N.C. photographers discover special beauty of Congaree National Park as artists-in-residence

jholleman@thestate.comFebruary 16, 2014 

  • If you go

    James and Jenny Tarpley, owners of Visio Photography in Marion, N.C., will present a program on their stint as artists-in-residence at Congaree National Park.

    When: 6:30 p.m., Feb. 20

    Where: Breed Leadership Center, Room 103, Columbia College, 1301 Columbia College Drive, Columbia

    Taking photos in Congaree

    Their advice to photographers in the park: When you decide to take a photo in a certain location, walk around the spot as much as you can, checking out all of the angles. Because of the thick tree canopy, the light and shadows are different with each new step in any direction.

As professional photographers, Jenny and James Tarpley fantasized about getting an artists-in-residence grant for one of the spectacular national parks out west.

They loved the concept of spending a month capturing images in the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone or Yosemite.

Then the couple from Marion, N.C., visited Congaree National Park, giving in to their curiosity and following the signs off I-26 to the park in southern Richland County. Suddenly, their dream changed time zones.

The timing of their trip last year was perfect. Congaree was about to start its own artist-in-residence program. They applied and were the first artists selected. After spending nearly a month enveloped in the park’s ethereal beauty, they now are among its most ardent fans.

“The more time we spent in Congaree, the more we were impressed,” James Tarpley said. “I post on a couple of photography groups (online). They’re probably sick of me talking about the park by now.”

Because their 11-year-old daughter was with them, they opted not to stay in the primitive bunkhouse for researchers at Congaree. Instead, they stayed in one of the cabins at Poinsett State Park in Sumter County, leaving before sunrise and arriving back after dark most days so they could get that ideal morning and evening light. (Artists-in-residence at Congaree don’t get paid, but they do get treated like royalty by the park staff.)

“The biggest challenge with Congaree is there aren’t those wide open vistas,” said James, who tries to travel to Yellowstone National Park every year. “Out there (in the west), you can pull up to any vista and take a photo that looks like a postcard.

“It’s different in Congaree. You have to get in the midst of it, isolating certain trees, finding order in the chaos. … It was creative time for us, a way to connect science and nature with art.”

They were surprised by the vastness of the park. The 25 miles of hiking trails cover only a small portion of the park’s 27,000 acres, which includes about 11,000 acres of old-growth forest. The Tarpleys got a chance to explore with park experts among some of the oldest, largest trees in a section accessible only by boat up the Congaree River.

“I was surprised that there was that much undisturbed, protected land just 25 minutes from Columbia,” James said. “And I was surprised that we have trees like that on the east coast.”

The park is home to numerous national record trees – the tallest of their species. Among the tallest trees in park are a 167-foot loblolly pine, a 157-foot sweet gum and a 154-foot cherrybark oak. The most impressive from ground level, however, might be the massive bald cypress, some more than 25 feet in circumference at the base.

Big trees in the middle of a forest, however, are difficult to photograph. Capturing images in what many locals still refer to as “the swamp” is all about shadows and back light. Unlike so many parks, there isn’t a quintessential photograph of Congaree, but part of the deal for the artists-in-residence program was presenting two photos for the park’s permanent collection.

James and Jenny, whose professional work can be seen at www.visiophotography.com, have struggled with which photos they should offer.

The couple also led a wildlife photography hike, and they’re presenting at slide show and discussion about their Congaree experience Feb. 20 at Columbia College.

The Tarpleys project received support from the North Carolina Arts Council, an agency funded by the State of North Carolina, the Burke Arts Council, the Caldwell Arts Council, the United Arts Council of Catawba County, the Rock School Arts Foundation, the Hiddenite Center and McDowell Arts Council Association.

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