• PROOF:
  • October 21, 2014

Why it Took Me Eight Years to Photograph My Own Backyard

Photographer Vincent J. Musi spent more than eight years working on a photo story about the ACE Basin—which is currently featured in the November issue of National Geographic Magazine. Emails from his editor, Elizabeth Krist, help tell the saga of why it took so long to photograph his own backyard:

*****

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 2/4/12

Any inspiration? I just keep thinking: we’ve set loose an obsessive perfectionist in the middle of a swamp…

E

*****

Sometimes you just can’t get there from here.

I’ve worked around the world for National Geographic magazine but the most elusive assignment for me has been just 50 miles from my home.

In the summer of 2006 I was commissioned to create a portfolio celebrating South Carolina’s ACE Basin. It’s a special place where three rivers and a community came together to preserve one of the last great watersheds.

Picture of: Spanish Moss and Live Oaks
Spanish Moss and Live Oaks located a one hour drive from my home in South Carolina.

At eight years from original proposal to final publication in the November issue, the project should hold the all-time record for the longest time on the schedule at the magazine.

Now don’t blame me entirely, some things came up. I’ve been pulled away for at least six other stories deemed by the editors to be more important. Still, in an attempt to understand why it took so long, I retraced the last eight years in emails from Senior Photo Editor Elizabeth Krist. What follows is a very one-sided account, edited for brevity and to make me look good.

Picture of: Antique lenses
I amassed a collection of mostly 19th century lenses and equipment. Working with vintage large format equipment and modern films was my first idea on how to give the essay a different look. Of course, I knew nothing about this equipment, I just wanted to be like Sally Mann in color.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 10/25/06

Hey, guess what? Ace Basin is scheduled for July 2008, layout due January 1st, 2008. When are the best seasons for you to go into the field? Maybe we could do a pitch meeting early next year?

Elizabeth

*****

Landscape was never one of my strong suits. What was I thinking? I needed time to get my act together and come up with a stylistic approach. At the same time, Photo Editor Kathy Moran had been calling me about another story and I wondered what it was about.

Picture of: Double exposure
2008. Total Fail with 4×5 View Camera. Unintentional double exposure and discovery of hole in shutter curtain that accounts for the “UFO” at the top right.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 9/12/2007

Have you started shooting yet? just curious….

eliz

*****

That story Kathy was calling about turned into a huge project. It would change my life and keep me on assignment for nearly a year making portraits of really famous animals.

It was a lot of travel. I went to England to photograph a crow; California for a fish; and all the way to Austria to shoot a marmoset who peed all over me.

Yet I couldn’t get to Green Pond, S.C., to save my life. And truthfully, the idea of dodging rattlesnakes and bird-sized mosquitoes was far from my mind. When I got home, I wanted to spend time with my family, recover, and get that marmoset stink out of my clothes.

Picture of: Charles Lane
The only good picture I ever made with the large format camera was of Charles Lane, an assistant and guide on my first trip. I moved to digital shortly after.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 7/16/2008

Hi, we’re now in the May 2010 issue! So, the pressure’s off.
If you finish sooner, I’m sure they’ll move it up again, but this way you can do it at your own pace….

eliz

*****

Photo Editor Sadie Quarrier now has me photographing an archaeological site that neither of us could pronounce the name of in Turkey.

Writing Elizabeth from there, I saw utility poles shaking and swaying from my fourth-floor hotel room.

Picture of: Controlled burn
Controlled Burn. Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin Wildlife Refuge

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 9/23/2009

An EARTHQUAKE??? Glad you weren’t swallowed up, Vinnie.

[Director of Photography] Kurt [Mutchler] asked me today about Ace Basin. I told him you had made one foray into the field to test out equipment and play with styles, techniques, etc., but that you haven’t done any real shooting yet. Would you say that that’s accurate? I’m assuming you will want to take several small trips next year? (Not just one long trip) We had talked about May 1 as the completion date, but I can change it as we get closer if you feel you need more time.

eliz

*****

It didn’t seem like three years had passed, but maybe because I was feeling really weak after this last trip to Turkey where we spent time with a family of semi-nomadic Kurdish sheepherders.

