Interview with David Blevins, Award-Winning Photographer and Forest Ecologist

Interviewer: Anna Faktorovich

David Blevins is an award winning freelance nature photographer and forest ecologist. David’s photographs have appeared in magazines and calendars as well as four books. David co-authored his first two books on Boundary Bay while completing a Ph.D. in forest ecology at the University of British Columbia. His third book, Wild North Carolina, is an introduction to the diversity and significance of North Carolina’s natural communities.

North Carolina’s Barrier Islands: Wonders of Sand, Sea, and Sky: is Blevins most recent fourth collection, released from the University of North Carolina Press. In this stunning book, nature photographer and ecologist David Blevins offers an inspiring visual journey to North Carolina’s barrier islands as you have never seen them before. These islands are unique and ever-changing places with epic origins, surprising plants and animals, and an uncertain future. From snow geese midflight to breathtaking vistas along otherworldly dunes, Blevins has captured the incredible natural diversity of North Carolina’s coast in singular detail. His photographs and words reveal the natural character of these islands, the forces that shape them, and the sense of wonder they inspire. Featuring over 150 full-color images from Currituck Banks, the Cape Hatteras and Cape Lookout National Seashores, and the islands of the southern coast, North Carolina’s Barrier Islands is not only a collection of beautiful images of landscapes, plants, and animals but also an appeal for their conservation.

cover

Faktorovich: What should readers know about you that does not show up in your resume?

Blevins: I have always been interested in science, nature, and photography, and all three have been important to me my entire life. My CV reveals an early focus on science and nature, but does not reveal that I was also creating (but not publishing) photographs from an early age. It was not until I was completing my Ph.D. at the University of British Columbia that I began to realize I could combine all three of these interests by publishing books designed to make it easy for anyone to appreciate the wonders of the natural world.

Also, it may not be readily apparent that I create coffee table books in an unusual way. Most coffee table books are conceived of after the artist has accumulated a body of work. I begin with a concept for a book and then create the images that book needs. This allows me to produce a book with more cohesion between the text and images, and helps me create images that have not been seen before.

Faktorovich: Your dissertation, The Influence of Nutrition and Density on Repressed Lodgepole Pine, considered how pines’ foliage responds to fertilization. How can this research be applied in practice to pines in wild forests? Have you worked in this area during your Research Associate post in the four years following the approval of your dissertation? Is this a field that you hope to re-enter later in your career?

Blevins: My dissertation solved the fifty-year-old mystery of the cause of lodgepole pine repression, a condition of very slow tree growth that sometimes developed in extremely dense stands of lodgepole pine in British Columbia. Until my work, the conventional wisdom in British Columbia was that repressed trees had developed some unknown physiological dysfunction that prevented them from growing or responding to treatments. Forest scientists in British Columbia believed the only way to alleviate the problem was to cut down the small, sick trees and replant with new healthy trees. Before my work, research to understand this condition was focused on tree physiology in a search for the unknown dysfunction. The reason scientists had gone fifty years without solving the problem is they were asking the wrong questions. The trees are very capable of responding when their needs are met. My research demonstrated that these stands develop on very nutrient poor soils, and that the high tree density meant dividing what few nutrients were available amongst many individuals. Each individual tree was doing the best it could with what little it had, but these trees were not sick. Once nutrition was improved through fertilization, tree density was reduced, or both, the trees responded immediately and spectacularly. I suppose the most practical outcome of this research is forest managers can stop wasting money on treatments that don’t work and manage these stands more effectively.

LodgepolePineRepression

David on the edge of a stand of thirty-six-year-old “repressed” lodgepole pine in British Columbia.

My masters and postdoc work at North Carolina State University was also in this same field. Forest production ecology is the study of how forests grow and how the environment and competition with other vegetation influence that growth. Understanding these things allows forest managers to better predict future forest growth and make better decisions about how best to manage a forest. While I enjoyed my work as a scientist, my Ph.D. experience taught me that science alone did not fulfill all my needs. I began the photography work that would become my first two books while completing my Ph.D. During this time, I discovered that combining art with science to help people gain a deeper appreciation of the wonders of nature is something I find far more fulfilling than art or science alone.

