SANDY LONG ’86 CAPTURES NATURE WITH LENS AND PEN
By Kelly Clisham MFA ’16
Browsing the work of photographer Sandy Long ’86 is like taking a nature walk with the best possible tour guide, one who not only knows the area, but has a deep knowledge built on love. When Long visits a location, she doesn’t merely take pictures. Instead, she engages the area in conversation, using camera and pen, to learn about what she calls the particularities of place. Someone viewing her work is just as likely to see the wonder of mushrooms growing on a mossy log as the majesty of a vast landscape.
In 2014, Long’s talents earned her the first-ever artist-in-residence position at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia. Long and her family camped at the park when she was a child, so when the artist-in-residency program was announced, she jumped at the chance to apply. “The early connection to the park is one of the reasons I was so interested in the residency there,” says Long.
As Shenandoah National Park’s artist-in-residence, Long was awarded two weeks to live and work in the park, with the goal that any works produced during the stay would help increase the public’s awareness and understanding of the area’s natural beauty. As a condition of her residency, Long was required to donate a work to Shenandoah National Park and conduct a public presentation. She chose to invite the public to join her on a nature walk and bring their cameras. A crowd ranging in age from 12 to 90 showed up. “We just prowled around with our cameras and had a conversation with the meadow,” says Long.
An exhibition of the photographs Long produced during her stay at Shenandoah National Park caught the eye of folks from the Delaware Highlands Conservancy, who invited her to participate in their artist-in residence program at Lemons Brook Farm. Long spent four weeks focusing on the natural beauty of 119 acres of protected farm and forest land in Bethel, N.Y. She wrapped the residency in late November 2015 and shared her work during the digital and spoken-word event, “Lemons Brook Farm: Lens, Pen and Place,” on May 21, 2016.
Long often merges her photo skills and her love of writing. “The two have always remained intertwined for me. Ultimately the joy is in combining them,” she says. “I think of myself sometimes as a poetographer.” While at Lemons Brook, she also delved into a collection of her images and poetry titled “Impermanence.” The work “explores both the desolation and ragged beauty of the temporal nature of existence.” Though Long has yet to finalize plans, she may deliver “Impermanence” as a piece of performance art rather than an exhibit.
Long credits her parents for her love of nature and photography. She grew up camping and hiking, reveling in and respecting the natural world. When she was a child, they gave her a little plastic camera that became her near-constant companion on these jaunts. “From that point on, I’ve never been without a camera,” says Long.
Long’s love of words also started early. “Probably from when I was little I had an interest in language and words,” she says. Long honed her writing talent as an English major at Wilkes, and she remembers her time as a student fondly. “I have good memories of the English department as a whole. There were some wonderful souls there.” Long is particularly grateful to the late Patricia Heaman, who named her editor of Manuscript, the student creative writing and visual art magazine. “That was a terrific opportunity for me,” says Long. “I cherish it to this day.”
When Long thinks of her days at Wilkes, she also remembers the positive influence of Jane Elmes-Crahall, communication studies professor. She talks about time spent in the darkroom during an elective photography class and free time spent on the banks of the Susquehanna River.
The variety of experiences on campus seem like fitting preparation for Long’s wandering career path from college administration to freelance writing and photography to newspaper reporting and to co-founding (with fellow Wilkes alumna Krista Gromalski ’91) the marketing and public relations firm Heron’s Eye Communications in Greeley, Pa.
After the Lemons Brook Farm residency, Long is not sure yet what her next project will be, though it will likely involve the type of heartfelt exploration she undertook during her residencies. “The more I do this kind of work, it’s coming into focus for me. My best work is as a photographer of place. What I really do is immerse myself in a place. That’s definitely a process that I use and continue to want to deepen,” says Long. “When people have these conversations and begin to love a place, it sets the stage for advocacy.”
Sandy Long shares her thoughts about creating each of these photos*:
*This artwork was produced under the artist-in-residence program at Shenandoah National Park, america’s national parks play an essential role in protecting the wild lands and precious waters that sustain the heart of the nation and the spirit of its people.
“The image raises a visual question about choices-those we make as individuals, and those made as part of the larger systems that affect our lives. It invites deeper consideration of the complexities associated with all public lands, as competing interests of habitat protection, public access, wilderness preservation and private property issues must be weighed. The photo’s mist-laden character suggests that these challenges are not clear matters easily resolved.”
