a photographic essay by Will Conkwright
The last rustic island on North Carolina’s Outer Banks
Julie and I are riding the ferry from Atlantic to Portsmouth Island. Just a few weeks ago I was proposing to her beneath Basin Mountain outside of Bishop, California. The juxtaposition between the two locations is significant and the way it’s engaging my photographic eye, scintillating. I haven’t travelled much lately. Starting a web development and fine art photography business in rural eastern North Carolina has not afforded much free time. We keeping inching towards Portsmouth Island and the campsite where we will spend the weekend camping on the beach. I’m still buzzing from our trip out west. I was pleased with the photographs I made on that adventure and I’m excited to spend the weekend capturing the essence of Portsmouth Island.
Portsmouth Island is part of North Carolina’s Outer Banks. It’s a rustic tidal island that’s only accessible by ferry. The remote island is popular with fisherman and as I would find out supports an entire community of purpose built beach camping vehicles. This trip was a stop on the Freak Tour. The Freaks are a group of long time friends from West Virginia and North Carolina. We gather several times each year at various camping locations across the country to share adventures and drink copious amounts of alcohol. Admission to the group is at your own risk. It takes a special personality to hack it with this group. This would be Julie’s first camping adventure with the Freaks. I’m confident she’ll be able to hang with the Freakiest of the them.
capturing the essence of a remote barrier island
I’ve never actually been a big fan of the beach. I’m a natural explorer. The nooks and crannies of the mountains pleases my sense of adventure more than the contemplative expanses of beaches and ocean. When I lived in Delray Beach, FL I suffered a substantial concussion from an unfortunate slip and fall in my bathroom. For over a month the only place I could find any peace was sitting on the beach, staring out over the vast blue sea. Any other environment was a nausea inducing experience. The beach became synonymous with peace and solitude. This experience helped train my eye for landscape photography. I was forced to focus on an environment I’d otherwise found dull and boring. During this recovery period I discovered a new landscape and refined my understanding of color and composition.
Juxtaposition of the Natural Elements
When I choose to make a photograph the final image should make the viewer feel something. What they feel is based on their own personal experiences. On our trip to Bishop, Julie and I had the privilege to check out the late Galen & Barbara Rowell’s Mountain Light Gallery. I’d followed Galen’s work when I was a fervent rock climber in my twenties. Now I’m appreciating his art from a new perspective and drawing inspiration from his creations. The only way I’ve found to get better at anything is to mimic the people I admire most. There is no such thing as an original work of art. Any work of art was created from experiences we’ve gleaned from others over the course of our individual lives. The way Galen composed his subject and the way he captured colors found in nature inspired me like Ansel Adam’s black and white photographs.
I made Portsmouth Island Tidal Pools on our first day camping on the beach. We’d driven to the south end of the island to go fishing. The skies were dark and foreboding, the winds significant and the landscape was stark and desolate. I saw a natural duality in front of me. I believe I see this duality much like Ansel did, through the eyes of bipolar disorder, a creative blessing and a social curse. Photographing a natural environment that’s an expression of my mental state is therapeutic. It’s almost like the environment reassures me that I’m not the abnormal entity that I’ve been labeled as by the pharmaceutical/medical/insurance communities. This environment reminds me that I’m just like nature, a complex collection of dynamic and static elements, constantly changing and always striving for equilibrium on the path of least resistance.
The intention of Portsmouth Island Tidal Pools is to show how that balance exists simultaneously. I used a 10mm lens with a 10 stop neutral density filter attached to the front. This allowed for an overall exposure of 30 seconds. The long exposure captures the movement of the clouds and the stillness of the sand. I especially like the wind driven ripples in the sand. The added texture is pleasing to the eye but the element of unseen historical influence adds a sense of mystery to the photograph. In this single image we see how the landscape has been impacted by past winds and how some elements are more responsive to that influence than others. The clouds go where the wind dictates, the sand and water, not so much.
Vertical Orientation for Added Depth
I’m guilty of getting locked into shooting in a particular orientation. I’ve typically photographed most of my landscapes in the appropriately title “landscape” or horizontal orientation. Altering this perspective is again owed to visiting Galen’s gallery where I viewed many of his most famous pieces which were shot in the vertical orientation.