Faktorovich: You stepped away from your research post for the North Carolina State University to focus on the North Carolina Friends of Plant Conservation non-profit you helped found and served as the Vice President, between 2008 and 2011. This is an ongoing program, which invites volunteers to steward over conserved lands by removing invasive species and trash. There is also a note that according to the IRS, 85% of all “charitable nonprofits have no paid staff and are run entirely by volunteers.” Were you paid for your leadership role or did you volunteer your time? What kind of work did you do on the board or as the Vice President? Were you conducting research, practically helping manage habitats, or supervising volunteers? How did your relationship with the Conservation project end? Do you plan on starting a similar group of your own in the future?

Blevins: I stepped away from my postdoc position at NCSU to focus on my third book, Wild North Carolina. I had been trying to do both jobs for several years, but by 2008 it was becoming clear that I would have to choose one or the other. My work to help found the Friends of Plant Conservation came out of my work on Wild North Carolina. I met some great people while working on that book, people that were trying to do very important work with too few resources. This non-profit was conceived to raise public awareness and support for the North Carolina Plant Conservation Program. This state government program works to conserve the native plant species of North Carolina in their natural habitats. My role in forming the non-profit was an unpaid position mostly involved with setting up the structure of the organization, establishing a vision, and strategic planning. Once they were off and running I stepped down so I could focus attention on creating my fourth book on North Carolina’s barrier islands.

the crew

Some of the members of the Friends of Plant Conservation after a successful day of field work.

Faktorovich: What did you learn about conservation efforts in North Carolina from your experience in research, non-profit leadership, nature photography, and the other projects you have been involved in? How is conservation going? Is it heading in a positive direction, or are things becoming irreversibly horrid? What types of realistic activities can every busy person on earth do this coming year to solve the major environmental problems plaguing the planet?

Blevins: Humans are both the greatest threat and the only hope for nature on this planet. Even the most successful conservation efforts in North Carolina (and elsewhere) are only slowing the rate of loss of natural lands, the spread of invasive species, and the rate of species extinction. The damage our species inflicts upon nature is generally not done maliciously. Nature suffers from there being so many of us combined with how powerful our technology has allowed us to become.

I don’t know if there is a solution, we may be doomed to wreck the ecology of the planet and destroy ourselves along the way. But if there is a solution I think it will require a change in our culture. People too often make decisions to address their own needs without considering the consequences for others. The best hope for nature is a shift in our culture to value the needs of the rest of the species that share this planet with us at least as much as we value our own needs. This is a major motivation for the books I have made. Valuing things outside of our own self-interest can be difficult enough, and it is even more difficult when you have no personal experience with those things. Many people are disconnected from nature and have such limited experience with nature that they do not miss what we have already lost and are not aware of the ongoing issues that threaten what nature remains. Aldo Leopold once said, “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds. Much of the damage inflicted on land is quite invisible to laymen.” The more people learn to appreciate nature and decide to put the needs of wild places and other species, at least some of the time, above their own needs, the better off nature will be.

My books are my attempt to have some positive influence on our culture. Everyone plays a part in creating our culture, but I don’t think anyone understands how to control cultural change, and yet we all participate in its creation. Cultural change takes time, and books can persist far into the future.

Faktorovich: You have been running regular photography workshops in British Columbia and North Carolina since 2003. Most of these have been in botanical gardens, on islands, and in other beatific locations. Do you schedule these events yourself or do you work with an agent that assists you with these bookings? Can you summarize some of the most helpful advice you’ve given to your photography students at these workshops? Are there common mistakes beginner or expert photographers are making? Do you primarily teach by showing or practicing photography or with lectures or corrections?

Blevins: I usually arrange photography workshops myself, although sometimes I am approached by a group who helps make the arrangements. Each workshop is different and depends on the needs and interests of the group, but there are a few things that seem to come up almost every time.

The instant results of modern digital cameras make learning photography so much faster than was possible back in the days of film. But at the same time, modern cameras are far more complicated with many more controls and options. The complexity of modern cameras opens opportunities for creative control but also presents a steep learning curve. I have noticed that participants who return from previous workshops often must relearn much of the same information because they simply do not use their camera enough. Using your camera every day, or at least once a week, is essential for camera operation to become second nature. Once your mind is free from focusing on camera controls, you can focus on observing your subject, paying attention to the light, and considering how to express your ideas visually.

Reviewing the work of participants is always a part of my workshops. These review sessions are done as a group, and treated as a group discussion. My goal is to learn what each participant was trying to achieve with their images and discuss ways their images can come closer to expressing their own unique way of seeing things. Often, participants do not realize they have a unique personal style until I begin to point out its qualities. But once they begin to consciously recognize their own style and learn how to use their camera to achieve it intentionally, their images show immediate improvement. But it is important to always remember that improvement is measured by what they are trying to say with their photography, not what I or others in the group may personally like.

