Chesapeake Bay, Cameron Davidson’s 20+ year “labor-of-love” project, has finally been published. The Virginia-based photographer began shooting the Chesapeake Bay region from the skies after his first aerial assignment with National Geographic on a Great Blue Heron rookery along the Patuxent River in Southern Maryland. He was drawn to aerial photography for its “perfect blend of nature and abstract images,” and has since photographed aerially all over the world for two decades. Between assignments, he continued to build an astonishing amount of imagery of the Chesapeake Bay. Today, his personal library of the region is comprised of approximately 21,000 photographs.
Davidson has lived most of his life within the watershed of the Chesapeake. He finds the region fascinating for both its historical and contemporary significance. The Chesapeake Bay was formed around 10,000 nears ago when rising sea levels spilled into a meteor-impact crater, creating the largest estuary in North America and the third largest in the world. It ties together New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and Washington D.C. to the lower eastern shore of Virginia through 100,000 streams, creeks and rivers and over 150 major rivers spanning a total of 64,000 square miles. Davidson calls it “an abstract beauty that is rarely seen,” but from his high vantage point overlooking the land, he shows with each passing season the decline of the Chesapeake Bay due to man’s impact on the area.
The Chesapeake Bay is a dumping ground for non-point pollution, and due to its immense size it is difficult to track. What was once a productive fishery has now been destroyed. The water is impacted by everything, from the abandoned mines along its edge, to agriculture and development, to misuse of household products such as lawn treatments. Davidson did not set out at first with a specific agenda, but a simple desire to show that a great body of water is impacted by the millions who use it. The more he shot, the more he learned about the complex interactions that were present. “Farmers in the Shenandoah Valley who let their cattle into a stream can impact the bay as much as pollution from heavy industry along Patapsco River near Baltimore, or by Naval Reserve ships in the James River,“ he says.
Davidson did not set out to make a book, either. He photographed for the joy of it and loved exploring the air, even more so when he became a licensed pilot in 1989. It was actually his departure from the Chesapeake that was the catalyst for his decision to turn the project into something more. He lived in Texas for two years in the early 90s, but found himself discontent. “I missed the green of Virginia,” he explains. Upon his return, he began to shoot the Chesapeake again with a clear direction and set into motion the beginning steps towards creating a book.
Davidson began his project with film and finished with digital, thanks to the digital revolution that was taking place during the span of his work. He started out with 35 mm Nikon F3 on Kodachrome 64 film and switched to a medium format Rangefinder camera until digital technology was adequate enough to support his vision. He finally made the transition in 2003 and experimented between digital cameras before ultimately ending up with a Nikon D3x after its release in 2009. About 40% of the images in the book were shot with the D3x. With so many different modes of shooting, he needed a consistent color grade in the end to tie his aesthetic together. He selected an Alien Skin “Exposure” Kodachrome 64 filter on all the finals to bring all the digital files back to the feel of the first shots he took of the Chesapeake Bay.
When asked how he knew that he was finished shooting such a large project, Davidson replied, “I’m not sure that I am finished. However, you have to call it at some point.” Davidson called it in 2010 and began putting the book together.
For Davidson, the book process was both an interesting challenge and a pleasure. “I had a few stumbles along the way, plus an ever-expanding shoot list. It felt like it would never end.” He says that the key to a book is not a do-it-yourself project, but a good team who have experience under the belt, believe in your art and are dedicated to seeing it through to its end. He found that kind of enthusiasm in design and marketing agency GRAFIK. Lynn Umemoto and Greg Glaviano put together a team to design the book in 2008. Designer Alex Diaz worked closely with Davidson to build, design and edit the book several times before sending the dummy to Edition One books in California. “Their attention to detail was pretty incredible,” Davidson comments. “That helped me think through the project towards a greater goal.”
His search for a publisher proved to be more difficult than anticipated. Despite publishing five other books, Davidson felt as if he were starting over. The national publishers saw the book and audience as regionally oriented and did not think it would appeal on a national or international scale. It was passed on until he met Lisa Lytton, a former National Geographic book designer who owns Paraculture in Charlottesville, Virginia. She saw the book’s potential and the impact its environmental imagery could make and connected him with the University of Virginia Press, who were thrilled to take the project on.
Davidson’s prior experience with bookmaking was nothing like the process of putting together Chesapeake Bay. His other books were designed and printed by the publishers, but for such a personal project, Davidson wanted to have a strong hand in every decision. He kept The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield close for guidance. In it, Pressfield writes that resistance is greatest when one is close to accomplishing a goal. Davidson found that to be true to his case – right before he went to print, the printing company he was working with in China was purchased by another company and the relationship fell through. He found Four Colour in Ohio instead, and from there the books were printed and published through UVA Press.
Along with the book, Davidson’s project was also published in The Washingtonian Magazine, The Washington Post Sunday Magazine and The Garden and Gun online. Reporter David Fahrenthold, whose focus is the Chesapeake Bay region, wrote text for the 18-page photo essay published in The Washington Post Sunday Magazine and then contributed three essays to Davidson’s book.
Chesapeake Bay is already starting to have an impact. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation purchased 116 copies to distribute to their donors and employees. Davidson has also started speaking at events hosted by environmental groups who invite high-end political and influential people in the Mid-Atlantic. He hopes that his efforts will be influential in helping push legislation that protects the bay. He also has several book signings set up and a show in Alexandria and Charlottesville that are still in the works. He aims to take the show on the road to museums around the watershed.
To see more of Cameron Davidson’s work, visit his Web site.