The View from the Lens – Chris Bickford
Chris Bickford is certainly well-known for his photography—he’s had his work featured in National Geographic, and his latest book, “Legends of the Sandbar,” is a testament to his talent and creativity.
Chris sees the world through the prism of his lens, and it pushes him to explore the world around him. In his prelude to Legends he writes, “I wanted to explore with this light gathering machine that had become my life’s obsession…”
In talking to Chris, though, the camera lens is as much a way to explore the world as it is to see it.
By his estimation, it took him eight years to to compile the images that became Legends, but along the way, the road took some unexpected turns.
As he was putting the book together, he wrote two chapters and asked a friend to look them over.
“I had a piece, After the Storm, which was the main body of text,” he said. “Then I wrote a preface. I had a friend in DC who said, ‘You really have something in this writing. You really should expand on this.’”
Expanding meant research, and he dug deeply to discover what he could about the Outer Banks.
“There’s a lot of geology and science in the book,” he said. “I wanted to talk about how the Outer Banks were formed. And you learn this stuff that nobody here knows. There’s stuff like Robert Dolan, one of the first earth scientists. He was fresh out of college and he started boring up and down the beach.”
Dolan is credited with the phrase “ribbon of sand” to describe the Outer Banks, and it was his work in the 1960’s that overturned scientific dogma that claimed barrier islands rested on coral reefs.
Some of that research comes to the forefront in the chapter Genesis: Outer Banks, although the chapter is as much about the genesis of the human history of the Outer Banks as it is a geological study.
Although he is a very good writer, it is apparent that Chris’ first love is photography. Much of his work is black and white, and it is possible that college exposure to that realm of photography played a role.
“I studied photography when I was in college. At UVA. It was all black and white, 50mm lens, dark room stuff. But I was ultimately more into drawing and painting and stuff.”
He grew up in Norfolk, but a borrowed camera and a trip to the Outer Banks around 2000 changed his perspective.
“When I came here my dad had an old Nikon FM2. I bought a relatively cheap lens, but it had a nice wide angle lens. I bought some filters and I just went out and started photographing. It had been really snowy and I just got so many cool shots,” he recalled.
That was also when he realized he could manipulate his images as he never had before.
“I was shooting slide film and I was able to scan them and work on them in Photoshop,” he explained. “Just that combination of having that ability to work on things digitally. I was at the advent of digital photography. It was a combination of living here and the digital revolution.”
To him, Legends was always gong to be in black and white.
“From the beginning, it was black and white to me,” he said. “Part of it is the textural aspect of the Outer Banks. The shapes, the clouds. When you make something black and white, you force the viewer to look at the tonality of things. It gives it that character kind of effect. There’s always a bit more emotion in a black and white photo…”
“It’s funny about black and white,” he goes on to say. “People think it’s the original photographic medium and therefore there’s photojournalism realism to it. There’s nothing real about black and white. We don’t see in black and white.”
Although black and white images seems right for Legends, Chris would fight the description of him as a black and white photographer.
“I like shooting in color a lot,” he said at one point in the interview. And it is the ability shoot in color that led to him doing work for National Geographic.
It started with David Alan Harvey, a photographer who has done extensive work with National Geographic.
“He (Harvey) was a real booster of my work,” Chris said. “I had lunch with him at one point and he gave me the number of the senior photo editor at National Geographic. I just called him up and he actually answered the phone, and he said send me some stuff.”
There was a meeting in New York and “… At the end of that meeting, (the editor) started talking to me and he said we’re thinking about doing a then and now issue. He had this really cool photo of a glider the Wright Brothers flew.”
There was some back and forth, but eventually they found the shot. “I finally got a photo in and it was double spread in that issue. And that was sort of the beginning of it,” he said.
If there is skill in shooting for an international publication like National Geographic, as Chris describes it, there’s not a lot of glamor.
“When you’re on assignment, we want a photo of this this and this. We want you to capture everything that might give the reader and idea of what the place is like,” Chris said. “Plus you have to work with a writer who hasn’t given you anything. They just tell you what they want you to take pictures of. You have a time frame of seven to ten days. Get every single sunrise, every single sunset because there’s going to be at least one of them. It’s a lot of precision. You’ve got to get the shot and you only have a certain amount of time to do it.”
Maybe that’s why Legends of the Sandbar was so important to him—a way to step back from what is sometimes an insane schedule with extraordinary professional pressures. A point of sanity that allows him to rest and recuperate.
“I’ve gone out and done other stuff, but this is where it all started for me. Watching the weather change. The sand change. And ultimately surfing. This had always been the source,” he said.