Natural Talent

The great egret flew out of the Florida dusk. With powerful beats of its seraphic white wings and a final coasting descent, it settled in a lagoon in Port Richey for the night.

Nearby, across a fence, wildlife photographer Melissa Groo watched the bird through a Canon super-telephoto lens. Melissa had hoped to capture the egrets sweeping down to their rookery among the mangroves, but shooting conditions had deteriorated as clouds drifted in and what was left of the sun dropped into the trees. “I was beginning to despair that I was going to get anything good, so I just thought I’d focus on the birds that were resting on an island in the lagoon,” Melissa recalls, sounding a little disappointed even now. “Then this one beautiful great egret flew in. Instantly, he began to posture and display and fan out his plumes and arch his neck.”

Great egrets have graceful S-shaped necks, long orange bills, yellow irises, and during mating season, plumage showier than a Las Vegas showgirl’s. But Melissa was hardly confident that her egret, despite its timely preening, would yield a memorable shot. “It was getting quite dark by then, and I had to bring up my ISO really high so that I could get enough light on the bird,” she says. “ISO” refers to her camera’s light sensitivity setting; when she pushes it high, she gets a brighter exposure but risks unacceptable graininess. Making matters worse, the mangroves behind the egret had gone almost completely dark, blotting out the setting’s visual interest. The bird looked like a patch of white in a pool of mud. “I just thought that those pictures probably weren’t going to be that great.”

Studying them later, though, Melissa found the poor lighting worked to her advantage. The dark backdrop caused the egret to “pop” before the eye—the virgin white of its feathers, the spots of yellow and orange, the almost fluorescent green of its lores, or fleshy patches on the face. One frame stood out especially. The egret had tucked its bill parallel to its neck and body and fanned out its lacy white plumes against the velvet-black of the swamp. Melissa’s egret was so exquisitely composed that one might think it a wildlife supermodel, hitting marks for an Avedon or a Scavullo. Naturalists, however, would make a more sober comparison—to the immortal bird portraits of John James Audubon, who had to capture his subjects with a gun before he stuffed, posed and painted them.

Melissa, for her part, liked the egret picture well enough to enter in Audubon magazine’s prestigious annual photography contest earlier this year. The problem with egret images is their ubiquity. “The egret is Audubon’s logo, and it’s a bird that’s shot a lot, so you can imagine I’ve seen thousands of great pictures of egrets, almost to the point where I don’t want to see any more,” remarks Kevin Fisher, Audubon’s creative director and one of five contest judges. “But there’s something about Melissa’s shot that is just so completely perfect. The way it was displaying its tail, that little bit of color in its face, the crop that she did—I never saw one quite like it.”

Fisher recalls the judges sitting around a table in their Greenwich Village offices, arguing all day about images winnowed from the nearly 9,000 submitted. “Melissa’s category was the last of the day. Her picture was such an obvious winner. We didn’t argue over it—we all agreed, which was remarkable. When you choose a grand prize winner, there tends to be a lot more argument.”

The great egret bedecked the cover of Audubon’s May-June issue, and will hang in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History for a full year.

AWKENING HER TALENT 
Like the creatures she shoots, Melissa is so mobile that she’s difficult to capture sitting still. She might be photographing golden eagles in Utah, black-necked stilts in the Bahamas, great gray owls in Wyoming, coyotes and bobcats at Yellowstone, or wild ponies on Assateague Island. But here she is, back in her old hometown, sipping coffee on Greenwich Avenue. Tall and athletic-looking with honey-blond hair falling midway down her back, she has a commanding physical presence. (In one of her many past phases, she was a runway model in Paris.) Equally commanding is her intellect: She possesses one of those ambidextrous minds equally at home in science and literature. Often she quotes from essays and poems that crystallize her own ideas about wildlife.

Here amid the clink and clatter of restaurant cutlery, she resurrects the naturalist Henry Beston (1888–1968): “We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals… the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear.”

Melissa turned serious about wildlife photography only five years ago, at the age of forty-seven. “Late 2010 or early 2011 is when I really discovered bird and wildlife photography, and it was like something exploded inside me,” she says. “Every waking moment I was thinking about it, studying it, practicing it. It just became everything to me.”

The celebrated nature writer Alex Shoumatoff claims some credit for plucking Melissa out of obscurity. They met more or less by accident in 2011. Shoumatoff, once known as “the most far-flung of The New Yorker’s far-flung correspondents” for his sojourns to the densest, darkest jungles on Earth, had just finished an important piece on elephant butchery for Vanity Fair called “Agony and Ivory.” Researching his next story, he visited Ithaca, New York, to see Katy Payne, a legendary field biologist based at Cornell University. It was she who discovered, in 1984, that elephants talk to one another via “infrasound”—rumbling noises too low for human ears to detect—in addition to their familiar trumpeting. (And it was her former husband, Roger, who discovered, with Katy’s assistance, that whales sing songs.)

