A language unto itself

  • A snowy owl about to perch on a fence post in Ontario, Canada Contributed photo/Steve Upton

  • A lioness in Masai Mara, Kenya. Contributed photo/Steve Upton

  • An approaching jaguar in the jungles of Brazil. Contributed photo/Steve Upton

  • A stellar sea eagle off the coast of Hokkaido, Japan. Contributed photo/Steve Upton

  • Photographer Steve Upton in Antarctica. Contributed photo/Steve Upton

Staff Writer
Published: 4/2/2020 8:07:18 AM
Modified: 4/2/2020 8:07:08 AM

There’s something about photography that’s able to speak when words fail. When South Deerfield wildlife photographer Steve Upton was in Antarctica in 2007, for example, he recalls being so captivated by its beauty he was rendered speechless — in those moments, his primary method of communication was the quiet click of a shutter release.

“Antarctica, it made you feel inept. It was like you couldn’t even speak the English language. The scope was so far beyond any adjectives,”  Upton said in a phone call Monday from his home-studio in South Deerfield, where he’s been self-quarantining for two weeks after returning from Florida. He was photographing coastal birds when the COVID-19 pandemic descended on the United States and cut the trip short as a precaution. Antarctica, he remembered, “was large and daunting and beautiful and mysterious. There were colors that you had never seen before, in the crevices and cracks of glaciers, where these unbelievable blue reflections of light would just dazzle you. That blue doesn’t exist in this hemisphere.”

That trip to Antarctica was the first serious photography adventure Upton embarked on after retiring from Upton-Massamont Realtors, which he started in the late-80s to complement his construction business, Upton Enterprises. At the time, Upton says he wasn’t as proficient with the camera as he is these days. Thus, his images, too, fell short of capturing Antarctica’s visual grandeur.

“It was something you tried to photograph but even the cameras couldn’t pick it up,” Upton said. Even so, the act itself transcended time and space: “When I go back and look at my images, I remember the click of the camera so many of the times. It’s not like it’s lost. It’s a present event. It’s amazing,”

While he’d dabbled in photography before, Upton, 72, intentionally took up the art form as a retirement project about 10 years ago. 

“My wife (Patty) said to me, ‘you’d better find something else to do that you’re passionate about because I wasn’t going to come home and ‘run the home like it was a job site,’” Upton said. In retirement, it makes sense that he gravitated toward photography. During his career, Upton — who holds a master’s degree in education from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and taught high school history for a number of years — says he found artistic fulfillment in building design, which requires technical skill as well as creativity.

Photography, too, is both abstract and concrete — especially wildlife photography.

On the fly, a photographer must understand how to manipulate a camera’s shutter speed in order to freeze fast-moving penguins diving off of rocks, which Upton photographed in Antarctica. Additionally, among other image-making techniques, knowledge of how to manipulate the lens’ aperture is necessary to change the amount of blur in an image. And in an abstract sense, the ability to read light and organize lines within a frame are important compositional skills.

Thus, the challenge of learning photography coupled with the allure of travel enticed Upton. When he first began making images, Upton says he was “just absolutely happy to record what (I) saw.”

Dozens of countries, countless wildlife expeditions and more than a decade on from that inaugural trip to Antarctica and Upton’s camera skills have greatly improved — as has his eye for composition. In that time, Upton’s passion for wildlife photography has led him to Japan, China, Argentina and Brazil, Central and South America, throughout North America and all over Europe. His many subjects include lions in the Sahara Desert, grizzlies in Alaska, jaguars in South America and polar bears in the North Pole. Today, Upton says he tries hard to relate emotion through his images, not just capture what’s in front of him.

The secret to this, Upton says, is noticing human-like emotion in animals.

“Communication, for humans, comes through the intimacy of eye contact. So, you work really hard to get eye contact with animals,” Upton said, noting there are other ways to bridge the gap, such as “photographing young animals (when) they’re tussling with one another. It reminds me of my brother and I wrestling growing up. … You see that everywhere. Lion cubs are just hilarious because prides have cubs (of varying ages) — you have the big brother, the little brother and the in-between brother, and they are just raising hell.”

At times, Upton says he’s gone to extreme lengths to capture this type of interaction — which has put him in a few dicey situations. Once, for example,  Upton was photographing grizzly bears in Halo Bay, Alaska when he and the other wildlife photographers he was with ran into trouble — a young grizzly bear and its mother.

“Grizzly bears have a very deep eye socket. When you photograph them, a lot of times their eyes can just look like a black hole — not very attractive and doesn’t communicate well in photography,” he explained. Because of that, Upton said it’s important to capture a reflection in the eye.

“We had witnessed a second-year cub, he was probably 5 feet tall and maybe 300 pounds. We were trying to work ahead of him so we could get the sun behind us and have him walk toward us and get that eye contact.” After 20 minutes, “Finally, we managed to (get a good angle). He came right in on us, to maybe 12 feet, and he stood up and gave us a big growl. … We looked behind us and realized that we weren’t maneuvering him, he was maneuvering us.”

Unawares, the young bear had backed them against an estuary, or a partially enclosed coastal body of water. With the mother not far behind, Upton says they moved away slowly but with urgency. He described the experience as “humbling.”

“I got over feeling like the epicenter of the universe my very first trip,” Upton said. “You quickly realize what an insignificant speck we are in the natural universe, (which is) so big, so massive, so beautiful. We are a very, very tiny part of this whole story.”

While the wildlife he’s photographed overseas are certainly more exotic, Upton says there’s plenty to see around here. In his backyard, Upton, who lives in the shadow of Mount Sugarloaf, says he's photographed “deer, bear, bobcat — you name it, it's been here. I've even seen a moose here and (a) fisher cat. Wild turkeys in their breeding plumage — a male strutting its stuff — and I photographed that by opening up a window in the kitchen.”

As the human world slows, Upton, who marked 14 days of quarantined isolation on Monday, says he’s found solace in the vastness of nature and has fallen back on photography as a way to connect with others. For the last few weeks, he’s been posting his images daily on Facebook “In order to share and … pass on some of the tranquility that nature has given to me. The one who has gotten the most out of it, because people have responded so kindly to it — I feel connected. I don’t feel isolated.”

In challenging times, Upton said nature “somehow diminishes the chaos around me. It’s where, certainly, I’m happiest. There’s a mystery in nature that most of us never (realize). We walk by it but we don’t see it. We don’t take the time to see it and even if we do stop, we might not understand what we’re seeing. It has given me inner peace, and it allows me a time out from the overload of the information world.”

More than that, being in nature with a camera has given him patience — a valuable trait in today’s pandemic-driven, ever-changing reality.

On a safari to Kenya to see the Great Migration, Upton recalled, “I waited all day for a leopard to leap out of a tree onto prey below. It didn’t happen. I waited for 10 hours. … You learn patience. You learn that not everything you want to happen will happen. It’s sort of what we’re going through right now. This is out of our hands. You just have to observe and prepare yourself as best you can and hope that nature will right.”

Andy Castillo is the features editor at the Greenfield Recorder. He holds a master’s degree in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University and can be reached at acastillo@recorder.com.

How to connect

When this pandemic has passed, Upton said he intends to host a showing at his home-gallery. Until then, his work can be viewed at steveuptonphotography.com. For inquiries, he can be reached at tydun@comcast.net.

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