Assateague, Chincoteague, and the Art of Letting Go

Wild Horse in Chincoteague, VA

Way back in July, one of my local photo clubs had a guest speaker. I often look forward to these speakers only to be somewhat let down by the reality of their presentations (sorry photo club peeps). So, on this occasion I didn’t have any particular expectations. The speaker was a wildlife photographer out of Baltimore who showcased work mostly from the Eastern Shore of Maryland – primarily the Assateague National Seashore. I liked her photos; in fact, I felt inspired by her photos, and enjoyed the presentation very much. I signed up for her mailing list, and promptly received an email detailing her workshop schedule for the next several months.

I had always wanted to take a workshop, but never could. They were usually too far away, lasted too long, or were far too expensive for me to be able to take advantage of them. Usually all three of these. One of the workshops this photographer listed was a one day workshop at Assateague National Seashore. It was described as an intro to nature photography. It was one full day in mid-October, starting before sunrise and going until after sunset, with lunch and editing lessons in the middle of the day when the light would be at its worst. The cost was $150. I got excited. I could afford this. I could do this. My reasoning was that although it was an introduction and would probably cover things I already knew, there was certainly nothing wrong with review, besides which I was bound to learn something that I didn’t already know, or have something that I knew intellectually finally click. Even if none of that happened, it would be great to just have a guide to where the wildlife liked to hang out at different times, improving my probability of getting great photos.

So, I made the arrangements. I signed up for the workshop, made hotel reservations, and looked forward to it for the next three months. It was the beacon in the distance, the thing towards which I strived. In short, I couldn’t wait! I was going to get the best wild horse shots you’ve ever seen!! It was, in my imagination, some sort of turning point, though had you pressed me, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you why or how.

The Friday before the workshop dawned clear and beautiful. The forecast for the weekend couldn’t have been better for mid-October. I had inventoried everything I thought I’d need, even bought the rather expensive Black Rapid camera strap for added convenience and comfort for all day shooting (wouldn’t change this; best strap I’ve ever used). I drove up that Friday to meet my girlfriend, Laura, in the quaint little town of Berlin, MD which was just outside of the park. We acquainted ourselves with the town, located the Visitors Center at which I would be meeting up with the workshop group in early morning darkness, and got out into the park long enough to get a few sunset shots over the wetlands. After an early dinner, it was early to bed.

The next morning, after “sneaking” around the hotel room trying not to wake Laura (but failing) and groping my way back to the Visitors Center in the dark, I stood in the parking lot listening to the shadows of strangers. Some talked about the photographer who was leading the workshop as if they knew her, and speculated about the day’s activities. When she showed up, she said that the animals hadn’t been in evidence lately, and perhaps we would go to the beach and get surfing photos first thing. I was glad for the cover of darkness, as I felt my face screw up in disappointment. Don’t get me wrong. I liked surfing and photographing it; I had done it before and had relatively good results. But it’s not exactly nature photography.

We then caravanned to the beach. Some of us shot the surfers, some went around getting landscape shots. Not a word from the leader of the workshop in terms of teaching us anything, or even imparting standard tips. My ire rose with the sun. I wanted to be where the animals were! There were barely even gulls on this beach. When the sun rose, I noticed the workshop leader was wearing what Laura would later refer to as her ghillie suit – what appeared to be a plastic version of military BDU’s. In short, she looked a bit whacked, honestly. I wore earth tones, nothing bright; everyone did. But goodness. I also noticed she wasn’t even carrying a camera.

Whatever! I decided I had to take advantage of being there the best I could. I got action shots of the surfers, I got the surfers at rest, I got the sun rising over the ocean, lines and tracks in the sand, waves of undulating sea grass, other photographers getting their shots. The rest of the day passed with me alternating between this state of acceptance and giving in to my rising frustration. We did eventually attempt to track down animals, but this woman didn’t seem any more knowledgeable about where the animals would be than Surfing the Goldany of us, the blind leading the blind. I got some egrets in the distance, cormorants and ducks feeding in the marshes, gulls landing on piers, even horses grazing in parking lots next to cars, but nothing that inspired me. Even the editing “lessons” were a disappointment. I taught people around me more about how to use Lightroom than this photographer taught anybody anything all day long. Her critiques of our photos consisted of cropping them as tightly as possible and calling it better. The one and only shot that I took that day that I still think is a pretty good shot is this one. I call it the golden surfer, taken as the sun rose behind him and goldified everything within its reach.

It was an exhausting day, not least because I spent entirely too much energy on frustration and annoyance. By the time I woke the next morning, I had shaken some of it off, but still couldn’t stop thinking about how I could have saved $150 and a good deal of irritation if I had only spent the day photographing on my own. And who knows? I might have even gotten better shots! After brunch and a kvetch session with a sister workshop participant, Laura and I had to part ways and drive back to our respective homes. As I was driving away, I realized I would be passing by the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge exactly when the light would be approaching perfect for photography purposes. Spontaneously, I decided I would stop there. I spent some time with a number of egrets, herons, and cormorants having a very good fishing day. I got more photos of birds downing fish that day than I had gotten in all my previous time photographing birds. I was going to walk down the short path to the lighthouse after that and get some sunset lighthouse photos, but got distracted by the sun setting behind some grazing horses. I think when I decided to stop at the Chincoteague refuge I was somehow able to let go of all the resentment I had managed to build up over time and money ill spent, and just look forward instead. It was the moment when the workshop ceased to be the beacon in the distance, and I realized how much more that created my resentment than anything the workshop did or did not provide. I think this is a great metaphor for bigger, deeper resentments that we all like to hold onto for whatever reasons. I just hope I can remember to invoke it at the right moments!

By the way, two shots that I took that day in Chincoteague will be framed and for sale at aLatté café’s upcoming 2HipNot2BSquare photography exhibit in Downtown Norfolk. I will put up the official flyer tomorrow. Meanwhile, here are the original (edited) photos. They will be for sale with a square aspect ratio, which I’ll show you in tomorrow’s post. You can tell me which you prefer. I think I will have to do some thinking and writing about this whole instagram-inspired square thing! Meanwhile, here are the photos with the original aspect ratio.

Chincoteague Sunset IMG_8860

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