Each month a prize-winning photograph from the archives of the Crozet Calendar will be published together with a story from the photographer of how the image was made and commentary by Sam Abell about the merits of the photograph.
The subject is hiking. Hiking and photography. The two endeavors co-exist easily in the mind, especially for photographers of western Albemarle County who live within enviable reach of numerous well-maintained hiking trails, including one with the most name recognition in the world, the Appalachian Trail.
One of those dedicated hiking photographers is Seamore Zhu, who made this low angle image of a sun-struck poppy not on an epic mountain trek but in downtown Crozet.
“I love hiking and usually try to get shots whenever I’m on the trail. But I made this photograph behind the elementary school I attended [Crozet Elementary]. I had been going on afternoon runs there and noticed that the sun would rise over the field, so I decided to try catching it one day. It was early morning just after sunrise. The landscape looked gorgeous, and I took many shots I was happy about, but I was drawn to the poppy and found an angle to make it stand out with the sunlight passing through the petals.
“I photograph on a regular basis in parks like Shenandoah, Blue Ridge and the Patricia Ann Byrom Forest Reserve—although the pandemic has limited that activity. Recently I’ve been concentrating on bird photography, including the spring migratories. But this photo from behind an elementary school proves that unique shots and experiences can be found anywhere. It just takes exploring.”
When asked about his start in photography Seamore said it began in college. “As a freshman at Dartmouth College I had a much less advanced camera kit, and no real experience. But hiking the White Mountains for the first time blew my mind. That’s what really brought me into the world of hiking and photography. I joined almost every club and took almost every job on campus that involved photography (newspaper, yearbook, etc.) and was the college photography intern starting my sophomore year.”
The club Seamore is referring to is the Dartmouth Outing Club, the oldest and largest collegiate outing club in America. It has 1,500 student members—about a quarter of the student enrollment—and just as many non-student members. Anyone, member or not, may stay at the DOC’s cabins, go on their trips, rent their gear and take their classes.
That may sound remote to readers of the Gazette, but there’s a continuous path from Crozet to New Hampshire, the Appalachian Trail. Head north from Rockfish Gap, hike 15 miles a day and in two months you will be standing in the center of the Dartmouth campus.
It was on this campus where the acclaimed author Bill Bryson got the inspiration for his phenomenal best-selling book (and subsequent Robert Redford movie) A Walk in the Woods—Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail. One day he noticed an AT trail marker and the trail itself cutting through the campus. He thought, “There has to be a story to this.” Thus are best-selling books born.
Like Seamore, I was an avid hiker and photographer in college. Spring break trips were to the cold mountains, not the warm beaches. Later, when I became a magazine photographer, the question put to me was, “What are you qualified to photograph?” My instant answer was “Hiking trails.” What followed were hiking-based articles on the backcountry of Yellowstone and Zion Parks and books on the 2,600-mile Pacific Crest Trail and our own 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail.
Because of those experiences I developed some maxims about long-distance hiking and photography: One, carefully choose your hiking companions. Friends will sincerely claim they understand your commitment to photography. But they quickly grow impatient with you stopping to photograph. Two, long-distance hiking and photography are inherently incompatible because of the carrying weight involved. Take the lightest weight camera and almost no other photo gear. Three, photograph your experience, not just nature. The trip’s the thing.
But most photographers want memorable images of the landscapes and details of nature they encounter on their treks. To them I say, “Be like Seamore.” Get up early. Be observant of the light. Experiment with angles. See the big picture, but also the little one. One well-seen poppy flower suggests the field it is in and your time in that field. Express your trip as a poem, or at most a short story.
In Seamore’s words, “I plan on taking my camera with me wherever I go and see where it takes me from there. As someone who studied studio art, I believe strongly in the power of images to tell an impactful story. So, the dream is to find that story on your journey and be inspired to tell it.”
Seamore Zhu is on Instagram (@cmore_withan_a) and his website is seamoreart.com.