As I mature as a photographer I’ve isolated my studies of the craft to self awareness, composition and light in that order. I’m always amused when people ask me the inevitable gear questions with the assumption being that somehow it’s the camera that captured the image and not the photographer. Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. Cameras don’t make photographs, people make photographs. Don’t ever forget that. If you want to impress a photographer ask them why they decided to make a photograph of a particular scene. Be prepared for a lengthy explanation.
I know my work is evolving because I’m getting more requests to teach people how I do what I do. This is the greatest form of flattery but I don’t think I can teach people how to make photographs yet. The way I practice my craft is to stay vigilant to my surroundings and when something catches my eye to incessantly ask myself, why? Once you can answer that question, then I think you can begin to make a photograph that pleases you. Unless I’m hired specifically to do so, I don’t make photographs to please anyone but me. A successful photograph is one that captures the reason I stopped in the first place. Making a photograph that replicates the vision of my mind’s eye confirms that I knew why I was making it.
I decided to make Sea Foam on a Cloudy Day because the leading edge of the sea foam created an appealing form on the day I stood in its presence. I chose the vertical orientation to capture the depth I desired and to also include the distant fishermen in the frame. I used a short exposure speed to stop the motion of the receding sea and a small aperture to give detail to the sand and sea in the foreground and the clouds and people deep in the background. I made many exposures from this position but only this one captured the emotion I first saw on my approach. If you were to look through the rejects you might choose a different one. This is the beauty of art and self expression.
Training the Eye to See in Black & White
My ability to see a composition in black and white has improved. This is another indicator that my photographic training is paying off. This was a beautiful scene in color but when I saw the light trying to escape from the darkness of the clouds I immediately related to the feeling of elation when I’m transitioning out of a depressive funk and how crushing it can be when that light is not granted escape.
Those not afflicted will draw the obvious conclusion that the bipolar brain prefers black and white photography because black and white are polar opposites. When we can’t understand something it’s perfectly natural to try and reduce it down to something we can grasp. I wouldn’t fault someone for making this assumption. I would encourage them to understand that life, the bipolar brain, and the image above are not composed of pure white and pure black but by the many shades of grey that occur between the two extremes. Navigating the grey zones is the art of black and white photography. Finding balance in the grey is the challenge of living with bipolar disorder.
I knew why I wanted to make Storm Clouds Over Portsmouth Island. I implemented a similar strategy as the preceding image except I framed this one horizontally. Since I wanted the viewer to focus on the light escaping the clouds I made sure it dominated the composition. The expanse of sand adds an element of consistency and a feeling of stability. It grounds the viewer much like a mantra or goal will ground the afflicted when battling the claustrophobic darkness of depression.
Including the Human Element in a Composition
The culture of fishing, both commercial and recreational, adds a rich flavor to the character of North Carolina. This was my first trip to Portsmouth Island in recent memory. I grew up in West Virginia, have owned two Jeeps in my lifetime, and have a deep appreciation for backyard engineering. The heavily modified vehicles that frequent the beaches of Portsmouth Island were designed with the camping fisherman in mind. Mandatory modifications were campers dropped into the bed, trailer hitches both fore and aft sporting custom built platforms designed to carry coolers an a wide assortment of fishing rods specific for surf casting. Four wheel drive is surely a requisite for driving in the loose sand above the high water line but a fellow freak reminded me that all you really need is a little common sense and healthy application of throttle. When in doubt, throttle out.
I made Surf Fishing on Portsmouth Island because I was initially drawn to the symmetry of the fishing poles, then to the vehicles in the distance. The lone fisherman in the background was not something I was aware of until I processed the RAW camera file. You’ll see throughout this trip I was focused on the juxtaposition between the static and dynamic environment, on a land not very hospitable to people and the accommodations we must make to create our desired level of comfort. I wanted Surf Fishing on Portsmouth Island to show all of these elements in a single frame. I wasn’t anticipating capturing the motion of the rods in the surf. That was a bonus that adds an exciting element to the final photograph.
Julie is the smartest woman I know. She also possesses a work ethic that would make a Spartan proud if not somewhat intimidated. The night before taking the Atlantic ferry over to Portsmouth Island she was up until 1:30am building advanced analytical models for the financial industry. We were awake just a handful of hours later bound for our final destination camping on the beach. She’s never once complained about accompanying me on my manic pursuits of fine art photography. In fact, I can’t even recall a time I’ve heard her complain about any situation we find ourselves in. Much like me, and I guess this is why we’re getting married, our system default is to get shit done. Anything getting in the way of getting shit done must be removed. We march down our path beating that drum until we can march no more. This is the point where she could march no more.
