Golden Opportunities with Barbara du Pont

For the local photographer, unforgettable photographs are born of patience and light

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The Perfect Perch, leopard, South Africa. Photo by Barbara du Pont
The Perfect Perch, leopard, South Africa. Photo by Barbara du Pont

Barbara du Pont is not a daredevil. She is a composed, elegant widow, mother of two, grandmother of five, and co-owner of an art gallery. But anyone who thinks she wouldn’t brave 40-foot seas en route to Antarctica or hop into an open Land Rover in the wilds of Botswana in order to capture the wonders of nature with her camera would be mistaken.

Barbara du Pont at home. Photo by Sam Wolfe
Barbara du Pont at home. Photo by Sam Wolfe

Well, the 40-foot seas are probably behind her at this stage of life, but even after visiting nearly 20 countries on all seven continents, du Pont is far from finished. It’s not that there are places she has never visited but longs to; it’s just that her photographer’s eye is keenly aware of the endless possibilities. “It’s always different,” she says of her returns to familiar locales and subjects.

Du Pont and her late husband, Hal, traveled to South Africa and Botswana, their two favorite destinations, two or three times a year to photograph the intriguing wildlife. Hal had been enamored of the African landscapes and their inhabitants since childhood, having been introduced to the exotic continent on family vacations, and Barbara joined him in that fascination. She even identifies a particular smell with Africa, one that she finds captivating.

Brotherly Love, lions, South Africa. Photo by Barbara du Pont
Brotherly Love, lions, South Africa. Photo by Barbara du Pont

Barbara du Pont is one of Gallery 14’s eight artist-owners, the only one whose art form is photography. She was there at the gallery’s beginning 16 years ago, a milestone that also marked her foray into selling her work. 

Her interest in photography began when her first husband, an avid surfer, asked her to stand on the shore and take pictures of him in action. As her knowledge and skills developed, she discovered a love for the art of photography, and she has never looked back.

Baby Tempo, African elephant, Botswana. Photo by Barbara du Pont
Baby Tempo, African elephant, Botswana. Photo by Barbara du Pont

The New York native relocated to Vero Beach in 1983 and married Hal in 1997. By then, film was being supplanted by digital technology, freeing photographers from the constraints of a limited number of exposures, and the couple embarked together on the adventure into the exciting new possibilities. Their first excursion using digital equipment was to South Africa. “We always brought a laptop so we could review the photos at the end of the day,” she says.

Mother animals with their babies are one of du Pont’s recurring themes. Her favorite animals? Elephants, “because they’re so intelligent,” she explains.

Wild Dog, African wild dog, South Africa. Photo by Barbara du Pont
Wild Dog, African wild dog, South Africa. Photo by Barbara du Pont

Between Africa trips, Barbara and Hal toted their cameras to Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Japan, and many other destinations—always during the off-season, so as to minimize the number of accidental photobombers and “competing” photographers. In Holland, the celebrated tulip gardens took center stage. In Italy, gorgeous landscapes and some architectural subjects filled their viewfinders. Despite having been to Italy four or five times, du Pont would like to return and photograph more scenery; she finds the winding, tree-lined roads of Tuscany particularly appealing.

A Bit of a Stretch, serval cat, South Africa. Photo by Barbara du Pont
A Bit of a Stretch, serval cat, South Africa. Photo by Barbara du Pont

But wildlife will always be du Pont’s first photographic love. The sheer variety of species and behaviors is compelling. She has photographed the famed “snow monkeys” of Japan on several occasions, a project that entails a winter journey to an elevation of nearly 3,000 feet in the Nagano Prefecture, where the Japanese macaques are known to lounge in the local hot springs. These monkeys are accustomed to the presence of their many human visitors, to whom they are largely indifferent, since feeding or touching of the monkeys by guests is strictly prohibited.

In the Camargue region in the South of France, herds of wild horses roam free on the beaches, and, knowing (or at least hoping) that the horses will sidestep them, photographers position themselves in front of the galloping animals. This approach probably feels more dangerous than it actually is, and it results in some breathtaking images.

