Saturday, 30 July 2011

China, Vietnam and Moon Bears

In mid 2009 I had recently finished a book about polar bears when I received an email from Laura Godwin, Vice President of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers, located in New York City, asking if I wanted to go to China for a few weeks to photograph and work on a book about moon bears. Furthermore, she indicated that she would be disappointed if I did not go.

My first thoughts were that it would be nearly impossible to find China’s Asiatic black bears (also called moon bears) in the wild and that I could never obtain adequate photographs for such a project in just a couple of weeks.  But Laura was not to be dissuaded. She told me that she was in close contact with a conservation organization called Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) which was in the business of rescuing moon bears from bear bile farms  and providing a home for them in large, semi-natural enclosures on a sanctuary in Chengdu, China. Up until that point I had never heard of Animals Asia.

Laura put me in touch with Alice Ng, the Hong Kong-based organization’s US director at that time, and with Alice’s assurance that good photographs of the bears at the sanctuary were, indeed, possible, the book project was launched.  It took some last minute scrambling to come up with visas and plane tickets, but by early April 2010 I found myself in Chengdu at Animals Asia’s Moon Bear Rescue Center.
I was introduced to Jill Robinson, Founder and CEO of AAF and given permission to wander freely about the sanctuary.

There were 168 rescued bears at the center, in a variety of large, outdoor semi-natural enclosures. Each bear had been given a name and received a devoted amount of attention and care from their keepers. A full-time staff of 140 people attended to their needs.  For the most part the moon bears seemed content and even happy, even those bears that were missing parts of limbs from having been caught in snares by hunters. But a large bear cemetery with dozens of somber grave mounds at the edge of the sanctuary grounds, with a huge jumbled pile of rusted coffin-size cages nearby, imparted a mood
that was anything but happy. The bears had suffered greatly.

All the moon bears came from tortured conditions on bear bile farms. Jill Robinson had managed to negotiate their release in a landmark agreement with the Chinese authorities signed in 2000 (a similar agreement was signed with the Vietnam government in 2006).  Jill, in her inspiring way, clearly demonstrated how one person can make a big difference.

When Laura Godwin at Holt became aware of the moon bears’ plight she felt compelled to also try to make a difference and spearheaded the creation of the book that I was sent out to create in order to educate young people.  Even most adults have never heard of a moon bear. 

For the assignment I relied mostly on my Nikon 80-400 VR stabilized lens, mounted on a D300 body. I brought along four Sandisk Extreme III 8GB CF memory cards.  Each card held the equivalent of about 750 images when shooting in RAW.  Having spent most of my career in the era of film I think of that as the equivalent of about 21 rolls.  In addition I travelled with a small computer and two Western Digital palm-sized external hard drives to be able to back up all files in duplicate.  At maximum focal length, the 80-400 lens gave the equivalent power of a 600mm lens when used with the small Dx sensor on the Nikon D300.  I did not bring a tripod along on the trip. I rarely do, choosing instead to rely on image stabilization technology to achieve sharp photos.  I value mobility, speed and spontaneity and they cannot be achieved adequately with constant tripod usage.

The main Animals Asia Foundation sanctuary is located in Chengdu, China.  But when I discovered that the foundation also ran a sanctuary rescue center on the edge of Tam Dao National Park in Vietnam I decided to visit that location as well.  Upon arriving in Tam Dao it was immediately obvious that the setting was more lush than China, being true tropical jungle, and would provide for more natural looking photo opportunities. As in Chengdu, the large bear enclosures were surrounded by cyclone fencing. This would have been problematic if I was shooting with a small lens, but by using the telephoto and keeping the f-stop wide open I was easily able to shoot through the fencing without it showing up in the pictures. All of the bear images in this blog were shot right through the fence. In order to accomplish this it is best to place the lens as close to the fencing as possible.

Between China and Vietnam I was easily able to obtain enough variety of  images for the book, which will be published by Holt in 2012 and called, simply, Moon Bears.  There are about 10,000 farmed bears being kept in horrible conditions in China and about 4000 in Vietnam.  The sooner that people worldwide are educated about the natural history and plight of this unique species, the more progress that can be made in convincing governments to shut down the bile farms and discontinue the practice of exploiting the bears altogether.

Mark Newman 

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Pros Photographing Their Kids--Do It Sparingly

The families of professional photographers are at special risk of having an obnoxious lens aimed at them at any time and in any place. That just comes with the territory when your parent or partner is obsessed with capturing images with a camera.  I plead guilty as charged with having been one of these overbearing
souls who has a tough time letting a good photo op get away. But for the sake of family harmony I have always made the effort to at least moderate the urge to pick up the camera and shoot when on family outings.

Neverthless, there are those impossibly compelling moments when camera addiction overrides all other concerns and a particular image is just destined to be captured, no matter what. At those times the photographer just has to bear the consequences of his or her behavior which can range from a simple nasty look to having to sleep on the couch for a week.

