A Freedom of Expression

Hello! My name isn’t Wayne Perala. Hailing from Fergus Falls, Wayne is one of the best bird photographers I’ve known. He has perhaps filled his Audubon list with precise, accurate closeup portraits of many of the birds of our region whether in flight, perch or wetland, and superbly so.

Perhaps some of my images are similar to Wayne’s, although my quest is a bit different for my goal is to somehow use birds as an element of an image more so than a portrayal. Sometime I wish I had Wayne’s persistence and patience, his gift of leading on the wing. I don’t.

This was all part of my trepidation, or perhaps even procrastination … if not a little of each … this past week as I faced a deadline of an Audubon photography contest. Contests, although chock full of subjectivity, are fun, yet at this point of my life there is a loss of importance. Back when building my career there were many awards and honors accumulated through newspaper “clip contests,” state and national newspaper photography “contests” along with some fine newspaper and magazine writing awards. Yet, my two “Oscars in Agriculture” for journalistic ag writing now serve as bookends, though on my walls hang a couple of honors fully cherished including a beautiful Tokheim plate awarded to a “Riverkeeper of the Year.” The others? In boxes and drawers, somewhere lost over time.

The swallow that happened to make this a favored image.

My procrastination last week stemmed more from wondering if what I really liked about a particular images would be accepted more universally. My images are from what I see in the moment, hopefully with good composition, lighting, depth of field and so on, and if that happens to translate into something more, then, as was stated back in the day, “Far out!” 

One particular image comes to mind. Just before an evening “blue hour” arrived I was “illegally” parked on a highway bridge over the Minnesota River as it meanders through the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge. Floating in the river was a gnarly log reflected in the calm, cream-colored waters. As I was focusing on the log a swallow suddenly dipped to the river surface for perhaps a gulp of river. Henri Cartier-Bresson, the Frenchman considered as the “Godfather of photojournalism” might call such a capture a “decisive moment.” 

Decisive moments are what we strive for as photojournalists, be they as simple as an image of the swallow’s gulp near the reflected log in the mirrored surface of a river, or Cartier-Bresson’s own “Children in Seville, Spain,” a portrayal of child’s play in a street through a crater of a bombed out wall during the Spanish Civil War. Of course, there is no comparison between the impact of the two images, and I’m certainly not vain enough to place myself in the company of Cartier-Bresson. Or, Wayne Perala, for that matter.

Cormorants at rest on tree stump “pilings” in the Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge.

Last summer I printed my river image and included it among the collection of matted prints I place both here at my studio and at some of the art shows, and often I’ve seen people pull the image out for a closer look. Finally a young man brought it to me to buy, commenting on the peaceful feel along with the colors. When I pointed out the swallow, he seemed to gather more respect for the image. Was this image worthy of the Audubon contest? Many more of what I claim as my favored bird images fall within this genre.

Here’s another example: Just a few miles away, and in a different portion of the Refuge, I made an image of cormorants resting on “piers” of stumps protruding from the waters. I love the feel and composition, although I fear the seemingly overall dislike and even hatred of cormorants. Perhaps this is a prejudice common only to Minnesota anglers who perhaps mistakenly blame cormorants for declining walleye populations in lakes … while dismissing the global warming effects on waters that diminish the ciscos and other “bait” fish walleye feed on. Certainly loons are much too loved to blamed for such atrocious acts against their favored fish. 

A chance moment when a pair of Sandhill Cranes flew over, their wings and posture seemingly a portrait prehistoric in nature.

Over the years I’ve captured many interesting images of cormorants, a member of a family of birds I initially fell in love with one dawn morning in the Everglades while watching and photographing Anhengas seeming to appear as feathered angels as sunlight glistened through their outstretched, drying wings. And, yes, their cousins, the cormorants, do the same thing. 

One of my favorite Canada Geese images was at the North Ottawa Impoundment as they seemed to be in rest before the fall migration. I assume this was a family unit, which is common in that time frame and moment. Another is an image of White Pelicans at rest on a spit of an island in Big Stone Lake, and of a Wood Duck hen ferrying her newly hatched brood through pond weeds in Salt Lake near Marietta. There’s the Orchard Oriel snatching cattail fluff for its nest, and a Great Blue Heron perched on a dead cottonwood in the setting sun. The paired Sandhill Cranes that appeared out of nowhere while I was focusing on early summer Prairie Smoke. Their wings and posture was, to me, a portrait prehistoric in nature. Oh, and a Bob-o-Link taking flight in prairie grasses … over the years so many “decisive moments” have occurred in my pursuit of bird imagery.

A Bob-o-Link about to go airborne from a prairie perch … about as close to a Wayne Perala image as I could make.

Perhaps this sense of photographic freedom dates back to how I ventured into journalism. While in college a Forestry professor called me back as I was leaving his classroom to tell me that if I continued to pursue nature and the environment as a scientist that I would likely be “the most frustrated scientist ever. Your brain just functions differently than those in this classroom, and that’s okay.” He praised my writing and suggested that I concentrate on that instead of the sciences. He even introduced me to his good friend who was then the director of the Ag Journalism Department at the University of Missouri. 

It was as if Eagle talons had been extracted from my nape. Suddenly I felt a sense of freedom for the first time in all of my schooling. And, now some 50 some years later, after a long career in photojournalism and writing, that feeling of freedom still exists. Procrastinating the Audubon contest was a surely part of that freedom, for my work doesn’t need to fit any particular concept or ideal, and I have no need for another possible award. My work is as free as that of a heron or eagle, defined solely by whatever space that might surround a particular perch or space in the sky. 

This family of Canada Geese almost appear as musical notes along prairie waters.

I don’t know if Wayne Perala entered the contest, although I hold hopes that he has for his photography of avian species and life is superb and worthy of such honors. If so, and even if his photography isn’t chosen, he’s one hell of a portrayer of avian life, and whose work I thoroughly respect and appreciate. We’re perhaps driven by a similar creed, though our art is  portrayed somewhat differently. No one would expect us to be “identical” twins. 

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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