Oldie But Goodie « Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

Oldie But Goodie

Oldie But Goodie

While searching online for information on the recent death of my old friend Bob Elliot Kutner the other day (scroll down here for info on that), I came across an old (2005) interview that I did for James Morrissey for The Nature, Wildlife and Pet Photography Forum and wanted to share an adapted and somewhat updated version here with you. You can find the original interview by James along with four images here.

Artist Showcase: Artie Morris by James Morrissey

About Artie Morris

JM: Can you tell me about yourself?

AM: I had a very nice childhood. I did not realize how messed up my childhood was until I was an adult 🙂 When I was a kid, I had a whole lot of fun.

I had no early photographic interests. My parents had no interest in nature. I lived in Brooklyn. When I was a young boy, my great aunt Alice and my great uncle Frank would go to Keyport, New Jersey where my great grandma Smith lived. By the time, I was 12 or 13 I would go by myself to Keyport with my Alice and Frank to a Great Grandma Smith’s home. I would collect butterflies, bugs, and box turtles. I used to cut the huge lawn. This was my first experience in nature. I would have told you that bird watching was for sissies when I was young.

JM: What brought you to photography then?

AM: I had two daughters by my first marriage and I wanted to take pictures of them… I purchased a Canon AE-1 and was doing snap shots of the kids and some scenics when I went on vacation. I shot perhaps 10 rolls of film during the first few years that I owned the camera. People had told me in the past, when I was in Junior HS, that I was artistically talented, but I had pretty much ignored it; whatever talent I had had lain dormant within me. In 1976, when I was in my early 30s, I started birding as a means of exercise as my knees were shot and my back was not in great shape.

I was inspired by a fellow named Bob Elliot Kutner from the South Shore Audubon Society in Long Island, NY. He was infectiously enthusiastic. He met a bunch of teachers from my school–including my late-wife Elaine Belsky-Morris and invited himself to our school and did an assembly program with his back-yard movies of Warblers. They were terrible, but he was so into it that it rubbed off. I wound up doing a few field trips with him, and that is how I got started.

JM: So your photographic education started well after you were a professional with the NYC Board of Education?

AM: Yes. I had the camera, but rarely used it. Early on I was influenced by two local guys – Tom Davis, who is dead, and an older Eastern European man named Tony Manzoni. They were both into photography. Tom was a recluse – 6′ 9”, 149 lbs. One time he took out his book of ‘baby pictures.’ They were juvenile shorebirds; he called them his “babies.” After I went to a slide show by Toni Manzoni, I said, “I can do that.” Then, I went out and purchased the Canon 400 f/4.5 FD lens.

Birding was something that developed in me over time after many seeds had been planted in my brain. The first seed was planted by Elliot Kutner, and the next by Tom Davis. I used to work at a pool club in Brooklyn and I would see Great Egrets and Snowy Egrets fishing. After seven years I was getting bored with just birding and took up photography as the next step.

My first marriage–to Dana–ended in 1985 after 18 years. We had two beautiful daughters – Jennifer and Alissa. Soon after my divorce, I married Elaine Belsky, a fellow teacher who had been my best friend for 15 years. I talked her into getting out of teaching in 1992. We got a sabbatical from the board of education, bought a small motor home, and drove twice around North America. Being married to Elaine was like being in heaven. After the sabbatical we returned home on June 30, 1993. If anyone had told me that she was going to find a lump in her left breast the next day and that she would be dead in 15 months, I would have fallen off my chair laughing. I would have said, “I am Artie Morris and this does not happen to me. I am blessed with complete happiness.” That is, however, exactly what happened. It was an horrific blow to me. Elaine died peacefully at home on November 20, 1994. I was a huge mess for seven years.

Ten days after Elaine died, I flew to Bosque Del Apache NWR in New Mexico and began the long, slow process of healing. It took me more than 7 years to get to the point where I could look back and think about how wonderful she was without crying. It was hard for a long time. Once I began doing The Work of Byron Katie I realized however that I had actively chosen to be a martyr. I was doing my best…. Doing the work brought me to peace over Elaine’s death.

A few years after Elaine’s passing I moved from Deltona, FL down to Indian Lake Estates. In about 1998 I hired my older daughter Jennifer as the Executive Director of BIRDS AS ART; her husband, Erik, works as a biologist at a nearby state park. They are the proud parents of my first two grandchildren.

JM: How do you feel that Elaine’s death affected your photography?