The images that cry out to be taken are always obvious, such as the one above, when my daughter, Heather, was five months old. My wife and I were headed out the door carrying Heather, a stuffed Easter bunny, and a small blanket.  The lighting on our front porch was decent and the potential just too great to pass up the opportunity. I actually don't remember whether the photo in this case was my wife's idea or mine. But for certain it was just an ad-libbed afterthought as we left the house and not a planned shot. Before getting into our car my wife quickly laid the blanket on the porch, leaned Heather and the bunny against the front door and each other, and I snapped off a few shots. It was all done hurriedly without any fancy choreography and then we were on our way.  Those were the days of film and I never even got to see the results until a few weeks later.  Upon seeing the transparency I knew it was a great shot and shipped it off to one of my stock agencies. They subsequently sold it to Avanti for use on their greeting cards and subsequenly the image has been used to advertise various products. Serendipity is important in photography. One needs to take advantage of it whenever possible.

It goes without saying that some people are more comfortable in front of cameras than others.  At least that's the case with adults. Children, however, almost all love to have their picture taken.  This is especially obvious in foreign countries, such as India and Vietnam, where kids come running over enthusiastically in groups to be photographed, even when they are not the subject of your attention.  Fortunately for me my daughter was never camera shy and was always a good sport (and still is). Plus she has always been photogenic.  Every April for many years I took her down to Homer, Alaska to camp on the beach and have an Easter egg hunt. At that time of year many starfish wash ashore and Heather didn't complain in the least when on one such trip I lined up a row of the creatures along her arm for this photo op. There are not many adults that I know who would sit still for this treatment.

The cutesy period for photographing one's own kids doesn't really last very long.  Perhaps eight or nine years at most, if that.  Once they start looking adult-ish the subsequent  photos you will be taking are relegated to the usual family albums and sending pictures to grandparents.  The commercial potential of extreme innocent youth won't be there any more.

And speaking of family albums, when I was selecting images for my recently published novel, Golden, about a girl and wild horse, I realized that I needed a photograph of a young girl riding a horse to show the human protagonist of the story. I could have gone to a stock agency and purchased such an image. But instead I remembered a trip we took with Heather in the Spring of 1993 to a friend's ranch in Ellensburg, Washington.  Heather was nine years old at the time.  I went to my collection of family images, found a transparency of Heather at the ranch galloping on a horse named Cassin, scanned the slide, and inserted the digitized photo into my Word document of the book manuscript.  Family photos can be where it's at.

Mark Newman

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

Breach!! --A Whale of a Tale

Humpback whales make the long transpacific migration each year from their winter calving grounds off Maui to the cold krill-filled Alaskan waters to feed. Some of the best locations to see these magnificent creatures are right outside the capital city of Juneau and within Glacier Bay National Park during the summer months.

In the early 1990's whale photography was not yet the popular obsession that it is today. There weren't nearly as many spoon-fed type photography trips that one now finds advertised in various magazines and online. If you wanted to get out on the seas and look for whales you were pretty much on your own to organize such an excursion.   Of the various times I managed to visit with Alaskan whales, two of the trips in particular stick in my memory.  The first involved recruiting two great friends, John Warden and Kurt Ramseyer, along with Kurt's son, Jason.  Kurt owned a 40 foot fishing boat called the Osprey which he kept docked in the tiny community of Haines where he lived.  John and I both agreed to pay for diesel fuel if Kurt would pilot us around looking for whales. 

We set out from Haines and spent the next several days cruising south down Lynn Canal and then northwest into Icy Strait.  I don't know how many miles we covered but it was plenty.  We stayed mostly within protected waters and saw about eight humpback whales.  One came right near us and created a so-called "bubble net" around the entire boat.  A humpback does this to trap fish and krill, eventually surfacing with its mouth wide open to ingest whatever is within the circle of bubbles.  This made for some tense moments but the Osprey was never bumped or upended.

Most whale photographers have a single objective in mind--to capture a full breach.  Scientists do not know why whales engage in this behavior. Some think it is to help digest their food while others maintain that jumping out of the water is nothing more than play.  Whatever the reason, everyone agrees that the ultimate whale watching experience is to observe a full breach when a whale jumps totally out of the water and then comes crashing back into the sea with a huge white splash.

We had been out for seven days in typical coastal Alaskan cloudy, drizzly weather.  We had seen whales breach, sometimes repeatedly for half a dozen times, but far off in the distance, way beyond the range of our camera lenses.  We were getting frustrated by the lack of photographic opportunity. But then the eighth day dawned clear and sunny with the seas very calm. And just to the north of us, right near Point Adolphus at the entrance to Glacier Bay, we saw a humpback breach. Immediately we headed in that direction.   The Federal Government prohibits approaching closer than 200 yards to a humpback whale and we stayed well beyond those limits. But we did get close enough so that a 300mm (equals six-power magnification) lens would provide an adequate shot. Often when you see a whale breach in the distance, by the time you can get over to within reasonable proximity all such activity has ceased and you are left with nothing to photograph.  That seemed to be the case on this day.

But one has to remain optimistic and prepared. So Kurt put the boat into idle mode and drifted while all three of us got our cameras ready and aimed at where the whale had last launched itself out of the water.
I was using a Nikon FE camera with its accessory motor drive and was push-processing Fujichrome 100 film to ISO 400. Even though the day was sunny I liked the extra film speed to make certain I could capture any action without blur, especially on a rocking boat. And since I didn't have autofocus back then, I liked to shoot at f8 for a little better depth of field and thus more chance of the whale being sharply in focus. On my camera was mounted a non-AF 300mm/f4.5 Nikon lens.  I prefocused on where I thought (hoped!) the whale would appear. John and Kurt did the same.  Minutes passed. Nothing happened. More minutes passed.

