NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - For the first 45 years of his life, Ted Cross was oblivious to the birds around him.
Then, for unknown reasons, he became obsessed with them.
For the past four decades, Cross has pursued his passion for photographing waterbirds across four continents — from Snowy Egrets, which were close to extinction because their plumes fetched high prices from hat makers, to Red Knots that fly 8,000 miles from Patagonia to northern Canada to nest, to that symbol of America, the bald eagle.
His photo safaris have taken him to the Arctic Circle, Far East Siberia, isolated south Pacific islands and, nearer to home, Green Island, Texas.
The results are included in a coffee-table book called “Waterbirds.”
Cross, 85, ex-editor of the Harvard Law Review, adviser to the Johnson and Nixon administrations on anti-poverty programs, a governor of the American Stock Exchange and author of books on the economics of blacks in America, talked to Reuters about the one thing that truly took over his life.
Q: Were you interested in birds growing up?
A: “I went all those years and I’m just amazed looking back because now it’s almost a disease with me. It’s so important in my life. Back then I had no interest whatsoever so it’s one of those mysterious things of why things happen.
“Anyway it descended on me like a bad cold and it became very important for me for 40 years. I can’t explain it but here I am in eastern Siberia, 15 time zones from New York, going to see a bird!”
Q: All species of birds?
A: “My concentration is on waterbirds who have a special quality of courage, beauty and a capacity for remarkable acrobatics. It’s unbelievable what they can do in the air, especially in courtship.”
Q: Where was the most difficult place to shoot?
A: “Koloma, Siberia in the former USSR. The trouble with Koloma, the site where they (birds) are, is that it was the site of the gulags. It’s hard as hell to get in there and you get permission if you’re lucky but they don’t like someone with a camera. I am trustee of a scientific organization in Philadelphia so I had connections with the scientific people in Russia. But it was tough because they were very sensitive about what was going on there.
“So these birds are right on top of the gulags. It’s where they nest and that’s where you have to go.”
Q: Were you interested in photography before?
A: “I used a camera in the (U.S.) Navy to take pictures, but the bird thing was unrelated. I could never afford a Leica, so I used a knockoff, but always a 35mm.”
Q: What are the ideal conditions for bird photography?
A: “Up on Ellesmere island, part of Canada on the North Pole, it’s warm in the summer and the sun never sets and when you take a picture with the sun just above the horizon, the light is perfect. You know the rules of photography, I never take a picture after 10 o’clock in the morning and I always take it in late afternoon.”
Q: How do you ensure that you get the picture you want?
A: “You have to know a lot. You’ve got to know where they are, you’ve got to be patient, the light has to be right, the wind has to be right. Birds are creatures of habit. You go into a situation where they are and you see the bird you like and you watch him for 20 minutes or so and you wait for them to go back, because that’s how they are, how they behave.
“I often take a book to read. Patience is probably the principal trait.”
Q: How has digital photography changed the technique?
A: “It’s done wonders. The color is terrific. What it really does is you can take a burst of shots when they’re flying and the odds favor you. It was too expensive with Kodachrome. Digital is free. You can shoot 1,000 pictures in one day.
“You take 20 pictures and you’ve probably got it. In the old days, the cameras were not designed to take that many shots. The burst with the Nikon I use now is 10 frames per second.
“My wife is a photographer and she goes and takes pictures of people in the Middle East. She sees a picture, takes it and that’s it.
Reporting by Steve James; Editing by Patricia Reaney