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Photographer shares his panoramic view of Virginia's natural wonders with readers

Photographer shares his panoramic view of Virginia's natural wonders with readers

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The stately tree standing alone in a meadow near Skyline Drive was ideally positioned to create dark contrast for a sunset photograph.

Ben Greenberg isn't the only photographer to note the tree's distinctive attribute. He is, however, the only one with the skill and patience to have captured an image of the tree framed against a spectacular expression of colors that lasted but a moment and was gone.

"I knew that tree would present a great sunset image, and I started shooting it soon after I moved back to Charlottesville in 2002," said Greenberg, whose photographic career spans more than 40 years. "But all the elements have to come together to create a dramatic image, and they never would.

"Then, three years ago, my wife and I were staying at Shenandoah National Park's Skyland Resort during the peak of the fall colors. I went to photograph the tree about an hour before sunset, and there must have been at least a dozen photographers already there waiting for the sun to go down.

"The sunset was a dud, and as soon as the sun went below the horizon, everybody left. I decided to stay, because I knew from experience that in the 10 to 20 minutes after sunset, amazing things can happen."

Evidence can be seen in the panoramic photograph titled "After the Sunset on Skyline Drive." It's one of 122 images in a new book — "Natural Virginia: Panoramic Photographs by Ben Greenberg."

Greenberg's account of how the picture came to be goes to the heart of what elevates a good landscape picture to one of greatness. Patience and persistence are often required, but it also takes the cooperation of natural elements that can't be controlled.

Even when everything does come together, the moment of magic is often fleeting. In the case of the Skyline Drive shot, the sun had been gone for 10 minutes before Greenberg started to see a transformation in the darkening sky.

"All of a sudden, I had this wonderful sunset glow along the horizon behind the tree," said Greenberg, a University of Virginia alumnus. "But it still wasn't working, because the most dramatic color was occurring behind the branches.

"As I like to remind people during photography presentations I've given, you don't have to shoot everything from eye level. In this case, I moved the camera as low as I could, and by doing this I was able to pull the colors under the branches of the tree.

"That made all the difference in the world. And then I saw this gorgeous blue sky above the crimson color on the horizon, and it all came together. Those are special moments, and they can be quite spiritual for me."

Greenberg's new book is replete with photographs of special moments he has captured throughout Virginia. The work is divided into three sections: the Tidewater; the Piedmont; and the western region of the state.

Even by coffee-table book, the tome is especially large in order to properly present the panoramic images. Greenberg got interested in this type of photography in 2004 as the result of visiting a local camera shop.

"I was in Pro Camera here in Charlottesville, and they had a used Fuji G617 panoramic camera for sale," Greenberg recalled. "It was totally new to me, and after playing with it a little, I realized it would be a fascinating thing to try to use and explore.

"The first photograph I took with it was of the Roaring Fork River in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It's a gorgeous river, and when I framed the photograph in the camera, it was like my whole vision changed.

"I don't think there are more pluses with panoramas in comparison to other types of photography. It's not a gimmick that makes a great photograph. It's just a different way of composing the world around you."

Greenberg became interested in photography in 1970, after the birth of his eldest son. It started when his brother-in-law lent him a manual camera to take pictures of the newborn.

"It was amazing how quickly I got hooked on photography," Greenberg said. "I not only photographed my son, who may have been the most photographed child in the history of humankind, but also the world around me.

"I think the biggest thing in my sticking with it was how much photography helped me to connect with the world. I started seeing and relating to it differently.

"I started noticing things I had never noticed before. It absolutely changed my relationship with the world, and it was the natural world that truly attracted me more than anything else."

After more than four decades of capturing the grandeur of his home state, Greenberg started to think about putting his best work into book form. He read a few books about the publishing industry and then took a class on publishing photography books given by renowned photographer David Alan Harvey.

The class was part of the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph a few years ago. As part of the class, Greenberg showed Harvey 20 of his standard photographs and 20 of his panoramic images.