Kurt became momentarily distracted by something and looked down.  At that very instant the whale breached, arching toward the right as it rose higher and higher out of the water, with one of it's enormous flukes pointed skyward and water pouring off its gigantic bulk.  John and I shot away, capturing identical images. Kurt's cursing as he missed the shot I'm sure could be heard a half-mile away. Then the whale crashed back into the sea in a great white spray and all was calm.  During our ten day trip this proved to be the only significant whale photo opportunity that we had.

It required a separate trip to come up with additional  decent whale photographs.  This time we did some "Bare Boat Chartering", which means renting a boat with no hired captain and going out on your own.  Kurt, John and I again joined forces, along with Juneau photographer John Hyde. Kurt was the only one of us with seafaring knowledge so he was recruited as pilot and captain.  We loaded food and water aboard and set out from the Juneau harbor.  As a safety lifeboat we towed behind us a small skiff with a 15 HP outboard motor.

This time we headed south into Frederick Sound, an area known for reliable concentrations of humpbacks. Along the way we explored Tracy Arm and talked Kurt into climbing on to a large iceberg so we could indulge in our usual photo ops. Once this was out of of our system we continued southward toward the whales. 

While humpbacks are basically a given in terms of what a photographer will find to photograph, there is also the chance, although by no means guaranteed, of finding orcas (killer whales). Such encounters, when they do occur, are often brief. While you might be able to spend hours observing the same few humpbacks, this is not the case with killer whales as they pass through an area, looking for either salmon, seals or sea lions. You get a glance, perhaps a few minutes of contact, and then they are gone. We lucked out and did see a pod of orcas as we entered Frederick Sound, and one even breached. But the photography was marginal.

Then we concentrated on humpbacks. The water was fairly calm and we were in constant view of one or another of various whales coming to the surface and making a loud breathing sound as it exhaled through its double blowhole.  There were no great breaches happening but every now and then a whale would sound (dive) and as it did so the tail fluke would provide for good photographs as it appeared in full just before the whale would disappear beneath the surface.  With these longer dives the humpbacks would stay down a few minutes before reappearing somewhere nearby and taking some big noisy breaths accompanied by a mist spray.  The breaths sounded like loud whooshes.

One of the humpbacks positioned itself vertically in the water, with its head pointed directly downward and its tail fluke and part of its rear body pointing skyward and remaining almost motionless above the surface. None of us missed this photograph since the whale held the position for a considerable length of time.

We were all so excited by this sight that we forgot about everything except taking photographs. Even Kurt, in his eagerness to capture the shot, forgot that his first duty was as captain of the boat.  So as we all snapped away with out cameras, the rope that connected the trailing skiff with our main boat quietly wrapped around our propeller shaft, finally choking off the engine entirely when Kurt tried to pilot the boat forward.  We were stuck  (but at least we got our photos!).   John Warden stripped down and bravely dove into the frigid water to try to free the rope.  He went under for barely two seconds and then came shooting up with the breath knocked out of him. The water was just too cold to function in without a dry suit, which we didn't have aboard.

 Plan B was to tow the bigger boat ashore using the skiff and the tiny outboard.  Alaska has big tides--around Anchorage the tides can be 25 feet or more--and we took advantage of this. Kurt towed the boat as close to shore as possible and then we just waited and let the tide go out. After several hours the boat began to list toward the left. As the tide continued to recede we wondered whether the boat would tip over. Fortunately it stabilized at about a 40 degree slant. When steady in that position we got out a hammer and screwdriver and big knife from the tool kit aboard and pounded away at the tangled rope. There were even loops of older rope around the propeller from previous parties not having paid enough attention. It took about an hour of work but we finally were able to free the propeller shaft.  Then all that was left to do was to wait for the tide to come back in and float the boat.  While we waited we cooked dinner on board, standing at a crazy angle while we did so, and sitting almost sideways as we ate.

They just don't make whale photography trips like that any more. 

Mark Newman

Thursday, 21 July 2011

When Once in a Lifetime Happened Twice

McNeil River State Game Sanctuary is generally recognized as the world's premier brown bear viewing area.  I first learned about this wildlife hotspot when looking through a magazine in 1979, while I was still living in Sundance, Wyoming. The images I came across were unbelievable, showing  twenty or more bears congregating at a waterfall at the same time, all fishing for salmon.  I knew right then that I had to go there. No two ways about it.

In pursuit of wildlife subjects for photography I moved my family from Wyoming to Alaska in the early summer of 1981. Now within range of McNeil River I began what would become a ten year love affair with the sanctuary and its bears.  Today McNeil has a very strict lottery system for visiting, but in the 1980's it was a simple matter to catch a float plane ride with Bill DeCreeft, owner and chief pilot of Kachemak Air Service out of Homer, and be left off on the shores of the sanctuary. Technically a formal permit was required in order to visit the bears, but the standby system was loose and easy in those days and there was almost always someone with a permit who did not show or who did not want to walk out to the bears again after their first or second day at the sanctuary.  Thus being a standby was almost as good as having a permit. For those entire ten years I never once had a permit to visit the bears yet I flew out there every summer and rarely missed a day of photography.  

