Sandhill cranes who courted near Petersburg last spring are now immortalized in four of Nancy A. Dowling's photographs that will hang in the Crawford County Administration Building's Artists' Gallery beginning in mid-March.
Dowling carries her digital camera and four lenses wherever she goes. One misty spring morning, she was headed to work in the Crawford County Courthouse, where she is Register in Probate/Juvenile Court Clerk. As she approached the Kickapoo River, south of Gays Mills, she thought she heard geese. However, what her camera found was a pair of cranes. The series of photos that resulted will hang in the gallery just down the hall from artist Glenn Donovan's kinetic statue, Courting Crane.
If a bird or animal is going to be there for a while, Dowling will change the lens or the camera's shutter speed, snapping multiple photographs and choosing the best later. In one of the photos in the gallery, a toad shares a birdbath with a ceramic bird. The toad was on the ground when Dowling found him, but he allowed her to lift him into the birdbath.
"Then he put his little fingers out and stood there forever," she recalls.
Some of the photographs result from Dowling's knowledge of wildlife. Another toad, in a very tight close-up, stares directly at the viewer from an overhang of sedum. There were always toads in the sedum at the edge of a pond at her former home, she recalls.
Luck sometimes plays a part in her work. In the photograph she calls "my signature picture," a male goldfinch perches on a sunflower, intent on something to his left. He stayed long enough for Dowling to snap several photos, but it wasn't until she looked at all of them later that she realized what had kept him so still: a bug that was whetting his appetite. Technique also plays a part in Dowling’s work. As she often does, she was using a telephoto lens that focused so tightly on the bird that the background was completely blurred. It is an effect that can make people mistake the picture for a painting, she says.
A macro (close-up) lens allows her to take pictures as close as a foot or two from her subject without blurring it.
"I'm always crawling through the grass," Dowling says. "That's where the cool stuff is, but people don't look down enough."
When her husband, Bob, comes across her sprawling on the ground, he'll give her a what-the-heck-are-you-doing-now look. However, Bob also helps Nancy with her photography hobby. Though he'd rather be fishing, he sometimes takes her out in his motorboat to find herons or drift up to a water lily so that she can take close-ups.
Another aid to her hobby is her ‘shooting’ partner, Cathy Lund. The two women, friends since high school, have gone to professional photography seminars together and taken day trips to shoot photographs. They give each other assignments before going out to experiment. The photo of moving water in the gallery show was the result of one of these assignments, when the women put their cameras on tripods and played around with different settings.
Dowling is serious about her art and has won almost a dozen awards for it. She is the official photographer for the Crawford County Fair, but she isn't interested in making photography a business.
"I don't want to lose the fun of it," she explains.
The photographs in the show will be for sale, but half of the net profits will go to the Faith in Action organization, whose director is her shooting partner. When Lund came to the courthouse to help choose photos for the show, she brought along Chinese takeout. Dowling's fortune cookie read, "To receive, you must first give."
Dowling's show, ‘Through the Lens,’ will open in the Crawford County Administration Building, 220 N. Beaumont Rd., Prairie du Chien, with a reception on Thursday, March14, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. The photographs will hang in the Artists' Gallery until June 7. The building is open on weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.