The Storytelling Vision of David Harp
Heron taking flight. Photograph courtesy of David Harp
Photograph courtesy of David Harp

IT WOULD BE HIS FAVORITE IMAGE in his fifth book. On a snowy Maryland morning, David Harp sat in the front of a kayak, gliding up the Choptank River, scanning the shore ahead, holding his camera at the ready. Tom Horton, his writer-collaborator, sat in the back, busy with paddling. In the soft gray distance Harp spotted a great blue heron standing on stick-like legs in the shallows along the shore.

The heron may have been stalking fish or planning his day or thinking about heading farther south for warmer weather — but poised there in a meditative moment this particular heron had now taken center stage in Harp's world.

The heron had stationed himself in an odd gap, a break in the tall brown marsh grasses that lined the shore. That's where erosion had cut a channel, opening a window in a wall of grass. And outlined in the window stood the heron.

A perfect scene, but not a perfect moment, at least not yet, not for a photographer as savvy as Harp. Squinting through the viewfinder of his camera, he began forming an image in his mind, framing it through the lens, and locking focus on the heron. Horton paddled slowly, aiming straight at the gap. The heron waited, Harp waited. And then the heron made up its mind, flapping its wings and lurching suddenly upwards. Harp hit the button — and hit the jackpot: out of the scene and the moment, he now had a perfect shot.

Perfect shots of Chesapeake Bay scenes may look like luck — but they aren't. They are usually the payoffs from purposeful planning and from years of visiting and revisiting the edges and islands and rivers of this estuary. "You can go to the same place 100 times and it is never the same. The more you get out there, the more chances you have of seeing something significant in the same place," says Harp. "It sounds a little mystical, but I think you can almost will a photograph to be better — just by being out there."

The other key, of course, is what you bring to the moment: the commitment to the craft, to mastering technology and technique, to applying them with talent to topics that matter. "Your whole life experience as a photographer," says Harp, "comes into being every time you press the shutter."

A blood moon rises over a waterman’s home and workboat on Smith Island. Photograph courtesy of David Harp
A blood moon rises over a waterman’s home and workboat on Smith Island. Photograph courtesy of David Harp

The life experience Dave Harp brings to this wintry morning on the Choptank River began way up the watershed, up in Hagerstown. That's where he grew up, the son of a newspaper photographer, that's where he bought his first camera by saving up butter coupons, that's where he decided he liked what he saw of his father's line of work, liked it enough to take a job on his father's paper as soon as he graduated college.

From there he went to the Baltimore Sun, Aubrey Bodine's old newspaper. For Harp's last decade there he had his dream job, working as the staff photographer for the Sunday Sun Magazine, a redesigned version of the magazine that once helped make Bodine famous. That's when Harp started making photographs around the Chesapeake Bay. "I saw the light," he says. "I saw this is what I wanted to do."

The man who helped him see the light was Tom Horton, an Eastern Shore native and the Sun's long-time environmental writer. The two began a friendship and working alliance, and over the last quarter century they have produced five books focused on the Chesapeake, each one featuring Horton's essays and Harp's photographs.

Morris Goodwin. Photograph courtesy of David Harp
Morris Goodwin Marsh is a crab scraper featured in Beautiful Swimmers, the 1976 book by William Warner, and in Beautiful Swimmers Revisited, the 2015 film with videography by David Harp. Photograph courtesy of David Harp

This approach speaks to the vision Harp has followed ever since he bought his first camera: using photographs for storytelling. The books carry history, science, analysis, and several recurring messages: Here's the beauty and the life found in this estuary. Here's how we can more kindly connect with this place. The analysis comes from the essays, the emotion comes from the imagery.

And the imagery can be stunning. Harp's decades of work have made him the best-known Chesapeake photographer since A. Aubrey Bodine and Marion E. Warren. While those masters worked in black and white, Harp works in a world that comes in colors, in shades and saturations that can shift with the time of day and the season of the year. "Color is content to me," says Harp. "It's part of the photograph, an important part. It's that warmth of the sun in early morning, or it's that blue fog."

Through his handling of color and composition, Harp can create images infused with emotion. His goal, he says, is to communicate the feeling he had when he made the photograph. A Harp landscape gives us more than a picture of a place: it gives us a thinking, feeling person connecting with a place that means something to him. In his best work he creates meditative images: they move us to contemplate and care about the scene he saw.

Gravestones recall past lives on now-deserted Holland Island. Photograph courtesy of David Harp
Gravestones recall past lives on now-deserted Holland Island. Photograph courtesy of David Harp

It was his fifth book, Choptank Odyssey, that had Harp and Horton tracking that heron. Their hope was that the essays and images, taken together, would add up to a larger story of a river worth saving.

But sometimes a great picture of a passing moment tells a story all by itself.

Look again at Harp's heron, focus as carefully as he did. What made the picture so perfect? For Harp, it was the gap, the window in the grass wall. It outlined the heron and focused the eye. Now focus the mind on what might have made the gap: Could it be erosion? Or rising water levels? These forces have been altering marshes all around the Chesapeake.

Focus next on that wall of brown grass: the tall grass is clearly Phragmities, but could it be the non-native version that has been spreading through the region in recent decades, pushing out native plants along the shorelines of many rivers?

A heron in the gap in the grass. Just a passing moment. But a moment so artfully captured can tell a larger story about a changing estuary.

Where to Find Photographs

David W. Harp makes his work available through his website. His five books coauthored with Tom Horton can be found online and in many bookstores.

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