I am currently spending a few days in New Hampshire’s White Mountains thanks to a couple of speaking engagements. The White Mountains are the place where I became hooked on nature photography 20 years ago. Marcy and I had just moved to Boston and for some reason we decided to give hiking a try even though it wasn’t something either one of us grew up with. I still remember our first two hikes like they were yesterday – an easy valley walk into Zealand Falls followed the next day by an above-treeline adventure on Mount Jefferson. To say these hikes changed our lives is a bit of an understatement. At the time, we lived and worked in the city, Marcy in human resources and me in computer programming. Going to live music clubs and Fenway Park were our usual forms of entertainment, but after glimpsing the vast Pemgiwasset Wilderness and the world of glaical cirques and alpine wildflowers so close to home, we quickly converted to weekend backpackers and peak baggers. Within a year, I met Galen Rowell at a book signing and I suddenly knew I had a new calling in life. It took another decade to hone my skills and shake the chains of the programming cubicle, but it was worth the wait.
“The Whites” were easily my biggest inspiration when I became a photographer and most of my favorite images from my first ten years of shooting come from there. At first, my main goal was to make the best “calendar” style images I could, but as I learned of the history of the region I became more interested in conservation. In the second half of the 19th century, the White Mountains became one of the premier tourist destinations in America, as the region became known through the paintings of Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole and writers like Nathaniel Hawthorne. Ironically, by the early 20th century, the Whites were also the scene of some of the most unsustainable logging practices in the country. Through the efforts of groups led by the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, the Weeks Act was passed in 1911, establishing the national forest system east of the Mississippi and then the White Mountain National Forest. Our book, White Mountain Wilderness, tells the story of the “rewilding” of the region that followed.
My experiences in the White Mountains led to my decision to focus my photography efforts on conservation in New England, and I have since worked on close to 100 land conservation projects in the region since I left that cubicle job. Ironically, that means the bulk of my time is spent in places other then the White Mountains, as these projects primarily involve unprotected private lands outside of the Whites, so it is great to have times like this weekend to get a few moments to shoot familiar landscapes like the opening shot in this post from Pondicherry National Wildlife Refuge. While nature photographers as a group like to explore and shoot in new and exotic landscapes, I find it is equally important to have favorite places you can revisit time and time again. This gives you the opportunity to see a place in different lighting conditions and seasons, and as you get to know a place you inevitably start to see the place in new ways. I also find that going back to the same place over and over results in a more relaxed approach. Last night at Pondicherry (a place I’ve shot probably a dozen times), I felt no pressure to produce because I already have plenty of Pondicherry images in my files. This freed me from the need to produce a bunch of images that describe every inch of the place and instead I could focus on just looking for one or two nice images if the light worked out. (It also allowed me to not regret missing some photo ops while I sat for an hour hoping the black bear I saw ahead on the trail would return – he didn’t.)
I find that shooting in familiar places is a necessary diversion from other work and the best place to practice new techniques that you can then use during those trips to new places or when on assignment. Nailing down technique when there’s no pressure can make or break a photo shoot in a new location when you have limited time. Tomorrow, I’m heading to the Lake Sunapee region of New Hampshire for a one day assignment on a property I’ve never been to before. Having tricks in my bag that I know how to execute ahead of time gives me the confidence that I’ll do a decent job as long as the weather cooperates.
Until next time…