One does not usually think of photography or nature with George Washington Carver. Last week I was photographing prairies in SW Missouri with a friend, Chuck Summers, when we saw a sign for the George Washington Carver National Monument (SE of Joplin). We decided to stop in and I am glad we did. It was inspiring and made me think about both photography and nature.
I am sorry to admit that I only remembered Carver as the peanut guy. History classes back in the day I was in high-school spent little time on important African-Americans, and it turns out, Carver was important for many agricultural innovations that affected all of agriculture, besides setting an inspirational tone for dealing with life. Plus he was a very fine artist.
The Carver National Monument is at the birthplace of George Washington Carver. He was born during the civil war, became an orphan, suffered much prejudice, yet he was determined to get an education. He did, even though he had to move around a lot to do that. He became the first black person to graduate from the University of Iowa and then the first black professor, doing all of this in spite of a lot of pressures for him not to achieve or pursue anything. Anytime I think of the difficulties of life today or the pressures that have changed photography, I have to look at what Carver achieved in the face of extremely difficult challenges.
When Carver went to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to head its agriculture department, there was literally nothing in the labs. He went to the local dump to gather whatever glassware he could to get his program going. That has to make you think when you start thinking you "have to" have a certain piece of gear in order to succeed as a photographer. Carver spent 47 years at Tuskegee and had a huge influence on agriculture both in the South and around the country. I find it remarkable that Time Magazine, in 1941, called Carver a "black Leonardo" (in reference to the artist, not the turtle).
Carver said, "I recall when just a boy just starting up to do art work that I longed to paint flowers so that they would speak to the beholder, and inspire and enthuse them to do great things." I cannot think of a better approach to photography for anyone who loves nature.
More quotes that work for me as a nature photographer:
"Look about you. Take hold of the things that are here. Let them talk to you. You learn to talk to them." I think that is absolutely perfect advice for anyone wanting to be a better nature photographer.
"Sometimes it is wise to not look for too much appreciation. The main thing is to be sure you're right and go ahead regardless of whether people appreciate it or don't, because in time, they will appreciate it." How often do we as photographers limit ourselves because we start to think we are not appreciated? Too often, I think, and then we put our energy into the wrong things.
"I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting system through which God speaks to us every hour, if we will only tune in." No matter what your religious beliefs, nature does have much to say to us, if we will only tune in.
"Reading about nature is fine, but if a person walks in the woods and listens carefully, he can learn more than what is in books." At first I thought you could put photographs into that sentence and replace listens, and that would also be true, but I think the message is deeper than that. I think if you "listen carefully", you will gain much as you photograph. I am finding that a lot of photographers today are relying on computer processing and effects, sometimes creating very pretty, but also superficial images of nature. If you "listen carefully" to the nature in front of your camera, you will discover something deeper.
Carver did do a lot with peanuts, developing 300 uses for them. He also developed 300 uses for the peanut and testified before Congress about this plant. He found 150 new uses for sweet potatoes and revolutionized farming for poorer farmers in the South. If you are ever near Joplin, Missouri, check out this inspirational little national monument.