July 2013 Workshop

Photography workshop participants working with the soft light before dawn.

Faktorovich: Do you ever wish you received a PhD in photography, instead of forestry (if such degrees are available)? Or do you think your PhD in forestry makes you especially qualified to perform high-quality nature photography, when in competition with other photographers who are only looking at beauty in nature?

Blevins: No, never. Photography is relatively easy to learn, especially today with the immediate results of digital cameras. Many successful photographers are self-taught. If you practice using a camera and know how to learn from your mistakes, you will eventually improve. The most challenging part is developing your own style. A good photography teacher can accelerate this process, but ultimately each photographer must go through this process on their own.

I think of a camera as a tool, not unlike a pen, for putting ink on paper. You need something of value to say for that ink to be worthwhile. I have also found that having something to say pushes me to learn photography techniques that I need to make the images my projects require. In other words, I find letting what you have to say drive your photography rather than finding something to say about your images is a better approach.

The perspective I gained from my formal education, not my photography skill, is the reason I can go to a place and come away with unique images worth publishing. Skill with a camera is also important, but technically perfect images of the same subjects you have seen many times will never be as interesting as passable images of something you have never seen or noticed. I am not saying you need a Ph.D. to be a nature photographer, just that for me, that experience has helped shape the way I see and what I have to say. Finding your voice is very important, wherever you can find it.

I never think about other nature photographers as competition. There are so many important stories to tell and one lifetime of work is not enough to address all the needs. I feel that the more people share the beauty of nature with others the better.

Faktorovich: Your photography has been featured on the covers of Your National Forests Magazine and Nature’s Temples, and in numerous other publications since 2002. Would you recommend freelance photography as a full-time job? Is it a more financially rewarding career than research or teaching in forestry science? Is it more time consuming? For example, your first major published photographs back in 2002 were for Save Western Canada’s Endangered Species Calendar of the Oregon Spotted Frog and Chilliwack Cottonwoods. Since these are endangered, I would imagine that it took an extremely long time to spot and capture them in professional photographs. Can you describe the approximate length of time and effort these and other challenging photos cost you? Do you spend days or hours to capture a single publishable image? You mentioned that you took a great deal of photos across your life before any were published. Were you going on regular weekend or the like trips to exercise this craft? Your photos in the latest UNC collection are all extremely polished. This is inspiring, as they make me want to go out there and take photos. On the other hand, I wonder how much time I should plan on spending in the field to capture a single shot of this quality.

Blevins: There are some kinds of photography that pay well. Commercial work and wedding photography can be high paying fields. But that is not what I do. I am using photography as part of my larger goals to help people love and appreciate the natural world. I do this because I must, because I can’t imagine doing anything else, and because anything else would not be as fulfilling or rewarding. I also enjoy the challenge. None of my other jobs have required all the skills I have, plus a few I don’t. For most of my life I made photographs on the side, while I was going to school or working for other people. The images for my first two books were created while completing my Ph.D., and almost half the images for my third book were created while working as a postdoc at NCSU. I am in a very fortunate and privileged position now to be able to focus on this sort of work full time because my wife has a well-paying career and does not mind the financial risk that comes with spending years on a book project that may or may not sell well.

I consider a good day in the field to be one where I capture one image a book or project needs. If I capture two I feel fortunate. I will often also make ten to twenty additional images during a day that are unrelated to my project. Those are the sort of images that just present themselves, and I try to take advantage of the opportunity. But those additional images are rarely what the project needs. One image per day might not sound like much, but it took years to learn how to achieve that rate of success. There are still occasionally some days where I am not able to capture what I need. Nature photography is very dependent on many things that are beyond your control such as weather, the quality of natural light, the behavior of an animal, or the condition of a wildflower.

When I decided I wanted to move from photography for my own pleasure to using photography as a tool for publishing, the first project I gave myself was to make one publishable quality image each month for a year at a nature preserve near my home. This was a spectacular place to photograph in winter, when migratory waterfowl filled the area, but images were not so obvious the rest of the year. I realized that publishing projects would require the skill to create good quality images anytime, anyplace, and I had never challenged myself in this way before. One image a month does not sound like much of a challenge, but in those days, I would have to visit the preserve four or five times before I could come away with an image I was happy with. Once I had successfully achieved my goal, I used the images in a series of short articles for the preserves quarterly newsletter. Each article was one image and a page of text about the subject of the image. This was my first attempt to combine writing and photography, and the things I learned with this project apply directly to the books I make now. It is important to realize though that no one hired me to do this project. I challenged myself to do it so I could learn the skills I knew I would need. And I continue to challenge myself with every new project.

