The coolest thing about living in Central Florida is Alligators. When we first moved here our apartment complex in Tampa, like most areas in this subtropical climate, was littered with retention ponds. As a dinosaur and exotic animal fanatic, my nightly ritual was to walk from retention pond to retention pond after work to see the individual alligator that lived in each one. They inhabit virtually any body of water here. Large or small. Lake Dora near our home boasts over 5,000 of them.
With more being born every spring.
Like the typical aspiring photographer who gets his first expensive DSLR and immediately proceeds to fill up his SD card with the family pet, squirrels, and flowers, I can never resist photographing an alligator no matter how mediocre the capture. I'm still infatuated with them and still think it's so cool that I live in a state where I can be right out in the wild with them.
Pulling up to the Buffet
After the first few years of photographing the massive beasties, as well as developing other areas of my photography, I quickly noticed that while seeing and capturing an alligator in an image is easily done, daily if I like, capturing a compelling image of one is another thing altogether.
I have a Fish
Alligators are busy doing alligator things and, since they could care less about my fine art photography aspirations, they don't cooperate at all and make terrible models.
Peekaboo! You can't see me Mr. Photographer-man.
Studying other photographer's work, I quickly learned that one of the best methods to take a compelling photograph of an alligator, is to be on the same level with them. Getting down as low to the ground/surface of the water as possible. This proved difficult. Not because alligators are frightening or dangerous. In fact, just the opposite. They're surprisingly quick and incredibly timid. They will leap into the water with lightning speed like a six-foot frog if you get too close.
I wanted to bring something new to the table. Turn how I personally experienced alligators into a work of art. Maybe create the feeling of being in the wild, placing an alligator in its element much as someone would compose, say, a landscape.
The results were a series of rapid fire failures. Somewhere in that process, I turned to the sun to create a compelling composition.
To make a far away subject like the sun (or moon) appear large in the frame, I needed to use a telephoto lens with the alligator far away to make her appear larger in relationship to the sun. To get a clear shot shooting at that distance, I needed to use at least 400 speed film. Those technical issues of not getting the quality I desired combined with the logistics of how rarely I could find an alligator placed between me and the sun, makes this shot an ongoing project. I don't have my hopes up but I would not hesitate to try again if the opportunity presented itself.
Later, I noticed that the sun reflecting off the water itself created a stunning background.
It was simply a matter of photographing an alligator at sunset setting the speed of the camera exposure to capture rich color on the water's surface.
The color pallet from the setting Florida Sun is as rich as it is diverse. I had a lot of fun with this one.
I felt like I was getting closer to depicting my alligator as if (s)he were the subject of a fine art painting, but I still was not quite satisfied. Photography is a game of Rock/Paper/Scissors and this technique was an extreme example of that: Capturing a beautiful reflection off the water in the evening is all well and good. I can set the camera speed as fast as I please and get fantastic color and detail of the water itself. But an alligator on the far side of the setting sun will be in silouhette. Slow down my camera speed enough to correctly capture it, and the image becomes blurred while the beautiful color of the water is gone.
My solution, was to go up on a nearby boardwalk, so the sun is closer to shining on the alligators as well as the water, and more can be captured.
One evening, while two sibling alligators were hanging out close together, I tried to use the pattern of the clouds reflected in the water to turn them into a sort of Yin/Yang symbol with each alligator serving as sort of the eye in the symbol.
I liked the aesthetics of this photograph very much. But the alligators were awfully small. The Yin/Yang reference a bit vague from just viewing the photo, I did not feel it drew the viewer in as much as I would like.
Back to the drawing board.
Alligators will often hang out close to the boardwalk and swim underneath it. I realized this was as close as I was going to get and that it also provided the most control. So, instead of going lower, I started to think in terms of being directly above the alligator. But I needed a shot more complex than simply an overhead. I referenced back to Art 101 and thought in terms of composing shapes. I also referenced artists who painted instead of photographed. How do I capture the essence and energy of an alligator? How do I tie it in to what I love about being in Florida with them? My musing led me to Georgia O'keeffe. Particularly her paintings of cow, horse, and deer skulls.
Simple in it's symmetry, clean and elegant with a stunning visual impact, I knew I had my composition. I wanted just a little extra, though. A little swoosh, a visual element like lines to make the simple composition more dynamic. Like Nagel used to do on his simple high-contrast artwork. Like his classic painting that became the cover for Duran Duran's Rio.
Or the flowers and foliage O'Keeffe herself did in several of her other skull paintings.
Finally, one evening, while trying out the high-saturation slide film Fuji Velvia, I saw my Alligator and created my image.
Maybe alligators don't make such bad models after all.
I hope you like it and I hope to see you next Sunday, right here, on the Real Florida Photo Blog.