AM: Elaine had great confidence that I would succeed as a professional photographer. Many wives might say, “Oh my God, he is crazy. He gets up at 5 in the morning and stays out all day. He is nuts.” Elaine would say, “My Arthur. He gets up at 4 in the morning and he works so hard, and he stays out all day and photographs. He is going to be the best bird photographer in the world some day.” Her support meant the world to me. She was the first person to tell me, “You are good, you are handsome, you are loyal, you are loving, and you are smart.” I have done a lot of work since then and learned that I am all of those things and more.

JM: A lot of people never get to that point.

AM: I have done a lot of great self-help stuff. There is a great book entitled “Seeing Your Life Through New Eyes.” In addition, as I mentioned above, I have studied The Work of Byron Katie; her program, “Loving What Is” helped me find a great degree of peace.

JM: What drives you?

AM: Primarily, the fact that bird photography is fun. It is what I love to do. On another level, I have realized that my father influenced me positively in a convoluted way. He was a WWII veteran who had been severely injured on Okinawa; he lost his right arm and his left hung by a thread at one point. He spent 19 months in the hospital. He was bitter about his war injuries and we did not have a good relationship. He rarely had anything nice to say to me as I was growing up. I sometimes say somewhat jokingly that the nicest thing that he ever said to me was “Take out the damned garbage.” I didn’t realize how deeply this affected me until I was in my forties.

Why did I want to be the best teacher in the district? Why would I rather have died than lose a game of 3-man basketball? Why did I practice golf for 12 hours every day while playing on my college team? With everything that I have ever done, I have been driven to push myself to the max. In middle adulthood I realized that all along I had been trying to get people to say the nice things about me that my father never could or did. A few years before his death, I wrote him and thanked him for withholding praise, for being responsible for so much of my success. I thanked him for being a mean son of a bitch. My sister Arna read the letter to him and told me that he had a huge smile on his face. My Dad never quit. He worked in the same luggage store for more than 30 years and wound up as the manager. Many folks would have simply stayed home and collected their disability payments. I know that I got my determination from him. He was well respected in the industry. Stamps were his hobby. I can remember seeing him in the basement holding up the little squares of perforated paper and examining them with a magnifier. When I turned to photography and found myself sitting for hours on end editing slides with a loupe I chuckled at the similarities.

I am now at the point that I know I have an incredibly wonderful life. I don’t have the need for approval or the need for people to say nice things about me. When it happens though, it is certainly a nice part of the job.

Part of me is still driven to prove Elaine right. When I was in my 20s and 30s, I felt that I got ripped off in that I had no great talent. I would listen to Simon and Garfunkel singing some great song, or I would go to a show and watch talented people perform. I was envious. I wished that I had a talent. I started doing bird photography in 1983 and soon afterwards began doing slideshows. I would click up one of my images onto the screen, and people would ooh and ah. It was amazing; I was able to move people. I started adding humor to my shows. Since then, I have done more than 250 programs. When people marvel at my images or laugh at my jokes, it sure feels good.

JM: What kind of slideshows were these?

AM: As you know, I am a Canon contract photographer, an Explorer of Light. It is a wonderful program and they are quite generous to a large number of photographers worldwide. People call me up and say, “We would like you to speak at this or that festival or event.” I offer a variety of photography how-to and general interest programs. As long as we get 100 folks in the room Canon sponsors these speaking engagements. When people ask me how it all got started I trace it all back to the first slideshow I did in 1985 for the Queens County Bird Club. I got paid 10 dollars. Every bit of networking can be traced to that first show. It just grew.

At some point I began adding humor to my shows. One time, I spoke before 700 or 800 people in Cape May, NJ, Paul Kerlinger, the director of Cape May Bird Observatory, got up and said, “This is Artie Morris. It is hard to tell if he is one of the best bird photographers in the world or a standup comedian.” It helped that I had had a few whiskey sours before that program…. Now, I have spoken several times to audiences of between 400 and 700 people and have always found them to be enthralled with both the photographs and with the spiel. It was great to discover that I had had these gifts. And it was quite a thrill that to discover them rather late in life.

JM: I would imagine that you always had to be on stage when you were a teacher.

AM: To a degree teachers are on stage, but teaching was less satisfying and was much harder work, much harder than photography. The first 6 or 7 years I did not know what I was doing. For the 10 years after that I was a great teacher, but for the last 6 or 7 years I was burned out. Now I speak at a lot of birding and photography festivals. I get paid for these appearances and speaking has become an important part of my business. In addition to my honorarium, I have a sales table for the books, prints and photo accessories that we peddle. And I always get a plane ticket and a motel room for a few nights. Speaking engagements have become a great source of income for me, and I enjoy doing them immensely.

