Describing life behind the lens

Thirty-seven years ago I wrote “Worth The Wait,” a feature on photographing wildlife. South Carolina Wildlife magazine photographers Ted Borg, Robert Clark, and Phillip Jones gave me tips on seasons and subjects, cameras and lenses, film speed, light and color, and preparation. As close as we got to perseverance was my title, more on that to come. We mentioned the simple strategy of sitting still. 

The feature’s photos included a whitetail buck, squirrel, water lilies, a caterpillar, shrimp trawlers, a mountain sunset, and duck hunter and dog at dawn. The images seem dull compared to the digital images we see today. “Film just didn’t have the range digital does,” said Robert Clark. “We thought it was great because that’s all we had at the time.” 

Digital camera came out in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and they revolutionized photography. Even yours truly can take a decent photo now—as long as the subject’s stationary. I photograph flowers such as the majestic rocky shoals spider lily. Hummingbirds frustrate me but this summer I intend to get a stellar image of a male ruby-throated hummer. I’ll persevere. 

I enjoy photographing nature, especially at Georgia’s Anthony Shoals, my mother’s childhood refuge after she had picked cotton and bone-dry cotton fields withered. She took me there when I was a boy and I have never forgotten that day or the wild river studded by rocks. But men like to dam rivers and where mountain laurel, rhododendron, and lilies that weren’t lilies had bloomed, a plain of blue water covered everything. A dam drowned Anthony Shoals. It saddened me to know that majestic stretch of river had been silenced. Then, a miracle. The shoals escaped not one but two dams. The song of a wild river running over bedrock still exalted Georgia air. 

Each May-June I make several expeditions to Anthony Shoals. The road in is third-world rough with downed trees and major mudholes. Then I have to go down a steep bluff. As I descend, from afar comes a sound, something alive and formidable, the opera of a wild river raging against bedrock. The music strengthens with each step. The water roars and hisses as it froths and foams over and around rocks. Closer in, I see milky-white filigrees twist and braid and murmur to beget inner peace as no other sound can—soothing whitewater’s white noise. 

The Broad River had run through my blood as a boy and now it rushes toward the sea where it joins the Savannah in the great cycle of water. There I photograph rocky shoals spider lilies, a flower whose blooms open at night and last but a day, pale phantoms with traces of green and gold. But perseverance and sitting still among vines and trees brings me a spectacle. Ospreys circle a ledge where roiling water foams white. One plunges into water, then rises with a fish—its shimmering mirror of scales flashes silver. 

Ospreys whistle, circle, and plummet. Hummingbirds tend lilies, and a banded water snake swims my way. An otter surfaces and snorts. The river is a living thing. Behind the lens, I aim my telephoto and shoot, trying to do what I wrote about in South Carolina Wildlife all those years ago.

I had the joy of seeing a photograph of mine—a magnolia bloom—grace the cover of the January-February 2023 South Carolina Wildlife magazine. Credit digital photography for that. I’ll stick with words, hard though they be. A photographer can photoshop an image to perfection. Musicians gain superb advantages in recording studios. No software elevates bad writing, although I hear artificial intelligence promises to write like a pro. I’ll believe it when I see it, but I won’t see it as South Carolina Wildlife magazine turns seventy. Old timers generally turn a blind eye to whippersnappers’ fancy technologies, digital photography aside. 

Author: Stephan Drew

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