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  • Writer's pictureAlyce Bender

Twelve Images of 2020

Updated: Aug 20, 2021

"Twelve significant photographs in any one year is a good crop." ~ Ansel Adams

Thinking back to the start of 2020, I don't think anyone expected it to go the way it did. The New Year started out with me traveling, as usual, and looking forward to another year of exploring various places around the globe. Yosemite National Park, Adams' own stomping ground, was one of my first stops of 2020. Just a long day trip, I was lucky to catch the valley with snow on the ground after a storm the day before. While I did visit the traditional view point, for me, I fell in love with the contrast of naked deciduous trees against the dark background of evergreens. Using a bit of intentional camera movement, I was able to create an image that reminds me of an etching and really captured the starkness that winter brings.

Little did I know how much this image would come to represent the year ahead.

February found me in Japan for almost the whole month. Covid-19 was starting to become a thing at that point but the Japanese were taking it in stride as masks in public and public cleanliness were already mainstream in their culture. Sure, there was more hand sanitizer in hotel lobbies and somewhat fewer people on the trains, but life continued. In Hokkaido, I had a rental car and was by myself much of the time, such is the nature of a nature photography. Temperatures hovering (sometimes plunging below) around freezing meant everyone was bundled up and face coverings were just additional protection against the elements. Out of the thousands of images I came home with for this year's trip, it is hard to choose just one. However, I will share with you this one, entitled "Bracing", as it was a finalist in the Nature Photographer of the Year international contest.

Taken while laying on the ice in the middle of a wind storm on a geothermically active caldera lake, it was an image I had visualized for several years. I was thrilled when the conditions came together to allow me to capture it.

After getting back from my annual trip to Japan in February, literally a week before the borders closed due to the global eruption of Covid-19, life started taking on a decidedly different look. My daily habits changed, so many plans had to be cancelled, and suddenly, my very physically interactive life became virtually interactive overnight.

I know this does not surprise anyone as we all ended up in the same or very similar situation. For me, personally, I took it very hard at the start, when it seemed all the grand plans I had for the year had to be cancelled. Due to being a military family, I was stuck in a location I did not love and was no longer allowed to freely roam further afield. I struggled with this new reality, I will be honest with you.

However, being a brand new Tamron USA Ambassador, I was determined to pull myself up and keep the creative juices going. The biggest hurdle for me was to find subjects locally that I loved and could still access as California shut down the majority of the public spaces I was used to visiting when home. So how do you travel when you can't do more then your backyard or neighborhood by foot? The macro world was my answer. Details in the spring wildflowers, morning dew drops, and insect activity made me slow down and explore on an inch-by-inch level. I dub March; henceforth, as Macro March.

Utilizing the Tamron 90mm Macro lens, with a very shallow aperture of f/2.8, I created this image of a common daisy that was growing in my front yard. Symbolic of new beginnings, transformation, and acceptance, the subject seems all that much more apropos.

April arrived and, at least in California, we seemed to be finding our groove with the new restrictions. Places like state parks were still closed and many of the state beaches were as well to keep people from gathering but, I found out that Pinnacles National Park, only an couple hours from me and one of the least visited National Parks, was open to overnight campers only. Well, with arm twisted behind me, I reserved a camp spot for several nights mid-week. A new-to-me National Park visit with a few nights camping was exactly what was needed at that point for my mental and creative health.

Even within the park there were a number of closures including that of the day parking lot that most of the trails start at. This meant to reach any of the usual trails one had to hike an additional five miles (round trip). After doing this several times, I decided to hang around the campground where it seemed much of the wildlife also chose to stay. Ground squirrel families, quail, acorn woodpeckers, turkeys, roaming bands of raccoons, brush rabbits, California scrub jays, and pocket gophers all made common appearances right within the campground. For me, the image that stands out is the one of the pocket gopher as it was so unexpected.

While photographing brush rabbits, I was laying down so I could use the grass to frame them and be at eye level with my subjects. After being in position for a while, I started hearing something moving around in the grass not but a few feet to my left. Glancing over a few times I didn't see anything but kept hearing it. So I, ever so slowly, repositioned myself to face whatever it was. Lo and behold, this little pocket gopher was popping in and out of its burrow, tearing mouthfuls of the tender grasses to bring back down for later consumption.

May in Monterey and a few more public outdoor recreation areas opened up. This meant that I was able to fully delve into my Black Oystercatcher photography and I started to spend several mornings a week down in the tidal zone observing these unique birds. Being able to observe the same individuals time and time again, it gave me a sense of really getting into a specific family's daily habits rather than the more broad idea of observing general species behavior. In this image, I loved the natural low key feel where the vibrant bill and eye of the bird just pop against the dark body and the black mussel covered stones.

Eight weeks home in a row and I was once again showing physical signs of stress with more frequent migraines and higher levels of pain. So I decided to take another midweek camping trip, solo, in the middle of a National Forest where human contact would be very limited. With the restrictions closing Yosemite National Park to even drive through traffic, I traversed the Sierra Nevada via Sonora Pass, the second highest pass in the Sierra with an elevation of just under 10,000. My destination was a campground just outside Lee Vining, CA, where I could camp and photography Mono Lake.

While I did get a classic shot of Mono Lake, I also received a valuable lesson on where my personal limits are when it comes to altitude. My Florida roots really showed on this trip. If you want to read more about this adventure, here is the article I wrote on it so that maybe you can learn from my mistake.

