Crozet Calendar Clinic: Malcolm Andrews’ Cedar Waxwing

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September Winner: Malcolm Andrews

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.

Malcolm Andrews, a pilot and Captain for American Airlines, had his career grind to a halt 18 months ago when the pandemic brought global travel to a standstill.

Though grounded as a pilot, Malcolm flew as a photographer. He did it by embracing two new themes in his photographic life—portraiture of birds and photojournalism. This month’s calendar image opens a window (literally) on his avian work as well as his thoughts about surviving the pandemic through photography.

“The story of the cedar waxwing image is a story about the effect that the pandemic and time of isolation has had on me and my photography. Beginning in March, 2020 my flight schedule rapidly evaporated as the lockdowns began. In response I opted to take a leave of absence from the airline. My world got pretty small pretty quickly. I found myself trading a world of travel and big aerial landscapes for the little world outside my window.

“I started aggressively feeding the birds in my yard and also began photographing them as they came in range of my front porch. I began noticing the varieties of birds and their feeding patterns. I studied that behavior in an effort to make increasingly better photos. My goal was to capture their behavior in portrait-like photographs. I wanted to make their little world seem bigger.

“The cedar waxwings started probing my crabapple tree for ripening fruit in early May and their visits became more frequent as the crabapples reddened. I was fascinated by these flocks of ravenous masked birds that I’d never noticed before. That’s because they feed on fruit high in the canopy of the tree. So, I found a perch in a second story window that allowed me to look down on the tree and observe their feasting. Their fast movements and smooth, supple appearance made them a challenging subject however, especially in low light conditions. Through trial and error, I learned that the bright middle of the day was the best time to shoot.”

(Andrews used a Nikon D7100 with a secondhand 70-300mm zoom lens. Settings in shutter priority mode were 1/2500 shutter speed, auto ISO of 2000, and aperture f/5.6. He is now experimenting with a mirrorless Fujifilm X-T4 camera for bird photography.)

“I discovered right away that one can rapidly lose a sense of purpose by suddenly being unemployed and at home all the time. My bird photography was a good distraction but did not fulfill the need for a sense of purpose. So I started a new Instagram (@birdsofisolation) where I post my images of birds.

“I also refocused on my established blog aerialhorizon. That made photo editing and writing a daily activity. Through the blog, I put myself back in the air. I wrote about landscape and cloudscape photographs and the ideas and imagination that they stimulated. During the ten months I spent at home, I devoted a great deal of time to looking at the sky and imagining the view of the world below. That is the essence of the blog.

“And each year as we approach the anniversary of the September 11 attacks the blog also provides an opportunity to remember the day and put the events and their aftermath in perspective.

“But I still needed more purpose. So, I sought out the opportunity to take on photo assignments for the Crozet Gazette. Never having done this sort of work before, I had a lot to learn. Editor Michael Marshall graciously critiqued my work and I applied those lessons to refine my skills. As an assignment photographer I’m a work in progress. But I thrive on this sort of challenge. The process of making publishable photographs grew easier and the results were made more effective with repetition and critique. Assignments also got me out into the community and helped enlarge my world once again. This is where I really found a sense of purpose.”

Malcolm’s concentration on bird portraiture is an admirable example of fitting oneself to a personal photo project. I’m a strong advocate of photographing with a purpose. Personal projects have always been important for the focus and substance they give to photographers. And having such projects has never been more important than in this year of lockdown. The most successful projects are those that closely fit the sensibility of the photographer. The concept of flight intimately unites the pilot in Malcolm with his subject. By creating a blog to house and share his work he takes the project to another, more public, level.

And working for a newspaper immeasurably enlarges one’s personal and photographic life. That’s because photography, like flying, is an excellent way to escape the gravity of one’s situation and see the world in a new and meaningful way.

Malcolm’s Blog: aerialhorizon.photography; Instagram accounts: @mcandrews.photography, @the aerialhorizon, @birdsofisolation, @thefaceofadog 

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