I made Julie Sleeping on the Beach, Vertical to show the depth of my love and respect for the woman I will soon call my wife. The vertical orientation along with the layered clouds captures that feeling of depth appropriately. The Yeti mug filled with Bourbon & Ginger positioned next to a conch shell and my fly rod are unique compositional elements that set the stage for the weekend ahead. The tracks from Susan’s One Wheel foreshadow upcoming exploits, lost skin, and the ensuing bruise souvenirs from a proper vacation. The distant fisherman dotting the landscape keep the cultural element in tact. Julie’s cocked head is indicative of her sheer and utter fatigue and that her legs are still upright confirm that when the woman is on a mission, not even her body can get in the way.
My friend Bruce Burgin is an avid fly fisherman, accomplished photographer and employee to the West Virginia coal industry. I’m not certain he’s aware of the ensuing struggle between commercial and recreational interests in the North Carolina fishing industry and I hope he won’t mind being part of that juxtaposition in the above image.
I made Turf War because it captures a real life example of a current political climate. Both men are doing what they love. Both men appear to be equally oblivious to the presence of the other. Both men are doing what they love, oblivious and unhindered of the other, in the same body of water. I didn’t set out to make a photograph with a political agenda. I’m sure that’s what it will be reduced to in the end. I made this photograph because what I see is the reality of man juxtaposed by the folly of man, which is further imitated by the juxtaposition of colors. The reality being there’s plenty of space for both men to play as they see fit. The folly being the predictable interpretation of either side, polarized and politicized according to where their interests are vested.
I’ve spent time capturing both sides of the turf war battle. A friend in the industry asked me which side I’d pissed off more with my photography. I told them at this point it seemed pretty well split down the middle. They assured me that was a clear indicator I was doing something right.
photography as a means of connecting with natural elements
Fear lives in the past, anxiety in the future. The only place to find peace is in the present. I’m not certain of much, but I’m certain that spending time outside observing the natural surroundings is the best and possibly the only cure for settling an unquiet mind. I was once confined to the urban hell of South Florida where even the natural settings were overrun and polluted by greedy cretins. Without a boat, there was no feasible escape. The mental torment was real, schizophrenic tendencies began to resurface. Paranoia, delusions, anxiety of imminent danger, fear of people and places containing people, I trusted no one and slowly began to lose trust in myself. For people like me this environment is a breeding ground for taking a manageable mental condition and converting it into a full blown institutionalized psychosis.
The Peaceful Experience of Photographing Waves
During this beach camping trip to Portsmouth Island I realized how much I enjoy photographing waves. There is something very soothing about the process. When I’m able to capture a wave as I saw it in my mind’s eye the feeling of satisfaction is greater than normal. Perhaps in time I will understand why but until then I will simply accept it as such and enjoy the photographs I created.
I was an avid rock climber during my late teens and early twenties. You might even say I was addicted to climbing. At least one of my shrinks connected the dots when I was referred to him for fear that my solo climbing exploits were indicative of my desire to die.I assured him that the reality was quite the opposite. I had a burning desire to live and soloing was just a means to an end. It was a way I could force myself into the present moment. Living with bipolar disorder is a constant search for balance. I believe this search often manifests itself in highly destructive ways when the afflicted are still trying to find that balance. I don’t think that most people who commit suicide actually want to die. I think they’ve simply exhausted themselves trying to find solutions that lead to a balanced life. Drug and alcohol abuse are clear indicators that an afflicted individual is searching and has yet to find a sustainable solution.
My shrink recognized I’d found a solution that worked for me. To those not afflicted I can see where going rope less on a vertical rock face looks like the actions of a person with a death wish. Those that search for balance and those that directly work with them will understand the often desperate need to quite the mind and realign its focus. Nearly all humans will reject their first forays into the vertical world. We weren’t designed for this environment so it’s a natural response for the mind to reject it by injecting a healthy dose of fear. Being able to control this fear and embrace the uncomfortable experience led me to a place where I could find healthy focus and balance.