Northern Pintail

One of my favorite images of a male northern pintail from my “one-image-per-month” project.

Faktorovich: You mentioned in an interview with Public Radio East on April 19, 2017 that you spend a good deal of time setting up your shots. For example, you describe that you could capture the illusive blue crab because you caught it shortly after mating, an event that tied him to his partner. Can you describe a shot that was particularly difficult to set up and execute and how you went about it?

Blevins: The images in my books are a mixture of previsualized planned images, and lucky moments that I could have never planned.

The blue crab image is an example of the kind of image that just happens without any planning. Blue crabs were on my list of species I wanted to cover for the book, but I did not have a plan for how to photograph one. I got very lucky one day. The tide was out and the boat could not make it over a sandbar to get to the island I was trying to reach. While I was wading ashore a blue crab scurried past me, then stopped and stood his ground with his claws upraised. I was surprised at this behavior because these crabs can swim very fast, and in my previous experience, they just keep going out of sight. Then I noticed he was standing guard over his mate, and it all started to make sense. I could not believe my luck. The female blue crab can only mate right after she molts, so the male stays around to protect her after mating until her shell hardens. Capturing a photograph of behavior like this in the wild is something I can’t plan, all I can really do is pay attention and react quickly.

Atlantic Blue Crab pair

A male blue crab defends his mate.

The image that took the most planning in the new book was the nesting sea turtle. A book on nature on the barrier islands must have a sea turtle image, and I wanted to make an image that did justice to this timeless yet brief spectacle. But turtles nest at night so that presented a challenge. All the images I had seen of turtles nesting were shot with a flash while the photographer stood above the turtle looking down. These images seemed like an invasion of privacy and did not have the epic and timeless feeling I wanted to convey. Instead, I wanted to create a landscape image with a turtle nesting in the foreground. A flash only lights a small area in front of the camera so a landscape image meant I would have to use natural light. At first, I thought I would work with a full moon so I would have the most light possible to reduce the time the shutter needed to be open. But then I realized the moonlight would wash out the stars, and what I really needed for that epic timeless feeling was to see the Milky Way. I practiced shooting beach landscapes on clear nights with no moon to determine how briefly I could keep the shutter open and still produce an image of sufficient quality for publishing. It is not too difficult to create a high-quality image at night with a long exposure, but turtles move and I had to minimize any blur that movement would cause during a long exposure. Once I was convinced I could use a short enough exposure time to capture a nesting turtle, the next challenge was finding one. I worked with the Bald Head Island Conservancy who helped me locate turtles. I spent a week staying up all night and sleeping during the day before I finally made the image I was after. Some nights we found no turtles while other nights were too cloudy to see stars. We found several turtles on clear nights that were nesting in awkward positions between dunes that made it impossible to see much sky or water. But finally, on one perfect night it worked.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle

A loggerhead sea turtle, lit only by starlight, lays her eggs near Cape Fear, North Carolina.

Faktorovich: One of the reasons I thought your book stood out from the rest is because of the cohesive message in it. It is unified by the idea of conservation and beauty of a single place, the Barrier Islands. The colors, mood, theme and other elements are consistent, and allow a critic to grasp what the project is about. Do you have a new idea that you are working on for the next collection? Is it you or your publisher that’s keeping you from releasing a new photography book annually?

Blevins: Thank you for that. Achieving that level of cohesion and unity was a major challenge and was very important to me. My publisher would love it if I could produce a book every year! So far, every book has taken me five years to produce. Although, the new book on barrier islands is the first I have done without a coauthor to help, so it feels like I am getting faster, after a fashion. Perhaps I will do better with my next book. I am currently working on an idea for the next book, but I am not ready to talk about it quite yet. I am still searching for the idea that will tie the project together and give the book the sort of cohesion and unity I feel it needs.

Faktorovich: The Barrier Islands are around a four-hour drive from your home in Cary, North Carolina. Did you rent a vacation house out there for the duration of the shoot for this book, or did you take day trips occasionally to capture the images?