Then the South Carolina Department of Health called to tell me I had been diagnosed with Giardia. They wanted to know where I might have gotten it.

Picture of: Sunrise
Sunrise, Edisto River. The longest undammed blackwater river in North America.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
12/8/2010

Good news!
Ace Basin moved to Oct 2012.

*****

Recent travels to Siberia, Kazakhstan, Norway, St. Petersburg, Russia, Edinburgh, Scotland, Indiana, New York, Florida, Minnesota, Colorado, France, England, Turkey…everywhere but the ACE Basin.

Picture of: A boy and his dog
This photograph of young J.D. Cate and his dog after a duck hunt kept the project alive for me and maybe for the editors as well.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 3/30/11

I should probably tell you, even though I really don’t want to, that they’ve talked about killing the story if we can’t wrap up shooting by the end of the year. I keep repeating the fact that you’re so busy because they keep sending you out on other stories, and that the landscape is timeless.

But just giving you a heads up….
E

Picture of: Botany Bay Island
Botany Bay Island

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 2/17/12

My feeling is that your coming in to show Ace is the best guarantee that it won’t be killed…

Picture of: Small airplane
Pilot Roger Medlin towing us in from the runway on one of our failed attempts.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 6/24/2013
sorry to nag, but will you be done with ACE by October 1? THANKS,
E

*****

The last thing we needed to complete the essay was an aerial, and an aerial was the last thing I wanted to do. Aerials are a delicate balancing act of weather, budget and persistence.

You wait, hope, plan, fail; repeat.

I found a willing pilot and an available aircraft so it became a waiting game over several months. On the very first night the light was great, but we got caught in a severe electrical storm and had to turn back.

Then began a series of outings where the airplane would fail in some way, be it the generator or an electrical short in the avionics.

I wasn’t happy with what I had, but eventually shared my last attempts with Elizabeth in a desperate attempt for more time.

Picture of: Aerial view of ACE Basin
10/16/2013. 5:25 p.m. A few minutes later, just as the light started to get better, we had to quit and go back to the airport when the airplane broke again. I never went back up again.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date11/20/2013

I love the bottom frame. Are you sure you need to go up again?? I think you should call it quits now. Seriously!
E

*****

In my mind, I’m not entirely done with the project but after eight years, the story “Lowcountry Legacy” appears in the November 2014 issue of the magazine. Estuary, an exhibit drawn from the project, can be seen from October 21-November 30 at the Charleston Library Society in Charleston South Carolina.

Vincent J. Musi lives on Sullivan’s Island, S.C., and was always nice to his mother when she liked his photographs. See more of his work on his website and Proof, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Related Video: The Surprising Way Hunters Help Wildlife in South Carolina

There are 66 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Kathy Gaffos
    February 22, 2015

    soul stirring and just so very beautiful….thank you, thank you, thank you!

  2. zaborilenta
    January 28, 2015

    I’ve been surfing on-line more than 3 hours as of late, yet I never found any fascinating article like yours. It is lovely worth sufficient for me. Personally, if all webmasters and bloggers made good content material as you did, the web will be a lot more useful than ever before.

    • Charles O. Slavens
      January 28, 2015

      The boy and his dog… a poignant comment on the day’s end.

  3. Patrick Mason, Co-Founder, Center For Carolina Living
    December 17, 2014

    Vince, just fabulous photo/art of the ACE Basin. You are referred to me by Charles Lane who serves with me on the Rural Resources Coalition SC. By any chance, are your images available to SC media? We honor all contributors. Look forward to hearing from you.

  4. Mary Gallagher
    November 6, 2014

    deadlines – interruptions – reminds me of real life and your photographs are of real life – more for animals and birds but really real life!!!

  5. Rian Buntzman
    November 3, 2014

    Breathtakingly heroic! You are a voice for those that most cannot hear and i cannot thank you enough for your tenacity in completing such a masterpiece! Bravo!

