DPP Home Profiles Phil Hawkins: Patience And Persistence

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Phil Hawkins: Patience And Persistence

Phil Hawkins is a multifaceted, modern-day professional photographer, working the local area for all it’s worth while producing his own fine-art nature imagery

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Millerton Lake, taken from a secret vantage point that Hawkins is keeping to himself: “I researched locations from which to shoot Millerton Lake in sunset conditions and found this spot after quite a lot of strenuous hiking.”
All Who Wander
“For as long as I can remember,” explains Hawkins about how he got into photography initially, “my dad would always hand me the camera to take the family snapshots at Christmas, birthdays, etc., and he always fought a battle to get it back. So, when I was 13, he bought himself another camera and gave me his old Kodak Retina Reflex with 50mm, 135mm and 28mm prime lenses. I shot everything that moved. In those days, it was no problem getting into a concert with a camera, so when I was 15, I shot every concert that hit UNC. I heard about a new photo exhibition at the student union and submitted my prints for consideration. My work was chosen, and I displayed around 10 concert images at that showing.

“When I was 16,” he continues, “and a member of the Chapel Hill High School yearbook staff, I always had my camera with me at school. It was the early days of integration. Chapel Hill High had just been integrated, and the black students weren’t happy about their ‘welcome.’ They rioted one day, destroying most of the school and setting one wing on fire. I photographed the whole thing, faces and all, and called the Chapel Hill Weekly newspaper editor, Jim Schumaker, and told him what I had, and he demanded I bring my film. My shots ran in four complete pages; I had a huge byline and was paid the handsome sum of $50. These images caught the attention of State Senator Frances Dawson’s office, and I was hired to shoot a documentary series on the poverty in a particular black neighborhood in Alamance County. These photos, along with Senator Dawson’s appeal to the Elon College Water Board to repair freshwater systems, resulted in the complete overhaul of the water mains in that neighborhood.”

Unfortunately, that byline also resulted in death threats to the young Hawkins, and his concerned father sent him to Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia. Hawkins discovered the relative safety of radio work there, and with such a shocking introduction to photography, it’s not a wonder that his career meandered into radio and sports commentary for a few decades.

“The shot of Yosemite Valley from Tunnel View was done after a fall storm had blown through and clouds were beginning to dissipate,” notes Hawkins. “This was a 5-minute exposure, and the clouds were moving fast while the light was changing rapidly. I usually get my best shots of Yosemite Valley from this spot after the sun has gone down, and after all other photographers have gone home.”
Hawkins came back to the fold as a photographer in the early ’80s when he moved to California and began to explore the majesty of Yosemite and the Sierras. This began a fascination with trying to capture and share the great outdoors with others, and since then, his images of Yosemite and the Sierras have drawn comparisons to Ansel Adams, not just for their mutually favored sources of inspiration, but also for the scope, depth and breathtaking beauty of Hawkins’ scenics.

“The very essence of landscape photography is meditative at its core,” says Hawkins. “If you don’t enjoy getting into the outdoors, then you can’t become an accomplished nature photographer. Good landscape images come only with patience—and I mean lots and lots of patience. You stake out a vista, a vantage point with potential, such as sunrise, sunset, cloud movements, changes in weather or changes in seasons, and you wait. Many times, I’ve been at one spot for six hours straight, waiting for the light to evolve, clouds to move, storms to clear, daylight to transition into darkness—and many times, I’ve done such things and not clicked a single image. You position yourself for capturing a scene if it presents itself, but often, nothing transpires worth shooting. This is the biggest surprise my students in my workshops face. They see the value of patience in landscape. Other times, like today, for instance, I look at conditions, and being particularly busy, I ascertain it’s not going to be good and decide to stay with the paperwork. What happens? The most spectacular sunset in months appears, and I’m sitting in front of the computer.

“If conditions do present themselves, then you go into shooting mode, changing from portrait to landscape orientation, using split-density filters, capturing panoramic sequences, tight shots, wide shots—it’s a rapid-paced sequence of changing filters, lenses, angles, camera settings, etc. When it’s right, landscape photography can be fast-paced work.”


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