On Episode 74 of The Edge of Innovation, we’re talking with world-renowned nature photographer, writer, & educator, Arthur Morris! He specializes in birds and is author of the book, The Art of Bird Photography.

Show Notes

Arthur Morris’ Website: Birds As Art
Arthur Morris’ Blog
Find Arthur Morris on Facebook
Find Arthur Morris on Twitter
Information for the Birds As Art Instructional Photo Tours
About Arthur Morris & Birds As Art
The Birds As Art Online Photography Store
Buy Arthur Morris’ book, The Art of Bird Photography, online here:
Arthur Morris’ Book, Shorebirds: Beautiful Beachcombers
Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens, New York City
Forest Park, New York City
South Shore Audubon Society
New York City Audubon Society
Photographer Milton Heiberg
Birds: American Kestrel
Birds: Marbled Godwit
Birds: Least Bittern
Available to Buy: Books, Videos and Training Instruction by Arthur Morris, as well as books by his friends and colleagues
Link to SaviorLabs Assessment

Sections

Introduction to Birds as Art
The Art of Bird Photography by Arthur Morris
Arthur Morris’ Career Before Photography
The College Years
The Elementary School Teaching Years
The First Thrill of Bird Sightings: How It All Began
The Marbled Godwit That Changed His Life
Shorebirds: Arthur’s First Love
Hooked on Birding
“That’s What I Want To Do With My Life”
The Beginning of a Dream: Photographing Birds
More Episodes

The Art of Bird Photography With Arthur Morris

Introduction to Birds as Art

Paul: Hello, everyone. Paul Parisi here with the Edge of Innovation. Today our guest is Arthur Morris. Arthur, are you there?

Arthur: I am here, sir.

Paul: Alright. You may not know who Arthur Morris is, but Arthur Morris came to my attention as I started my hobby of photography. He has a book that is still in print. It’s a fantastic book called Birds as Art and sort of a double meaning there. Art Morris and birds as art. Let me just see if I state this right. Correct me if I’m wrong. So, Arthur is really a professional bird photographer. You’re not a person who photographs professional birds. You are a person who makes money by photographing birds. Is that fair?

Arthur: That’s the plan.

Paul: Okay. I was in the field. What did you call the classes that you do?

Arthur: Birds as Art instructional photo tours. We shortened that IPTs. And one note, Paul, the name of the business is Birds as Art, and there’s a wonderful story behind that. But the first book that I did for Amphoto was The Art of Bird Photography. So, lots of folks refer to it as Birds as Art. But they’re technically incorrect.

The Art of Bird Photography by Arthur Morris

Paul: Okay. Well that’s good. Now, I will say that the book is probably one of the best books I have ever read, bar none. And I’m not saying that just because you’re on the phone. I think I’ve said this to many people. It is so easy to read. It is just a pleasure to read. And then the content is fantastic as well. But it’s very well written. So, if you’re interested in photography in the least, certainly get this book. It will just inspire you, and it’s a joy to read. So that’s what drove me to figure out who this guy was and what he did.

I took this tour here in New England, so I bought that book on encouragement of several people in a photo club I attended. And then I found out you were coming to Boston to do one of your photo tours, and I took that, and it was a joy as well. I’d say, just as we get started here, that Arthur is the quintessential teacher. He’s always taking an opportunity to teach, and that’s so important when you’re trying to improve your photography.

Arthur Morris’ Career Before Photography

Paul: So, let’s dial back to before you were a photographer because you weren’t always a photographer. When you were a kid, were you a photographer?

Arthur: Didn’t know what it was.

Paul: Didn’t know what it was. And what did you go to school for? What were you going to be when you grew up?

Arthur: Well, I guess when I was about four or five, like everybody else, I wanted to be a train engineer or a fireman.

Paul: Did you ever make it to those?

Arthur: Not in the least. And then sometime after that, I had a dream of being a professional athlete, possibly football, but my left knee took care of that. It hurts to this minute. And beyond that, I thought golf would be great. And even today, if I said, boy, if I wasn’t Mr. Famous Bird Photographer, I wouldn’t mind being one of the 20-somethings on tour with the beautiful blond wives and having these amazing careers and competition and… I’m very happy with where I am and who I am.

Paul: Okay.

Arthur: But those were the dreams. And then further on, my Grandma Selma, my dad’s mom, and, I guess, both of my parents sort of guided me towards the career path of being a metallurgical engineer.

Paul: Wow. Okay.

Arthur: I went to Brooklyn Technical High School, and from there, I turned down scholarship offers to MIT and Rensselaer.

Paul: Really. Why, I had no idea.

Arthur: Most people don’t. And then I wound up at Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute, mostly on scholarship. And that was the third-best engineering school in the country at the time.