Looking back I realize now that my early to mid twenties was the most desperate time in my life. I could have easily ended up being one of those individuals that wanted to live a life fulfilled but simply couldn’t find the balance in time. I’ve made it part of my life mission to offer viable solutions to other people like me. This isn’t an outreach mission. We have to want that relief and we must be willing and ready to accept and embrace it. As I now tread through my 30’s, I feel confident I’ve found enough healthy tools for managing the war zone in my brain. Photography is proving to be a far more effective solution than soloing and one that I can sustainably practice on a regular basis.
Stepping Outside Your Comfort Zone
Wildlife photography and photographs of flowers are of little interest to me. I don’t have the patience for photographing animals and beautiful flowers are such an easy target that I struggle to see them as anything more than low hanging fruit for slightly better than average snapshots. Please don’t take that statement as a critical judgement if you’re really into either subject matter. My opinion about what you like to photograph needs to be irrelevant to your pursuit of photographing what makes you happy.
Since I don’t especially enjoy these subjects I often find myself exploring them as a sort of personal challenge to embrace that which I don’t like. It’s entirely possible I don’t enjoy these subjects simply because I don’t understand them. This aspect of my pursuit as a fine art photographer has been one that’s led to immense personal growth. Almost without fail when I go out on a mission to specifically make photographs of these subjects I come back with a deeper understanding of how I see the world.
Here’s a rare occurrence of me photographing wildlife. Being that the subject was dead, it afforded the requisite patience to make this photograph. I made Cannonball Jelly and Tire Track on a walkabout with Julie. I wanted to go light and simple so I attached my favorite lens to my Canon 7D, the $100 50mm F/1.8. I can’t say enough good things about this lens. If you shoot with a Canon and it’s not in your kit please go ahead and buy one now.
Limiting your options is a great way to simplify your life. If you’re wanting to eliminate paper from your office don’t create elaborate policies, procedures and rewards programs. Just get rid of your printers. You’ll be surprised how quickly you adapt and come up with creative solutions that would have otherwise become creative accommodations.
Prime lenses consist of a single focal length. They have no zoom capabilities. This is one reason they are more affordable. To zoom in with a prime lens you’ll need to walk forward. To zoom out, walk backwards. To compose Cannonball Jelly and Tire Track I selected an autofocus point on the far left side of the sensor. This allowed for the desired exposure to middle grey and proper focusing on the leading edge of the subject. I framed the subject through the eyepiece and then raised the camera to an estimated position above my head that I felt would adequately cover the jelly fish and the tire track. I created several exposures before getting the composition the way I wanted it.
This is the ability afforded by digital cameras. We now have a means to shoot as many test shots as possible to get the desired outcome. It can also make the photographer lazy and ignorant of how they’re achieving the desired results. I learned to shoot on film where each click of the shutter equated to a real developing cost. Now I’m embracing large format photography, developing my own negatives and making my own prints where each exposure has an even greater associated cost. Knowing how you achieve a proper exposure is essential. Make time to learn these methods, don’t become a slave to the image preview screen and leverage the advancements in technology to make yourself a better photographer.
a weekend adventure on Portsmouth Island
Camping on the beach presents its own unique challenges. The introduction of sand into every conceivable crevice being the most formidable. There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear. Preparation for a weekend camping on the beach should be designed as specifically as the vehicles that drive up and down this rustic barrier island. This was our set up for the weekend. The tent on the far left is the mess hall, the center structure the dining hall and the aft structure the changing room. Notice that all three are strategically situated between two dunes. You can only expect wind protection from one direction on a barrier island. Since they predominately run in a north-south orientation you can expect protection when the prevailing winds originate from either direction. When they shift and come from an angle perpendicular to your camp your only source of refuge is the camp itself. This can lead to congregating in close quarters. Add an unexpected rain element and you’ll soon find out how much you really like your camping buddies (and which ones practice modern hygiene).
