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Dave Harp's Chesapeake Odyssey

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Years ago my friend and colleague David Harp told me that he hoped to make the Chesapeake Bay his own.

A soft-spoken man not given to hyperbole, Dave simply was stating what to him had become obvious: that the Chesapeake Bay–Baltimore native H.L. Mencken's "great protein factory"–was the one place on the planet where he felt most at peace, and where he most liked to make photographs.

This was back in the early 90s and, as it happened, Dave and I each had new books out, and each was about this remarkable and special place. Mine was a collection of black and white location portraits about the Eastern Shore; Dave's was a glorious depiction in color of life on the water. Dave's book was called Water's Way: Life Along the Chesapeake and, with eloquent text by friend and ex-Baltimore Sun colleague Tom Horton, it quickly became the standard by which color photography books about the Chesapeake were measured.

No one could top that book for its sensitive portrayal and glorious images.

Until now.

And, wouldn't you know it; the guys who topped it are Dave and Tom.

The Great Marsh, An Intimate Journey into a Chesapeake Wetland (Johns Hopkins, $29.95) creates the kind of wonderful synergy that happens when collaborators are at the top of their game. Harp has never made better, more varied images; Horton, author of the award-winning Bay Country, complements Dave's superb photography with text that is as graceful as it is informative.

The close collaboration of these two men and the way it benefits their book cannot be understated. Too often, even in otherwise good photography books, there is a cobbled-together feel of text and pictures. Oftentimes, essays by several writers are used to buttress the work of (usually) one photographer. A very good book of photographs of Maine, by photographer Terrell S. Lester, entitled Maine: The Seasons, is a case in point.

There is a lot of really gorgeous photography here, accompanied by the work of such literary lights as Richard Russo and Ann Beattie.

But Russo and Beattie in all likelihood never spent hours on a cold winter's morning waiting for just the right light, as Lester obviously did repeatedly. And they certainly never did it in the company of the photographer.

This is not to say that Dave and Tom were joined at the hip during the five years it took to get this book from inspiration to coffee table. Both, after all, had to earn a living, Tom as a freelance nature journalist; Dave as a corporate and commercial shooter. But there is a palpable feeling of connectedness between the photographs and the paragraphs that you rarely find in such works as this.

Take the Monarch butterflies, for example.

Horton introduces the chapter, describing his kayak trip on the marsh on a brisk and blowy first day of fall. He sees a procession of colorful Monarch butterflies and knows as a naturalist that this is "the annual migration that funnels the butterflies from across eastern North America to a few winter roosts in central Mexico."

He tells us too, not dogmatically but with a butterfly-light touch, that the Monarchs who made it here "are generations removed from the Monarchs that last Spring mated and reproduced and died in the highlands of west Mexico City, spawning successive waves of offspring that did the same, leapfrogging their species north all summer across the continent..."

Now, in the fall, the process restarts in reverse, but on this day, Tom wonders where the insects will roost once the chill of the evening slows them down. Curious, but aware of the fading light, he starts to turn for home, but his eye is caught by a little bush on the shore that seems to quiver. The bush is Iva Frutescens, a lackluster plant that is called "miracle bush" because it is a miracle that such a bush grows in the marsh at all.

But tonight, Horton exults, "miracle of miracle bushes, the little clump turns out to be cloaked in Monarchs, hundreds of them...layer upon layer, the weary migrants drape every twig-end and branch of the marsh shrub in living velvet."

He recalls what an entomologist recorded on first seeing such a sight: "like walking into Chartres Cathedral and seeing light coming through stained glass windows...the eighth wonder of the world."

Before dawn the next morning, he returns with Dave Harp, his cameras waiting for sunrise.

Neither the Monarchs, nor Harp, disappoints. "Within minutes of the sun's first kiss, a few wings begin unfolding. More minutes and the Iva begins to wink a deep, bright orange, then to flicker and quiver and blossom-and flare as the first Monarchs go airborne at 7:15 am..."

Tom's text is beautiful; Dave's photographs are wonderful.

To get all this on film (and Harp did shoot film for this entire project, though he suspects his next book will be digital) Dave used Fujichrome film exclusively: Velvia and Provia. Though nominally rated at 50 and 100 respectively, Dave said he gets best results when slightly overexposing the film, at 40 and 80.

Harp has worked for decades with Nikons, and said a project like this can call upon virtually every piece of glass in his camera bags: from a 20 mm ultra-wide angle to a mammoth 400mm f. 2.8 telephoto.

No stranger to traveling with his gear, Dave admits that, post-September 11th, life has gotten much more difficult for the commercial shooter on the go.

"I hate to travel anymore," he admits, and says he hopes for a time when he can limit his sojourns to back and forth working visits to the Bay, from the home that he and his wife recently bought in Riverton, Md., on the Nanticoke River.

At 55, Dave looks back on an award-winning career in journalism and commercial photography and clearly sees his Chesapeake work as that for which he wants to be remembered. He figures he has another 20 more productive years as a photographer left and looks forward to spending more and more of that time on the water.

It is a dream that I want David to fulfill, not only because it gives hope to the rest of us seeking to do our own personal projects as we mature, but also because it promises a continuing string of gorgeous photography books about a precious and delicate resource so close to us.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Frank Van Riper
Photographer David Harp's latest book The Great Marsh is a heartfelt and beautiful visual tribute to the Chesapeake Bay–the place he rarely likes to leave, even when he is wading hip-deep in water and lugging a telephoto lens. Text by writer and friend Tom Horton is equally eloquent.

© David W. Harp
A beautiful winter landscape. The first full moon of the year sets just before sunrise on a bitter cold morning at Bishops Head.

© David W. Harp
Don't try this with your point and shoot. A pair of fox cubs stares curiously at Harp, who is in a camouflage suit and shooting with a very, very long lens. [Note tiny zone of focus.]


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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