story by Cindy Reid photos by John Wollwerth
Imagine the stillness it takes to capture one single instant in an owl’s life. Imagine getting up before dawn and settling yourself in a john boat, silently, stealthily, in order to capture the one single moment when twenty roseate spoonbills take flight. Imagine yourself Kelley Luikey, the photographer behind the camera at Nature Muse Imagery. Photographer, teacher and Master Naturalist, you have seen her work on two different billboards around the lowcountry. One was the sunrise image “Cloudscape” taken at Hunting Island and selected as through a juried process for the Beaufort Arts Council and Adams Outdoor Advertising “ ArtPop” competition, and the other is a dolphin ‘standing’ half out of the water for a billboard promoting Port Royal for the “Cool, Coastal and far from Ordinary” campaign. You may have seen her gorgeous images at MacDonald Marketplace on St. Helena Island and other venues. And if you are really fortunate you may have one hanging in your home!
Born in Seattle, Kelley lived all over the country as her family moved due to her father’s career. As a child she had a keen interest in the outdoors and was always out exploring. Eventually they ended up in North Carolina where she attended Appalachian State University. Kelley says her interest in nature was evident then, “I wanted to be a marine biologist, but after being talked out of it, I ended up being a psychology major. I took photography classes in college and I spent a lot of time in the darkroom- those were the film days! I spent a large part of my days in college outdoors exploring the mountains and I taught an Experiential Education program for rising high school seniors for several summers. I had always wanted to live by the water, so after college I moved Nantucket Island, where I spent most of the next 5 years and where I met my husband Rich. I was working at the Nantucket airport where Rich was a pilot, and I met him while I was flying back and forth to graduate classes on the mainland.”
Life continued, two children Arden (now 10 years old) and Tristan (now 13) came along and eleven years ago the Luikey family moved to the lowcountry. She spent much of her time on the water exploring and learning as much about the lowcountry as possible. Kelley says her interest in photography was revived around four years ago and a good friend encouraged her to pursue it more seriously. She says, “At the age of 41, I decided that it was time to go back to what I loved most, being outdoors and bringing the camera with me. In the meantime, digital had taken over and everything was very different. It was a huge learning curve and while using the camera came back fairly quickly, learning computer editing was much harder.” After four years working in the new technology Kelley says, “Learning to edit is the key to differentiating yourself and getting to that point was hard. Going from a straightforward documentarian approach to creating an artistic image to ‘put on the wall’ has really been my journey.”
Even her choice of subject has evolved over the last few years. Kelley says,”When I went back to photography, I also revisited my interest in marine biology, which meant photos of dolphins and turtles but at that time my equipment wasn’t quite right for wildlife subjects so I focused on landscapes -sunrises and sunsets -but as I added lenses and camera bodies to my equipment I shifted to a love of photographing birds. “
As a nature photographer, Kelley obviously spends a lot of time in the wild where she sees all kinds of interesting birds and animals. But nothing had prepared her for what turned out to be quite a significant birding moment in February of last year. She recounts, “I was out at Bear Island Wildlife Management Area in Colleton County and I noticed a bright yellow bird about on a branch a few trees away from me. I took the picture and texted a bird friend who immediately knew I had found something very special.” The bird was the Great Kiskadee, a South American bird that had never been seen on the east coast before. This was very big birding news. Kelley’s find was discussed on SC Public Radio by renowned host Rudy Mancke on his show “Nature Notes” and many birders flocked to the sighting spot hoping see the Great Kiskadee for themselves. “It really was thrilling to see this bird and be able to report it, and I met some really lovely people through the whole experience.” Says Kelley.
For a very long time, bobcats were the number one animals to see and photograph on Kelley’s bucket list. She says, “I spent hundreds of hours looking for bobcats, in fact it became a mission. And then one day last month I saw what I thought were raccoons going down a path at one of my photography haunts. Because I thought they were raccoons, I took my time getting my equipment assembled, locking up my car etc. I followed them down the path, still thinking they were raccoons, and when I caught up with them and realized they were bobcats I had about 45 seconds to take my pictures.” What she captured is a series of breath taking images of bobcat kittens at play. “The whole encounter took place over a span of four minutes,” she says.
When asked what is next on her bucket list, she answered “Snowy Owls have been on my list for awhile, I’ve been watching this year’s activity and making plans to head north this winter,” says Kelley, “and there is no real end to my list as there is always something beautiful in nature left to see.”
Shooting in Shadows
“Go dark or go light” says Kelley, “I like negative space in a photo, because that is what draws the eye to the subject. One of her most sold works is “Timeless Reflection,” a photo of a single sailboat taken in the extreme fog. She says, “This was taken here in Port Royal and is a really good example of creating an image that someone would enjoy having in their home, something someone could visualize hanging on a wall.”
Her series of the Roseate Spoonbills has been very popular as well. According to www.audubon.org “Gorgeous at a distance and bizarre up close is the Roseate Spoonbill.” These large wading birds were almost hunted to extinction for their distinct pink plumage in the 1860’s but since then they have made a decent comeback and can be found in parts of Florida, Texas, Louisiana and in a tiny slice of South Carolina coast. They live in marshes and their pink color can be attributed to their diet rich in shrimp. With marshes and shrimp in abundance in the lowcountry, one can see the attraction.
Kelley’s photographs reveal the beauty and grace in these unusual birds, and she is able to highlight their unique and startling pink plumage without rendering it garish. They resemble nothing so much as ballerinas in her photographs. Set against a black background, these are indeed portraits of individual birds, but unlike any way we have seen them before.
Equally interesting is her series of owls, which reveals a playfulness and companionship between the birds rarely seen in the clichéd photos of the “wise owl.” Owls appear equally inscrutable and approachable in Kelley’s owl portraits.
Kelley’s ability to bring us into a wild creature’s world while expanding on their otherness to us gives her wildlife photos a dimension not seen in documentary photography work. She shapes the subtleties of the lowcountry morning around a bird’s pink wings, while bringing out the masterpieces contained in a single feather. She has made “shooting in shadows” beautiful for us, the viewer, and we are the richer for have seen it through her eyes.
Our lowcountry landscape holds such a lure that its own beauty could be its downfall. Building has been accelerating, everyday one sees new commercial or residential development. Tracts of undisturbed land are becoming extinct, which of course upsets the natural order of wildlife. Spending as much time as she does out in the wild, Kelley is highly attuned to the changes in our natural environment. When she frames a photo, she not only works at creating an artistic effect but also she is subtly encouraging the viewer to truly see this bird, this sunrise, this bobcat. Her work strives to lower the barriers between our two worlds. Kelley says, “My ultimate goal is to create artistic images that encourage others to get out, to see the beauty that surrounds us. This in turn encourages people to want to protect our environment, for ourselves, our children and ultimately for future generations.”
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