Bear Necessities – Part 2

Bear Necessities – Part 2

“Is that Chris Weston?”

The bellowing voice and the raucous laugh told me that Chris Morgan was in the skiff, heading my way. It has been a year since we last met and a decade since he first brought me here – the Katmai peninsula. After he boarded, we hugged “hello”. It was like being embraced by a bear.

“How’s it been?” he asked, tilting his head towards the shore, eager for news of bear activity in the area. The big smile on my face told him what he wanted to hear. “Incredible”, I said. “Bloody amazing!” I added, just to emphasize the point. I was at the end of my eighth visit to the Katmai peninsula (Chris was just arriving) and I have never witnessed such diverse bear activity in such a short space of time. From mothers with new cubs to sparring sub-adults to huge dominant males displaying the sort of fishing skills that would be the envy of any human angler, the peninsula was an arena of bear action.

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Salmon are what draw the bears to the Katmai peninsula and fishing is the main pastime.

Nikon D810, 200mm, 1/800 @ f/10, ISO 800.

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Although there are plenty of fish for every bear, territorial disputes aren’t uncommon.

Nikon D810, 200mm, 1/3200 @ f/5.6, ISO 800.

I had two aims on this trip. Firstly, I was testing Fuji’s X-T1 mirror-less camera system, along with a newly released weatherproof lens. The X-T1 is an exciting camera. For some time now, I’ve been predicting that the next major development in camera design will be the loss of the reflex mirror.

The mirror is one of the most limiting factors in SLR camera design. Not only does it cause vibrations that can reduce the sharpness of images, it is largely responsible for the size and weight of SLR cameras (not to mention lenses). Additionally, a little known flaw that results from the presence of the mirror is a reduction in the quality of the light transmitted to the sensor because the lens sits so far forward of the sensor plane.  For all these reasons, I have been waiting for a high-end mirror-less camera to reach the market and so, when Fuji announced the X-T1, I was intrigued. I contacted Fuji, who, in return, were keen to work with me, which is how I found myself in the farthest reaches of North America with an X-T1 body and a pre-production 18-135mm weather resistant lens.

The second reason for my trip was a personal one. On my previous two visits to the peninsula, I had taken very few photographs, as I have been involved in producing a documentary film about the region’s wildlife. This year, I wanted to get back to what I love most – the still image – and reconnect with Katmai’s bears, which, over the years, I have come to think of as my friends. The challenge I faced, which, I believe, is a challenge all photographers face – amateur or pro’ – was how to create different photographs.

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Over the years, I have come to view Katmai’s bears as my friends.

Nikon D810, 135mm, 1/3200 @ f/5.6, ISO 800.

To answer this question, I wanted to test a theory I have been studying recently: The mind is maker of reality. Let me explain. The mind doesn’t look on nature like you might look in a mirror to be confronted by a reflection. You and your reality are one and the same. If you see a sunset and think it beautiful, there are no explanations drawn from physics or biology that can describe why. Those sciences can explain the mechanics of what happens but what is astounding and a complete mystery is how you see the sunset as a picture in your head, for there is no light in the brain, no images of a sunset. The brain is not a camera. Everything we see, hear, touch, taste and smell must be created by the mind.

And if we take this theory a pace further, stepping into the quantum world, it can be asserted that we don’t see because we have eyes or hear because we have ears. The reverse is true: the mind created sense organs to explore the universe. Put another way, we aren’t bodies that learned to think; we are thoughts that learned to create a body. Looking on the world this way, I might conclude that I am not a photographer seeking images. Instead, out there are images seeking ways to be seen. I am merely a conduit through which nature expresses herself. And, in so being, through my connectedness, she reflects the person I am in that precise moment. The more connected I am the more I see and what I see is determined by my frame of mind.

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The more I am connected with my subjects the more I see.

Nikon D810, 70mm, 1/640 @ f/4, ISO 800.

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The more I am connected with my subjects the more I see.

Nikon D810, 70mm, 1/640 @ f/4, ISO 800.

I appreciate how this might read a little woo-woo and I might have thought so myself had I not experienced it. But I have. At the beginning of this year, I was in Yellowstone National Park. It is a location I have been to a few times and I wasn’t there with a specific plan, which is unusual for me. As it turned out, I didn’t need one. Everywhere and in every moment, I felt completely connected with the environment – the forests, the mountains, the rivers and the wildlife. I would sit at a single point and images would, quite literally, reveal themselves, like three dimensional scenes popping out of a two dimensional TV screen. I simply couldn’t stop seeing images. In the week I was in Yellowstone, I took more photographs than I’d created in the entirety of the preceding year.

This was a new experience for me and I would like to say that I could summon the sensation of it at will. Unfortunately, I haven’t perfected that skill – yet. I’m working on it. However, it reminded me of a state of being that we should all practice when out with our cameras – mindfulness.

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When bears spar their jaws rarely touch. Instead it is like watching a choreographed dance.

Nikon D810, 200mm, 1/2500 @ f/5.6, ISO 800.

The dictionary definition of mindfulness is being conscious or aware. But mindfulness goes deeper than that. It is a state in which you ‘tune in’ to your thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations and your environment. It also involves acceptance, meaning you apply no right-or-wrong to the way you feel in any given moment. Mindfulness enables us to see things that might normally pass us by. For example, have you ever seen a butterfly but not stopped to wonder at its intricacy or the glory of its colours? Or perhaps you have walked through a wood without noticing the texture of the bark on the tree trunks or the patterns on the leaves or the shapes created by the network of exposed roots.

By taking your time to study nature intensely – mindfully – and accepting that there is no one prescribed way to ‘see’ the flora and fauna around you – creating your own reality – you will begin to uncover images within images. What at first glance is, say, a bear can become a claw or a spiral of water or a choreographed dance or heavenly sparkles glinting on the surface of a river.

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Long and sharp, bears claws as so dexterous they can prize open the smallest clam.

Nikon D810, 200mm, 1/640 @ f/5.6, ISO 400.

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A spiral of water falls off the bear as he snatches the salmon from the river.

Nikon D810, 190mm, 1/3200 @ f/4, ISO 800.

Mindfulness is what makes my images different from one year to the next and explains the reason if two photographers stand next to each other, they will take completely different photographs. It is also what characterizes my creativity and makes photography a truly unique and personal experience.

For a photograph to go beyond a mere record of an event it must reflect not what you see externally but what you are feeling inside. When I look at your photographs, I don’t want to see a bear or a deer or a fox; or a tree or a mountain. I want to see what the world looks like to you because that is an image I have never seen before.

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Heavenly sparkles play off the surface of the water.

Nikon D810, 200mm, 1/8000 @ f/2.8, ISO 800.

Chris Weston – The Storyteller

www.chrisweston.photography

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