"Harvey looked at my work, and said he thought I should do a book of just panoramas," Greenberg said. "I had never considered that even as a possibility, and I immediately rejected his idea.

"I felt it would keep me from including a number of the pictures I'd want to include in a book. I felt it would be too limiting.

"But over time, the concept grew on me, and I started to realize how many wonderful panoramas I had. So my plans evolved into doing a book of panoramas. I now tell people that if you want to give up every spare minute of your time for two years, create and publish a book."

Greenberg said that from the moment he decided to do the book, he made a commitment to himself to make it special. Every photograph would have to stand on its own — and meet his high standards of quality.

And while he wrote the captions for all the photographs and the stories of how they came about, he had Deane Dozier write the introduction to each of the sections. As a wildlife photographer and author of three books on Virginia's natural wonders, she was an ideal choice.

"I tell you, I'm really impressed with how Ben stuck to his guns as far as what he wanted to do with this book," Dozier said via telephone from her home at the southern end of Shenandoah National Park. "In order to keep the price of the book down, he received advice about downsizing this dream he had.

"He was told he could have fewer pages, thinner paper, more images on a page, a thinner cover, a smaller book, and all kinds of ideas for compromising what he wanted to do. But he stayed with his original idea and followed it through to the end.

"So we now have what is really a keepsake book that reminds us of how fortunate we are to live in this state with such a wealth of natural beauty. He had this vision, and, now that the book is out, I think he has been proven right. He can be proud of what he has done for the rest of his life."

Greenberg said there are photographs in the book that represent as many as 10 years of effort to get a worthy picture of a particular location. Some of his shots are so breathtaking that viewers have thought they were created on a computer. They are not.

These large-format photographs are intended to be savored and lingered over. One of Greenberg's friends said she has decided to take one photograph each day, appreciate it, read about it and then think about it.

Such a leisurely pace will be rewarded. It provides time to notice delicate nuances such as how the photographer waited for the precise moment when a speck of light from a setting sun can be seen through the window of a distant boat.

Any of the photographs in the book could have been used to illustrate the cover. Perhaps the easiest decision Greenberg made during the creation of the book was selecting for the cover art a photograph of a great blue heron silhouetted in mist rising from the James River.

"The photograph of the great blue heron is my all-time favorite photograph," Greenberg said as he looked at the image. "The conditions were so gorgeous, but because there was only dim lighting, I feel so fortunate to have gotten the picture.

"I had only one roll of film and took all 21 exposures, but I didn't know if I had the picture or not. I'll never forget getting the pictures back from the lab the next day and looking at the prints one at a time.

"In picture after picture, the scenery was beautiful but the heron was fuzzy, because of its movement and the slow shutter speed I was forced to use. Every picture was like that until I got to the last image, which is on the cover of the book. It was like a miracle."

People have suggested to Greenberg that a book of the caliber he has created could sell for more than $100. But he set the break-even price of $59.95, to make it affordable.

"I love Virginia, and hopefully I made a contribution to it with this book," Greenberg said. "To me, the book represents a gift from me to the people of Virginia.

"I hope the book helps people recognize how fortunate we are to live in a state with so much natural beauty and diversity.

“There are no words that can describe what I felt when I first held this book in my hands. I almost have tears come to my eyes now just thinking about it. The worst fear I had was that I was going to have a photography book where my images were not reproduced well.

"I don't think I was prepared for how good the quality turned out to be. You dream about doing something special, but I never imagined how special it would be until I had it in my hands."

Greenberg will be signing copies of "Natural Virginia: Panoramic Photographs by Ben Greenberg" from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 20 in Montpelier's Visitor Center. He also will be doing a signing from noon to 1:30 p.m. June 28 at Barnes and Noble in the Barracks Road Shopping Center. To learn more about the book, visit www.naturalvirginiabook.com.

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