Chesapeake Insider

David Harp


A lifelong Marylander, Dave Harp is a well-known freelance photographer based in Cambridge, MD.  His assignments have taken him from the coast of Normandy to western Australia to the tropical rain forests of Panama.

His magazine credits include The New York Times, Smithsonian, Audubon, Sierra, Natural History, Islands, Travel Holiday, and Coastal Living. His book credits include Swanfall, Water’s Way: Life Along the Chesapeake, The Great Marsh: An Intimate Journey into a Chesapeake Wetland, and The Nanticoke: Portrait of a Chesapeake River.

Tell us about your photographic journey and where it all began.

I started photographing when I was about 10 years old. I redeemed coupons from the side of butter boxes to get a camera that took 620 panchromatic film. I have a photograph of me on the bow of a boat with that plastic camera in my hands. My dad was a newspaper editor and an amateur photographer, so he helped me get started with the basics of photography.

We used to go down to the Potomac River to a place called Duck Island, this little island in the middle of the river, and build rafts. It was like a Huckleberry Finn childhood. I always wanted to be on the water. I stayed with photography; in high school I was a yearbook photographer. In college, I studied photography, but I was an English major.

After college, I was the staff photographer for the Hagerstown Morning Herald where my dad worked for many years. I became Washington County’s Director of Tourism after I broke my leg skiing up there. But still, I was using my camera and writing about Washington County.

After that, I went to the Baltimore Sun and became the Sunday Magazine photographer. That’s where I really started photographing the Bay. In 1989, I left the Sun to go freelance and I’ve been independent ever since.

What makes the Chesapeake Bay region special to you?

The Bay landscape is basically water, marsh, trees and sky, and variations of that. I just love marshes. I love being out in marshes. And of course, that’s the landscape of the Bay.

Marsh Hibiscus by Dave Harp

I especially love getting out in a kayak upstream, way up into the headwaters of these streams and guts. That’s where the life is. If you’re a photographer and you’re out in the middle of the water, it’s pretty boring. But when you get close to land, and the Chesapeake is just perfect with 10,000 miles of shoreline, there are so many places to explore.  

Any particular topics that captivate you?

Anything to do with the Bay. You have this very horizontal landscape. So anything that pops up on it is obvious. I love tundra swans - I’ve done a book about them. I love all of the waterfowl, certainly the different types of herons. I love context. Whether it’s a great blue heron, a tundra swan or a crabber, it’s the context of where they are in the landscape that they’re working in.

And of course, getting photos when the light’s good, that’s the real important thing.

Recently, you worked with longtime friend and co-collaborator Tom Horton and Sandy Cannon-Brown to direct and release the documentary film Beautiful Swimmers Revisited. Tell me about that project and a bit about your thought process for revisiting this Bay classic.

Well, Tom and I both knew Willie Warner [the author of Beautiful Swimmers, published in 1976] and we had done a story 10 years ago on the 30th anniversary. And then Sandy Cannon-Brown came to us and said “let’s do a film”. Neither of us had done a film before.

So we looked at the book and then went back to some of the watermen that Willie worked with 40 years ago - Morris Goodwyn Marsh of Smith Island, Grant Corbin of Deal Island. We talked with them, and with scientists. In the film, we basically looked at the blue crab and what we’ve learned about crab management, crab science, crab culture since Willie wrote the book in 1976. It’s not about the book, but it’s inspired by the book. And we took it from there.

What did you learn about the blue crab?

We learned a lot of things. From the science side and the policy side, it can be a sustainable fishery. It is a sustainable fishery. Watermen aren’t the problem. It’s not overfished. The really valuable thing is the winter crab dredge survey that started 25 years ago. We went out with the Virginia survey in the winter and we went out on the Maryland survey. The data over the years give us a good estimate of what to expect the next year. Now it’s not an exact science, it’s not perfect. But if you look at it over a continuum, it’s pretty good. If you use science to establish policy and try to be fair to everybody, then it’s a sustainable fishery. It has to be balanced.

What are your favorite Chesapeake subjects to photograph?

I enjoy the winter migrations and its effect on the landscape. My favorite time to be out is in the winter because the light on the land is just very different. And I love tundra swans. I love getting out and trying to find them. They’re very difficult, very skittish. You have to work at it.

I enjoy the cultural aspects, too. I love visiting the islands and getting out with the watermen - the people boating on the Bay to catch things - the hunters and gatherers. And I especially love just working out of a kayak in a quiet marsh any time of the year. In the spring when the irises are blooming, the fall when the tickseed sunflower comes out. There’s always something happening.

I love watching the way the sun hits something, whether it’s a spider web or Spartina grasses or the water. Or trying to photograph tundra swans and snow geese - you have to get them at first light or they look like white blobs.

What has been your most successful image and how did you create it?

There are several. One is the skipjack fleet in about 1989 when they were all still meeting off Hallow Point for the first day dredging season. This is in the Choptank River. And I was working on a book. And so much of photography is planning. I knew that they would be out there. I knew when sunrise was. I hired a boat, had the right gear and a long lens. And I made a photograph of this fleet.

Skipjack Fleet by Dave Harp

They all used to dredge together for the first few days, getting their gear together and such. And then they would go off and find their favorite spots. But it was right at sunrise and I made two or three photographs that I continue to sell to this day. And there are a few others, but that’s one that stands out.

Do you have favorites places in the Chesapeake region to photograph?

I love Dorchester County [on Maryland’s Eastern Shore]. I love the marshes around Blackwater and the wildlife drive that is part of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. I love the Transquaking and Blackwater Rivers.

I love the islands between Smith and Tangier. They’re changing all of the time. There’s just so much to explore there. I watched the demise of Holland’s Island. I did a little video on that on the last guy born there in 1918. Now, the island is gone.

What advice do you have for taking photos around the Bay region?

Get up early. Time of day is more important to me than just about anything else. Catch that horizontal light on a very horizontal landscape - that early light. And that’s when everything is waking up and feeding.  

If you have the opportunity for longer lenses to photograph birds, that’s a thrill. But even if you have a point and shoot, I think if you get to the right place and take your time and enjoy the moment. Get out of your car. Don’t shoot from your window. That drives me crazy.

I always say to look for elements on the land - those few vertical elements. Look for that lone tree sitting out in the water or the lone tree in the land or birds or boats or watermen. There’s always some element that provides a focal point to photograph the landscape.

And lastly, bring some water and bug spray.

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge

Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge (NWR), located on Maryland's Eastern Shore, attracts a vast number of waterfowl to model Chesapeake Bay tidal wetlands. While primarily a tidal marsh, the refuge also includes a mature pine forest.

Michael Land

Mike is an active advocate for the Chesapeake Bay and enjoys photographing the Chesapeake's special places.

August 29, 2016

Main image: Michael Land / National Park Service
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