Paul: Why did you choose Brooklyn over, over MIT or was it just the distance?

Arthur: Probably my mother’s apple pie.

Paul: Ah, okay. Well that’s valid. You were an engineer?

Arthur: Didn’t say that.

Paul: Okay.

The College Years

Arthur: Skipping ahead a bit… So, I went to Brooklyn Polytech, and in Brooklyn Technical High School, where I went to high school, there were no girls at the time. I’d never been on a date, and my mother kept pushing me towards Poly, and once we — Brooklyn Polytechnic. And once that decision was made, she had a friend in the luggage industry whose son was AEP, Alpha Epsilon Pi. So, since I had never had a date, she wanted me to pledge AEPi. Only problem there was that having pledged AEPi, I learned to play bridge and poker. And by my sophomore year, I spent most of my time doing that, rarely going to class, showing up for the mid-terms and finals and doing okay.

So, I went from two terms on the dean’s list to like a middle C. I have all the letters in a little box. “Dear Mr. Morris, congratulations on your scholarship.” Congratulations on this and that. And then, “Dear Mr. Morris, your grades are falling. Your scholarship is in danger.”

I was doing okay, and I felt like I could still get by, but I had to pass physical chemistry. So, I dropped it a couple of times because I wasn’t doing well. And then one term I said, well look, I either have to go to a different school or pass physical chemistry. I was tutored by this kid, Paul Levitz — he’s deceased a couple of years back — and friend Saul Schmulowitz. And they were like two really smart kids. And a third guy. And the three of them tutored me. Saul was in the class, and I studied, and I did the best I could. And I went in for the first exam, and I got a nine.

Paul: Wow. Out of a hundred.

Arthur: Nine out of a hundred. Yeah. So that was the end of that story.

So, I transferred to Brooklyn College, and I decided to become a physical education major. I remember the first year I showed up for counseling. They showed me the courses I needed to graduate, and there were four really hard ones — tests and measurements, physiology of exercise, kinesiology, and one other that I can never remember. And they said, “Oh, you can’t take those in the same term. No one could ever do that. They’re too hard.”

I said, “Listen. I just flunked out of Brooklyn Poly. That will be easy.”

I took the four courses that they said would be impossible, and I actually studied, and I wound up getting four A’s in the four for-credit courses. Then I had taken this one little podunk course, Group Games for Elementary-Age Children. And the guy gave me a B+, and I was plenty pissed off.

So here I was, all set to be a physical education teacher. Last year or two in college, I had been driving a cab in New York City, another little-known fact about Arthur Morris.

The Elementary School Teaching Years

Arthur: And again, Grandma Selma came into play. She knew a guy named Paul Arden who had a cleaning store in the neighborhood and was also principal of an elementary school. So, I got a job at P.S. 299, and soon thereafter, I transferred to P.S. 106.

So, I was teaching gym in this big room. First, I did it for two terms in an actual gym. P.S 299 was a fairly modern school with a gym. And then I got transferred to P.S. 106 and there was no gym there, just a big room. And I forget when I got out of the gym. But at some point, I said — I think it was in 299 — I said, “This is too boring. Put me in the classroom,” even though I wasn’t technically trained to be in the classroom.

So, they stuck me in a room with 38 kids, whatever. And I remember the first morning. There was a little black girl with a big smile. I went to pick up my class, and Kay Cloud smiled and looked at me and said, “Good morning, fatso.”

Paul: Really.

Arthur: So that was my introduction to being an elementary school teacher.

Paul: What grade was that?

Arthur: That was probably fourth or fifth. And I taught fourth or fifth grade in the classroom for probably a good 17, 18 years. Teaching fourth and fifth grade, mostly for 16 or 17 years.

Using Nature Photography in the Elementary School Classroom

Arthur: By the time, in 1983, I started photographing birds.

Paul: Why?

Arthur: So, probably towards the end of my teaching career — no, not even. With a decade to go in my teaching career, I started bringing slides of birds into the classroom and projecting the slides. I remember the first time I did it, Paul. I gave out big sheets of newsprint and some charcoal, and I’d put up a picture of a Snowy Owl, and I put up a picture of a Killdeer. And I gave the kids three minutes to sketch in one of the squares on this big sheet of newsprint. And I can remember the goose pimples I had as I walked around. We were in the ghetto, and the only birds these kids had ever seen was a House Sparrow and a Starling. And the only wildlife they had ever seen was Norway rat running through the schoolyard. And here were these kids just making these beautiful sketches where you could tell what the bird was, and the bird seemed alive. So that was really, really fun.

And then I started developing different curriculum areas.

Paul: What made you do that for a slideshow? What was the trigger point?

Arthur: Oh, I just loved photographing so much, and I had a slide projector.