“I am fascinated by the conversations that go on in the natural world. The visual elements explored in this image hint at layers of possibility in the ethereal landscape. Beyond what i am seeing, there is the realm of feeling. As I bring my attention to this sensory experience, I am invited into the conversation. This is at the heart of my creative process. To what extent is that lone tree me? Or those wavering grasses, buffeted by wind and blanketed in fog? At what point does separation of self and other occur, if at all?”
“Skyline Drive is a chief feature of Shenandoah National Park, winding for 105 miles along the crest of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia and delivering stunning views of the valleys below. Its 35-mph speed limit invites a contemplative drive, which takes about three hours to complete. I found the slow pace refreshing and conducive to enjoying the jaw-dropping views offered at 75 overlooks featuring the Shenandoah Valley to the west or the Piedmont to the east.”
“The particularities of a place-its notia-are at the core of what is compelling about it. But they are often its most underappreciated aspect. Tuning in to the notia of a place leads to a much richer exchange and a relationship that is both nourishing and illuminating. Deepening such relationships can impel us to work on behalf of the places we love.”
“The myriad expressions of beauty in the natural world are endlessly enriching. Capturing images of this artful nature and sharing them with others is one of the most satisfying aspects of this work. ‘Let the beauty we love be what we do.’ wrote 13th century mystic and poet, Rumi. In my work as a reporter, much of my focus was placed on the opposite. In contrast, this is my heart work. I shoot with the eye of a photographer, the attention of a naturalist and the soul of a poet.”
“Photographers are always chasing light. On any given day in Shenandoah National Park, one will encounter plenty of people toting tripods and long lenses, scurrying from overlook to rock outcropping to capture the first or last light of day. In the race against time, I found that my fellow photo enthusiasts rarely spoke to one another during those windows of opportunity.”
“Wilderness funds something deep within us that is easily depleted in today’s fast-paced world-and necessary to our survival. We may even make better choices as a result of the restorative experiences made possible through connection with the natural world and its wild beauty. I hope these photos raise awareness of the need for such beauty to flourish beyond our lifetimes, to nourish and sustain all life forms and to inspire the vigilance of the artist in each of us.”
At the invitation of the Delaware Highlands Conservancy, Sandy completed a second artist’s residency at Lemons Brook Farm in Bethel, N.Y., through the month of November 2015. The following is an excerpt of her exploration there:
Discussion at Dusk
We wander out at dusk for a final prowl before the light fully fades. I am looking, listening, opening my senses to what this place is saying.
Buddhawg settles on a nearby knoll, silhouetted against the darkening sky. The patience of a senior dog is one of their greatest gifts. At 14, his sense of hearing nearly gone, Bu sniffs the air for answers, scenting unseen molecules for hours.
I am the lens, ply this portal to deeper awareness of how it goes here.
A crescent moon begins conversing with the poet-tree that’s flung its form in a forward flump, drama and torment comingled. Each holds the other in its thrall; I crawl on belly to observe what’s being said.
The darkness deepens, tree becomes jagged line, dog is shadowed shape protruding from the grass. Moon mounts her stage. We are audience, partners, participants in something happening beyond what we can see, when suddenly, the silence is knifed with sound.
Rippling cackles of coyote enter the conversation, filtering from the fringe of forest that begins where the clearing concludes. They are on the run, coming closer, clearer, when a pack across the road declares its presence.
Yodels ricochet around us as I lie there with lens, gathering in, growing colder, taking up what’s offered , imagining how it will go when they emerge in a rush from the dense brush, flow across the open land, past a woman and a dog, entwined with tree and moon in a twilight embrace, engaged in a deepening conversation with place.
Sandy Long ’86, Greely, Pa.
Bachelor of Arts, English, Wilkes
Career: Accomplished nature photographer and co-owner of Heron’s Eye Communications, a marketing and public relations firm, with fellow Wilkes alumna Krista Gromalski ’91.
Notable: Was chosen Shenandoah National Park’s first artist-in-residence.
Favorite Wilkes Memory: Serving as editor of Manuscript and classes with Jane Elmes-Crahall and the late Patricia Heaman.
To view more of Sandy’s photos and read about her creative philosophy, go to http://www.SandyLongPhotos.com