Sunday, March 14, 2010

From the Beginning


I don't know if I've ever gotten into this topic before (?), but it is something I relive occasionally when someone poses a question where I started; where it all began I guess.

First it was just unintentional small steps...parents who didn't protest the little things...frogs, toads and turtles "free ranging" in the basement; science summer school; teaching the neighborhood squirrels to eat out of my hand; wading and fishing in neighborhood streams.

I gained an appreciation for the beauty of this scheme of things. I was fascinated by the light shimmering off the membrane of an amphibian, the colors and design of a turtle's carapace and plastron, the shapes of trees, their leaves, the hillsides along the Des Moines River valley, the rocks and fossils along Lizard Creek, or lying on a pasture hillside staring at the sky...watching clouds and the birds that intersected my field of view.

One day I bought a book, I was eleven or twelve, the book was full of color illustrations by Louis Aggassiz Fuertes. They were awesome, beautiful...the slip cover of this 1917 edition book, for the lack of a better word, transported me. Two of my most favorite birds, a Cooper's and a Red-tailed Hawk, were perched on treetop branches above forested hillsides. The landscape and the birds were mesmerizing for a young impressionable me. I wanted to paint birds.

Birds in the yard would never seem to hold still long enough for me to draw; I got the idea I needed to photograph them, and then I could draw them from their photo; brilliant idea I thought.

I didn't have a camera, but my mother loaned me her old box camera. Ya, the old Ansco Shur-Shot Jr. at the top of this blog, was to be my first camera. I actually took quite a few pictures with this Ansco...all B&W...it was a 120 film camera (2 1/4X2 3/4" or 6X7cm). You can kind of guess how useful it was as a bird camera though - not very.

One incident convinced me to get a "suitable" camera. I was walking the upper banks along Lizard Creek's south branch west of town one summer afternoon. It was a typical hot and humid day and the afternoon wasn't the best condition to find birds. By just dumb luck I came upon a Great Horned Owl sitting in a tree jutting out of the high bank below me. The bird was maybe 3 feet out from the bank on a branch about 8-10 feet above the water flowing beneath it. The bird was awake, looking across the creek into the woodland there. I dropped as fast as I could into the grass above the high bank and crawled very slowly on my stomach to the bank's edge and peered over - it hadn't seen or heard me, the noise of the creek had masked my presence. My heart was pounding so loud I was sure the bird would hear it!

The owl was sitting in deep shade. I pushed the box camera ahead of me and tried peering into the viewfinder without raising my head too much and giving myself away. I was no more than 6-8 feet away from the bird, yet I could not find the owl in my viewfinder, it just was not bright enough. I looked up again and tried to reference where the bird was, then looked back into the viewfinder - still no bird, I looked up again and the owl was no where...it was gone.

Whether the bird spotted or heard me I really don't know, what I do remember is the rush from the experience and the needling anguish of blowing it! That was not going to happen again! I spent the next year saving money from about any odd job I could find, and bought myself an SLR and a 400mm lens. As best I can recollect, this was in 1962.

I became hooked on nature photography that way...birds eventually led to all flora and fauna and to the landscape. Painting nature eventually led the same direction.

I don't know why I didn't become a biologist or botanist? There was always an urge to paint, draw or photograph and that's all I can say.

We all gotta start somewhere!




6 comments:

Tim Morrison said...

Cool story Bruce...and you're right...We all do gotta start somewhere.

prairie painter said...

You know it Tim!

Anthony Vodraska and Anita Gilbert said...

What a great story. It is wonderful to read of the roots of your evident passion that I see in your life and work today.

prairie painter said...

Thank you Anthony and Anita!

HARE said...

I saw this camera first time.
I tried to imagine the story of this camara. Beautiful.

prairie painter said...

Thank you for your kind comment Makiko!