Tours are another facet of my business that I thoroughly enjoy. At a NANPA conference I once heard my friend John Shaw say, “If you think that you are going to make any decent money leading tours, forget it.” But he talks about it in terms of leading a tour for a big tour company and getting a free trip and $150-$200 a day. The trips are good ones and he gets to make lots of great images, but the money is simply not there. Not to worry, John Shaw is one of the world’s great nature photographers and he makes money in other ways.

Now, there is no question about it, if you go on one of those expensive tours they can take you to great places, places where I could not go because of the complex logistics involved. You are, however, paying those big tour companies for a large color catalog and a staff of 25 people. If you were going to Bosque with me you will learn a hell of a lot more from me than you would by joining a glitzy company tour. I put my heart and soul into my IPTs (Instructional Photo Tours). Ellen Anon, a very competent instructor and Photoshop expert, helped me out for years and now Robert O’Toole, a talented young photographer from LA helps me out on others. I have an amazing amount of repeat business. 50-60% of the folks that join us wind up coming back for more. If you are getting people back, it means that they are loving the experience and that you are doing things right.

I push myself because I love what I do. I am a people-person and I enjoy photographing with others. I would rather photograph with a group than by myself.

JM: This makes you very different from a lot of other nature photographers.

AM: Yes, I know. A lot of photographers need solitude. I don’t even like photographing by myself. I almost never do it.

Another thing about my chosen profession is that the schedule can be somewhat grueling. The way things worked out, I had been killing myself with Oreo cookies for 40 years (and doing a great job of it!) I met a doctor from San Diego who changed my life by getting me on a program of good nutrition, exercise, and a healthier lifestyle. I have been following this program for 15 years now; working with Dr. Cliff Oliver has enabled me to maintain a grueling pace.

Another big factor in my success has been my determination (thanks Dad!) It is the number one factor – even above self-promotion and the quality of my images. If you believe you can do it, then you can and will do it. Many people say “Oh, it is so hard to break into professional photography.” I say “Good. Fine. Keep on believing that.”

Another thing in the same vein: People read the original “The Art of Bird Photography,” and say, “Oh. I am going to find out how Art photographs birds.” People who like basket weaving might say, “Oh, look, here’s Millie Thompson’s book on the best basket weaving techniques.” Instead, folks need to look into the hearts and souls of those who have achieved great success. In every case they will find that those who have made it were driven to succeed and that they worked very hard to achieve that success.

JM: I know that when I learn more about the individual it does amazing things for me in terms of appreciating their work and their success.

AM: That makes sense to me. I forgot to mention that whenever I push the shutter button I do it to create something beautiful, something dramatic. The greatest compliment that you can get is when others are moved by your work. I never push the shutter button thinking, “This will be good for a two-page spread because they will have room for text.” I never shoot for the market. I make images to please myself. Looking at the overall picture, it makes me laugh: I am just a regular Jewish kid from Brooklyn. I don’t have any more talent than the next person. I just like to work hard and have been doing that for nearly three decades now.

JM: You have had such longevity. You are doing something right – I am not sure if you even know what it is.

AM: Oh, I know what it is. Busting my hump and working hard. That’s all it is. That, and loving what I do. Why do I love the birds so much? I don’t know for sure. They are free, they can fly, and they are colorful. There are so many species (identification is often a challenge) and lots of great behaviors to learn about and photograph. They migrate incredible distances, even the tiniest ones. Those are all the standard answers, but what matters to me is that they have gotten into my heart and into my soul. It is my passion to be out with them. I went out with a friend to DeSoto yesterday morning. I came home and processed the pictures. I said, “Oh My God. I made so many great pictures – and in only two hours. Photographing birds is a kick and I just love it.

I have been so, so blessed. I am going to Galapagos next week for the first time. I am starting to like the international trips. I lead most of them for others and don’t make a cent. I do get to go to great places, and I strive to make the trips educational for the participants. I am returning to the Galapagos next year and will visit Antarctica for the first time in 2007.

Added note: my trips to the Galapagos, to Antarctica, to Midway, the Wild Britain cruise that I did a few years back, my trips to Africa, to Norway, and most recently to Japan have all been among the great highlights of my life.

I’d be glad to answer any questions below.

25 comments to Oldie But Goodie

  • yes clean ken and ken cornett are the same

  • avatar cheapo

    That was a pretty special read right there Artie. Thank you for posting it up. 🙂

  • Hi Art: No I have never been on your IPT – Im a Canadian eh! and it is too far to travel with the price of everything. But I enjoy your photography and your comments.

  • Hi Art, thanks for sharing such a great article. A joy to read. Lots of lessons in there for all of us. I hope I can be lucky enough to be in one of your IPT some day. Best.