Legendary ranger-guide Larry Aumiller lived at the sanctuary each summer for almost thirty years and was responsible for leading a group of up to ten visitors daily on the 2 mile walk from base camp to where the bears gathered. Hip waders were always required because of the generally wet conditions and a fairly deep stream crossing.  Most of the visitors carried fancy camera equipment and many had tripods as well.  It was often the case that the casual visitor had more expensive equipment than the seasoned pros that were out there.

This was the era before autofocus, let alone digital capture, and my camera of choice was the light Nikon FE (and then FE2) with the accessory MD-11 (and then MD-12) motor drive attached.  I used two lenses for bears back then, a Nikon 600/f5.6 and an 80-200 zoom.  Other photographers prefer faster lenses but I have never found the extra weight and expense worth the tradeoff. To this day my preferance is still to go with slower lenses for the sake of lighter weight and portability, not to mention expense considerations.  This approach makes even more sense with the new digital cameras that can handle higher ISO's quite easily, and more easily yet if they are FX cameras with full frame sensors.

The most popular season to visit the bears at McNeil was July when the salmon were running thick and the bear numbers at the falls were at their highest. And for the first few years I visited McNeil in July like most of the other pro photographers. Common wisdom was to go there when bear numbers were at their maximum.  But after five summers of photographing the bears I became bored of the same old shots. The setting was spectacular beyond words, but the rules for photographing, of necessity, were very restrictive. One had to remain at all times in the small 20 feet by 20 feet bear viewing area, crammed in with everyone else, watching the bears from the same vantage and angle as everyone else. Thus the resultant photos looked like everyone else's.  Year after year.  I got tired of this.

So in 1986 I decided to fly out to the sanctuary in mid-June, well before the crowds, and more significantly, before the major salmon run at McNeil Falls.  Larry Aumiller of course was out there already when I arrived. Since no one else was around it was like having Larry as my own private guide. And since there were no salmon at McNeil Falls, the few bears that were visible roamed to other nearby areas, grazing on the fresh tall grass. Larry and I went out looking for bears each day and over the course of several days I was able to capture a few good images but nothing extraordinary.  Since there were only two of us some bears felt more emboldened and I remember when one approached a bit too close and Larry chambered a round into his shotgun just to make noise, and the noise drove the bear back, as it almost always will.

On the fourth day a few other folks flew in. One was Canadian photographer Wayne Lynch. After their arrival Larry took the few of us out together looking for bears. At the end of day number six our group was in the tall grass about a half mile from camp when Wayne and his friends decided to call it quits and Larry allowed the three of them to walk back to camp on their own. It is my habit to always remain out in any photographic 'situation' as long as I possibly can, and this time was no different. We all had been watching a large female brown bear--one that Larry had named McBride after a local bear advocate and tour operator--munching on grass, and I saw no reason to leave if I didn't have to. Larry was willing to stay out longer so we remained watching the bear as Wayne and the others walked away, heading to the left along the coast.  

Then a very lucky and unexpected thing happened.  When Wayne's group was about a hundred yards away the big female bear stood up and looked in their direction.  I don't know why she stood. Generally when a bear stands on its hind legs it is simply to gather information. It is not a sign of any aggression. Whatever the reason for her standing at that moment, serendipity was on my side as first one and then two and finally three little bear cub heads appeared seemingly out of nowhere, popping up above the grass as the kids stood in  imitation of their powerful mother. It was fortunate for me that all four bears held their pose for many seconds because my jaw dropped in astonishment at the incredible sight and I stood frozen and failed to shoot.  That had never happened to me before nor has it since. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing. The scene was that stunning.  Larry quickly snapped me out of my reverie, saying "Shoot! Shoot!" and I finally got it together and pushed the shutter release causing the motor drive to wind away. I knew I had that once in a lifetime shot, the photograph which appears at the beginning of this article. But the story doesn't end there.

The following Spring I decided to return once again to McNeil River with the specific purpose of locating  McBride's bear family. Year after year most of the same 140 or so bears return to the area around the McNeil River and the adjacent Mikfik Creek to feed on the salmon runs. I figured there would be a reasonable chance of encountering the McBride family again. Perhaps it was a bit of a long shot but certainly possible. On the occasion of this visit a few photographer friends accompanied me--
John Warden from Alaska, Shin Yoshino from Japan, and Mike Sieve from Minnesota.  All were accomplished pros and were impressed by the standing bears photo I had showed them from my previous summer. They were eager to see what images they could come up with.

The four of us took to the air out of Homer, with Bill de Creeft piloting his twin otter float plane over Cook Inlet, past the very active and steaming Augustine Volcano, across Kamishak Bay and landing at near high tide in McNeil Cove and taxiing right up to shore in front of the bear camp. We climbed out on to one of the plane's pontoons and scrambled ashore.  As usual Larry Aumiller was there to greet us.