Portsmouth Island Campsite was made while I was on the beach photographing incoming waves. As an aspiring photographer, it’s important to remember to remain vigilant to your surroundings and to not allow your focus to become locked on a single subject lest you miss the opportunity directly behind you. This moment was just before a break in the clouds offshore that would let in more of the late afternoon light. The storm clouds continued to hold a commanding position on shore, dumping rain on the Inner Banks of North Carolina. I love it when I’m presented a dark sky background and a well lit subject in the foreground. When I turned around to see our now illuminated campsite I quickly attached my Hoya 25A red filter. Colored filters are used for controlling contrast in black and white photography. The color of the filter will make that same color appear brighter while complementary colors will appear darker. By applying a red filter we can take a deep blue sky and make it appear nearly black. This technique adds a very dramatic feel to the photograph. In this case I used it to accentuate the two campsite structures on the right. The structure on the far left was actually blue in color which is why it appears black in this image.
Telling Stories Around the Fire
Camping on the beach or anywhere else for that matter isn’t camping unless you have a respectable campfire. The fire element is so basic and primal. I believe it brings out a simpler side of everyone, it nourishes our desire to be part of a community and extracts the inner story teller in us all. The flicker of the flame soothes the mind, the warmth relaxes our body and prepares us for a good nights rest. If you question these observations pay close attention the next time you’re with a group of people around a campfire. Focus on the tone of the conversation, the subject matter and how those not actively engaged in the conversation stare placidly into the flames, eyes seemingly fixated and unable to break concentration.
Early in this article I stated that a good photograph should capture the essence of the moment. The viewer should be able to feel what it’s like to be present in the scene and easily relate it to one of their own personal experiences. So far on this trip I’d yet to focus on making photographs of people. This was our last night on Portsmouth Island and knowing that I had this blog post in mind, I turned my attention to the ones who put the “Freak” in “Freak Tour”. For a very brief moment the conversation turned insightful. My Mom asked Rob and Susan the secret to their long lasting marriage. This was the moment I desired to capture.
To make this image I increased the ISO setting to 64,000. This allowed me to shoot handheld in very low light which afforded me the ability to position myself in the ideal location to create the composition that would tell the story I wanted to tell. Shooting with a very high ISO introduces excessive noise. I decided that the strength in composition would outweigh the noise and would not detract from the message I would convey with the photograph.
Rob was closest to me and he was also the one spilling the secrets. He was simultaneously fixated on the now raging campfire. This combination created the perfect subject to have in the foreground. I was shooting with my Canon 24-70mm F/2.8 lens at F/2.8 to further compensate for the lack of available natural light. Shooting wide open creates a very shallow depth of field and delivers an aesthetically pleasing blur, also called bokeh, to the subjects in the background. I made several exposures before getting the facial expressions from Rob, Susan, Mom and Carl that conveyed the essence of the scene. The smiles on Mom and Carl’s faces add a strong compositional element, even though they are nearly blurred past the point of recognition.
Rob and Susan said that sharing similar interests and having a strong network of like minded friends were critical to their marital happiness. I think understanding your partners love language, that unspoken channel of communication that confirms their mutual admiration for you, will be the key to my happiness with Julie. It’s hard to find someone that speaks your same love language, probably because it’s hard to describe exactly what it is. I admire and respect so many of Julie’s quality traits but speaking the same love language is the reason I asked her to marry me. If I were going to believe the theory that there are a limited set of people we’re compatible with as life partners, I would have to base that belief on speaking the same love language. Knowing your partner loves and respects you, with little to no effort in conveying that message, is an experience I hope you all will find someday.
closing out our weekend camping on the beach at Portsmouth Island
Everyone loves a beautiful sunset. I guess I can understand then why some seasoned photographers view these kinds of images the same way I view images of pretty flowers. Sometimes even I catch myself loathing my sunset images. Despite the mixed and conflicting emotions, rarely do I pass up the opportunity to make a photograph of the vibrant colors emitted from the atmosphere during the final daylight hours.
Once again, our visit to the Mountain Light Gallery reinvigorated my desire to make better sunrise and sunset photographs. Galen’s ability to capture color left me realizing how inadequate mine still is. A lot of the requisite factors for creating memorable photographs of sunrises and sunsets has to do with being in the right place at the right time. We are at the mercy of the sun’s light but we’re only limited by our own technical skills and compositional capabilities when making great photographs.
