By Deane Dozier

In the sweeping full-color panoramas of Natural Virginia, photographer Ben Greenberg celebrates the diverse beauty of the state's outdoors, from ancient and venerable mountains, through gentle river valleys, farms and fields, to rich marshlands and estuaries, and on to the open waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic.

The book is organized into three sections showcasing the state’s personalities: Tidewater, Piedmont, and Western Virginia.  The Tidewater and Piedmont sections each represent distinct land forms, or physiographic provinces, while the Western Virginia section includes three physiographic provinces – Appalachian Plateau, Valley and Ridge, and Blue Ridge.

The photographs taken from all corners of the state spark the explorer in each of us to discover outdoor Virginia for ourselves.  Those who are familiar with the state’s offerings may see their familiar haunts in a new light—literally.  The images entice us to go see the places we have not been and to revisit places for a second look.  Moreover, the person who studies the photographs is struck with the idea that no matter where we go in Virginia—hiking up in the mountains, driving down a valley, canoeing a river, strolling along a boardwalk in a coastal marsh—there is stunning natural beauty to be found. 

The book of photographic images is multifaceted. First and foremost, it is a pictorial documentation of Virginia’s extraordinary natural beauty. At the same time, the images can serve as a guide, suggesting what to look for, where to go.  Browsing through the sections of the book can give the visitor to this Mid-Atlantic state an idea of the tremendous geographic variety of natural habitats and geology. 

The book is also a keepsake, articulating in its images what thousands of words could not say.  Whether you have been camping in a state park or canoeing a river or collecting seashells or climbing a forested trail to a waterfall, Natural Virginia provides outdoor lovers with a book of photographs that captures the best of these places to take home and to show friends and family where you have been.

And finally, may this collection of photographs serve as reminder to us all—whether residents of Virginia or travelers from other places with their own wild and natural beauty—that what we have is part of who we are.  Over the eons, the age-old mountains fashioned by fire and time have become ingrained in our spirits.  The brackish marshes stir us and the salty seas run in our veins.  The sunny meadows and sheltering woodlands embrace us. The coursing rivers and serene lakes reflect our energy and bring us peace. We protect them because we love them.  And because their preservation is key to our own survival. 

The Artistry Behind the Images

In addition to the photographic documentation of Virginia’s natural beauty in all its magnificent diversity is yet another facet of the book, and that is the pure artistry of the panoramic images.  In the hands of the viewer is a collection of exquisite photographic art by award-winning Virginia photographer Ben Greenberg

Armed with good camera equipment, a commitment to dramatic imagery and more than a dollop of wanderlust, Ben has been absorbed for many years with capturing the disparate faces of his home state in pictures. His finger has grown numb on the cold camera button waiting for an egret to raise its head above the grass in the low-lying tidal areas of the Eastern Shore peninsula.  He has made repeated visits to capture the character of saltwater marshes and maritime forest habitats, and he has climbed to the take-your-breath summits of the western Virginia mountains, where the snowshoe hare and red spruce are reminiscent of Canadian boreal forests.  On a venture to the southeast corner of the state, his subject matter has been bald cypress trees, species thought of as characteristic of the Deep South. 

So familiar is the camera in his hand, it is an extension of his heart and mind, so that what you see when you view a line of impressive old trees standing like sentinels along the Ashlawn Highlands Road in Central Virginia, for instance, is as much an artist’s rendition of the scene as it is a documentary photograph.  Ben’s meticulous attention to detail means the dewdrops on a spider’s web are the sharpest part of the image of a split rail fence in Albemarle County, drawing your attention to the bejeweled web in the foreground of the scene. 

When he finds a favorite setting, he studies the variations in appearance through the seasons.  He is there in early Spring as migratory wildfowl appear in the Tidewater marshes and young maples green up along Little Stony Creek in the national forest in Giles County.  He watches as lush summer moves into the colors of autumn along the Maury River at Goshen Pass, as rhododendron blossoms fall to the ground at Grayson Highlands State Park in Southwest Virginia, and when an early snow enhances fall foliage on Afton Mountain near Waynesboro. 

Patience and persistence result in capturing the ordinarily dull-gray rocks of Raven’s Roost on the Blue Ridge Parkway when they are suddenly gold-struck by the setting sun.  His camera lens is already focused on an osprey when it swoops down to pluck a fish from the waters of the Potomac River.  And he is present at water’s edge, camera on tripod, as the day fades to dusk, the last breeze subsides, and only streaks of shimmering light remain—a last loving touch on the face of a lake.

Sometimes – many times—a scene never develops the way Ben anticipates, and hopes.  Other times, in fact, something wonderful happens, and there is a serendipitous splashdown of two ducks on Pope’s Creek, or dramatic shafts of sunlight break through clouds and light up farms in the Shenandoah Valley. 