Back in 1999 Melissa became so enthralled with Payne’s elephant work that she dropped a rewarding career with the Rockefeller Foundation and moved to Ithaca as Payne’s unpaid—at first—research assistant in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Elephant Listening Project. Melissa stayed on for six years. But she stayed in Ithaca for good, and lives there today with her husband, Matthew Gelder, a high school science teacher, and their ten-year-old daughter, Ruby. And so it happened that she went to dinner one night with Alex Shoumatoff.

“Melissa told me that she took bird pictures,” Shoumatoff recalls. “She’d started quite recently. Well. She sent me some of these things and they were extraordinary. I saw that what she was doing wasn’t just a nice picture of a cardinal in a tree, let’s say; it was an actual portrait of that particular cardinal. She was able to bring out the personality of the particular individual bird in a way I’d never seen before.”

Not too long after mounting her first show at a grocery store in Ithaca, Melissa was out in Nebraska with Shoumatoff, documenting the sandhill crane migration for Smithsonian magazine, circulation 2.1 million. The migration of these birds is one of the greatest natural shows anywhere. Every March, 600,000 cranes, 80 percent of all cranes on the planet, fly up from the South and descend on a stretch of the Platte River to fatten up on waste grain. Then, as quickly as they come, they lift away, dispersing to the northern states, to Canada, to Siberia.

Of the many magnificent shots Melissa took there, one stands out: it’s a crane in flight, taken from a vantage point that suggests Melissa was flying right alongside the bird, wingtip to wingtip. One sees not only every painted feather, but the individual barbs of every feather. Further, like her prize egret photograph, this crane shot bears a sense of flawlessness, as if the slightest change would diminish its optical magic. How did she do it? Shoumatoff, familiar with the crane’s importance to Native American cultures, says she must have borrowed a shape-shifter’s powers. Melissa offers a more prosaic explanation: She shot the crane from a car window as it rose from a just-out-of-the-frame cornfield.

Given the intense competitiveness of the field, Melissa’s late entry should have dictated a rise no further than the middle ranks by now. But her talent arrived mysteriously full-blown. Wild Planet, Birdwatching, National Wildlife and New York State Conservationist magazines soon published her photographs, galleries soon displayed them, and art collectors soon bought them. “Things have taken off just in the past year or two,” Melissa says. “But it is a challenge. It’s really not that hard to get a great picture anymore. We have digital photography, we have all this incredible equipment. So how do you distinguish yourself from the rest?”

The question is more loaded than it seems. Wildlife photo-graphy, with its imperative “to come up with the next wildly wonderful photo,” as Melissa puts it, is fraught with dubious ethics. “I speak about this, and a lot of photographers are not happy with me,” she says. “It’s sort of a secret that they have.” One common practice is to buy mice from pet stores and use them to bait owls. “They’ll fling the mouse in front of them. You don’t see that in the picture. What you see is a spectacular owl, flying toward the photographer, and they’ve got that stunning shot.”

What’s wrong with that? For Melissa, such shortcuts embody a strange disconnect: jeopardizing the very creature one is supposedly celebrating. “It turns the owl into a sort of begging performer, because it becomes habituated to people. It actually approaches and starts begging. For me, an owl is the essence of wildness. It has such dignity. Baiting them shows disrespect. It takes away their dignity and their wildness.”

WHEN A DREAM TAKES FLIGHT
Melissa was born in Manhattan, a daughter of Anne Semmes, a nature-loving journalist, and Lawrence Groo, a literary-minded investment banker. But the family had a summer place out in Quogue, whose beaches and dunes—and swimming pools—sparked Melissa’s love of the natural world. “I couldn’t stand the suffering of anything,” she says. “I used to spend hours around my parents’ pool, fishing out dying bugs.”

In 1975 the Groos moved to Greenwich. Melissa graduated from Greenwich Academy in 1980 and from Trinity College in 1984, with a degree in English literature—but without a clear vision for her future. She went miserably to Wall Street; happily to Paris; and hopefully to Albuquerque, where she made a brief foray into silversmithing. In between, she came back to Greenwich for a year to teach learning disabled kids at Eagle Hill School. Nature? It shrank into the background, lamentably but typically, amid the constraints of adulthood.

But teaching remained an authentic passion. Melissa earned her master’s degree in education at Stanford, and in 1995 moved to New York to join the Rockefeller Foundation as a school-reform researcher, charged with improving education in low-income communities. After six months the foundation moved Melissa’s division to Cleveland. One can only imagine how distant she must have felt, there in C-Town, to the wild places within herself, sensed but still unexplored. Then her father took her on a kayaking trip to Alaska. Whales plied the bays and fjords. The sight of one humpback whale in particular, raising its wide flukes next to their kayaks in preparation for a great plunging dive, did her in: “I just fell completely in love with whales on that trip.”

