February 15, 2005 > Capturing Nature
by Veronica Velasquez
Nature is an elusive thing. It offers an experience for the senses that is unrivalled by anything humankind can devise. The tricky thing about nature is that its charms belong to no one; it cannot be exactly re-created, and it certainly doesn't hold still to preserve for all time. We can commit it to memory, we can paint it, and we can take pictures of it. But while photography of nature can capture part of the story, it can't truly transfer the whole experience of the wild to film.
Berah McSwain is a local photographer who does what he can to stretch nature photography to its admitted limits. The Don Edwards San Francisco Bay National Wildlife Refuge is currently featuring McSwain's exhibit "Colors and Patterns in Nature" at its Visitor's Center.
The exhibit is a tribute to the beauty of nature that is often forgotten or overlooked. McSwain's work offers an expose of the understated presence of various Bay Area nature scenes. "Colors and Patterns" is comprised of pictures shot at Coyote Hills, the San Francisco Conservatory, and the Don Edwards San Francisco Wildlife Refuge.
McSwain's work consists largely of nature scenes and wildlife. Through his photography, he captures details, such as shape, color, and structure, of subjects in nature that are not usually apparent to the naked eye.
"Both [Don Edwards and Coyote Hills] are beautiful places, and I think they are rather underutilized," McSwain said. "There are lovely scenes to see here that go largely unnoticed."
McSwain noted that the people at Don Edwards are extremely helpful and very supportive of local art and wildlife. Carmen Minch, in particular, who operates the gallery at the Visitor's Center, is instrumental in providing an educational source for the community, as well as exposure to the beauty of nature on the Bay Shore.
The exhibit also features photographs of flowers taken at the Fremont Farmer's Market and the San Francisco Conservatory. These images focus on things in nature that are obscure and often overlooked.
"I've done several close ups on flowers for this one. The close up brings out the detail and inner beauty that you don't see when you're standing at a distance. It's a way to show the structure, form and detail of the flowers," McSwain explained.
As for "moving targets" in his work, McSwain concentrated on birds in the area for this project. He enjoys photographing birds although their images are hard to capture. The bird photos in the exhibit have been subtlety altered using computer programs in order to enhance the environment the photos were shot in and to highlight the details of the birds themselves.
"The camera is not fast enough for a good picture of a bird in flight," he said. "The scope [in reality] is wider than what you can achieve with photography."
The appeal of nature photography is its inability to bring out the full experience of a subject or scene. The limitations to what can be shown only serve to show the richness and detail that defy capture, McSwain noted.
"Photography of nature makes you appreciate the beauty of things that you can't fully catch with your camera," said McSwain. "There's a limit of the spectrum of sensitivity that can be achieved with a sunset, for example. The camera range is not large enough to catch it in its entirety."
McSwain has been interested in photography since high school. He began taking pictures with a Baby Brownie camera, and over the years built his hobby into serious art. He has great regard for his influences and contemporaries in photography. Photographers that McSwain admires are Ansel Adams, John Shaw and Dianne Arbus.
Nature photography is just one aspect of McSwain's work. He also photographs jazz artists, and has had his work featured locally in previous forums including the Fremont Cultural Art Society's annual exhibit last November.
Despite the joy and beauty from conventional photography, McSwain allows that while 35mm photography has its advantages, the digital revolution is poised to take over. Digital photography, noted McSwain, is easier and more accessible, offering instant feedback as opposed to having to develop the film then examining it. Although 35mm offers greater detail and depth of color, these elements are improving in the digital counterpart. He uses both a Nikon F100 35mm and a Nikon D70 digital camera. He also utilizes Photo Shop and other computer programs to enhance or correct his images.
"My advice to photographers starting out today is to first take lots of pictures, then look at them all carefully," McSwain offered. "Use those pictures to improve your art. With real time, you get immediate feedback. The world of digital photography definitely makes it easier, and more accessible, both financially and in terms of what you can do to enhance it."
The "Colors and Patterns in Nature" exhibit runs through March 26. Gallery hours at the Don Edwards Visitor's Center are from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday and Saturday. The Don Edwards Visitor Center is located off of Highway 84 at 1 Marshlands Road in Fremont. For more information call (510) 792-0222.