By Peter Schaller
I once commented to my friend Jane that walking around with a photographer is akin to walking around with a three year old child.
Everything is a wonder, a possibility, art in the waiting. When I said this, we were walking on Hammonasset beach in Connecticut, and I was stopping every four feet to photograph shells, driftwood, sand, water, sky, footprints… She and her dog, Sam, were graciously patient, though I am well aware that it gets old, quickly.
The camera can be an amazing tool for capturing things that are present, but often go unseen. Photography can reveal the infinite beauty that surrounds us, but the camera can also become a sort of barrier. I have found myself, on many occasions, much more focused on the image than the instant. So much can be gained through the lens, but just as much can be lost.
It’s a chilly, November morning in Atlanta, down to 42 degrees.
I’m staying with my friends, John and Brittany, on the outskirts of the city and this will be my last day of fall before heading back to the tropics. John and I decide to take an early morning walk with Molly, their Jack Russell Terrier who does handstands to pee. Most yogis would be envious of her strength and flexibility. Across from their house is a large field, where a neighbor pastures his horses.
The field is right on the banks of the Chattahoochee River. As we make our way down the dirt road, towards the horses, I hope out loud that the field will never be degraded to a subdivision, filled with over-sized, boxy houses. John explains that the whole area has been categorized as a flood plain, as the Chattahoochee gets wanderlust from time to time, so no building permit could ever be approved. It’s nice to get good news about large, beautiful fields every now and then.
As we round the last bend before the field, I am awestruck.
The sun is coming up behind the trees, which are in a partial state of undress, not quite ready to relinquish abundance to the naked dearth of winter. The sky is humbling, glowing peach with first light. In the distance, I can see the silhouettes of five horses, veiled in the low lying fog.
The first thought that invades my mind is: I didn’t bring my camera! For a moment, I consider running back to the house but I can’t bear to miss even a second of the wonder that is laid out in front of me. Besides, with the camera, my mind would have to be thinking about shutter speed, exposure, angle, perspective and I would only appreciate fragments of the morning, but not the symphonic harmony of its entirety.
We walk on, no camera, grateful for witnessing silent beauty.
The path curves around to the southern end of the field, before meeting up with the Chattahoochee. As we near the river, two young deer appear in the fog. They are alert and conscious of our presence, but not overly alarmed. They seem to have an inherent understanding of their ability to outrun two middle aged men and a dog who would have to jump to bite their ankles.
The two deer are standing next to a wooden fence that is nearly twice their height. One sniffs at the weathered boards and gazes upwards, casually. I realize that we are about to witness an act of pure grace. Without further consideration, she lifts into the air, like a leaf falling in reverse, gently, silently, naturally. Just when I think her back hooves will hit the top rail, she curls them under her body and clears it with an inch to spare. Once on the other side, she trots a few yards ahead and waits for her companion, who performs precisely same feat.
For a moment, my mind drifts to my 70-200 mm lens.
With the right settings, I could have captured the deer in weightless flight, but I could never have captured the grace or the silence. Suddenly, I am so grateful to be camera free. If I had tried to photograph that moment, I would have been preoccupied with technicalities and I would not have fully absorbed the mystical proportions of those few seconds.
Drought conditions have caused some forest fires in the North Georgia Mountains and some smoke has drifted south to Atlanta. The cool air has a smoky taste, mixed with the sweetness of decaying leaves. I can’t bear to think of forests being destroyed, carbon pouring into the atmosphere, and particles slipping down into my lungs. But for those brief moments, I savor the taste of fall.
John and I head back down the road to the house and a hot cup of coffee to scare the chill out of my bones. Molly does a couple of handstands on the way back, just because she still can. The fog is starting to lift and the sun has cleared the treetops.
The world is a different place, now that I have seen a young deer fly through the fog at dawn.
Editor: Dana Gornall