  6. Caroline Morrison
    November 2, 2014

    You understand this place, it’s mystery and magic enabling you to capture its essence for others. Sadly photography can’t include one key element, the acrid musty smell of the marshland present particularly at low tide. A unique perfume.
    Thank you so much for persevering through the manmade and other trials.

  7. Jacqui
    October 30, 2014

    Wow the aerial shot !!!! The water looks like it’s moving ! Amazing

  8. ISABEL HERNÁNDEZ TIBAU
    October 29, 2014

    Felicitaciones!!! No sé qué me gustó más, si las preciosas fotos o ese relato tan humorístico de sus peripecias.Valió la pena esperar 8 años… Adelante y estaré a la espera de más.

  9. Casali Tarcisio
    October 28, 2014

    Splendidissime foto in cui sono messi in particolari rilievi luci, ombre, flora ed energia

  10. Regula
    October 27, 2014

    Immensely beautiful photographs. It may have taken 8 years but it was worth every minute to make these photographs.

  11. handan erkmen
    October 27, 2014

    Thank you for doing a superb job!!

  12. Carol Worrell
    October 27, 2014

    I really appreciate every aspect of this photo assignment….from the playful banter of the emails from Elizabeth, the never ending deadlines and the constant interruptions. It gives me a look inside the life of a professional photographer. I tend to romanticize that profession but this shows me the reality of what goes into each story published. I look forward to the November issue now that I have some background on what it took to get to the finished product. Congratulations Vincent for persevering. The photos are beautiful!

  13. Doreen
    October 27, 2014

    Grace And Peace! Thank You Very Much For Your Wonderful Photo Story about the ACE Basin that is very well worth the time you had to share your experiences and take the Beautiful Photos!

  14. Christopher McEniry
    October 27, 2014

    Well done sir, your commitment to the project was well worth the time. I grew up on Sullivan’s and our family has our country house/ plantation on Edisto and I grew up fishing in the Ace Basin. I’m a working editorial and commercial photographer as well and I’ve always wanted to do a project on the Ace Basin ever since Tom Blagden made his amazing book on the subject. It’s an elusive mistress the Ace Basin and a foreboding place but once again worth the effort. Hats off to you.

  15. Magali Ginoux
    October 27, 2014

    This article got my attention since Charleston SC is my home for almost 2 years. The natural beauty of this area is magnificent and I have already explored the ACE basin and plan more trips there. Thank you DNR for a fantastic preservation work. It is untouched nature , home to fantastic birds, migration stop for others, such a peaceful place and still quite unknown by many locals.

  16. Charles O. Slavens
    October 27, 2014

    The boy with the dog… stunning!

  17. Cynthia Turner
    October 27, 2014

    Hope!

  18. Bruno
    October 27, 2014

    Great photos as always…just go on !

  19. Annamarie Engelbrecht
    October 27, 2014

    Awesome pics

  20. Linda Hays
    October 27, 2014

    I know nothing about the technics of photography, but I do realize the pictures you have allowed us to see are beautiful and moving. I am an artist (not accomplished, but wish I had the gift) and your pictures of nature make me wish I could grab up my pencils, brushes and paints and lose myself by a meadow or lake. Thank you for sharing

  21. Ron Dalton
    October 27, 2014

    Vincent–it is your humorous commentary style that makes story so superb.

  22. cassandra christenson
    October 26, 2014

    I luxuriate in the lushness of the words of others who have leaned into the beauty of the photos and story… and are renewed.

  23. Charles Oh
    October 26, 2014

    Slow bake and simply wonderful

  24. tom mangelsen
    October 26, 2014

    Very refreshing story and great photos as always.. Congrats!

