On Superbowl Sunday I visited Calaveras Big Trees State Park to interview photographer Susan Conner. She shoots landscapes that tell the story of a quiet earth that often seems to be waiting for something.
“Dress warm,” she warned me. “It will be cold.”
That meant lots of layers, and as I drove past drifts of snow on the highway, I was glad for the long underwear, double shirts, down vest, and Sherpa cap.
But as we sat at a sunny picnic table, the air was warm, the sun burnt our winter-pale faces. We had to speak loudly to be heard over the sound of running water.
I get such a charge out of talking about art with creators, especially when they’re as open and talkative as Susan. As we chatted, we began to strip: first gloves, then the down vest, the jacket, the hat, until in the end we were wearing just jeans and shirts. I don’t know about Susan, but I was wishing I could lose the long underwear.
I wanted Susan to take me on a mini photo shoot. I’m deeply interested in how others work. I always wonder, how do they get from point A to point B, C, and beyond.
Susan hunts for photographs nearly everyday. Things catch her eye, and she starts shooting. She says sometimes she just knows a photo will be great, and other times she doesn’t see the composition until she gets home and looks at the photo on her computer.
We crunched through melting snow as she shot random things: water trickling down a redwood stump, burls in an old tree. On the north side of the forest, the snow, rather than melting, turned to ice at the edge of the big meadow.
A boardwalk crisscrossed the fen to protect the delicate ecosystem from trampling human feet; it was covered in slick humps of iced-over snow. “Too dangerous,” Susan said, and we turned back to the sunny side of the meadow.
There, sparkling in the touch of the sun, streams and rivulets of snowmelt ran through last year’s curled and matted grass. From this approach the boardwalk was dry, and we ventured over the meadow.
Suddenly the air was filled with a swarm of flying bugs. Thousands of glowing wings whirred in clouds; on the ground we saw bazillions of ladybugs. There were so many that the ground appeared to be moving. They climbed anything vertical and clung to sticks and stems.
Ladybugs hibernate together in clumps during winter, emerging in the first warm days of spring to eat and mate. “It’s too early,” Susan said, as everyone has said when I tell them this story. They should still be hibernating in February. But ladybugs don’t have calendars, and the sun was telling them to wake up.
We laughed and laughed while ladybugs whirred around us. Susan clicked off a dozen or more shots into the air, trying to capture the floating, glowing insects. Then she jumped to the boggy ground and began composing shots of the clumps of the orange and red bugs that had not yet flown. I stood watching, back to the sun, and later Susan had to brush the bugs off my sweater; they had clumped together in the warmth on my back.
After our walk in the woods, Susan went off to photograph more ladybugs and I dragged out my easel and paint box. I painted the watercolor at the top of this post, trying to capture the feeling and the colors of the day.
For a landscape photographer, for a landscape painter, for a writer, for anyone who creates, I think the trick to inspiration is simply showing up. You never know what will happen when you step outdoors. You could find icy snow on your favorite path, but if you turn around and go a different direction, you could find yourself in a cloud of flying ladybugs.
You can see Susan Conner’s gorgeous work at her website, www.susanseye.com