Such moments when the stars align and everything is right, there is the click of a camera shutter.  A beautiful moment in time has been preserved.
The Panoramas

Viewing an entire collection of images of Virginia’s natural beauty in panoramic formatting can create an interesting experience for the person who flips the pages.  All of the photographs are almost three times as wide as they are high.  Some of Virginia’s topography is a natural for photographs in this format.  The linear lay of the mountain ranges interspersed with river valleys is dramatic in wide horizontal formatting, emphasizing the fading of the stacked-up mountains ranges from dark green in the foreground to dusty teals at midrange to misty blue-grays on the horizon.  A country road angling off into the distance along a rail fence comprises another obvious panoramic composition.  Bucolic pasturelands and fields folded into the rolling countryside, two ducks leaving a long wake as they paddle along a shorefront, expansive salt marshes and long stretches of coastal beaches—all are examples of Virginia scenery that adapt well to panoramic composition. 

Other settings, however, may not appear to lend themselves to panoramic formatting.  Waterfalls, stands of tall conifers rising out of the mist, an impressive rock cliff—these scenes often suggest a more average photographic format, perhaps even a vertical image.  Photography becomes art, though, when the photographer observes the rosy glow of early morning light on Nelson County mountains and stops to consider the possibilities.  The colors are reflected back in a mirror image on a lake—perfect, with judicious cropping, for a Greenberg panoramic. Likewise, a shot of a maple shedding its red leaves on Earlysville Road in Albemarle County is composed so that only the bottom foliage of the maple remains in the image, and the eye is naturally drawn to the stunning elongated carpet of brilliant fall leaves on the ground.  Waterfalls, often photographed vertically, create new interest in a panorama such as Upper Cascades on Little Stony Creek, an image that emphasizes the softness of flowing water over stark, angular layers of rock shelves. Sometimes, what is vertical in a sweeping panorama is what draws the eye – a lone heron on the James River stark against the blue-gray mist of pre-dawn, for example.  Eastern Shore row houses, colorful against softer greens, grays and browns of the tree line behind them.  A solitary hiker crossing a woodland bridge.

The compositions are fodder for young art students who are studying what makes a photograph work.  In creating panoramas, Ben makes use of various elements that lead the eye back into the scene—the S curve of a back road, a rolling hillside outlined by yellow sidelight, a silhouetted pier creating a diagonal line toward a setting sun on the horizon—all expertly framed in the camera and cropped for the panorama.

In addition to their interesting compositions, the images are a study in the play of light and shadow on rocks, water, trees, ridges, fields, fence lines. The rising sun in a lavender sky at Back Bay National Wildlife Refuge contrasts with the long expanse of silhouetted grasses on a sand dune.  In a picture taken in the early morning on a lake, rising mist glows in pre-dawn light in Nelson County. In another image, the sun creates elongated shadows as it streams through the branches of backlit willow trees.  And in a photograph on the Swift Creek Reservoir in Chesterfield County where boats are lined up along a shoreline, sails furled, the sun delineates the masts, like a sea of vertical matchsticks.

Beyond the Photographs

It’s best to flip the pages slowly.  Study the images.  Many of them create immediate first impressions, but there are also discoveries to be had in the detail.

The photographs can renew the wanderlust in you, and bring moments of recognition of places already visited.  Ah—the deep ravine of the Russell Fork River at Breaks Interstate Park!  And there are the wild horses at both Grayson Highlands State Park and the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge!  You may find yourself dusting off the photo albums, and realizing there are slots yet to fill. The photographs may suggest new angles for capturing a waterfall, or a new composition for a familiar lake, or they might cause you to consider going back to a favorite destination in a different season. 

Sure, the book is personal.  It is one photographer’s record of the soft lighting on a carpet of ferns on the forest floor in Shenandoah National Park, and what is was like when water vapors took form in a field of hay bays in Greene County or when a mist rose on Smith Mountain Lake early on a fall morning.  There are intriguing stories behind the pictures, revealing the difficulties encountered with capturing a particular scene, or the excitement when everything worked. 

But beyond the personal, there is more.  This collection of photographs can be inspiration to experience natural beauty for all of us—whether Virginia born and bred or “come-heres,” as Eastern Shore residents affectionately call non-natives.   Here in Ben Greenberg’s panoramic images is evidence of the abundance of Virginia’s natural heritage, ever-changing through the days, flowing through the seasons, offering up a plate of new images there for the taking by any of us who prepare, who pack up and go, who are patient, and who love the reward when the shortening days tint the forests with yellow-gold, the mist gathers, and a single leaf drifts down to ripple still waters.

Open the pages.  Smell the Eastern Shore salt marsh.  Breathe in the Western Virginia mountain air.  Feel the swelling of the heart at the expanse of Nelson County mountain ranges fading to soft blues in the distance.

The images can inspire us and inform us, and give us new appreciations. But they cannot replace a moment of hearing the gentle waters lapping at the pilings of a fisherman’s shanty on Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay. They cannot take the place of enjoying for ourselves the comedy of seagulls playing musical chairs, claiming the top of nearly every post along a pier in Colonial Beach in the Northern Neck. And while they may suggest vantage points with exquisite vistas, viewing the images is not the same as experiencing in person a stunning sunset over a Rockbridge County farm, framed by distant mountains. 

So go. Go to the mountains, the waterfalls, the trails, the hills, the back roads, the marshes, the coastal beaches, Take the kids, the camera, the peanut butter sandwiches, and follow the bread crumb trail to wherever the images lead you.

Savor the experience of Virginia’s natural beauty.  It resides within the images.

And once experienced, it resides within the heart.