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Nashville Scene Natural State

Photographers publish latest collaboration documenting Tennessee's scenic beauty

By Michael Sims

AUGUST 7, 2000:  John Lennon and Paul McCartney signed both their names to all their songs, even though many were composed entirely by one or the other. Howard Baker and John Netherton take the same approach to producing their books of nature photographs. The latest, Scott's Gulf, contains no hint of which photographer took which photograph. They followed the same procedure in their first collaboration, Big South Fork, about a different wild region of Tennessee.

"There's really no ego involved," Netherton said in a recent interview. "To me, it's always a collaboration. To even try to separate them pulls the book apart."

Both photographers have plenty of other credits, of course. Baker has been taking photographs for 62 years, since he was 12. He had a camera with him during his almost 20 years in the Senate, as he investigated Watergate, and while serving as Reagan's Chief of Staff. His photos have appeared in National Geographic, Life, and other publications, including his solo outing, Howard Baker's Washington.

Netherton, who lives in Nashville, is a full-time professional nature photographer who has studied with such masters as Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Ernst Haas. He has been an institution around Nashville since his first book in 1985, Radnor Lake: Nashville's Walden (with text by another Nashvillian, John Egerton). Netherton's 20 or so subsequent books include the informative and beautiful Frogs and Snakes and the forthcoming Lizards, recent collaborations with MTSU professor David Badger. His photos also appear in other people's books, in calendars, and in magazines ranging from Audubon to Outside. He has won a whole shelf of awards from professional organizations. Such corporations as Nikon, Kodak, and Disney regularly bring him in to host workshops.

Netherton's anecdotes reveal that nature photography isn't as predictable as product shoots or fashion work or portraits. "We worked on the Big South Fork book for three years. It took that long because we were waiting for snow," he says, laughing. "You want to capture all the seasons. Typically, on the Cumberland Plateau, especially up near the Kentucky border where Big South Fork is, you usually get at least a snow or two every year."

The same difficulty plagued the photographers' attempt to capture the circle of the seasons at Scott's Gulf, which is on the Cumberland Plateau about 80 miles southeast of Nashville. The weather refused to cooperate and provide enough snow for a photograph. Therefore, the book's double-page spread of snow-covered branches, with the valley sparkling white below them, had to be drawn from Baker's archive of photos.

Anyone who knows the Cumberland Plateau appreciates the beauty and grandeur of the Scott's Gulf area--streams, lakes, dense forest, spectacular overlooks. Thanks to a recent donation of 10,000 acres to the state of Tennessee, Scott's Gulf is now called the Bridgestone/Firestone Centennial Wilderness. Fire-stone, which was bought by Bridgestone in 1988, had been acquiring land on the plateau for decades. A current exhibition at the Tennessee State Museum, in which you can find the photos from the book greatly enlarged and looking even more impressive, documents the near-pristine state of Scott's Gulf and the magnitude of Bridgestone/Firestone's unusual gift to the state. In the exhibit, intricately patterned flowers and leaves of yellow wood sorrel, young barn swallows demanding lunch, red leaves of water oak against a brilliant blue sky, a cave cricket walking upside down near stalactites, and a hanging bat all vie with the grand panoramas and add up to a detailed, labor-of-love portrait of the Scott's Gulf region.

Not surprisingly, Netherton and Baker have another book in the works, this one on the National Zoo in Washington. The project is a corporate-sponsored fundraiser for the zoo. "Just to be able to get as close to some of these animals as we're getting, and spending time with them, is wonderful," Netherton says. "I'm fascinated with the gorillas myself--the mother with her young. But probably the most exciting part of this project will be the pandas. They're getting all the permits right now, and we'll go to China to pick them up. We'll document the reserve and bringing them over here."

Netherton has plenty of other work planned. The book on lizards won't be out until 2002. "I'm also doing a book on the sensual shapes of flowers. The best way to describe it is that it's sort of in the style of Georgia O'Keeffe." That book will be out sometime during 2001 or 2002. "I have half the book shot," he says. "The real problem is to find the flowers. You'll go, 'Well, surely there must be enough flowers.' But there aren't. Not the kind that you need to really capture the folds and everything else that it takes."

Netherton is also working on yet another book of photos of Tennessee, with Sen. Bill Frist. Foreseeing the inevitable question, he says, "What's going to make this one different? First of all, it's from the perspective of being written by Sen. Frist. Second, we're including a lot of species that are only endemic to Tennessee--the Tennessee coneflower, the bog turtle." They will also be including some hitherto unknown creatures, found in the Biodiversity Inventory going on in the Smokies.

Wading waist-deep in ponds, filling aquariums with frogs for close-ups, waiting in the cold for the right light (or the right precipitation), documenting a gorilla's intimate family moments--Netherton's is not your typical job. He talks about it with enthusiasm and good humor, and sums it up with a laugh: "I have a lot of fun."

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