Blevins: The only way I can make these projects work financially is to minimize production costs, and travel is by far the greatest expense. I typically spend a week in the field followed by a week in the office to process images and make arrangements for the next week’s field work. Working for a week straight reduces the fuel costs compared with day trips and allows me time to immerse myself in the subject. Renting a house or staying in a hotel is sometimes necessary for certain locations, but it is too expensive and inconvenient for most of the work. Day trips are also inconvenient because the best light is often around dawn and dusk. I need to be on location ready to shoot before the light becomes spectacular so that I have time to find my subject and consider how I will capture the image. This means arriving well before dawn, often after a substantial hike. Camping is often the best way to be where I need to be with the least cost and effort.

One major challenge is finding time to sleep. Nights are short in the summer, and after working past sunset, hiking back to camp or driving to a hotel, I often can only get four hours of sleep before I have to wake up and make my way to the next location before dawn. In the summer, I often end up sleeping four hours at night and four hours in the middle of the day when the light is usually not very interesting.

Another major challenge is carrying everything I need. When backpacking in remote areas, I can’t carry enough food and water in addition to camera and camping equipment to work the entire week. Instead, I stay for several days, then head into a nearby town to restock my supplies, and backpack into another nearby location for a few more days.

ShacklefordBanks

Waiting for the light on Shackleford Banks in the Cape Lookout National Seashore.

Faktorovich: Is there something magical about the shoreline that drew you out of the woods in Cary? What was the initial idea that started this project?

Blevins: I love the North Carolina coast and have visited it since I was a child. But I love many places and could make a book like this anywhere, provided I can afford the travel expenses. One thing that drew me to working with barrier islands is the strong connections between the way the islands move and change, with the unique habitats this movement creates, and the unique plants and animals that live in no other habitats. There were already some great books published on the human history and culture of the islands, the geology, plants, animals, and natural areas. But few books covered the connections between these subjects from nature’s perspective, and none of them were photography books. I also saw an opportunity to begin with a subject many people already love, making it more likely that people will find the book in the first place.

Faktorovich: You only did one solo photography exhibition back in 2010 at the North Carolina Botanical Garden. Are exhibitions a good way for photographers to find buyers, or viewers for their art? Or are your publications in magazines, in books, and on your website venues that are more likely to reach a larger audience? What happened at the Garden exhibition, or what was that experience like? Were you only there for the opening? The Garden is also featuring you in their public fine art print collections. Does it feel empowering to see your work in a collection? Is your ambition to continue evolving in your art to be featured in larger collections or exhibits? What are your goals for the coming decades?

Blevins: I enjoyed the exhibition at the North Carolina Botanical Garden and would welcome other opportunities to exhibit my prints. I don’t put as much effort into this part of the business as I probably should. My priority is on publishing books because I feel that is the best format for what I have to say. My images can be appreciated purely aesthetically, but they are created for a purpose that I have not found a way to convey without some text. Most of my experience exhibiting photographs was a bit of a letdown because I did not feel the deeper significance of the images was understood by the viewers. The North Carolina Botanical Garden was my first, and only, attempt at combining a small amount of text along with the images to communicate a broader message. I felt like it worked to some degree, but the text had to be very brief because people do not want to spend hours reading while standing in a gallery. The other downside of an exhibit, from my perspective, is it ends, whereas a book persists far into the future. I began exhibiting photographs before publishing my first book, so perhaps now that my images are published along with text in those books, I could try exhibiting again without being so concerned that the deeper meaning is being lost.

*title*

Part of the 2010 Remnants exhibit at the North Carolina Botanical Garden in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Public collections have more permanence than a temporary exhibit, but they still suffer the same issues for me of communicating deeper meaning and significance of the work without text. I love making large prints, and one of the most impressive collections of my large prints is at the Southern Environmental Law Center offices in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Chowan River in the Hall

Part of the collection of large prints at the Southern Environmental Law Center in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Faktorovich: Do you think beautiful photos of nature are a stronger tool than propagandistic articles in helping with protecting the environment? If so, how so?

Blevins: Propaganda distorts the truth. You could use beautiful images of nature to distort the truth just as powerfully as you could use them to reveal the truth. Propaganda is inherently weak because it is not based in fact. But what I assume you are asking about is the difference between an opinionated writer telling the reader what to think versus allowing the reader to come to their own conclusions about the meaning and significance of the writing. I feel it is very important to respect the intelligence of the reader and let them come to their own conclusions, especially when concerned with matters of opinion. I try to present facts in a meaningful way that help the reader decide for themselves what is important. This often means holding back what I feel is a more direct and obvious point, and instead providing the facts that led me to arrive at that conclusion, trusting that the reader will find their own way there or perhaps somewhere I have not considered. My writing style is more about sharing what I love and find wonderful, rather than trying to make a convincing argument. I don’t know which type of writing is more effective at inspiring action to protect the environment, but I do know that I prefer to read authors that let me form my own opinions, rather than telling me what to think.