As on my visit the previous year the timing was mid June and the bears were not visiting McNeil Falls yet because it would be two more weeks before the chum salmon run would begin in earnest.  There was, however, a smaller run of sockeye salmon in adjacent Mikfik Creek so we intended to concentrate our photographic efforts in that location. The morning after we arrived we put on our hip waders and Larry led us out into the grass flats near our campsite and from there headed upstream along the banks of Mikfik Creek.  We encountered several bears along the way, including one mother with two yearling cubs.  McBride's three cubs, if they had survived the winter, would also be yearlings now, approximately sixteen months old. But the bear we encountered was definitely not McBride. She was a lot smaller and darker than our mother with triplets. Larry knew all the different bears by name. He would easily be able to identify McBride if we saw her.

It took a mile and a half of hiking and about three hours of waiting before McBride and her cubs walked out of the alders to fish beneath a small falls at the upper end of Mikfik Creek.  She and her cubs were on the far side of the creek from us and did not pay any attention to our presence. We all set up our tripods and mounted cameras with 500mm and 600mm lenses.  The bear family remained out in the open and we were able to capture image after image of the family fishing.  The mother did most of the catching, sometimes sharing the fish with her cubs.  This went on for over an hour. Amongst ourselves we fantasized about how great it would be if McBride and her cubs would all stand up and pose as had happened on my earlier visit.  Was that too much to ask for?

Apparently not. A large male bear appeared on the rise about seventy five feet directly behind us and coincident with his appearance McBride stood right up. And then her cubs followed suit. All four bears were up on their hind legs and looking past us in the direction of the large male. This time I did not freeze up nor did any of us hesitate. We shot like crazy, all capturing identical images. For me it was that once in a lifetime shot happening for a second time.

Mark Newman

Monday, 18 July 2011

Preparation, Patience and Luck

I had been living in Alaska for four years when I decided it was time to try to capture a calving glacier on film.  In researching the best locations for photographing this phenomenon there was only one that seemed to guarantee success and that was (and still is) Hubbard Glacier near Yakutat. Hubbard is the longest tidewater glacier (meaning that it calves directly into the ocean) in North America, with an ocean front that is six miles long and reaches a height of 300 feet.   At that time, in July of 1985, there was a small island that sat just one thousand feet from the glacier's high face.  That island was my target as a vantage point from which to obtain photographs.  So I recruited two friends, Dennis Gaither and John Gans (who is now the Executive Director of the National Outdoor Leadership School--NOLS), and we flew to Yakutat with foldable kayaks and all our camping gear, cameras, tripods, and enough food for ten days. We spent our first night sleeping in a Yakutat airport hangar and the next morning were flown by float plane to the head of the thirty mile Fjord.

After some reconnaissance of adjacent Nunatak Fjord, we got down to business and made a beeline for our objective.  We paddled for two days in calm water to reach the island in front of Hubbard Glacier. Due to a tidal rip we had to wait for slack tide in order to negotiate the channel from the mainland across to the island. With this accomplished we set up camp and were very prepared to wait for the perfect calving moment.

Hubbard loomed huge before us. It was more than huge. We felt like mice in the presence of a dinosaur. 
And adding to the glacier's enormity was the tremendous crashing, it seemed about every half hour, as house-size chunks of ice broke off the glacier's face  and plunged into the sea. This, in turn, created giant waves which pounded against the diminutive island just beyond where we set up our tents, sending up spray high into the air. We were in a safe location, but only by a small number of meters.

Our position on the island provided us with a unique vantage point from which to photograph. With almost all tidewater glacier photography one is limited to standing directly in front of a glacier and shooting as ice drops straight down. Such images are just not that dramatic. All you can make out is ice against ice, with perhaps a splash if you are lucky. But with Hubbard we had a sideways view down the line of the face looking north, which was to our left as we faced the glacier. The St. Elias Range, towering in the background, added yet more drama.

It was clear that a giant calving would take place at some time way off to our left at the glacier's edge, at  at the farthest point that we could see from our camping spot.  Dennis and I set up our tripods each day and mounted our Nikon cameras. I used a 300mm f4.5 fixed focal length lens. I was still using Kodachrome 64 film at the time. My camera was an FE2 with an MD-12 motor drive attached.  I aimed my lens down the line at the end most hunk of glacier and waited, as did Dennis.  John Gans was not so much into photography as simply the experience of the trip, so he watched and humored us.

No luck for three full days. Just calving straight in front of us, which we photographed from time to time as a consolation prize. We kept an eye on that end piece.  We were kept awake at night in our tents by the thunderous calving every thirty to sixty minutes.  In the morning we would awaken and check the end piece of glacier, and fortunately it was always still there.

I prefer to use a viewfinder without a crosshatched grid. But this was the one time that I have been in the field when the grid proved very helpful.  Dennis Gaither had one on his camera. On our fourth afternoon on the island, with our cameras on tripods aimed in the same direction--at that end piece of glacier--every now and then Dennis would let me take a peek through his viewfinder to convince me that something was actually happening, that the separate piece of glacier we were concentrating on was very very slowly falling away from the main mass of the Hubbard. I did not realize this from looking through my clear viewfinder; it required a grid pattern to discern it. We waited more hours. We might have given up if it wasn't for the proof of incremental movement that the grid provided.