Paul: Okay. So, you were photographing at the time.

The First Thrill of Bird Sightings: How It All Began

Paul: But what made you pick up a camera? Was it somebody saying, “Here is a camera?” Or had you owned a camera?

Arthur: Oh, what made me pick up…? Okay. I’m sorry. I jumped way ahead in the teaching end of things.

Paul: Sure.

Arthur: To this day, I don’t remember. 1976 or ’77. But one of my big loves was playing three-man basketball. And it was pretty obvious that my three-man basketball career, which never amounted to much, was coming to an end. My left knee was bothering me. My back was starting to bother me. So, I was looking for something to get me outside and maybe walking. So, I asked my dad if I could have his binoculars from World War II, and he sent them to me. They were living in California at the time. And they were so out of alignment that if you looked through the binoculars for more than like 20 seconds, you got a headache that lasted for a couple of days. But it was better than no binoculars, so…

I can remember one year in May — either ’76 or ’77 — I went with my then-wife, Dana, now my former wife, Dana, and my two children to Jamaica Bay Wildlife Refuge in Queens. And as it happened, there was a big migration there, and there were lots of Warblers. And even though the Yellow-Rumped Warbler was the most common one, it was thrilling. I had a book called the Golden Guide, and it was thrilling to see the bird on the page and match it to the bird that was flitting around in the trees. I got all excited. And my family did not.

The flame wasn’t really lit, but I was sort of interested, and I was looking at the Golden Guide. And I should go back and say the reason I got the Golden Guide is that I had been fishing the fall before by the Plumb Beach Bridge in Brooklyn, and I came off the beach at sunrise. I had been fishing several hours through the night for Striped Bass without success that night. And there was a little tide pool, and there was a black and white bird with an orange bill, and it was flying up and down in this pond — just back the forth. And each time it was would go over the pond, it would put its bill in the pond. And every once in a while, it would just go — cha — and grab a Killifish. And it was just mesmerized. I stood there watching it for about a half hour like a tennis match, and it was really, really still, beautiful reflections. So that’s when I grabbed the Golden Guide and found that the bird was a Black Kkimmer.

So now we go ahead a couple of years, and I’m at in May with my family. And I think that was pretty neat, but I didn’t really get hooked. Then in August, I went to Jamaica Bay again by myself, and I took a walk around the west pond, and there was a logbook where people would write down their sightings. So, I had my trusty Golden Guide, and the first line says, “American Kestrel, male.”

I look in the book, and I go, “Oh my gosh. These people are so stupid. They expect me to believe that there’s an orange Falcon with blue wings flying around New York City. That’s ridiculous.”

So, I walked around the pond and in short order, I saw a male American Kestrel with an orange body and blue wings. And he flew into this row of trees, so I followed him. And the next thing I know, some guy in a truck was honking his horn, and he said, “Hey, you, get back here. Don’t you see the signs, Do Not Enter?”

I said, “I’m sorry. I was transfixed by that American Kestrel. I’ll stay on the path.”

And he said to me — name was Bob Cook — he said, “If you’d like to go and get really close to the birds, cross the street and go to the East Pond.”

The Marbled Godwit That Changed His Life

So, the very next morning, I go back there, and I think I still had just my crummy binoculars, my dad’s binoculars from the 2nd World War, and there was a single bird, a single big shorebird sitting on the mud. It turned out to be a Marbled Godwit. Beautiful bird with cinnamon colors and a long bill. And the base on the bill was alabaster pink.

So, I’m standing there and behind me, less than 100 yards is Cross Bay Boulevard, and there is hundreds of trucks and cars thundering by every hour, thousands in a day. 200 yards in front of me are the tracks for the A train and the C train taking tens of thousands of people to and from New York City from Far Rockaway and Rockaway. And then, 500 yards on the other side of the Bay is Kennedy Airport with these huge jetliners from all over the world and cargo planes are landing and taking off, you know, virtually every two minutes, 24 hours a day almost.

And I remember having this thought — Here’s this beautiful bird, and none of these people know it’s here. And as I’ve written in a couple of books — my first book was Shore Birds, Beautiful Beach Combers — I’m pretty sure that I wrote in there something to the effect that, at the time, I had no idea that seeing that single bird, that beautiful Marbled Godwit would change the course of the remainder of my adult life. But that’s exactly what it did and much for the better for me.

Shorebirds: Arthur’s First Love

Paul: So now, at this time, back in ’77, that time frame… You’re very articulate about the type of bird and what it is now. Were you that insightful at that time? Did you know that much about birds or was it just, “Oh, that’s a beautiful bird. I’ll look it up”?

Arthur: Yeah, I had my book, probably, in my hand. I had no clue what I was. And from that moment on, I started going birdwatching every day.

Paul: Wow. So you really got hooked on the birds.