Faktorovich: I particularly liked the map and other unique design elements in your book. They seem to have been painstakingly prepared just for your collection. The book is credited as being designed and set by Kimberly Bryant. Did you work closely with Bryant on the design? If so, how so; if not, did you supply your design preferences?

Blevins: I am glad you mentioned Kim and her work on the book design. Kim did a wonderful job and was a pleasure to work with. She also designed my previous book with UNC Press, Wild North Carolina.

Kim deserves all the credit for the design. I gave her a manuscript, a selection of images keyed to the text, another smaller collection of images for use in front and end matter, and a list of image notes with my preferences on how some of the images should be treated. My notes were not terribly specific, just suggestions like the square images were composed to print full page, the panoramic images were composed to print as two-page spreads, and a few notes on which images needed to be in a certain order and which images had some flexibility in their placement. Kim did a wonderful job of putting all the pieces together, and finding room for everything I wanted to include. I feel fortunate to be allowed some input in the design process and offered a few suggestions after seeing the initial design. This was a very collaborative back and forth where I might make a suggestion to solve an issue, and Kim would come back with an even better solution I had not considered.

I also did the pre-press work on the images. This is the process of sizing, cropping, and color profiling each image and is required for printing images captured in red, green, and blue, but printed in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. There are always compromises in making this color conversion, especially in shades of green. Doing this work myself helps me both achieve the best results possible, but also helps me appreciate that perfect color matching between the printed page and the original image is often not possible. My understanding is an author would not typically do this pre-press work, but I feel it improves the results and am grateful UNC Press accommodates my perfectionism.

The map is a good example of the sort of collaborative effort that was involved with the design of the book. I created the map in muted tones, but Kim suggested I change the map color scheme to match the colors of the sea oat image on the facing table of contents page. Kim’s attention to details like this really helped tie the different parts of the book together visually.

170813_41698

Table of contents and map from North Carolina’s Barrier Islands.

Faktorovich: In my review of your book, I also liked the photo you took of the hawk on page 20. You described in the Public Radio East interview that you caught the hawk amidst a meal, and then set the camera to take a photograph every ten seconds and walked away to let the hawk come back for the close-up shot. Is the hawk looking at you off-camera in this shot or were you far enough away for the hawk to hardly notice you? Is the hawk looking partially at the camera (was it making a noise as it snapped photos)? This is an isolated shot of a creature being eaten in this collection. Do you prefer to avoid violent scenes in your photography? If you are submitting photos to magazines, would a scene of a predatory hunt be more likely to sell than a shot of a bird eating grass or the like?

Blevins: The hawk is not looking at me or the camera. I was quite far away watching through binoculars while the camera (about twenty feet away) was programmed to capture an image every ten seconds. While the hawk was feeding she would occasionally look up to survey her surroundings. I suppose to keep a watch for danger or, more likely, to watch for any other animal that might try to steal her hard-earned meal.

I do not view this as a violent scene. The violence was over before I started shooting. I think it is important to challenge preconceptions about nature. Truly appreciating nature means appreciating all of nature, not just the parts that are easy to appreciate. A hawk must eat and a hawk is a beautiful creature, and I would argue it is at its most beautiful when it is doing what it does best. I included this image in the section on Pine Island because it was shot there and because the theme of that section is all about natural cycles. Most of this section deals with the natural cycles that create and destroy salt marshes. Cycles are all about birth, life, and death, but people do not often think of a landscape in those terms. I felt including this scene helped give a stronger emotional context and sense of empathy to a discussion of the cycles of nature and I hoped the reader would make the connection with the cycles of the marshes, and perhaps experience a sense of empathy for a place.

Cooper's Hawk feeding on Marsh Rabbit

A young Cooper’s Hawk has just killed a marsh rabbit along the sound shore.

Faktorovich: You also avoid scenes of destruction of habitats or species, instead focusing on the positive continuation of life. Do you make these choices consciously or are these just the moments you happen to capture? Another one of your sadder pictures is from a low area with marshes and ponds, where the rising sea level is “slowly killing trees that cannot tolerate the increasingly wet soils” (72). Without reading the description, the scene just looks scenic and vibrant, but obviously the dead branches are a threatening sign. If you had zoomed in closer on the dying branches, the environmental impact might have been more obvious in this shot. Why did you choose to let the thick grass around these trees soften the composition?