After the relatively failed trip of Mono Lake, I decided to try something a bit more on my level in July. Socially distant and in our own vehicles, I met up with Daniel Dietrich of Point Reyes Safaris to learn more about the National Seashore and its wildlife inhabitants. Uncooperative weather led to only a handful of usable images created towards the end of the day, but what an experience it was as the sun set and a stag party of Tule elk began sparing on the crest of a hill!

Two bull Tule elk, some of only 120 individuals in the Point Reyes National Seashore, mock battled in the weeks before full rut. I doubt these two would actually battle when the rut was actually upon them as there was a distinct difference between the two and they both seemed to acknowledge the difference before even this match.

Back home and working through even more cancellations as it became obvious that the pandemic was not subsiding in the summer months as had been hoped, I was presented with the opportunity to join a very small group with my long time mentor Gary Randell on a trip to Alaska in August. With Covid-19 testing required before arriving in Alaska and staying in private lodging with home cooked meals, it was about as safe as any trip outside one's own house. And what a trip! A true highlight to 2020, we had amazing wildlife sightings, good weather, and great company!

Most of our week was spent watching and photographing a particular family of brown bears. Dubbed the Candy Family for their diverse coat colors, ranging from caramel to dark chocolate, the family consisted of a large sow (female) and her three cubs, suspected to be two males and a female. Rain or shine, we sat for hours watching their antics and photographed the trials and tribulations that learning to fish caused the cubs. My favorite image of the trip was captured when it was pouring down rain and the one cub looked up with such a dower facial expression while his sibling chows down on the banks behind him. I think it speaks volumes to both the situation the bear found himself and how many of us feel this year.

Sadly, 2020 struck (again) and this entire family of bears was killed over the course of three days in October. Three (mom and two of the cubs) died due to vehicle collisions and the fourth was shot by Alaska Wildlife Troopers when it refused to leave its dead sibling in the road and kept returning to the spot, causing a traffic hazard. From what we know from local sources in the area, the days we were there were some of the last days the Candy Family consistently fished that portion of the river. Within days of us leaving, the fish did as well, causing the family to move to areas further away from the eyes of the paparazzi. All of us who were there that week feel honored to have been able to spend time with these animals while they were with us and their deaths only make images like this that much more meaningful to those of us who "knew" them.

September marked the last quarter of 2020 and the last quarter of us being stationed in Monterey, CA. This was also when I had the opportunity to teach a weeklong nature photography course to a small but amazing group of photographers who had traveled from all over the Northeast and as far away as Mexico to join me in Cape May, NJ at the Mid Atlantic Regional School for Professional Photography (MARS). A portion of the course was devoted to exploring techniques used for daytime long exposures. During this time, I created this image as an example for the class. The moody, minimalist image speaks to me on several levels and visually represents my mentality at the time; one of rough waters, carefully filtered to look calm; a sky that could go stormy or clear; and a single, relatively small structure, open and withstanding whatever is thrown at it, grounding the image for the viewer.

The East Coast and the annual Create Photography Retreat called to me again in October. Held in Greenville, SC, it was another small gathering of photographers, many who are long time friends. As the retreat wrapped up and my teaching duties finished, my mother drove up from Florida to see me as we knew neither of us would likely have the opportunity during the holidays. We spent a day hiking in one of my favorite spots in South Carolina, Jones Gap State Park. The fall foliage was starting to turn over the Middle Saluda River. Utilizing a long exposure during a calm in the breeze, I captured an image that speaks to me of quiet autumn days: fresh air with a nip to it, the crunch of leaves underfoot, and the surround sound of streams running while punctuated with late season bird calls.

Back in Monterey, CA, for November, I had the wonderful pleasure to host a client as I guided them for several days on a private Wild Monterey photo adventure. During the tour, we were fortunate enough to have several sessions with the endangered southern sea otters I have come to know and love during my time in Monterey. This one female was habitually napping in the same area and we were able to position ourselves in such a way that we would not disturb her or her older pup. The pup was not big on naps and was frequently restless which made for great photography. In this image the pup was repositioning himself after floating away (he hasn't mastered tying into the kelp yet) and when he yawned mid-way through rolling over, I hit the shutter. It is mere half second (or less) actions that can make or break a wildlife image. To add to the "cuteness" factor, this little one is also exhibiting the classic sea otter body positioning of keeping their paws out of the water as much as possible. This is because they do not have fur on their paws and keeping them raised out of the cold Pacific waters allows the sea otters to retain more heat.

2020 is not over yet and refuses to go quietly, at least for me. With marching orders in hand, my husband and I have moved to San Antonio, TX, this month. Moving is never really simple and a global pandemic combined with the holiday season has not made it any easier, I can assure your of that. Throw in a few health issues (non C19 related) and photography has unfortunately had to take a back seat this month. Plans are in full swing to get back out in the field after the New Year and bringing exciting new locations, subjects, and images to light. With that all being said, the final image of my 2020 "Best of" collection is one that I waited almost a year to capture, one that symbolizes seeing open doors in new light and finding opportunities. This image of Keyhole Arch in Big Sur only lights up like this for about thirty minutes before sunset a few weeks of the year, when the sun's path aligns just right with the opening. During that time, the atmospheric elements and tide also have to be just right with clear skies along the horizon and my personal preference of an incoming tide. Patience, planning, perseverance, and healthy dose of luck all went into creating this image.

My hope for this coming year is to finally be able to meet up with you all in the field once again and to be able to continue to create images that bring awareness and joy to both myself and viewers alike. May you and your family have a safe and happy New Year filled with new opportunities and a healthy dose of luck!


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