Michael Halminski heard the word. A green heron was nesting in Buxton Woods. The 71-year-old Waves photographer heeded the call. He spent days photographing the mother, father and, eventually, the four baby birds.
Over the years, Halminski has trekked all over the Outer Banks photographing a variety of birds, including black-necked stilts, piping plovers, skimmer and tern colonies, red knots and oyster catchers.
“Landscapes and birds are real dear to me,” he said in a recent interview.
A glimpse around Halminski’s gallery reveals bins filled with matted work in a variety of sizes, as well as framed photographs, with blue and red ribbons attached to several of them, indicating awards he has won over the years. The walls are covered with iconic Outer Banks images, including majestic dunes with wind-carved patterns, a fogbound skiff near a weathered bridge, sunlit marshland, and a series revealing the evolution of a waterspout.
Halminski captures expansive scenes such as a golden-toned photograph with a surfer standing in the distance pondering the sea, and close-ups, including an earthy-hued detail of an oyster shell with scalloped bands of melting colors — lavenders, blues, greens and browns — defying the mollusk’s usual grayish hue.
Viewing the body of work shows that Halminski understands composition, light, color, texture and atmosphere. But he doesn’t always know at the time of capturing photos the full success of his work. When photographing the nesting green heron, he took close to 3,000 images of the experience.
“I like being by myself, and I was so at peace and totally absorbed in the process,” he said.
Halminski visited the scene 12 times. The mother was nesting in a willow tree over a pond. He saw a 12-day-old baby in the nest with its mother and the takeoff of the four young green herons into the woods. It was not until downloading the images that he knew he had succeeded. Calling them the best bird pictures he’s taken in years, Halminski came home with about 2,500 images he felt were keepers. But there have been times in the past where he paid his dues with less success.
When asked how he learned his craft, Halminski readily said, “By making a lot of mistakes.” He thinks back to the first exhibit he had as a young photographer at the North Carolina Marine Resources Center in Manteo, which is now a state aquarium. He was just learning the process of color printing.
“I look back on that old work, and it was really awful,” he said.
Halminski’s father inspired his interest in photography. His dad took photos of family events with a Canon that he bought in the 1950s or ‘60s, said Halminski. His father was a meteorologist in the Navy Weather Service. The family moved about every two years to places all over the world, including Japan, Guam and Newfoundland.
“I always saw him using the camera,” Halminski said. “I always just had a curiosity about it.”
Halminski senior took his son into the darkroom on one of the bases where they developed film, and Halminski junior made his first print. His father also taught him how to work on cars. In high school, Halminski saw himself as a motor head who appreciated souped-up cars and custom paint jobs. He started photographing cars at the dragstrip. “That got me hooked,” he said about photography.
At the end of high school, Halminski got into surfing and started taking pictures of people riding the waves. His folks had a cottage in Delaware, where he became integrated with a circle of surfer friends. Calling the sport a spiritual experience, Halminski visited the Outer Banks several times, where he would go to Cape Point to surf, fish and camp. Eventually he realized he preferred the Outer Banks to Delaware, and in 1973, he moved here. The coast called to this son of a Navy man who grew up never far from water. He has a 75-pound surfboard that his father made from redwood hanging in the rafters of his gallery.
Over time, Halminski honed his photographic skills through experience, taking multiple workshops, sharing his interest and comparing notes with a close friend, Outer Banks photographer Ray Matthews. He regularly viewed the work of favorite icons such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston, with whom his son, Cole, studied. Taking a workshop under Ernst Haaf, of Marlboro Man fame, despite being pricey, yielded solid gold.
“That was really energizing for years, even to this day,” Halminski said.
Eventually, he found his own path. The move to the North Carolina coast was a lifesaver. “I picked my happy place,” he said.
Halminski also learned over time that taking good wildlife photos was not just about technical ability. Earlier in his Outer Banks sojourn, he did a five-year stint working at the Gull Island Gunning Club. He maintained the decoys and boats and guided hunting parties. This stoked an interest in waterfowl and, despite hunting having a far different “shooting” outcome than photography, he picked up valuable tips that have served him over the years.
Watching hunters, Halminski learned how to approach animals and birds without scaring them away. Covered with a mover’s blanket — green on one side and brown on the other — he learned to crawl up to the wildlife whose images he wished to capture. Over time he fashioned a blind out of canvas that he used for years. Even his truck acted as a blind as he would ride the beach and take photos from his window. He has done this so many times, his big lens became scarred from resting on the window ledge.
In the mid-70s, Halminski made a sign out of a sheet of plywood for a photography business and put it up at a space in Rodanthe. Lo and behold, people who had seen his photography at the Marine Resources Center began showing up to buy work. He stayed in Rodanthe for 10 years before opening his Waves studio, Michael Halminski Photography, where he has been for the last 35 years.
While birds and landscapes are his passion, and beachscapes his primary bread and butter, coastal culture and history also call to him. He has photographed commercial fishers pulling in nets filled with speckled trout. He traveled to Portsmouth Island to capture images of the Henry Pigott House, whose occupant was the last to leave the now uninhabited island. Halminski also photographed oystermen working from skipjacks on the Chesapeake Bay.
Today, this photographer still listens for nature’s call, but he has lightened his load. When he goes on a photography junket, he leaves behind his Nikons and the heaving equipment he used to carry with him. He downsized to a small, mirror-less Panasonic Lumix camera. His 2,500 saved green heron photos show that traveling light does not mean coming home empty-handed nor empty-hearted, as Halminski is in his happy place.
Mary Ellen Riddle has been writing the Coast’s art column for more than 27 years and brings to her work a BFA in painting from East Carolina University and a profound passion for the role the arts play in society.