blinds, another tactic is to use certain attractions like bait. At an Audubon convention years ago, a photographer showed slides of his work shooting Andean Condors as he crouched on the slope of a spectacular peak. He said that the next slide would show his bird feeder. When it popped up, there were the huge condors gathered around the feeder...a dead horse.
Larry Ditto, along with his partner Greg Lasley, a Grand Prize Winner in the Valley Land Fund Wildlife Photo Contest, has good scorpion story: "Several years ago, noted nature photographer, Tupper Ansel Blake, invited me to use a "floating" blind he'd left on the bank of a remote pond at Laguna Atascosa NWR. The blind was really just a truck inner tube draped with a camouflage cover. I arrived at the pond one afternoon several days after Blake had departed for other areas in the Valley. It was early summer; the Least Grebes had just hatched, and I was anxious to wade in and start shooting. With photo equipment in hand, I stepped into the tube, dragged the dark material over my head, and eased into the water. For the first time in my like, I felt claustrophobic, like being in a small submarine with no lights. After pausing to get my breathing rhythm back to normal, I began easing toward a family of grebes. Preoccupied with my quarry, I almost didn't notice the odd sensation of something crawling along my right arm. Then panic took over, and I jerked away the dark cover to reveal a huge scorpion, making his way down my arm with tail raised and pincers spread. Imagine the shock to those poor grebes when what seemed like an harmless nutria nest suddenly turned into flying camo cloth, flailing arms and spewing water. Why the tube didn't flip and spill thousand dollars worth of camera, lens and film into the water, no one will ever know, but it didn't. "All that flinging and flailing sent my monster flying into the water. Guess what? Scorpions can't swim...he sank like a rock! It was another hour before the grebes and I calmed down so that I could begin shooting again. The lesson here is make sure you check your equipment first."
There are occasions when Fortune smiles, and you chance upon a moment of pure gold. VLF Photo Contest Director Ruth Hoyt was shooting one day when she looked down to see a Green Anole, the little lizard we all have on the sides of our houses. Its wide open mouth was clasping shut the jaws of a small Western Diamondback Rattlesnake. What a smooth defensive ploy! The shot provided Ruth with a scene for her business card and many others who shared vicariously a unique wildlife event, the kind every photographer dreams about. I wonder...would this be the Old West standoff?