  • Hi Art: Im the Ken with the Canadian Flag in the background. I am at a different computer and I do not have the photo to accompany my writings. And Yes I certainly support your products, a) becuase of your great website but b) they are just great material. Keep producing them.

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Here or on BPN??? Many thanks for your support. But to confirm, you have never been on an IPT???

      • avatar Bruce Gove

        I’ve posted several images in the past. I buy my stuff from BPN, and I regularly read your blog. I’ve never been on an IPT, but would like to sometime. I live in Northern CA. Would like to make the Bosque trip one of these days. I still work full time, and I’m 67…

        • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

          Hi Bruce, I am confused when you say that you “buy stuff from BPN.” BPN does not have a store. Please check and let me know via e-mail. Thanks!

  • avatar Bruce Gove

    Hi Artie,
    I really enjoyed reading this article. You’ve led an incredible life, and it’s easy to see that your tireless work ethic, as well as your wonderful images have inspired many photographers. Thanks for what you do.

    Bruce Gove

  • avatar graham hedrick

    Art, I and the bird photography industry are so lucky to have you as an inspiration. One day, I hope to take a workshop from you. Take care, Graham Hedrick.

  • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

    And thanks to Tom and Ted for their very kind words. And whaddya know? A blog post with no pictures!

  • avatar Ted Willcox

    What a Great read!!!

  • What a fun read! Art, your hard work is evident in your many bulletins & blogs. I admire your energy, and your talent.

  • Hi Art: A great interview and background of yourself that I had no idea. I am not too sure how many people understand the loss of a loved one can take so long to heal without tears. Mother died in 1989 – took 5 years with councilling – to heal yet only 2 or 3 weeks ago talking to someone about her, just mentioning a few key words brought the tears back – one never really heals completely but can heal to continue their life.

    What a remarkable background – I am a retired teacher gone back to work for a bit, but your comments about people should look into the heart and soul of the successful people and that they were driven by hard work – is the basis of what everone should try and achieve. Many people think and will look at the colour of a person’s skin first but if you look into anyone’s heart and sould you will find out who that person really is and their hard work lead them to success.

    You are definitely a gregarious person – as are the Canada Geese – working with people and sharing all your experience and expertise has benefited everyone.

    You are a remarkable individual and thank you for sharing your interview – hopefully it is a model for the younger generations that yes you need a conviction and determination for achieving and achieve you will if you put the hard work and effort into it.

    All the best Art

    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hi Ken, You name is very familiar. Me thinks that you have been on a IPT…. Glad that you enjoyed. Here’s a great lesson on grief that I learned: Grief is like ocean waves. At first the waves are so high and come so quickly that you are sure that you will drown. Over time, the height of the waves subsides and the waves become farther and farther apart. But still they come.

      As for the heart and soul and hard work theory, I believe that successful folks would be successful no matter there chosen discipline….. Thanks for your kind words. They too brought a tear to my eyes.

  • avatar taylor maxwell

    Thanks for sharing this. Your images are a blessing.

  • Fantastic interview. I’ve only read the first part, can’t wait to read the rest
    (pizza coming…priorities).

    I remember when I was going to Florida and some of my friends said to ‘enjoy your vacation’. I told them this wasn’t a vacation, this was work…fun work, but still work.

    That’s one of the points I try to get across the new bird photographers, you really have to put some blood, sweat and tears into this if you want personal success.

    There’s more to this than just showing up at a spot and clicking the shutter.

    Whenever I talk bird photography, I think every other sentence has your name it, cause when
    I show someone something, I tell them my inspiration and source, you.

    More people should see you at one of your lectures/slideshows because it truly is an experience. I did find a couple minutes of you giving a slideshow on youtube, which was great, but also sad cause I wanted to see more.

    You should come out with a t-shirt that says ‘Morris Maniac’…I’d buy one.


    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Hope that you enjoyed the pizza. Agree on the effort part. Lots of folks think that if they go out and buy an $8000 lens and a $4000 camera body that that will make them a better photographer. Study and hard work are the ticket, not expensive gear….

      Thanks for you kind words. I will consider some sort of T-shirt. The one I have always thought of would say, “I Survived a BIRDS AS ART Instructional Photo-Tour.”

  • avatar Loren Charif

    Artie –

    Thanks for publishing this interview; it gives us great insight and even more appreciation of you, what you do, and how you do it.

    Condolences on the loss of your dear friend.

    Looking forward to seeing you next week in Naples.


    • avatar Arthur Morris/BIRDS AS ART

      Thanks on all counts. Elliot was probably 90 or more :). See you at F3C soon; my keynote is on Saturday night. Will you be on the field trip to Tigertail Beach?