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Wildlife Photography – Shooting Blanks

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Lubec, Maine – Up here, in what literally is the easternmost point of the United States (you could look it up), the inhabitants with fur, fins and feathers tend to outnumber the rest of us.

My wife Judy and I do our part by traveling here with our two cats, Izzy and Pearl, but we never let them out of the house, lest they become the main course for at least one very smart, very fearless and very beautiful red fox that has taken a shine to our out-of-the-way summer place.

To a native New Yorker whose closest encounter with wildlife had been at the Bronx zoo (and on the D train after midnight) my slow but intense love affair with Maine has involved among other things a major attitude adjustment about the wild. [I'm reminded of an interview years ago with Henny Youngman in which the New York comedian was asked whether he spent much time at his country place. "Are you kiddin?" he said, "there's animals up there. I know there's deers; I think there's bears."]

Well, my place has deer, bears, foxes, moose, skunks and who knows what else.

Oh, and did I say I have seen all of these creatures on or our near our property, and many of them this year?

And did I also mention that I have yet to make a photograph of any of them?

This is tough to admit. I am, after all, a professional photographer. And a professional photographer who subscribes to the dictum that to be a photographer one must photograph consistently. Maybe not every day, as the great Jay Maisel insists, but certainly enough to consider not leaving the house without at least a point and shoot.

So how could I miss so many wildlife pictures?

Got me. I mean, consider all the moose I've met.

For years, I used to tell people that the only moose I ever saw in Maine – even after spending summer after summer here in Lubec – was the stuffed one sitting in a special display cabinet outside the Wigwam gift and shoe shop on Route One near the turnoff to Eastport and the Pleasant Point Passamaquoddy Indian reservation.

It got to be a joke. "Did you see the moose this morning?" folks would ask me, and then go on at length about how this great furry thing had lumbered across their lawn or ambled down their road. When I was working on my book about Maine and spent a couple of days in the woods with bear hunters, I was told to be careful driving the rutted logging roads at night – moose, you know. With that forewarning, I had my cameras and flash at the ready as Judy and I ventured slowly down the dark and dusty roads in the late summer.


A few years later, while shooting publicity pictures for the Bangor and Aroostook Railroad, we did spot a young moose running briefly along the tracks as Judy and I and a railroad rep rode in the back of a high-rail truck in the Maine woods near Moosehead Lake. But the animal ran into the brush before we could get off a shot and the lowering dark would have made a picture iffy anyway. Still it was a thrill.

Even more thrilling was the huge bull that nearly ran us over in our Ford Explorer as we ventured down a logging road one sunny morning north of Machias. Judy and I, along with my visiting cousins Terry and Don, were on the way to pick up Judy's son Bill after an overnight canoe trip. The directions to the pickup point were not what you'd call voluminous – the logging road we needed to follow was marked by a tiny sign tacked to a phone pole. But we found it and were bouncing down the evergreen-lined dirt path when all of a sudden what seemed like a freight train with antlers lumbered out of the woods right in front of us.

Gape-mouthed we stared at the huge thing, its rump not 20 feet away, as it moved down the road at surprising speed. Moose are not known for keen eyesight so I have no idea if the animal was aware of us. If he was, he couldn't have cared less. What I recall best is how its mammoth rack of antlers literally touched the trees on both sides of the road–and how it made my big SUV suddenly seem like a Miata. Then it vanished as quickly as it had appeared, veering into the woods on the opposite side of the road.

He was gone before I even thought of making a picture.

I didn't even have a camera with me the night of our closest and potentially most dangerous encounter–and it's one reason why I now tend to go much slower when driving down country roads in Maine at night. This time, Judy and I were coming from dinner with friends in Cutler, a picturesque little coastal town about 45 minutes from us. The two-lane blacktop road was dark and fortunately I had my high-beams on when an adolescent bull started to stride across the road from the right maybe thirty yards in front of us. Oblivious to the car, the moose was on a collision course with me, so I swerved into the next lane and barely managed to avoid him. Happily, this being Down East Maine, not the capital beltway, there was no oncoming traffic, and the moose went Bullwinkling his way home clueless to what nearly had happened.

Finally, this summer, I was driving down our own road on a gorgeous sunny morning when, just as I turned the corner, another moose ventured across the road. Smaller and with no antlers, this moose either was a young bull or a cow. Either way it was beautiful and, again with no camera, all I could do was marvel as it loped gracefully into a field and then into the woods.

I'm grateful for this sense of wonder, even if I'm chagrined at missing so many pictures. I tell myself I'm a people photographer, not a wildlife photographer. I know too that real wildlife photography involves careful planning and lots of waiting and rarely is the result of the chance encounters I've had.

And when you get right down to it, the pictures I would have made under these circumstances would have been little more than snapshots. Like the picture I would have made through my windshield years ago when I saw what I thought was a big dog crossing our road just a few hundred yards from our property.

Then I saw the sloping profile.

"It's a bear," I told Judy as the car got closer, "it's a Bear!...It's a BEAR!!"

A small, adolescent black bear, but a bear nonetheless.

The far-away grabshot I would have made easily might have been shaky or out of focus.

Far better the endless loop of tack-sharp memory I can recall whenever I want.

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
For years, this moose-in-a-box was the only moose I ever had seen, much less photographed, in Maine. Then I marveled when a full-grown bull ambled in front me, nearly hit another one with my car late at night, and had a close encounter with yet another a few weeks ago on my road. No pictures, though.


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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