Sunset on Sand Dunes, Portsmouth Island and Sunset On the Core Sound, Portsmouth Island were made from the same vantage point. The top image is the view looking North up the island and the lower image the view looking due west as indicated by the setting sun. Galen used graduated neutral density filters to create the desired effect in many of his best photographs. This type of filter, referred to by photographs as a “grad”, consists of an upper and lower section where one is significantly darker than the other. The strategy behind using this type of filter is to darken the bright sky to allow for proper exposure of the shadowed foreground. I’ll let you in on a secret since you’ve read this far. I still have yet to invest in a proper set of grads. Perhaps after seeing the results Galen achieved I will finally make the investment in a nice set. But for now I will continue to use the digital filters available in the Google Nik Collection plugin for Adobe Lightroom.
Message to the Afflicted
I didn’t intend to write about how photography has evolved into a coping mechanism for managing my bipolar brain. I think the best thing we can do to help others suffering and struggling to understand why they have these “abnormal” feelings is to open up the dialog, talk about mental health in a way that doesn’t make a person feel so abnormal and focus on the many unique strengths the afflicted have and how they can leverage them to their advantage. It never ceases to disappoint how someone’s view of me changes once they know I have bipolar disorder. All of a sudden they fear for their kids safety, think that I’m going to snap and go on a murderous rampage or some similar version of extreme nonsense.
Rest assured, if you’ve had a similar experience as the one above, the only person with real and serious issues is the person judging you. These absurdities they fear are rarely experienced. These people lack a discerning mind. They simply regurgitate the thoughtless stream of sensationalized propaganda created and used by media outlets to generate fear induced traffic to their website and social pages. This what we’re up against. It’s up to us to rise above these stereotypes and SHOW these people the true sides of our unique chemistry.
It’s up to us, the afflicted, to be the agents of change. If you leave your mental health in the hands of the pharmaceutical/medical/insurance industries you will be lucky to come out the other end anything more than a human guinea pig, sampling the wide variety of anti-psychotics, anti-depressants, and mood stabilizers that make corporations wealthier than most nations at the expense of your well being. I’ve had my fair share of experiences with recreational drugs. The most dangerous drug I’ve taken so far in my life is Straterra. It literally almost killed me the night I tore out of my home and recklessly drove my truck on mountain roads to break into a coworkers house and hide because I was terrified that the person inside was going to kill me. Guess I should have taken the FDA black box warning about suicidal behavior and the rare side effect of psychosis serious.
I’ve been subjected to more mood and mind altering prescription drugs than I can recall. I had a list at one time, it was shocking to see all I’d been put through. After all these years of being a guinea pig for the pharmaceutical/medical/insurance industries TWO medications have worked for me, Adderall and Lithium. I question how much the Lithium has actually helped but I can say with 100% certainty it has done NO harm. Quality sleep will likely always be an issue for you. The only drugs that made me crazier than Strattera were the sleep meds, especially Ambien. The conversations I held with the man in the closet were enlightening for sure, but they occurred at the expense of losing my then girlfriend who was certain I would end up committed, drooling in a straight jacket for the rest of my life. There has been ONE medication that has helped me sleep with NO adverse side effects, Marijuana. It hurts my heart to see others suffer needlessly when a safe alternative exists.
You’re going to struggle to fit into a regular work life. I wish I’d understood this sooner. It would have saved me and my loved ones a lot of unnecessary pain and suffering. The afflicted have many gifts that are huge assets when working for ourselves. Remember those sleep issues? When you set your schedule you can stay up late working if your chosen profession allows, and knowing your limitations, why not go ahead and set your sights on choosing a profession that will allow that latitude. When you can follow your natural sleep pattern you will live a happier life. When you are forced to make it fit in to the generally accepted work schedule of someone else, you will face many challenges making that accommodation. The single greatest decision I’ve made in taking control of my mental health was to create my own business. You’re probably not going to hear that suggestion come from your shrink or therapist. They’ll probably assume you will fail and that you don’t have the mental facilities to manage a business. Consider the alternative though, would you rather dedicate yourself to creating an environment that sets you up for success or submit to battling an environment that damn near guarantees your failure?
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, welcome to the club! You’re going to find yourself in the company of many brilliant and talented people who posses an uncanny level of compassion. Your diagnosis is not a death sentence and it doesn’t have to relegate you to a life dependent on pills. The decision is yours. You have special powers. It’s up to you to figure out how to apply them and live a life fulfilled.
Subscribe for premium content
Subscribers receive members only content delivered straight to their inbox. Admission is free. Inspiration is priceless.