Blevins: I would say what I avoid is showing the damage caused by people. Destruction can be a completely natural process, such as the slow drowning of a forest as sea level rises. You could view the scene mentioned as the destruction of a forest, or you could view it as the creation of a marsh. As sea level changes, one habitat slowly shifts to the other. It is neither positive nor negative, it is simply a beautiful part of how the world works.

I have occasionally been criticized by fellow ecologists for painting too rosy a picture of the natural world. But my response to that is anyone that travels to the places I cover can see for themselves all the development and all the ways nature has been displaced or damaged. What is difficult to notice is the sort of things I cover in my books, the unique natural qualities of a place. I feel that once people learn to recognize these unique natural qualities, they will be more likely to see and understand the damage our society causes to the environment, and perhaps, will take steps to minimize or reverse those impacts. But, in my opinion, the place to start is showing what is right with the world and worth protecting.

Ghost Forest

A rising water table, driven by rising sea level, is slowly changing this landscape near the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse from forest to marsh.

Faktorovich: You include only a couple of great night shots. Why didn’t you include a few more night shots? Are there fewer visible natural wonders at night?

Blevins: There are technical limitations to what can be photographed at night, but there are plenty of subjects I would have loved to cover at night if I could have found a way to do it. I don’t like to use flash or any other artificial light at night. I prefer to work only with natural light, which means very long exposures. I was able to photograph the nesting sea turtle at night because she was relatively still while laying her eggs, so a long exposure did not result in much motion blur. Most of the other animals that are active at night are too small and quick to photograph without some artificial light source.

I created many landscape images at night while working on the book, but they just did not connect well enough with what the book is about to be included. One of my favorites was created several hours before dawn near Cape Fear on Bald Head Island. I arrived well before dawn because there was a meteor shower that night, and I thought I would enjoy a bit of the show before starting work at dawn. When I arrived, Venus was just rising in a band of zodiacal light. Zodiacal light is light scattered by dust that orbits the sun in a plane aligned with the orbits of the planets, dust left over from the formation of the solar system. I could have included this image in the book since it was created on a barrier island, but then one of the other images would have to be cut from the book. Only the images that connected most with the needs of the book were included.

Venus Rising

Venus rising over Cape Fear in zodiacal light.

Faktorovich: How do you deal with the elements, like the wind, or with nature’s pests, like mosquitoes, during your photoshoots? There was a Zika outbreak in the Brownsville area, where I live, this past year. When I attempted to venture out to the beach, the swampy beach was swarming with mosquitoes, so I’ve put that project on hold. Any tricks you have on surviving nature would be helpful. Or perhaps I should just move to North Carolina, where the climate is milder? One of your photos is of a red snake with its tongue sticking out right at you. So, I’m assuming you’ve had encounters with many wild dangers? Perhaps you can describe some of your more dangerous meetings?

Blevins: I would say I am comfortable in nature and enjoy the experience most of the time. I suppose much of my comfort comes from being familiar with nature, recognizing the threats, and taking steps to minimize the risk. I imagine an overnight camping experience could be overwhelming for someone with limited experience with nature, who did not recognize all the creatures and sounds, and who imagined that any unknown was a threat. You are in more danger driving your car to the trail head than from hiking the trail. Many people don’t think about it that way because they are familiar and comfortable driving a car, but nature is largely an unknown to them.

I love encountering wild animals, especially a beautiful snake. The snake flicking its tongue is not a threat, that is just how they taste the air. Its body language in the photograph you mentioned indicates that it is feeling threatened by me. I recognized its discomfort and made my image quickly to minimize disturbing it too much. After I made my photograph I thanked the snake for its cooperation and apologized for causing it to be alarmed.

Young Eastern Hognose Snake

A young hognose snake patiently waits for me to move along.

Insects are an annoyance sometimes, but I am often so focused on my work I don’t notice them. I usually wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants, even on the hottest summer days, mostly for sun protection because of my fair skin, but I find that also helps with mosquitoes. I would rather put some insect repellent on my clothes than on my skin. I find ticks and chiggers more irritating than mosquitoes, but I can usually minimize their impact when I am in tick and chigger habitat by taping my pant legs closed with duct tape and doing a careful inspection periodically during the day to remove any that find me. I also keep a spare piece of duct tape folded in my pack for removing ticks and chiggers. It is a lot easier to mop them up with the sticky side of the tape than trying to remove them with fingers. I am very allergic to poison ivy, but that can be avoided just by not touching it, although sometimes the image I need requires me to risk it.

