Wildlife photographer Geoff Coe ’74 finds a career that really clicks
by Matt Getty
July 1, 2011
Geoff Coe ’74 will be traveling the East Coast with images like “Egret Lake” at several art fairs this summer. For a full schedule of his appearances, visit www.wildimagesfla.com.
To look at one of Geoff Coe ’74’s most celebrated photos, you’d swear he was teaching birds ballet. How else can you explain capturing a snowy egret and a reddish egret dancing across the surface of the water in perfect unison in “Egret Lake”?
Training wild birds to dance may be impossible, but the real story behind that shot—and Coe’s career as an award-winning wildlife photographer—is almost as unlikely, tracing a winding path from a geology graduate program to a bored afternoon kayaking in Fort Myers, Fla.
Coe first stepped behind the camera as a graduate student in the mid-1970s, when his faculty advisor at Johns Hopkins University asked him to include some photos in a geological research presentation. “I said, ‘I don’t know anything about photography. I don’t even have a camera,’ ” Coe recalls with a laugh. “He said, ‘Well, you better figure that out.’ ”
After borrowing a camera and snapping some pictures, Coe entered a darkroom for the first time and was hooked. “When I saw the image start to come up on the paper, the hair went up on the back of my neck,” he says. “I thought, ‘This is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen.’ ”
A few weeks later, Coe withdrew from graduate school and—with no training—launched his photography career. After returning to Carlisle, taking a correspondence course in photography and doing some freelancing, he moved to Washington, D.C., where a job as the editor for the Washington Post Company’s in-house magazine allowed him to learn from some of the nation’s best photojournalists.
“I’ve always loved talking to photographers about how they do their work,” says Coe. “I learn best when I’m at the side of someone who’s really good at what they’re doing.”
Despite his success as a commercial photographer, it took more than two decades and a move to Fort Myers, Fla., before Coe found his true calling. An experienced whitewater kayaker, Coe found that the slow pace of Florida’s rivers left something to be desired. “I’d go kayaking out here on flat water, and frankly, I was very bored,” he explains. “So I thought, ‘Hey, why not take my camera out here and see if I can get some good photos?’ ”
Coe took his first shots of birds and other animals along the waterways in 2004, but he wasn’t yet ready to capture images like “Egret Lake,” because, as he puts it, “I didn’t really know anything about birds.” His solution? Learn.
“It’s been a really interesting process,” says Coe. “I would shoot for an hour or two, paddle back to shore and then get some books to see what I’d photographed. I’d learn more about the animals and the environment, go out take more photographs and then read more. One activity fed into the other, and soon I was taking better photographs, because I began to understand my subjects.”
So when he was snapping away at a reddish egret two years ago and noticed a snowy egret 50 yards away, Coe knew exactly what to do. Having read that snowy egrets steal food and that reddish egrets are antisocial hunters, he understood immediately that an interesting exchange was just moments way.
“Conflict makes for great photographs,” he explained. “So when I saw the snowy egret land nearby, I made sure I was in the best possible position. Then I focused on that reddish egret, so that when the thief flew over I’d be ready. Their interaction lasted less than two seconds, but I was able to get a couple of really nice images.”
That approach has earned Coe a host of “nice images” ranging from strutting blue herons to mating manatees that all look as if they’re somehow posing for his lens. Having won kudos from organizations like the North American Nature Photography Association, he established his company, Wild Images Florida, in 2008 and now makes his living selling prints online and through art fairs around the country.
Yet, as stunning as the images he captures are, Coe insists that the process is as rewarding as the product. “Every animal has some kind of story that tells you how it might behave in certain circumstances,” he explains. “That’s what makes this work fascinating—you get to figure that stuff out.”
View an audio slideshow in which Geoff Coe ’74 explains how he captures some of his more striking shots.
Coe will be traveling the East Coast with images like “Egret Lake” at several art fairs this summer. Find out more about his schedule of his appearances.