  25. Chris Leiker
    October 26, 2014

    I have only visited in the south-east U. S., but these pictures and reports seem to become part of my soul and body. A most unusual experience for me. Thank you

  26. Bob Collins
    October 26, 2014

    As I read through the chronicle of your eight years in the Ashepoo, Combahee, and Edisto (ACE) Basin, it took me back to the time I worked for the USGS in South Carolina. Some of the seismic monitoring sites were on the fringes of the ACE basin, which gave me a chance to see some of what you described and saw. The ACE is a place so awe inspiring, so timeless that eight years to bring your story to fruition is a mere drop. The story is beautiful and the photographs show such depth and character. Nearby Charleston and Beaufort have their own stories, which are just as timeless. But, a visit to the ACE will change you forever – all we have to do is “see” it. ACE is South Carolina before Charleston or Beaufort took “root.” Visit the ACE for a day, a few days, a week – after all it is timeless.

  27. Mike Jacobsen
    October 26, 2014

    Stunning photos and a great story.
    Thanks
    Mike

  28. Lenetta Johnson
    October 26, 2014

    At 85 all my travels are through articles like Yours. Thank You for a beautiful journey.

  29. Gary
    October 26, 2014

    The photography is brilliant an artist at the shutter. Sorry that you 4X5 work was limited, I inherited a 1/4 plate Pressman and made and fitted a 35mm back, cracking Pix and slowly building a CCD mosaic for it. I might get it finished this year just hope it isn’t 8 years!

  30. C. Hutson
    October 26, 2014

    The photos are very good, the ACE Basin is truly a marvelous sanctuary thanks to both public and private Sputh Carolina endeavor and especially the foresight and hard work of Charles Lane over the years to make it come to fruition. I have read your article in the November National Geographic. Fort Sumter a wart from a plane??? I have seen it from thT vantage and beg to disagree. Was tha really necessary in this particular article?

  31. bob francella
    October 26, 2014

    beautiful shots, you really put your heart and soul into the photos

  32. Joshuani Grecia
    October 26, 2014

    We’re from the Philippines and my wife Jane once had an opportunity to visit SC and just like Mr. Robert Smoak said she toured Charleston, the Market, the Battery, and all those usual places in her guide book. Wish she’d been able to visit this place and bring back pictures of too. Looks quite magical and mysterious. Might have given us a better picture of what the ‘real’ America looks like.

  33. jilda Green
    October 26, 2014

    Wonderful ph0tographs. Obviously being a perfectionist has advantages a well as disadvatages.

  34. Mary Ann Skoglund
    October 26, 2014

    Thanks you for this beautiful work! Enjoyed the photographs so much!

  35. GIORGE VANEZIS
    October 26, 2014

    παρα πολυ ωραιες φωτογραφιες

  36. Thad
    October 26, 2014

    The photography is brilliant but the story idea is even better. 8 years to a great story is better than 1 year and a story you don’t remember.

  37. Rina
    October 26, 2014

    Beautiful, worth the wait! The photograph of J.D. Cate and his dog priceless!

  38. MJ Willard DVM MD
    October 26, 2014

    Beautiful work. Take your time. I’ll wait.

  39. Shirley Creazzo
    October 26, 2014

    Certainly the chronology of the emails and Vincen’t running commentary add to the drama here and help the viewer to appreciate even more the lovely photography. Looking forward to the magazine spread.

  40. john paul
    October 26, 2014

    My first thought was how refreshing and also challenging – 4″x5″ transparency using fujifilm for those rich greens. Then i read about the hole in the shutter curtain and wondered if some 4×5 cameras have shutter curtains . . . idk thought it was a lens leaf mechanism. Still, how refreshing to see the deep shadows so often missing in digital photography – certainly had the feel of another era. Also, sometimes not having the perfect light can be helpful as was the case with the digital aerial. It certainly had that old world feeling once again. Thanks!

  41. Susan Doyle
    October 26, 2014

    Stunningly magical photos & by lines!So glad you all stayed w/this project! I am from Michigan but have an affinity for the Low Country, ACE River basin, cannot explain why but these photos sure can convey why my soul has some connection to this area. I think I was a Geechee girl in another life!

