Texas fine-art photographer E. Dan Klepper talks about a favorite project that grew out of the intersection of field science and photography.
Out in Marathon, Texas, in Big Bend country, the rugged outsize landscape makes a photogenic subject for fine artist E. Dan Klepper, who maintains a gallery and studio in that rural West Texas gateway to Big Bend National Park. His attunement to his location is evident in hundreds of dramatic shots that capture the region’s inhospitable beauty and endless interesting manifestations of life eked out on the edges of civilization.
As much as Klepper never fails to appreciate that subject matter, some of his all-time favorite subjects and shots came from a series called Birds and Their Earthbound Companions, which he photographed over a period of several years.
“For the series,” Klepper says, “I set out to photograph wildlife — birds, reptiles, and small mammals — in the field, in hand, and against fabric backdrops because I wanted to try and create something delicate and beautiful in the field, sort of like conditions photographers had to deal with a hundred years ago.
“I sought out biologists working on mammal, reptile, and bird surveys in the field; scientists who were catching, studying, and then releasing the critters, because I wanted to photograph the animal at the moment it was set free and the human emotion inherent in the gesture of the hand that let it go.”
One survey took place along the most remote segment of the 196-mile Rio Grande Wild and Scenic River. The expedition covered about 83 of those miles and required about seven days of paddling, camping, and trapping before the team was able to take out.
“We were four people and two canoes,” Klepper recalls. “I had to pare down my gear, leaving plenty of room for the biologists to carry all of their own supplies, along with camping gear and food, and still make the boats light enough so they wouldn’t swamp from the weight.”
He built a collapsible lightweight “stage” for the backdrop, shot film instead of digital, and used daylight and a small strobe. The live traps the team used caught a lot of small mammals like pocket mice and kangaroo rats.
“At first, I thought they would be wild and difficult to photograph once on my little stage. But some mammals — and, as I later learned, a lot of birds as well — relax a bit after being handled because, I assume, they realize you aren’t going to eat them. In fact, one little mouse wouldn’t leave after I photographed him. I didn’t want to step on him while working, so I finally tucked him into my fleece pocket, where he curled up and went to sleep. Later, he popped out, climbed down my arm, and jumped to the ground before hopping into the desert.”
E. Dan Klepper is represented by William Reaves | Sarah Foltz Fine Art in Houston. His work will be on view at the gallery during Houston’s 2018 Fotofest Biennial, March 10 - April 22, 2018. reavesart.com, fotofest.org. Visit the artist online.