Finally the immense piece of ice fell away from the main glacial mass. I had loaded a new roll of film for the anticipated event so I was able to hold down the shutter release and allow the motor drive to run through most of the 36 exposures before the calving was over. The above photo is the best of the sequence.

But the story does not end there. This is where luck entered the equation. The above photo could have been taken by anyone with enough preparation and patience.  It might have gotten published and might not.  This was July of 1985.  Exactly nine months later Hubbard Glacier decided to surge forward and in May of 1986 its ice rode over our island and completely pinched off the outlet of Russell Fjord into Yakutat Bay. This surge created the largest glacier-dammed lake in the world. Water in the new lake rose eighty feet, killing trees and trapping marine life, such as harbor seals. This phenomenon created a worldwide hoopla throughout the summer as lake water levels continued to rise and sea life was threatened. Jaques Cousteau's team showed up. News media from  everywhere descended on sleepy little Yakutat. Talk of dynamiting the ice dam to save the seals became a topic of everyday discussion. And Newsweek Magazine put out a call for anyone with good images of Hubbard Glacier calving.  They snatched up my image, which was sold through a stock agency, and published it right away that summer.

On October 8th the ice dam broke of natural causes, the "lake" waters of Russell Fjord rapidly emptied back into the sea with the flow volume of 35 Niagara's, and the world of Yakutat and it's famous glacier calmed down to normal again.

Mark Newman

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Writing of Golden-The Novel

I had already been photographing wild horses for fifteen years when I had the opportunity to spend a week with a wild herd in the Spring of 1994.  Experiencing the above scene unfold in front of me had a powerful effect. It made me want to write a story about a wild horse.   Both the photograph and my young daughter's love of horses were the original inspiration for the book. Yet I did not sit down and actually start writing it until the fall of 2009.  In the intervening years I occasionally thought through a plot in my head, but not very thoroughly. The only aspect of the storyline I was sure of was having the horse running wild across Yellowstone Park and encountering a variety of adventures in that great landscape. Other than those chapters I really had no initial idea of what would be in the book.

Photography keeps me plenty busy without doing any writing and I successfully procrastinated writing the story for years.  What I kept in my mind throughout this fifteen year period was the stallion's name, Golden, and that Yellowstone chapter. I thought of getting started on the book many times but never managed to do so.  I knew I had this book in me but getting it out would take some discipline. I remember hearing an interview with John Grisham in which he said that if a person wanted to write a book all he or she needed to do was be disciplined enough to write one page per day and within a year they would have a book. He said it did not even mean quitting one's day job. It just took discipline and setting priorities.

Finally, when visiting a friend in the Yukon in September of 2009, I decided to throw myself into the project. The only difficult part was making the decision. Once I made the commitment and started writing every day the book just flowed out and I came to enjoy the book-writing process itself.  I went to the Whitehorse Public Library every morning and sat down with my laptop and maps and notes and began to compose. The first few days I wrote longhand on paper simply because that had been how I had always written articles in the past. I felt that I could think things through better that way. But after three days I realized that this was a mechanically foolish way to write a book these days. Inevitably everything would have to be typed and I certainly did not want to have to be continually transcribing from longhand.  So I forced myself to use the laptop and Microsoft Word.  I soon got used to it and now cannot imagine ever writing longhand again.

The library had wifi so Internet research was at my fingertips. As I composed the story I was easily able to click back and forth between Word and the web, looking up information as needed, verifying details, and even visiting locations in virtual mode.  I used to live in Wyoming and know the state well, but it was invaluable while writing to be able to see photographs on the monitor of the exact landscape I was describing rather than having to rely on my own memory. My memory provided the feeling and the Internet provided the accuracy. For the description of stallions fighting I studied YouTube clips.   When I needed to know anatomical details as a horse goes airborne and jumps over a fence the information was just a click away.  Likewise for researching the anatomy of a forest fire,  the workings of an Anderson sling, the dosage of Rompun, or the lifting capacity of  a  Bell Jet helicopter. It was all just a click away. I can't imagine writing a book like this without the Internet.

I did not work from any outline and often did not know from day to day where the story was headed. I knew that a significant chapter or two would be within Yellowstone Park, but the rest I created as I went along. At first the writing seemed a little intimidating without an outline. How could I possibly write an entire book by ad libbing?  But that's what I did.  I came to trust the process of writing.  I knew that once I sat down at the table with my laptop that ideas would flow and the story would progress.  Before writing this book I had no idea that that's how things can work out.

Occasionally I would get stumped. I would know where the story was now and perhaps have a notion of where it might be a little down the line, but did not know how to get from A to B. Whenever this happened I would go jogging and carry a small digital recorder.  I found that some of my best ideas would come to me while alone running. I don't know why. Perhaps it was endorphins, or maybe it was simply being out a trail in the forest and relaxing. This trick never failed me. I was always able to come up with good ideas for the story when exercising. It was my way of overcoming so-called writer's block.

While much of the writing was accomplished in Whitehorse, I still continued to travel as usual, always with my laptop in tow.  While photographing birds in the winter in Florida, I would work on the manuscript in the evenings.  When in western Washington state for a week, I photographed during the days and spent the rainy evenings in one public library or another plugging away at Golden.  When the libraries closed, usually around 9 PM,  I just drove to some rest stop and slept in the car and was ready at dawn to begin photographing again. It was a time of total focus and I loved it.

