Story and image by Don McGowan
I have been a professional nature and travel photographer for nearly 27 years, and the first word that comes readily to mind to describe my experience of those years is “gratitude.” The worst day I’ve ever had doing photography was infinitely better than the best day I ever had in an office—period.
There is a second word that comes to mind as easily as the first, and that is the word “surprise.” Capturing images for whatever reason is an ongoing experience of surprise and, fortunately, delight as well.
Surprise and delight come in many and varied forms, like the occasion when I encountered a juvenile bull elk near the old barn at the ranger station in Cataloochee who had covered his head and antlers with straw from a bale of hay he had tossed into the air with gusto. I learned from the likes of great biologists such as Kim DeLozier that similar behavior is a usual aspect of preparing for the annual rut in order to make the individual bull appear as menacing as possible to his rivals. In the case of my young bull, the effort was more wishful thinking than anything else. (Check it out in Smoky Mountain Elk, a book on elk reintroduction in the Smokies.)
The world of Smokies landscapes is also an ever-constant surprise. Nature is a perpetual source of change and novel revelation no matter how many times I have visited a particular location. Nature’s face always reveals itself anew.
And so it was recently when I decided to photograph the confluence of the Middle Prong of the Little Pigeon in Greenbrier and Porters Creek for the umpteenth time. Heck, I even remember the first time I photographed in Greenbrier in 1994. It’s as special to me now as it was then, and I have not missed a single year of visiting the cove during that span of years. I am still grateful for the images it shares.
As I was working along the bank at the confluence, I noticed for the very first time in all those years the willow-like branches of an old red maple (Acer rubrum) hanging down like a leafy curtain, partially obscuring the view of the two streams, but not completely and not without a view through that struck me as very visually appealing in conjunction with the flow of the waters. Thus, the image “Curtain Call.”
So here is my advice: Be open to the surprises that come your way as a photographer. Don’t take them for granted or overlook them. They are sources of much for which you will later be very grateful.
Don McGowan owns and operates EarthSong Photography. For five years he was the staff photographer for Friends of the Smokies. He offers workshops and photography instruction in beautiful locations around the country, including the Smokies.