North Carolina's Barrier Islands: Wonders of Sand, Sea and Sky - David Blevins

Apr 19, 2017

North Carolina's Barrier Islands: Wonders of Sand, Sea and Sky - David Blevins (UNC Press)
Credit UNC Press

Summer is coming, with the traditional start of the season… Memorial Day… about a month away. The summer for many means travel to popular eastern North Carolina beaches in and around cities like Wilmington, Morehead City and Kill Devil Hills. A new book highlights the sights of coastal beaches less traveled. George Olsen has this.

A Wikipedia entry on coffee table books mentions the format is “intended essentially for display over perusal” … to some extent, a book you’d always see but never read. But the format has a higher stature than one might think. A former director of the Sierra Club David Brower, again according to Wikipedia, is sometimes credited with the modern coffee table book as he sought a format with “a page size big enough to carry a given image’s dynamic.” The late Mr. Brower would be impressed with a new coffee table book “North Carolina’s Barrier Islands: Wonders of Sand, Sea and Sky.”

“There’s lots of books about the coast of NC. A lot of them are from a human perspective, they’re about human history or about lighthouses and fishing boats. This book is from nature’s perspective. I’m using the science of ecology and geology to help me tell stories about each of these islands, about what makes each island unique and special.”

That’s author and photographer David Blevins of Cary describing his goal for the book which showcases over 150 high quality images from the state’s coastal region. And unlike my own personal belief on how photography collections come about… blindly snap a lot of pictures and then hope something coherent ensues… Blevins says in this case his process was exactly the opposite.

“There’s a whole process to creating a book like this. I start with the premise of the book, and I go out to create the images the book needs, and… but at the same time this is a coffee table book and you’ve got to have really spectacular quality images, and if I were just making high quality images, that would be a lot easier, but I’m trying to create images that connect with the stories about each of these islands.”

For all the planning involved in putting together “North Carolina’s Barrier Islands” Blevins will tell you happenstance was involved as well. He points out an underwater shot he got of a blue crab … a shot he had hoped to get, a shot he never thought would happen.

“I was hiking over to Shackleford Banks, the tide was out, and the water was a little too shallow to get the boat up to shore, so I jumped out of the boat and was wading to shore in about thigh deep water when something scurried right in front of my feet. I caught a quick glimpse of it and realized it was a blue crab and I wanted to get a picture of a blue crab in the book but I knew it was one of those things that would just be luck if it happened, so when I saw it scurry past me I got out my point and shoot camera and I moved a little closer to it, and I didn’t really expect it to work because blue crabs are really fast and I figured it would just take off and not let me get very close, but it didn’t. It stood its ground, and as I was setting up the shot I realized why it was standing its ground, and that is the female blue crab can’t mate unless she’s just molted, so right after mating the male sticks around to defend her while her shell hardens, and that’s what was happening. He was standing his ground right over his mate, protecting her from me and that allowed me to get the shot, and that’s the sort of special wildlife moment… you can’t plan that sort of thing.”

Credit David Blevins

Blevins says about half of the shots in the book were “purely intentional,” which my rudimentary math skills indicate that about half were not. Another instance of the latter would be a photograph of a cooper’s hawk displaying behavior out of character. Blevins notes his experience with cooper’s hawks is they are more likely to feed on small birds but in this instance he came upon one who had taken a marsh rabbit. It happened just as Blevins came down a trail at the Pine Island Audubon Sanctuary. His appearance startled the hawk which flew off. But if the event was unplanned, Blevins used techniques he’d practiced to get the hawk to return so he could get a now planned shot.

“They are really spectacular birds. So I used another technique that I occasionally use which is I set the camera up about five feet from the rabbit and just put it on a program taking a photograph every 5 or 10 seconds, I can’t remember exactly, and set it on auto focus and just walked away. The bird is concerned about me, not the camera, so since I knew it would be coming back to the rabbit, that’s a known location and I can just set the camera up, have it shoot a picture every 5 or 10 seconds, so I just walked away about 50 feet and just watched through binoculars as the bird came back and fed on his rabbit, and the camera just shot 30 or so pictures of him feeding on the rabbit and then flying off.”

While he wanted the book to be from nature’s perspective, at the same time he knew he couldn’t take photos of the state’s barrier islands without touching on the influence that human development has had on natural areas. The most striking example of that is a shot of Highway 12 on Hatteras Island shortly after Hurricane Sandy passed well offshore in October 2012. The ocean overwashes the highway, destroying dunes, buckling pavement in a manner that seems to match a roiling ocean … leaving an imprint which Blevins would tell you would never be noticed if not for man’s footprint.

“If you’re at a completely natural beach right after a storm it looks like the beach right before the storm. A storm doesn’t really make a beach look any different. It still has surf and sand. The dunes might be flatter but it still looks like a beach, so to really show the impact of the storm I needed some human element there to contrast with the natural forces.”

Credit David Blevins

Perhaps the book’s most powerful shots appear toward it’s end, and somewhat appropriately, one photo being the photo he wanted to take, the other the photo he happened upon. The first photo is a 10-minute exposure of a sea turtle laying eggs on Cape Fear, the Milky Way in the background, its stars the only light illuminating the beach on the night of the new moon.

“That was the image I intended to make, but I agree with you the image on the following page after she has finished laying her eggs and she was successful, she turned around and started heading to the ocean and while she was walking, of course, she was moving too fast for me to shoot an image. She would just be a blur. But she’s so tired that as soon as she got to the surf and the water touched her she stopped and rested again, and while she rested she sat still enough for me to get another shot, and this time I set up the composition with her tracks leading you off into the distance sort of mirroring the Milky Way in the sky. That shot just happened. When I saw that I knew that was an image but I had never conceived of an image like that previously. A lot of my images, I think about them in advance and I plan them but that just happened, and that’s just a spectacular, special moment.”

Credit David Blevins

David Blevins’ collection of that and other moments is entitled “North Carolina Barrier Islands: Wonders of Sand, Sea and Sky” and is published by UNC Press. I’m George Olsen.