  42. Pam
    October 26, 2014

    Gree up along the Edisto River in eastern Bamberg Co with a brother who understands the magic of hunting and fishing in the ACE Basin – an environment that represents the deep beauty of SC.

  43. Tina Schell
    October 26, 2014

    You’ve inspired me! Headed there for sunrise 11/5 as it’s high tide. Do you ever take small groups out?

  44. Jack Heniford
    October 26, 2014

    Some of the scenics are familiar to me ,though I live in the Upstate, from various excursions East and South. Well done!

  45. Brenda
    October 26, 2014

    other worldly; stunning

  46. Ujjvala Rahn
    October 26, 2014

    We live in the low country in Georgia. Stunning, resonant images.

  47. Raphael Mawrence
    October 23, 2014

    This is phenomenal. Great work and fun read. Thank you for sharing.

  48. Robert Smoak
    October 23, 2014

    I grew up in Hollywood, SC about 20 minutes from ACE Basin and this place is one of the last chances to see what coastal South Carolina used to be. Most people are familiar with Charleston, the Market, the Battery, etc., but this is what coastal SC really IS. This is not some tourist destination with ride-through tours and concessions stands; this is a chance to just go out and enjoy an ecosystem that exists and thrives totally independently of you and most things that are generally considered “important.” To anyone in the area or those who want to make a worthwhile trip, please visit ACE Basin and enjoy what coastal SC is really about. Thank you as well to Mr. Musi for putting in nearly a decade of work to shed some worldwide attention on our little place; this story is what makes me read natgeo.com everyday.

  49. cassandra christenson
    October 23, 2014

    Josephine, your comments continue to join in the “energy of the flora and fauna”, the dialogue between Elizabeth and Vincent, and the team of National Geographic, inviting us to each, in our own quiet moment, to step into the dance of all his beauty… and weep.

    mmm “Vincent”?? … Another incarnation of the Vincent painting in the golden field, the crows, and all that thick paint of sun?

  50. Tom Maciejowski
    October 23, 2014

    This album is incredible! You have some beautiful shots

  51. Laura Taaffe
    October 23, 2014

    I have recently gotten into photography again and love the shots but the shot that took 8 years– absolutely beautiful!!!

  52. Matthew Sánchez
    October 23, 2014

    Great photographs! The accompanying text as well

  53. Remi Zagari
    October 23, 2014

    Great Great shots!

  54. Ryan Mcdougall
    October 23, 2014

    Wow! Too bad she never found success using the older cameras, that would have made this even better!!

  55. herbert
    October 23, 2014

    these photos are like wines. aged and priceless.

  56. Kate Brown
    October 22, 2014

    Home sweet home!

  57. Cal kendall
    October 22, 2014

    great job and
    Photography

  58. John James
    October 22, 2014

    Vincent, lovely thoughtful work. We met in Perpignon, France a few years back.

  59. Jessica Lee
    October 22, 2014

    Great read! Such a long process to get a story in the magazine but I’m glad it worked out!

  60. philippe duchemin
    October 22, 2014

    “Yours”

  61. David Decker
    October 21, 2014

    I am so glad that you have captured and are sharing one of the most beautiful protected places left on the east coast of the USA and maybe the world. …….

  62. Kristen Twedt
    October 21, 2014

    Timing is everything. Clearly, your time has arrived. Moving photographs of your spot on the planet. So glad the project wasn’t killed .

  63. Roger Medlin
    October 21, 2014

    It was challenging at times to keep the airplane up and flying, and assist in getting the perfect shot. I was pleased with what I saw. Great Job!

  64. Mariel
    October 21, 2014

    These photos were outstanding.

  65. Josephine Rakow
    October 21, 2014

    What a drama! from onset to completion and I enjoyed every phase of it. It exhibits synchronicity at it’s best as each player at National Geographic performs in sync with every other player for this excellent production. In life everything is energy. It is interesting to note that the energy of the flora and fauna did not repel Musi’s energy but attracted his and performed at their best to assist him so that this and future generations can appreciate the estuary.

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