About


This is the who, what, when, where and why of my website. If you want to know any more about me or my website, or have any questions or comments, contact me at rhappel@wildportraits.com

Who – I have always loved nature. I studied tropical forests and especially monkeys, first as an undergraduate at New York University, and ultimately in graduate school at Harvard. This research led me to develop a theory of why cercopithecine monkeys evolved bilophodont molars. And I also came to the incredible conclusion with thousands of data points and nearly two years of research that monkeys prefer bananas and chocolate to other foods. I enjoyed the research, but as I watched many of my study organisms and their habitats vanish over the years, I left academia to explore the use of media to raise awareness of wildlife and their habitats.

I spent quite a few years after leaving the ivory tower involved in wildlife recording. Many years ago my series of albums on the Brazilian rainforest were reviewed favorably side by side in Entertainment Weekly with Sting’s latest- I got a B+ and he got a C- grade. One of my recordings from this album series even ended up on a Neil Young album. I think that is the closest I will come to being a rock star, unless my interest in mineral photography somehow tangentially leads to another kind of rock recognition. I collaborated a lot on nature sound recording with Bernie Krause, and developed additional albums under his Wild Sanctuary label. We worked on sound design for museums and other installations.

In the mid 1990’s I had an opportunity to work with John Terres, the former editor of Audubon Magazine, on an early CD-ROM project. We met in North Carolina and focused on his adventures as a naturalist on a nearby farm recounted in his award winning book, From Laurel Hill to Siler’s Bog. This project combined audio, video and photography.

At the same time as working with John Terres, my aunt and uncle moved to North Carolina near where I lived. I am named for my aunt, Ruth Smiley, and have always felt an affinity for her. She spent much of her life photographing nature, and my own love of wildlife was inspired by our early expeditions together. During the four years we both lived in North Carolina, we went for nature walks every weekend and talked about photography. This planted a seed that led to me becoming more and more focused on photography.

Although I continued to work in audio, video and permutations of the two, my focus has gradually narrowed to photography. For the past few years, almost all my work is in still photography.

What – With a name like WildPortraits, I suppose it is pretty obvious what I like to photograph. As you might guess, I don’t specialize in urban architecture. Most of my work is in nature photography, but I also sometimes shoot other subjects. I find that expanding my horizons, shooting street photography or portraits, helps to expand my vision of how I approach wildlife photography. I don’t go anywhere without a camera, and am not afraid to use it.

Most of my blog posts and photos featured on this site will be wildlife related, but I will occasionally include other themes. I will balance between nature stories and photo technique, and an occasional tangent on something not quite either.

When – I started taking pictures when I was very young. The first photo I remember taking was when visiting my dad’s alma mater in Massachusetts, M.I.T. He let me borrow his ancient folding camera, and I accidentally forgot to forward the film. I was fascinated by the image of him standing in front of a building at M.I.T. while at the same time appearing to stand in a pond, which was my next photo. This juxtaposition opened in my mind the ability of photography to combine two images into one surreal new world.

For many years, photography was mainly a way to document my travels and research. My photos were a record of my studies, and often quite literally part of my studies. Of the dozens of rolls of slide film I took in my nearly two years of thesis research in Sierra Leone, West Africa, the majority were either macro photos of fruits they ate next to a ruler, the habitats where they lived, or photos of the monkeys themselves. It took me a while to overcome my attitude about photography being mainly a way to document special events or research.

After a series of mishaps in 1998 losing two rolls of slide film in a row, one to Kodak and one to Fuji, I decided to go digital. The cameras weren’t great then, especially by today’s standards, but the instant feedback taught me more in the first year of shooting than decades of previous photography. That same year I started this website, around the same time as other then fledgling digital photo sites like dpreview. Within a year or so, I posted to the dpreview Nikon forum about my experiences with an early Coolpix, and was at the time the holder of a record for most photos in one year- 60,000.

Once I was no longer adding up the cost of film and development, and could easily erase my mistakes after learning from them, I began to explore with my camera. Where I may have taken one shot before, now I would take the equivalent of a whole roll. I would change my camera angle, aperture, shutter speed, and just about anything else I could think of, plus a few I actually didn’t and were just happy accidents from forgetting a changed camera setting.

But like anything else, once the novelty wore off, I settled into routines. Days would go by where I wouldn’t touch my camera, and I started to lose my inspiration. Then I read an article in the fall of 2010 about a photo a day project that inspired me to start my own.

I did this for a year, and it increased not only my technical skill, but my ability to really look for photo subjects. If every day held a photo, it became a challenge not only to look for a photo, but if necessary to create one. One of the joys of photography is how it forces you to look closer, so I found that I was really looking at everything. This is a gift of intense photography, a hyper awareness and appreciation of nature.

After doing this for a year, since most of these are called 365 projects, I thought I was done, lesson learned. But after taking a year off, I realized there were days when I didn’t take a photo, and my photography suffered for it. So I started up again literally one year after I left off, and have continued ever since. Some days, there are a dozen photos I would like to share, and other days I hate to admit it but the photo just isn’t very good, since I got busy, bored, trite, etc. But the discipline is important.

There is a link on my site to my smugmug site, which includes my daily images and includes more images than I have bandwidth for here.

Now, after many different incarnations, I am relaunching my site as a blog, continuing the adventures in photography I have had for so many years.

Where – Beginning as an undergraduate, I traveled every year to the tropics for 20 years, as part of my research. Monkeys didn’t live in my neighborhood, so it meant a lot of travel to places like Africa to find them. I have archived some of these photos, and they will occasionally make an appearance here. But now most of my photography is done closer to home in the southern Appalachians, especially in North Carolina and Tennessee.

Why – So I am leaving the hardest question for last. Why do I photograph? After many years involved in media that required extensive editing to make sense- sound recordings and videos, I am infatuated with the immediacy of photography. Not to say I sometimes don’t spend time post processing, focus stacking multiple images, or applying the magic of Photoshop to shape the photograph. Lenses and filters are fallible, and what matters to me is a photo that captures what I saw, and more importantly felt, at the time.

I enjoy taking straight nature photos. But I also really enjoy photography that captures things I can’t really see, as an extension of my senses. A fast shutter speed that catches water in motion. A long exposure on a tripod tracing trees moving in the wind. An extreme macro lens that reveals microscopic details of a rock.

Most importantly, photography is a way for me to advocate for the natural world. Even for people who don’t appreciate nature to the extent I do, we are all dependent on the health of our planet for our own existence. I use my photos to tell both positive and negative stories about nature, and the importance of preserving it.

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