An emerald green spring leaf blown up to reveal tiny dew drops; an orange, freeze-framed, splashing into water; a bigger than life cheetah caught mid-stride; a sun-drenched dome on an ancient Greek Isle; a glacial crystal resting on black volcanic rock. Gary Whalen of GD Whalen Photography walks the world with camera in hand, drawing attention to the natural landscape and everything it supports. With both macro and large-format techniques, he captures the essence of his subjects. Life, big and small, comes into sharp focus for the viewer when observing Whalen’s very personal style of photography.
“My eye is drawn to the little things people walk by and don’t notice,” Whalen says. His lifelong love of photography is matched by a passion for drawing attention to both the beauty and the vulnerability of the planet.
“All my animal photos are animals shot in the wild,” he says. “I love being out there in nature—Africa, Alaska, Iceland—wherever it takes me. I love the peace of it, the sounds of it, the smells of it. Lately, I have to look hard to find a natural landscape.”
An avid photographer since he started snapping pictures as a kid with a Kodak Instamatic, the artist confesses he’s a bit of an introvert, leading him to vacillate between the landscape and portrait worlds.
“I hung my hat on portraiture, but it involved dealing with people’s idiosyncrasies,” he admits. “I decided to do what I really have a passion for, creating images of the earth that really resonate with people. Animals are so pure; there’s nothing malicious about them. We have to do a better job of taking care of them.”
Sustainability is a priority for Whalen, who is based in the mountain city of Asheville, North Carolina, where he’s surrounded by nature. He says he got rid of his darkroom in college because the chemicals were terrible for the environment. And he believes that collecting photographic art should be an investment that brings decades of enjoyment to multiple generations. To ensure that long-term return, he offers clients the Crystal Archival Gallery Print—a piece preserved using the face-mounting process.
“The typical lifetime for unprotected art is approximately 10 years,” he notes. “Face mounting maintains it in pristine condition for well over 100 years. The photograph is printed on very thin metallic paper and coated with a gallery-quality acrylic. It’s a very difficult process employed by only a handful of folks in the country.”
The process encapsulates the image, providing protection from dust, moisture and 97% of UV rays; it also prevents the shifting of colors, enabling a display true to the image’s original brilliance and beauty over time.
“I wouldn’t do this unless I could guarantee it would last a lifetime,” says Whalen. “And you can’t compete with the color saturation and clarity.”
Whalen points out that face mounting is just one facet of his craft. It’s important to him that collectors understand his overarching process.
“I take the picture, I print the picture, I do the face mounting,” he says. “Nothing goes to the customer that isn’t touched by me. I do it all myself. I don’t oversaturate my work, nothing is added or taken away. My pictures are honest—what you see is what I saw.”
Whalen feels fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with some of the profession’s best photographic equipment—brands such as Leica, Hasselblad, Pentax, Arca-Swiss, Zeiss and Schneider.
“I’ve had great lenses and great cameras,” he says. “But after all these years, I realized that, honestly, a great shot or great image comes down to content. Content is king.”
And his film of choice is large-format, which produces images with very high resolution that in turn can be blown up to create a stronger impact.
Whalen personalizes each print with a note card, describing his thought process as he seeks and frames his content. Here is a sample of his musing from a piece titled Old Man River: “I took this image at Caddo Lake in Texas. Boating through this incredible place takes your imagination back to the time of the dinosaurs. Hearing your paddle swishing through the water with only the sight of these magnificent, moss-covered cypress trees is like time travel. Caddo Lake is stunning, especially in the fall when the cypress trees turn a reddish-brown color.”
“I like to share what was on my mind while I was taking the picture, to help people connect,” he concludes. *
Wendy Swat Snyder is a Charleston-based freelance writer (sweetgrassandgrits.com).