These days I  head south for much of the winter and in January of 2010 I began living in and photographing out of my VW van.  My laptop with the book manuscript was never far from my side.  I kept up the writing in Ashland, San Francisco, Lake Mead, and points in between.  I finished the first draft by the beginning of March, six months after first sitting down in the Yukon and forcing myself to begin writing.  I was in a fitting setting for completing the task. It was mid-morning and I was inside my VW camper high above the Lake Mead shoreline, overlooking that vast body of water, in the state that has the most free roaming wild horses. 

Much work was yet to follow, the more tedious aspect of the trade.  As my book agent, Carolyn French, is frequently eager to point out, "Writing is about rewriting."   All writers should take those words to heart.  I finished that first draft early March of 2010 and here I am this first week of July in 2011 still making tweaks and corrections to the text and adding some wild horse images (at the suggestion of a good friend)  to increase the book's appeal. The process can be never ending, especially with electronic books. In the "old days" of print, a publisher might be stuck with 10,000 copies of a faulty text with many typos and glitches.  But today there is no excuse for having an inferior product.  Corrections and revisions are always just a few clicks away. An improved version of a book can be uploaded to Amazon at any time to replace the previous version. This can occur multiple times, with ease and for no cost.

Mark Newman

Monday, 4 July 2011

Jump or Die in Yellowstone

Yellowstone in winter is recognized by most photographers as the most exciting time to visit the great park. This has been even more true since the reintroduction of wolves to the park in 1995.  I had visited in winter on several occasions when I used to live in Wyoming, getting around by snow machine and skis. I was eager to return.

So a few years ago I contacted a photographer buddy, David McChesney,  and we traveled to the north part of the park in early February of 2007.  This was two years after I had made the transition to digital photography, so thankfully I would no longer have to be changing film after every 36 shots in the brutal cold that is so typical of Yellowstone   I brought with me a Nikon D300 camera body plus the only two lenses that I use these days, both zooms:  a Nikon 80-400 and 18-200.  Both are VR stabilized lenses. Since they are stabilized I rarely use a tripod but for extremely cold weather, in which my fingers will not tolerate holding a camera up and steady for prolonged periods, I relent and bring one along. Such was the case on this trip. I also brought a Nikon D200 as a backup camera.

David and I based out of a riverside motel in Gardiner, Montana, on the northern border of the park.  The east-west road through the park in the north is kept plowed and open to regular cars all winter from Mammoth  to Cooke City. It is the only Yellowstone road open to conventional traffic in the winter months. All other routes within the park require the use of snow machines, skis, or snow coaches to get around.

In February the bull elk still retain their antlers, which makes for some spectacular imagery as they negotiate through deep now.  One morning David and I climbed a hillside and spent time with one particularly handsome bull. David steadied his monopod a legal and comfortable distance away from the elk and began shooting. I walked back behind David to get him as well as the elk in the photo, for an interesting perspective. As I was shooting, for some unkown reason, the elk started coming towards David, providing me with this shot which I captioned for my stock agencies "Panicked Photographer in Yellowstone in Winter".

The following day it was my turn to experience an adrenaline rush.  We left our Gardiner motel at dawn and drove east through the park. Past Tower Junction, before reaching Lamar Valley, we came upon a herd of about forty bison loosely scattered across a small meadow.  A few were close to the road and we set up our tripods and began photographing. Another photographer drove up and joined us.  David and the other photographer stayed to one side of the bison and I back way off so as to be able to photograph the animal with the photographers in the background.  I often like to add a human element to my wildlife images when possible.   After about ten minutes of shooting the bull started to walk down the edge of the road towards me.

At this point I was not concerned.  The bison was simply changing his location and not being aggressive. I began backing off and walking down the road, always keeping a generous distance between us.  The bison kept walking and of necessity, so did I.  There were at least fifty yards between us. The road made a bend toward the right and when I rounded the bend I could no longer see the bison behind me because of the curve in the road. I kept walking and soon came upon a tramped down path in the snow leading up a thirty degree slope off to the right of the road.  I walked up to the top of the low hill figuring the bison could then pass below me and keep going down the road.  The hilltop was about twenty-five above the roadway.  I stood on the edge and waited for the bison to walk below. 

A minute passed and then a very agitated looking bison came running around the curve in the road.  But instead of continuing on his merry way he decided to charge right up the path that I had just taken.

Initially I doubt he even knew that I was standing at the top of the slope. There was this one path through deep snow and he just happened to choose it.  He came right at me at a full run.  Other than to accept death gracefully, I had only one option.  At the instant before impact, holding the tripod and camera high with my left hand, I leapt off the hilltop and tumbled and fell back to the road below.  I hit mostly snow rather than asphalt and sustained a tear to the elbow of my down coat.  The camera and tripod survived unscathed, as did I. 

As I lay there on the road a car came slowly around the bend and stopped. I got up, brushing myself off, and explained to the driver what had happened.  "Oh, I didn't know there was anyone up ahead," he said. 
He then apologized profusely for having inadvertently caused the incident. I told him no harm done and I walked back up the road to my friend.