Melissa obsessively began to study whales, to contemplate whales, even to go diving with whales in a whale sanctuary off the Dominican Republic. She never does things halfway. So when Katy Payne lectured at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Melissa made sure she was in the audience. By this time Payne had made her name on the elephant scene, having written the moving and at times heartbreaking Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants. As Melissa listened to Payne tell tales of complex elephant society, she found herself smitten, and knew, despite having no biology background, that she must work with Katy Payne. “And somehow,” she says, “I finagled going to lunch with her the next day.”

“In one brief conversation, she had me wrapped around her finger,” Payne remembers, laughing. “She’s one of the warmest, most competent people I’ve ever met.”

Melissa spent months in central Africa with Payne, observing, photographing and videotaping elephants. Watching day after day from a platform, she learned not only about the individuality of elephants, but about the individual dramas of elephant lives: loves, fears, griefs, jealousies. She wrote in a 2002 letter from the field, published on NPR’s website, “You really get to know the characters, and if you can keep them all straight, it’s like a daily soap opera. A bit like reading War and Peace.”

Today Melissa is best known as a bird photographer. She considers the designation too narrow—recent favorite photographs of hers include two bobcats cuddling in the snow and an entire family of red foxes—but she does admit that much of her most distinctive work features birds. That it worked out this way surprises her more than anyone. “All my life I’d loved animals so much, but birds were just sort of like wallpaper. It feels ridiculous to admit it. I’d gone through forty years of my life and never taken notice of these extraordinary creatures.” Then she took a couple of ornithology classes at Cornell, one of the world’s great hubs of bird studies “and the whole world of birds opened up to me.”

LIFE & LEGACY
When we met with Melissa, she had just returned from Great Gull Island, a dab of land in Long Island Sound that is a critical nesting ground for terns. There she hoped to photograph the endangered roseate tern, an aerodynamically peerless bird with a black mask and a rosy breast. “It’s a tiny island, only about sixteen acres,” Melissa says. “But it’s the main engine for the common terns and the roseate terns for the Northern Hemisphere. If something happened to that island, the roseate terns would be sunk.” She sequestered herself in a wooden blind, waiting, waiting, until her last morning there. “The sun was just beginning to come out, there was this very soft pink light over everything, and these two roseate terns landed on a rock by my blind and began to pose, and it was just spectacular, and I was furiously clicking away, and I got it.”

The sitting and watching—the letting wildlife happen around you—is a skill she won doggedly, in the African heat with malarial insects biting. “It does take patience,” Katy Payne says. “But fieldwork is a wonderful trainer for the observer’s eye, ear and heart.” When Melissa’s mother looks at her photographs, she thinks of all that went into making the finished piece.

“I think of the tremendous struggle she goes through to have captured that pose. The discomfort, the leaving of family and the traveling to where she needs to go, the getting down and dirty,” says anne Semmes. (Melissa spends a great deal of time prone on her belly in grass and mud, believing the low angle brings her more firmly into the bird’s world and throws the background helpfully out of focus.)

Melissa stands in the tradition of Thomas Cole, America’s first great nature artist, who even in the 1820s felt he was painting a vanishing world, soon to be leveled by ravenous commerce. Man could be whole, he believed, only in harmony with the natural world, which he perversely destroyed.

What Melissa recovered in nature was the “sense of wonder” that her heroes, from Rachel Carson to Jane Goodall, often wrote about—the capacity for awe that shines brightly in childhood but usually dims in adulthood.

“People live their lives so out of touch with the daily rhythms of nature,” she says. “They’re just not aware of the feeling that being in nature can give us, how soothing and healing and invigorating it is. They have no idea. So when something comes across the news about how we’re losing a species, or how a wonderful habitat’s been destroyed, people have no way to relate to it. How can they begin to care? Photographs have the power to change that. I mean, the things I’ve witnessed have been startling to me, have revealed to me the complexity, the individuality, and even emotions, of creatures.”

Only in recent years have scientists been comfortable using similar language, as they’ve discovered in the wild behavior once considered the sole dominion of humans. Elephants caressing and burying their dead. Whales gratefully nuzzling divers who free them from trap lines. Dolphins swimming to the aid of drowning people. Birds expressing depression or elation.

So, then, what is a creature? Is it more than blood and bone, flesh and skin, fur and feathers? Melissa believes without reservation that animals have souls. Whether or not we share that belief, her work should at least convince us to look deeper, to question more. And that’s good enough for her: “If a person can look at a photo I have taken of a wild animal, and feel some sort of stirring of empathy, some sense of connection or commonality, then I feel I have succeeded as a wildlife photographer.”

For more of Melissa’s work visit melissagroo.com

 

 

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