Bendigo's Chris Cope purchased his first SLR camera five years ago... the decision was a life changing experience.
In July Chris enjoyed his first solo exhibition - Up Close and Personal - in the foyer of The Capital in View Street.
His exhibition of 24 photographic images of native birds and terrestrial orchids quite simply knocked people’s socks off.
It’s hard to know what’s more remarkable about the exhibition – the technical skill and dedication required to capture such images, or the fact that the man behind the lens only purchased his first digital SLR camera five years ago.
“I’ve always taken photographs, and have always been an outdoor person – always loved the bush,” Chris says. “But with the advent of digital photography, and the internet providing a wonderfully varied source of knowledge on the subject, the possibilities really opened up.”
An IT academic at La Trobe University by day, Chris seems as shocked as anyone by his ability to create “art”, but sees it as a combination of technical skill and the intricate detail that makes up the birds and orchids he photographs.
“Part of what I love about photography is uncovering the intricate patterns and colours of nature that we don’t normally see from a distance,” Chris says.
“We can walk through the bush and not even notice an orchid. They are intent on invisibility, yet are one of the most complex and ‘evolved’ of our native plant species; a work of art and technology.
“These plants only flower for two to four weeks, and not necessarily every year. They depend on a single species of insect to pollinate them. To capture those intricate shapes and colours and present them to others is incredibly satisfying.”
Of course, capturing the minutiae of life comes with its own special challenges. You can’t ask a bird to look into the lens, or lift a wing a little to the left. Though you wouldn’t think so when you see images like the Striated Pardelote with his wings spread and illuminated by the sun; the Powerful Owl staring right into the camera lens; or my favourite, the tender image of a Willie Wagtail shaping a nest with its chest.
As Chris says, it takes a lot of planning, patience, and often plain old luck, to capture the perfect photograph.
The Thornbill image in the exhibition was the bi-product of a trip to find an eagle. While the iconic Superb Fairywren perched on a Callistemon cone was a case of watching and waiting.
“It took a lot a lot of observation and many poor photos to realise that a male wren, despite his constant flitting, would regularly alight on the same perch to advertise his wares. Capturing the image was then a matter of focusing on the perch and waiting. Two hours later, and click! I had it.”
It’s an image that sums up everything Chris tries to achieve in his work. The streak of blue that draws the eye – the botanical detail of the foliage and flower cones – the subject right on the intersection of the two-thirds line – and the blurred background that brings the bird into crisp focus.
Storytelling plays a major part in the exhibition, with each work accompanied by a generous journal entry that not only provides the details of camera, lens, depth of field and shutter speed, but also the story behind the image.
Stories that give an insight into the nature of each particular bird, the planning behind the photograph, and in some cases the serendipitous nature of the interaction.
“You learn so much about each bird by the act of photographing them,” Chris says. “But the reverse is also true. You can’t take great bird photographs until you understand the behaviour. It’s why this show has taken four years to come together. There’s so much learning that’s happened along the way.”
That learning includes the printing and framing of the final images, which Chris does himself as part of the process.
“My photography really began to flourish when I started printing the images – first at A4 and now at A3. It’s a very different experience to viewing them on a computer screen. It has something to do with turning them into a product. Making them a tactile thing that someone will hang on their wall. It feels like that is their natural end point.”
But as much as these are beautiful “items”, there’s no doubting that for Chris, the experience of each image is something he carries with him and is a vital part of the rapport he builds with his audience.
“When I photographed the Powerful Owl at South Mandurang, there was a little chick being buffeted about by the wind, struggling to stay in the tree. It was one of those aha moments – I remember thinking, ‘Balance is a learned thing. Birds aren’t necessarily born with an innate ability.’
“The next day I returned and the owl had something fluffy at its feet, like a pair of woolly slippers. It was a possum, no doubt caught during the night.
“I’ve really enjoyed the process of reflecting on the images – the adventures along the way – and putting them into words for the exhibition.”
We can only hope, that for this Twitcher with a camera, Up Close and Personal is just the beginning. The passion is certainly there, and as Chris says, there’s also the lure of capturing many more species with his lens.
For now he’s just trying to keep a lid on it.
''There’ll be plenty of time for that when I retire,” he says.