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  • Writer's pictureGary Gruber


Everyone wants to put me in a box. At 74 I will be in one permanently more sooner than later, however this is not good enough for the people that look at my photography and feel the absolute need to ruthlessly identify me as a certain type of photographer.

A bunch of years ago when I was talking to the editor of Palm Springs Life Magazine about my pool hose series they were getting ready to publish, she looked at the rest of my portfolio and immediately knew who I was and what I did. As I was about to leave her office, I told her that I was available for commercial work if she had anything for me (I had been the Director of Photography at the magazine back in the late 70’s). In an extremely snide and snippy voice she exclaimed “if we need a street photographer, you'll be the first person I call.” She had just finished looking at my whimsical photos of an autonomous pool cleaner with an almost otherworldly persona, and all she could see was my street work from New York City back in the early 70s…

When I showed them a series of photos that I had taken of palm trees in my backyard over the period of two or three years I became a landscape photographer! The next series that they rejected were the extreme close-ups I did of house plants in our yard. That's right, you got it: House Plant Photographer.

Now that I've started photographing birds, and not just any birds mind you – hummingbirds – well, I think you get the picture by now (yeah, bad pun).

Now my work is being rejected en masse by the digital community because I have failed to follow the protocol of the gods of hummingbird photographers. You see, the people in-the-know have dictated there is only ONE way of photographing hummingbirds. While I wholeheartedly endorse the methodology they use, I am left breathless by the sterile, cookie cutter results.

Hummingbirds are exceptionally difficult to photograph. When they alight on an object (a plant or a tree), it is rarely for more than a second or two, giving the photographer almost no time to secure a photo. So, their ploy is to bait these beautiful little creatures.

Baiters. Baiters, Baiters, Baiters.

They erect a feeding station in their backyard to lure these precious little fellows in. Most hummingbirds won’t let you within 20 feet of themselves, and rightly so. They have no visual form of defense besides their phenomenal speed, and when they take off they move as fast as the cartoon characters you grew up with.

Many photographers work along the same lines as hunters do. They build a ‘hide’. This may be a camo-colored tent that they erect maybe 5-6 yards in front of the bait. There is a small hole in one side of the tent that the camera lens pokes out from. Camera or gun, the effect is the same: they are there to catch the ‘game’ unaware as they feed.

The obvious problem with this setup is that all of their photos have the same background, the same perspective, etc. ad nauseum. Baiters.

Some of the baiters are techie whores. They set up a remote camera with a light source, sans tent, that they can manipulate from a distance without spooking the birdies.

Same sterile photos. Mind you now, the hummingbirds look brilliant and beautiful when photographed up-close. The cropped images are beautiful. I have to give credit where credit is due. These photogs aren’t just baiters, they are master baiters. They have perfected the craft of using both hands to erect a plethora of equipment to seduce the hummingbird to take the bait. I can only imagine what they feel as they slide that long hard telephoto lens onto the camera, twisting and turning the knobs until it erupts with the joy of a job well done.

I am not them.

I don’t do what they do. Being a faithful Catholic, I take a different path. Before I began photographing the hummingbirds, I followed the lead of St. Francis, one of the most well-known icons of the Church. St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is associated with the ‘patronage of animals and the environment’. He preached to the birds and befriended all forms of wildlife. His work was from the heart, not the hands.

I spent many months outside sitting or standing quietly while the hummingbirds became comfortable with my presence. Once they knew they could trust me, they began doing all sorts of wonderful things. When I walked out the kitchen door, they immediately flew and hovered about three feet in front of my face, their way of saying hello I guess. They would follow me around as I walked around the pool, sometimes getting silly and performing tricks for me.

I realize I am anthropomorphizing here, but we developed a connection that was innately spiritual (from my perspective). While I would never, ever compare myself with St. Francis, some association formed in my mind -- one that felt really good when I began to photograph them.

There was a special branch on our tree in the backyard where I would conduct portrait sessions. The birds that heretofore would not spend a single second in any particular place in our yard, now felt comfortable sitting on this branch for as long as 30 seconds as I moved closer, shuffled to the left or right a little to get a better perspective, and then literally smile for the camera. I cried a lot. I gave thanks to God. Not having spoken to any other non-master-baiters, I’m not certain how unique my experience has been.

We had both a momma and a pappa hummingbird, and when I found the miniature shells of two babies under the tree, I swooned. Naturally, the babies have taken time to warm up to me. They don’t pose for portraits yet, but they do tolerate my presence and will allow me within about 12 feet.

When the parents migrated at the end of the summer, I was a little distressed. But my perspective at this point in life is to always be grateful for what God has provided, and to thank Him profusely for the experience. And I have the photos to prove it.

I’ll take St. Francis over the master baiters any day…

Visit my website to see the rest of my images -- if you are so inclined…

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