Arthur: I got hooked at the bird and the birds, and shorebirds became my first love. They exhibit a variety of different plumages each year. They have different plumage when they’re young birds, so you can age them. And they undertake these fantastic migrations. Most of the shorebirds that visit New York City breed just below or just above the Arctic Circle, and many of them get down to South America for the winter. And a good number of them get down to Tierra del Fuego — White Rumped Sandpiper, Pectoral Sandpiper, Hudsonian Godwit. So that was remarkable.

Hooked on Birding

But I just got hooked on birding. And for seven years, I birded ferociously, birding before work and after work. I remember when I was teaching in Queens, and it was May, and I would try to change my prep period to be adjacent to my lunchtime. And I would take my then good binoculars and run to Forest Park for an hour and 45 minutes to see if there were any migrant warblers.

So, I was really hooked. And then probably in the sixth or seventh year of doing all this birding, I met this man named Tom Davis. He was a shorebird fanatic, and I would see him on the pond every day for years in the season, which was July, August, September, October, November. We would cross paths, and he was never talk to me, like two ships passing in the night. He was a well-known birder. He was the voice of the New York City Rare Bird Alert. He birded a lot in South America. And probably after seeing me out there for three or four years and never saying a word, one day I walked by him on the pond, and he said, “Good morning, Artie. How are you?”

And oh my gosh, I was so happy. I went home and told Dana, “Tom Davis is my friend. You wouldn’t believe it. He was down in the mud.”

I asked him to draw me a diagram of Bared Sandpiper, tell me about places to go in Forest Park. And of course, the next week I saw him, and he walked by me again without saying a word.

Paul: Wow. Okay.

Arthur: He was a somewhat mystical character. But when he went out on the pond, he had this huge thing with him about three feet long that looked like some kind of rifle. But it was an old-style telephoto lens called Novaflex. And it was like a sub machine gun with two handles. And I learned later that he focused by moved one of the handles. And this guy was six-foot-nine, 145 pounds. It was quite a sight to see him out there.

And then — I don’t know — after the sixth year, one day it was raining, and he said, “Let me show you my baby album.” And he had a little collection of photographs of the juvenile Sandpipers, Least Sandpipers, Semipalmated, the Short-Billed Dowitcher. And that opened my eyes to photography a bit.

“That’s What I Want To Do With My Life”

And there was another gentleman around named Tony Manzonie. He was an Eastern European immigrant, and it could be 100 degrees at the pond in August, and Tony Manzonie would be there with his heavy brown corduroy coat on and a little 500-millimeter mirror lens. And one day he invited me to a slide program at South Shore Audubon Society. I went in there, and I got in a good seat up in the front. And the first slide is this beautiful bird called Least Bittern. He photographed it at Big Johns Pond at Jamaica Bay, a place that I had been many times, but I’d never had the privilege to see a Least Bittern. And when I saw that picture, that was it.

Paul: Wow.

Arthur: I said, “That’s what I want to do with my life.”

Paul: You see, you said that in your head. Did you go home and tell anybody? Or, you were still working at the time.

Arthur: I was still working. I was still teaching. I was still married to Dana. In 1983, I bought my first telephoto lens on the advice of my good friend, Peter, and I can’t remember his last name. He was a guy that had met from Linnaean Society. His name will probably come to me in a minute. He suggested that I get the Canon 400-millimeter 4.5 lens. So I bought that for about $800 and, I think, a Canon A1 or maybe an AE1. And for seven more years, I went around photographing with what today would just be a little short lens.

And in the beginning, of course, I wanted to photograph the shorebirds, and I took my first roll of film, and I didn’t know anything about exposure, barely knew how to focus. And when I got the film back, I looked at the pictures, and I was hugely disappointed because it was like there were these little specks on the film. Are those the birds?

Paul: Right. It’s like taking a picture of the moon.

Arthur: In pretty short order, I started wearing my old clothes to the East Pond and getting down in the mud and crawling through the mud to get close to the birds. And I got very good at that. And before you know it, the lens focused down to about 12 feet. I was actually getting closer than that to the birds, and I learned that by adding a hollow tube called an extension tube, I could get to about nine feet. And then a least sandpiper looked pretty big in the frame and on the film.

The Beginning of a Dream: Photographing Birds

So, I started making a few decent pictures, and that continued for a couple of years. One year in November there was a Snowy Owl, and I walked up to it at Jones Beach and made a few nice pictures. But I still didn’t know what I was doing. I had taken one course in nature photography at New York City Audubon with a guy named Milton Heiberg, and he taught me some of the basics. And then after that, I had a dream, and it’s amazing how it came true.

More Episodes:

This is Part 1 of our interview with Arthur Morris. You can listen to part 2 here!