Crozet Calendar Clinic: Todd Edgerton

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Honorable Mention by Todd Edgerton

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.

Picture this: You’re a mother playing in the yard with your two young children on a warm spring evening. Your husband is mowing the lawn. Everything is normal.

Suddenly your oldest child—the one with a strong fear of bees—alerts the family: “There’s bees in the tree!”

Instantly everything changes. The children are sent inside. A cell phone camera comes out and a photograph of the swarm is made.

That was the scene at the Edgerton home on April 20, 2021. Tracy Edgerton remembers the situation this way: “The swarm was just over my shoulder in the redbud tree. I tried to snap the photo but was too scared to get close. Todd got the best photo.”

Todd Edgerton remembers it this way: “I’d just mowed the lawn and had come around the tree. I looked up and saw the swarm. My thoughts were about the perceived danger to my family. Perceived by them, that is. There is zero danger during a swarm like this. Still, I asked them to go inside. Then I made the picture.”

Todd used a Google Pixel 5 camera then “stylized” the image via Google Photos, a post-processing function that enhances the finished photograph. Does this sound too tech-complex? It isn’t. It’s normal.

Like millions of people Todd uses his cell phone as his camera. He photographs “opportunistically”—that is, he photographs something if it seems worth it. As he said, “I take pictures when the moment arises. It has to be a striking or unusual situation.” He makes no claim to be a photographer; his most photographed subject is his family.

This is photography for most people. In the last twenty years, photography has become deeply democratized. Almost everyone has a cell phone camera. And it’s a good one. A colleague of mine made a cell phone snapshot of her young daughter being playfully tossed in the air at a swimming pool. Apple bought the image and used it as a billboard that hung like a scroll from 13 of the tallest buildings on earth. The longest billboard was on a 702-foot-tall skyscraper in Mexico City. That’s a mighty enlargement of a humble cell phone photograph.

That was in 2014. Since then cell phone cameras have gotten better in every important way. Today Todd’s image could be enlarged to almost any size. The quality is that good. For decades I’ve used a conventional camera. But I almost always have my cell phone camera with me. Why? To be like Todd, opportunistic.

In photographic terms, Todd’s image is referred to as “content driven.” The bee swarm is the sole reason the image exists. But occasionally a content-driven photograph transcends its subject matter. That is the case here. It’s the dramatic shape of the swarm and the context of the blooming redbud tree that takes his photograph to the next level of pictorial interest.

Recognizing this one-of-a-kind combination of content and context, Tracy entered Todd’s image in the annual Crozet Gazette Calendar photo contest, where it easily won Honorable Mention. Only its vertical format kept the image from being one of the 12 “winning” monthly photographs. (Only horizontally formatted images are chosen for the calendar.)

In newspaper terms, the Edgertons’ bee swarm is referred to as “spot news.” That means the episode is not predictable or repeatable. It suddenly appears, then vanishes. No staff photographer can be assigned to cover it. And, since the advent of widely used cell phone cameras, newspapers have actively solicited spot news photographs from readers. The best of them make it into print, giving amateur photographers the thrill and momentary prestige of being a widely published photographer.

So, what to do if faced with a spot news situation? Do what Todd did—give context to the content. Give space to the subject matter. Frame it.

Now, back to that swarm. Todd is right—there is great intensity to a swarm of bees. But it’s directed inward toward the all-important queen, not outward. Experts say that swarms pose little danger to humans.

I relate to this because of a personal episode very much like the Edgertons’. I was alone in the garden when a loud buzzing caught my attention. The sound was coming from a small maple tree just above me. It was the beginning of a bee swarm. I stood up, transfixed by the growing swarm. What held my gaze was how orderly it was. Bee by bee, then row by row, the swarm rapidly grew. Finally, I came to my senses and ran to find my camera. Too late! Now the swarm was in orderly departure. Bee by bee, row by row, the swarm swiftly shrank and then was gone—as mysteriously as it had arrived.

When opportunity strikes, be like Todd: Be ready with your camera! 

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