Cardinal Directions: Dudley Edmondson

Cardinal Directions discusses foundational principles, processes and philosophies that guide people in music and outdoor careers in the way they engage with their craft. 

I think it is safe to say that at this point in the modern world of the internet, video messaging and phones that are essentially pocket-sized oracles, the oft decried attention span of a goldfish is longer than that of a person. But nature has always had a different sense of time than humans. 

Changing your internal clock to match the ancient rhythms of nature is something that is not very easy for most, yet for wildlife photographer and author Dudley Edmondson it is an essential element to his craft if he’s going to get the gallery-quality shot he’s looking for. Like a hawk, he’ll stay in one place for hours on end, scanning, waiting and hoping for an opportunity to come across his way. When it does, if it does, his instincts kick-in, a flurry of clicks, and then it’s over. Back to waiting, maybe for a moment that will never come. 

If it sounds boring, well, it might be. Edmondson acknowledges as much in our conversation that things like the prep work of charging batteries and erasing flash drives in anticipation of a project isn’t really a flashy aspect of his work. Spending days quietly moving from place to place looking for something to shoot doesn’t sound all that enticing either. But as the photographer underlines, “there is no secret sauce.” 

Simple principles of professionalism, flexibility, knowing your instincts and learning from one’s mistakes led Edmondson into a fulfilling career over the last 30 years. It has seen him travel the world with a camera, release the book Black and Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places, present in galleries across the country and speak and engage with communities, especially ones of color, that want to be a little closer to nature. There’s nothing boring about that. 

“Being creative is when I fell the most alive. When you have an idea and try and make it into reality, that is the most exciting,” said Edmondson.

In getting closer to nature one might be able to ever so slightly experience the ancient pace at which the world moves. If we can tune in longer than a goldfish might, it’s possible those boring stretches will produce some exciting results. 

The following is a conversation with Dudley Edmondson. It has been edited for length and clarity.

There can be a lot of fear and discomfort in going from a person who is passive and watching things that inspire them to being active and embracing and actually doing some of the things they’ve found inspirational. When you started your career in photography, what was one of the key factors in moving from the passive to the active? 

It goes back to the late 80’s when I decided I wanted to become a professional nature photographer. I had been taking pictures prior but not thinking anything of it. At some point I realized it could be a career and other considerations I thought of was a conservation officer or a game warden or a biologist. I realized none of those would work because I wanted a career that allowed me to be creative and connected and I couldn’t see that in government jobs. 

I also realized that living in central Ohio I was cut off from a lot of exposure to nature and stuff I wanted to do. The closest thing was 80 acres of a monoculture pine cone forest and the rest was farmland and I needed wilderness, natural beauty, and access to that. So I cut my ties and moved myself to northern Minnesota. 

Photo Credit: Dudley Edmondson

I imagine there is a general process and attitude you have towards approaching any one project. How do you get to a point where you feel prepared and ready for a project?

Preparation to me starts with professionalism and being prepared. As we speak I have a three day video shoot in Minneapolis starting tomorrow. As far as gear, I’m charging all the batteries, checking the lenses and clearing out hard drives and flashcards. Technically, I’m into the project with clean gear that is ready to gather content. 

Mentally and psychologically I’m relying on past experiences on how things have gone in the past and using that as a foundation to do the new stuff. There is a lot of instinct involved when you are in a new place and there is a lot of analyzing and thinking about, how does this work? What are these people doing? What is this story unfolding? Then you are asking lots of questions to a lot of your contacts. My answer sounds quite boring but that’s what I do in terms of preparing. 

Flexibility is another important part of being creative. It’s understanding that the ideas in your head might not materialize the way you had thought once you get to the reality of what you are doing. You can start out with some kind of idea but once you get there you better be ready to flex and change directions to get the content. You can’t be terribly rigid.

Photo Credit: Dudley Edmondson

You’ve been in a lot of different situations and environments to get the shots you need to get. Are there strategies and principles you believe every wildlife photographer should be considering to get “the shot”? Was there a past situation you had that really helped you learn one of those tenets? 

I’ve come to see my work as if I’m the guy on the beach with a metal detector. You don’t know what you are going to find but you know there is the possibility of something being there. So plug away at it and in my case you are out there for several hours. I know when I’m clicking the shutter and it’s garbage and I know when I’m clicking the shutter and its magic, but you never know when that star gate to the magic will open. That’s why you have to be bumming around in the woods and putting yourself in the situation where something could happen. 

I’ve been commissioned to create a gallery exhibit on the subject of water. I was out about a month ago and there were a lot of elements. There was morning light, clouds becoming sunny and heavy fog. I’m on this fairly big river and I know there is something there. A point came where the fog was still heavy and the sun was starting to break from the clouds. You are getting dark skies behind a scene that is getting fog in front of it and it’s being front-lit by intermittent sunlight. There’s the star gate right there. 

You start clicking like crazy, this is it, I feel it, *click* *click* *click*. Suddenly the fog was gone, the sun was full and it was over. That’s how it happens. The thing to do is recognize there were enough elements at play to where if you worked it enough you would find that shot and I did. 

Photo Credit: Dudley Edmondson

I’ve heard you talk about flexibility and knowing your instincts. From an emotional and psychological standpoint, what has always been a factor in having a successful shoot or expedition? 

I’d say slowing down to nature’s time is one I’m always mindful about. You have to let go of the human constructs of the world we live in and you have to disengage from that and engage with nature’s pace. Things are extremely slow and you get in tune with the lifeforce that is around you. Once you do that you start to have a different vision and a different way of seeing things, sometimes that takes hours and sometimes that takes days. 

I spend a lot of time moving extremely slow and staying in one spot, I’m observing. I need to understand where things are happening and where I want to be. That’s part of the success, letting go of the mental structures and concepts living in the world we are in. You will see hawks staring for hours and hours in a field waiting for a mouse to make a mistake and you get into that state. It’s slowing down mentally and physically. 

Photo Credit: Dudley Edmondson

Are there any principles that you follow that are unique to being a photographer or speaker that is essential to you making a living around your creativity? 

Anybody can do what I’ve done, there is no secret sauce. You decide you are going to do something and you have to be ok with failing a number of times. If you really believe in yourself and the idea you have to keep at it. 

Many years ago I heard on an NPR radio show and the person said the only time you truly fail at something is when you stop trying. That really spoke to me. I try to learn from every success and every failure, that’s how you build your foundation based on knowledge and prior experiences. There’s a lot of data in failures. It’s a debris field and there is a black box out there. 

Over the last 14 years that is how I’ve grown my confidence and continued to move forward. When I hit a home run I even analyze that and think about why it worked. You build this knowledge base and you use it as the foundation to jump to something else. 

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