Later, in a gift shop at Mammoth Hot Springs, I bought a yellow clothing patch which I sewed on my coat to cover the tear at the elbow. To this day, in winter,  I still wear that coat with the patch. It says "Buffalo Crossing."

Mark Newman

Saturday, 2 July 2011

Where The Buffalo Roam


Steve Seegers and I were good friends living in Hawaii in 1976 when we decided on a whim to try to produce an article for National Geographic about the American bison, better known as buffalo. Steve would do the writing and I the photography. We contacted the magazine and were told we could submit such a story "on speculation."  Being novices to the publication world at that time, we thought this was an invitation to fame and fortune and adventure. Many years later I now know that on speculation actually means "Yeah, send it to us, but the chances are a million to one that your story will ever see the light of day."

So we quit our day jobs in Hawaii and returned to the mainland and set off in search of the remaining bison herds in the US.  We were a little late--the last large herds were killed off exactly one hundred years earlier on the plains of Texas and Kansas--but that fact didn't phase us.  We were full of nostalgia for the Old West
and in our minds, at least, it still lived on.  There was no Internet or Google back then and it took some digging to find out where buffalo still existed. We headed first to Moiese, Montana where Teddy Roosevelt and his buddies had established the National Bison Range in 1908, hauling down some bison from Alberta to get things going.  We visited at the time of their annual roundup and got to watch former employee, Ernie Kraft, help corral the herd for vaccinating against brucellosis and for the subsequent auction.

The NBR is large, but it didn't feel wild enough. So we headed first to Yellowstone
National Park and then to Theodore Roosevelt NP in North Dakota. We were never able to get near the herd in that park and drove south to Wind Cave National Park and Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  In Wind Cave we got our first taste of how it feels to have dozens of bison at once come after you. Both Steve and I wound up hiding in the branches of the same pine tree for forty-five minutes until the herd below us finally moved on.

We visited Ft. Niobrara National Wildlife Refuge in Nebraska, which also felt too tame, before finding the photographic crown jewel of our entire journey, Badlands National Monument (upgraded since to  National Park status) in South Dakota.  It was by then early December and quite cold in that part of the country.  We based out of a motel in the town of Wall and before sunrise one day we drove into the Sage Creek Wilderness area at the western end of the badlands.  I had in mind getting a sunrise shot, with the sun coming up right behind a bison.  In those days I was big into sunrises and sunsets, using the backlighting to capture silhouettes of every conceivable critter and object, from horses to sailboats. 

I carried my Nikkormat camera with a Nikon 300mm/f 4.5 lens around my neck and no tripod. I  used Kodachrome 64 film back then. Those were the days when Kodachrome was everyone's favorite, before Fujichrome and Velvia took over as most wildlife photographers' film of choice. The temperature was probably 10F, and maybe colder than that. We parked along the dirt road which overlooks the Sage Creek Wilderness, a vast grasslands that stretches out below to the Badlands Wall in the distance. With binoculars, in the dim pre-dawn light, we located a few bison grazing about a mile out and we hiked towards them. They were three bulls, spread out from each other. To get the image I wanted I knew I had to have a bison standing broadside on a flat area so the sun would have the opportunity to rise right behind him.  One of the three bulls happened to be standing in just such a spot. 

I positioned myself where I needed to be to fill enough of the frame with the bison. Steve and I were both a little nervous, considering our Wind Cave NP experience, and the fact that there were no trees anywhere around us at the moment for protection. But no guts, no glory, as the saying goes. I wanted this image badly.
Steve stood well off to my right and we waited. My fingers got colder and colder as the glow on the hroizon became brighter.

By the time that the sun started to crest the distant horizon my fingers were totally numb and I could no longer feel the shutter release button on the camera. I had to stab at it. The Nikkormat had no motor drive. It was one shot at a time. From previous experience I pre-set the camera settings to shoot at f16 at 1/1000 second tro obtain the silhouette I desired. I  had to control my breathing so as not to fog up my glasses and the viewfinder of the camera in the cold.
I was on a level with the bison. Since it was December the grass was very short and allowed for the nice clean light of the sun brightening up beneath the bison without any vegetation in the way. This same photograph would not be possible in the tall grass of summer. As the sun rose I poked away at the shutter release with my numb fingers, hitting it correctly only some of the time. I shot a series of images, the best of which is included at the beginning of this article.

It took weeks before I had the film processed and got to look at the results. The sunrise silhouettte was even better than I had hoped for. I was thrilled. I was certain that National Geographic would use the image on their cover.  It seemed like the perfect cover shot.  Steve Seegers wrote up his story and I organized my images and we eagerly mailed the package off to the magazine.  We knew we had a hit. 

One month later we got a form letter telling us that this material was not what they were looking for. 

Steve and I went our own ways after that effort. The upside to the story is that I went to New York City and found my first stock photo agency to work with, an organization called Animals Animals. It was owned back then by Nancy Henderson and Eve Kloepper and the agency is still around today, 35 years later. They looked over and liked my then-limited portfolio of wildlife images--including the bison shots--and signed me up. Eight months later, in December 1977, Audubon Magazine used my bison/sunrise image on their cover. It was the first photograph that I ever had published.

Mark Newman