GAITHERSBURG – Ken Conger, wildlife photographer and author of the new book, “Wildlife’s Greatest Connection: A Mother and Her Young”, recently attended the Sugarloaf Crafts Festival at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds to display his work.
Conger is from New Kent County, a small county in Virginia 20 miles west of Williamsburg. This was Conger’s fourth visit to the Sugarloaf Crafts Festival.
“[The festival] has been great, today’s weather is blowy and cold, but we have a nice turnout,” said Conger.
Conger showed affection for every natural place that he has visited.
“Every place is special for different reasons. I love the big cats in Africa, I love the big bears in Alaska, I love the jaguars in the Amazon, and I love the tiger in India.”
“But if I had to choose, I would pick Alaska’s Denali National Park since I was a park ranger there for two years,” said Conger.
Conger said growing up, his parents did not have a lot of money, which meant they camped out in nature instead of staying at motels.
It was at Shenandoah National Park at the age of 10 when he saw his first park ranger and knew what he wanted to do for a career as an adult.
“The guy comes out and he’s got a cool hat and badge and he’s working in a place where people take vacations. To a young guy, this is a no-brainer thing to me,” said Conger.
Conger graduated from college with a wildlife management degree and became a park ranger right out of college. However, he felt that his true calling was wildlife protection and became a Virginia game warden for 30 years.
Game wardens are wildlife protectors who catch poachers. It is very dangerous work, and wardens are seven times more likely to be shot or assaulted than a police officer.
Conger, who has been teaching photography for a number of years, now leads photography tours in several continents, such as in Africa, India, the Amazon, and Alaska.
In addition to these tours, Conger is working on another project: bucket-list species.
“[My bucket list is] things I want to see before I die. My next book is going to be about critically endangered species that will only be on the earth another 10 or 20 years, like the rhino and some crazy species you’ve never even heard of,” said Conger.
One of the endangered species on Conger’s bucket list is the Fossa, native only to Madagascar and predator to the lemurs.
Conger teaches “Wildlife Photography 101” at the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, hosts programs about his travels at camera clubs, and visits art festivals like the Sugarloaf Crafts Festival to build up his traveling fund to work on his bucket-list species.
Conger’s style of animal photography is unique for its intimacy. “You’ll see that maybe 70 to 80 percent of the animals [in my photos] are looking at you,” said Conger.
“I’m trying to achieve that special emotional connection between you and the animal. We’ve started as human beings by looking at animals as a prey species, and as we’ve evolved, there’s become a more emotional bond between us and the animals,” said Conger.
His new book focuses on this emotional connection specifically through the special bond between mother animals and their babies.
Writing “Wildlife’s Greatest Connection” was a challenge for Conger, not because of the photos, but the writing process.
“Sitting down in front of a computer and doing the text was challenging. But the next book [on my bucket-list species] will be easier, because now I know the flow.”
Conger uses a photography style called Bokeh, which creates a creamy, out-of-focus area behind the picture that emphasizes the emotional connection with the subject animal that Conger is looking for, similar to a high school portrait.
When asked what kind of lens he uses, Conger replied: “A true measure of a man is the size of his telephoto lens. And I have a really big one.”
Conger uses a 400 millimeter 2.8 lens. The 2.8 lens is a big lens for light-gathering, which allows the auto-focus function to work efficiently. It is very good in low-light conditions.
“Watching animals, learning about animals, and that whole relationship between the human and the animal is very fascinating to me,” said Conger.