I am frequently thankful for storms. I will often cancel a trip if it is going to rain all day, but some of the best light happens just before or after rain. Being out in the rain is part of capturing landscapes in the most beautiful light. In the summer, an approaching thunderstorm will dump cold and refreshing air from high altitude as it approaches. The heat and sun take much more of a toll on me, and I am much more likely to avoid a sunny day with no clouds than a day that threatens rain.

I also don’t mind getting wet. It seems strange to me that people can take a shower every day but run for shelter in a light drizzle. The real threat is my camera cannot get wet. I have a waterproof cover for my backpack, and when I am working from a boat, I keep my camera equipment in a five-gallon plastic bucket with an air tight lid.

Lightning is a real threat and several experiences with storms that came up suddenly and without much warning were the only times working on this book that I felt I was in danger. The barrier islands are often very flat with few trees and I was often in remote places I could not retreat from. The feeling of helplessness as I hunkered down with lightning crashing all around was soon replaced with elation as the storm passed and I saw the beautiful light that often follows a storm. I would not want to put myself in that kind of danger on purpose, but I am very grateful for the feeling I experienced once I knew I had survived and was witnessing such beautiful light.

Lightning Strikes Masonboro Island

Lightning strikes Masonboro Island before dawn.

Faktorovich: If a photo-ecologist approaches you and asks you what they should do as they start on their career, what advice would you give?

Blevins: Hmmm, a photo-ecologist. I haven’t ever heard anyone call themselves that, but if they did I would think they already have a good idea of what to do. It was not until I was part way through my Ph.D. that I realized I could combine these things together, and that realization is probably the most difficult part. I suppose my advice would not be very helpful but I would probably say, “go with your strengths.” Everyone is different, and what has worked for me might not work for someone else. Before I could be very helpful I would have to ask this person some questions like, “what do they want to say with their images? What audience would they like to reach? What method would they like to use for sharing their images, books, exhibits, magazine articles, online, etc.? Is anyone else already doing what they envision? If so what can be learned from their work or what could be done differently to distinguish their work from the work of others?” I suppose there might be some advice somewhere in that conversation, but I would mostly have questions. The answers will have to come from who they are and what they want to accomplish.

The way I got started seems to have worked for me, and I suppose it could work for others as well. I tend to be drawn to locations close to home rather than far off exotic locations. Close means I can afford to spend the time necessary to become familiar with the place, especially early in my career when I would have to visit locations many times to create good quality images. I also only had time for these projects in the evenings or weekends because I was either in school or working during the day. At first, I gave myself personal projects that would challenge me to develop skills I knew I would need. One of the consequences of my method of conceiving of the idea for a coffee table book before creating the images is I have to sell it to a publisher before I have the images. It is a significant leap of confidence to sign a contract with a publisher for a coffee table book without any of the images, and I would have never developed that confidence without first challenging myself for many years. After several years of personal challenges, I started volunteering my photography to help local conservation organizations. Since they were not paying me there was less pressure to perform, and I could take as much time as I needed. One early example was work I did to help the Alouette River Management Society in British Columbia. They had been successful at restoring salmon spawning habitat in the Alouette River and wanted help getting that story out. This story meant I would have to work underwater for the first time, and I had no underwater photography equipment. As a graduate student I also could not afford any new equipment. But since salmon spawn in very shallow water, I was able to make an underwater housing for my camera out of a plastic bucket. I cut a hole in the side at the bottom of the bucket and used aquarium adhesive to fix a glass plate over the hole. Then I mounted my camera in the bottom of the bucket with the lens looking out the window. Fortunately, my single lens reflex camera had a removable prism so I could look directly down on the focusing screen from the top of the bucket to aim the camera. Doing projects like this taught me to do what it takes to get the images the project needs. This is a very different skill than making the obvious images you notice on a hike. Not long after doing a few projects like this I was contacted by a local author who was working on a book about Boundary Bay. She needed help creating images for her book and asked if I would be willing to help. This turned into my first book, and things have just been building from there.

Spawning Chum Salmon

Spawning salmon in the Alouette River.

Faktorovich: Thanks for participating in this interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Blevins: Thank you for thought-provoking questions and for helping introduce people to my work. I really appreciate the help.

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