Running on Water, wild horses, France. Photo by Barbara du Pont
Running on Water, wild horses, France. Photo by Barbara du Pont

The dynamic, unpredictable nature of wildlife is no doubt part of the allure for both artist and viewer; animals demonstrate no limit of poignant, amusing, and even perplexing behaviors. But not all creatures are acclimated to human proximity, and a certain danger is inherent to any expedition into the wild. Du Pont has had a few brief brushes with peril, but she seems to consider them all just part of the journey.

Her eldest grandson, Jake, “quite the photographer himself,” accompanied her on safari twice as a preteen, having apparently inherited his grandmother’s spirit of adventure in addition to her photographic prowess. “He was even chased by a hippo while sitting in the front of the Land Rover, in the tracker’s seat,” du Pont relates. “It was pretty scary, since the hippo came out of the bush unexpectedly. The driver put it into reverse and we were soon safely out of its way.”

The Oakum Boys, juvenile king penguins, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Photo by Barbara du Pont
The Oakum Boys, juvenile king penguins, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. Photo by Barbara du Pont

One of du Pont’s most terrifying experiences was traversing the Drake Passage—the deep, treacherous waterway between South America and Antarctica—in a 400-foot Russian icebreaker. 

Several geographical and meteorological factors make this 600-mile stretch of sea among the most tumultuous on Earth; it is not unusual for travelers to encounter 40-foot swells and gale-force winds, and even the most intrepid seafarers have been known to succumb to seasickness. Du Pont was no exception.

Trusting Each Other, Japanese macaques, Japan. Photo by Barbara du Pont
Trusting Each Other, Japanese macaques, Japan. Photo by Barbara du Pont

But she made it to Antarctica, her remotest destination to date, where she photographed the small but spunky Adélie penguins. While there, she also boarded a small, inflatable Zodiac boat to approach and photograph the impressive leopard seals that, alas, feed on the aforementioned penguins. Such is the circle of life.

On the virtually uninhabited island of South Georgia, the British territory on which Ernest Shackleton is buried, du Pont photographed the larger and more colorful king penguins, whose juveniles are referred to as “oakum boys”—a nickname bestowed by 19th-century sailors who thought they resembled the color of oakum, the material used to pack the seams and joints of their wooden boats.

Not Far Behind, African elephants, Botswana. Photo by Barbara du Pont
Not Far Behind, African elephants, Botswana. Photo by Barbara du Pont

At the planet’s opposite extremity, du Pont’s lens found itself zooming in on the polar bears of the Arctic Circle—creatures so ferocious that the tourists leaning over the boat’s rails to snap photos were ordered to stay back 5 feet after one of the bears managed to lunge up the side of the hull, snatching and tearing a man’s pant leg. “Luckily,” du Pont says, “he had several layers on, and it just ripped the outside waterproof pants.”

Yes, fortitude and a sense of adventure are key characteristics of zealous wildlife photographers. But, du Pont says, patience plays the biggest role in getting the shot. “Photographing animals in the wild takes patience and a little bit of luck,” she says. “Being in the right place at the right time is an old adage, but it still rings true. 

Golden Spar, polar bears, Arctic Circle. Photo by Barbara du Pont
Golden Spar, polar bears, Arctic Circle. Photo by Barbara du Pont

“We always had our own driver, so that we could follow any particular animal for as long as it took to get the best shot. Waiting for the golden light and for the animal to look your way makes it all worthwhile.”

Indeed, she once waited two hours for a three-minute window to frame a leopard in the optimal light. The “golden light,” as she calls it, “makes all the difference” by lending a softer, warmer tone to the subject. And, as is often the case in photography, timing is everything. 

Steller’s Eagle Flying, Steller’s sea eagle, Japan. Photo by Barbara du Pont
Steller’s Eagle Flying, Steller’s sea eagle, Japan. Photo by Barbara du Pont

Du Pont explains: “The ‘golden hour’ is generally the hour right after dawn and right before dusk when the sun is at its lowest, and therefore your subjects become more dimensional and interesting.”

With her love of travel and endless photographic curiosity, it will be interesting to see which of the world’s wonders Barbara du Pont decides to focus on in the future. 

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