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Five Questions: Nature photographer Tom Blagden promotes conservation

Tom Blagden splits his time between the Northeast and Charleston. For decades he has made remarkable images of the natural landscape. In so doing he has drawn needed attention to areas, such as the ACE Basin and Acadia National Park, that require proactive conservation efforts if they are to last for future generations to enjoy.

Blagden's new book, “Acadia National Park: A Centennial Celebration,” was issued earlier this year. The volume is a fine example of how art and political action often combine in useful ways. Blagden, who has nine new murals decorating the renovated Charleston International Airport, will be at the Charleston Library Society at 6 p.m. Thursday to discuss the new book and his career as a photographer. To RSVP, call 843-723-9912 or email mstokenberry@charlestonlibrarysociety.org.

Q: You grew up in rural Connecticut and gained an appreciation of nature and art early in life. When did you discover coastal South Carolina?  What is it about the Lowcountry that captures your imagination?

A: As a youth I always gravitated to spending time outdoors and felt lucky to grow up in northwest Connecticut, New Hampshire and the Adirondacks. After college at Harvard and working in conservation with Atlantic salmon, I sought a job with one of the major national conservation organizations.

Subsequently, I was hired in 1977 by the National Audubon Society, whose Southeast regional office was based in Charleston. My two years with Audubon exposed me to much of the Southeast coast, especially South Carolina's. I became enthralled with the wildness of its barrier islands, swamps and river systems and decided to commit to using photography, which was always my strongest talent, toward the conservation of these areas. I was captivated and inspired by the Lowcountry’s untrammeled wilderness and abundant wildlife and the surprising fact that so few others were photographing it at that time.

Q: You have said that your photographic work is meant in part to encourage conservation of natural habitat. How do you think viewers of your work make that connection?

A: We live in a culture that is profoundly disconnected from nature due to the preoccupation with social media, a selfie mentality, multitasking and urban living. Fortunately, despite this, we still are hard-wired to respond emotionally and aesthetically to experiencing many aspects of the natural world. Nature serves a critical role in slowing us down and pressing our reset button in a way that makes us truly notice, which makes us feel, which, in turn, makes us care.

That experience is what motivates me to photograph, but then the images take on a power of their own by deepening our emotional connection to nature and, more importantly, assigning a higher value to that moment and that place. Acadia National Park is a perfect example of art playing a critical role in the establishment of the park. Likewise, the ACE Basin was little known when I started working there, and the photographs and book became critical in shaping its identity and ultimate protection.

Q: Your latest book, “Acadia National Park: A Centennial Celebration,” was released in March and has sold very well. Tell me about how you put the book together. What is the main message?

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A: I commit my photography to areas that I love and that are part of my life. Photographing them over the long term allows me to build a body of work that has conservation value. I strive to evoke a sense of place with its full depth of habitat and character.

Acadia National Park has been an annual destination for me since my early 20s; it is part of who I am and has shaped me both as a person and as a photographer. In 2003 I produced the exhibit format book "First Light: Acadia National Park," which was very well received. I knew I wanted to continue photographing there, so as soon as I learned of Acadia’s centennial, I started planning for the current book. I already had a wonderful partnership with Friends of Acadia, but for the new book it took years to procure funding, contributing essay writers and a new publisher.

Rizzoli Publishers granted me great creative freedom in both the image selection and design of the book. 

Q: Tell me a little about your process: How do you manage to capture the perfect image?

A: This sounds corny, but I sum up the creative process as the six “Ps” of photography: purpose, passion, patience, persistence, perception and perfection, along with a good dose of luck. Total immersion generates the best images for me. My goal is to get so familiar with an area that in my mind’s eye, I know when and where will be a given light, weather, season, tide, wind, etc. I seek the experience over and above the images; they are the bonus. Quality experience fosters the inspiration and emotions that generate the photographs. The accumulation of those experiences matters more, because the sense of ownership transcends to a sense of belonging and to the discovery that we as individuals are inseparable from place and fully bound to it.

Q: You have served on the boards of The Nature Conservancy of South Carolina and the Lowcountry Land Trust. Update me on the status of conservation efforts in the state. Ten years ago, easements were huge. What are the primary tools being used today?

A: It’s been a while since I served on their boards, but working with those organizations was instrumental in connecting me with the conservation community and land preservation issues. They helped me realize the impact I could make through my own photography.

Since leaving them I’m honored to be a Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers, a select international group who have dedicated their careers to photographing critical global habitats and using images as a powerful tool for conservation. We are lucky to live in a state with so many active conservation organizations, such as the Coastal Conservation League, The Nature Conservancy and Lowcountry Land Trust, to name just a few.

With limited funds for acquisition, the conservation easement is still a critical and effective tool in land protection. As we continue to protect new lands and expand treasured areas like the ACE Basin, Cape Romain and Waccamaw Refuges, our upstate and river corridors, we must embrace, as those have for Acadia, that it’s up to us as stewards not only to secure these areas but to carry them into the future.

Contact Adam Parker at aparker@postandcourier.com or 843-937-5902.

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