...Like An Eagle
John Pezzenti's Freedom Book

They recognize him, the eagles. Not all of them, of course, but enough of them so that he can get close...and closer still. "I learned that eagles can recognize a face for over 20 years," John Pezzenti, Jr. says. "And they're territorial, they'll return to a tree where they nested the year before. So I'd go back, knowing that the eagle is going to nest there, and it recognizes me and knows I didn't do anything bad the year before, so it allows me, each year, to get a little closer."

Many of the photos in Pezzenti's new book, The American Eagle, scheduled to be published next month by Viking Studio, are the result of his ability to get "a little closer." The book is the culmination of 20 years of photography in 28 states, and, like his previous book, Alaska, A Photographic Journey Through the Last Wilderness, it is not only a tribute to its subject, but also to Pezzenti's dedication. The American Eagle is in part the chronicle of the photographer's adventures as well as the story of the eagles' survival.

The American bald eagle was put on the endangered species list in 1967, when their numbers had dwindled to 400. Today the eagles are some 6000 strong and off the list, though still categorized as protected birds. "The effects of DDT on their reproduction caused the problems," Pezzenti says, "but now, because of successful efforts to clean up the air and water, they're doing quite well."

Pezzenti began photographing eagles for both the simplest and most complex of reasons. "This might sound corny," he says, "but eagles represented the freedom of America to me, and at the time I started photographing them, their scarcity meant the scarcity of American freedom." From that starting point, his photography of eagles became a quest.

"My book is not a scientific document on bald eagles," Pezzenti says, "but it has just enough flavor and information so readers can understand what has happened." Pezzenti credits "all the incredibly wonderful biologists, scientists, and others who helped bring the eagles back" for this story of survival and resurgence.

Pezzenti photographed eagles in locations from Maine to Florida, Alaska to the Colorado River, and from the driver's seat of his Explorer to blinds in the field. "Half my life has been spent in blinds, the other half in my truck," he says. "At one eagles' roost I had a little camp set up and I'd sit and watch without a camera, just observing their behavior, seeing what they did when magpies came around or when a bear walked below the nest."

He estimates he's built hundreds of blinds and rigged hundreds of camera mounts all over the country. "I've shot with my cameras on sandbags, clamped them to everything imaginable and used rigs with huge pieces of Velcro, ropes, and boards." Pezzenti also did a lot of remote-controlled photography from a distance. "I'd go to the nests and put in the cameras and the controls months before the eagles arrived. I knew they'd be there, and when they showed up they ignored the cameras completely."

When we spoke, Pezzenti was getting ready to promote the eagles book. "I've been invited back to the Smithsonian Institution, and will be giving a lecture at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, and one at the World Trade Center."

And he was already working on the production of his next effort, a book on bears.

Getting Better All The Time
John Pezzenti was always willing to risk his neck and endure the hardships. He just needed faster tele lenses.

"The equipment played the biggest role in my overcoming limitations and boundaries. My ability to capture these images grew with the capability of the equipment. Simply, I got better as the equipment got better.

"I try to use the fastest lenses available. I was one of the first people in North America to have the Nikkor 600mm f/4 when it came out in the '80s. That lens was a gigantic leap for me." He's since gone to the AF version of the 600, using it on his three F5s and an F100--"and I still carry an F2AS out of habit." Other favorite AF lenses are a 300mm f/2.8 and the 80-200mm and 28-70mm zooms. "I sometimes use the 14E tele-converter, which will take the 600 to 850. But I hesitate to use it--I feel that if I have to go to 850, I'm doing something wrong with my subjects. I haven't worked them long enough or hard enough, or they haven't become familiar enough with me to allow me to get to where I need only the 600."

Where to put the equipment is almost as important as the gear itself, and for that he relies on "the very best clamping system I've ever found, which is made by an outfit called Really Right Stuff. Combine their clamps with Wimberley tripod heads and nothing else comes close."
Note: Readers looking for Really Right Stuff can check out their site at: www.reallyrightstuff.com and Wimberley's site is located at: www.tripodhead.com.