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Capturing the wildlife of Howard County

Taking photographs of birds wasn't always on Michael Oberman's list of things to accomplish in life.

Yet nowadays, the Columbia resident says he "would rather be around a great blue heron than James Brown," one of the 300 music greats he interviewed early on in his first career.

The former music columnist and artists' manager met and wrote about the biggest acts of the late 1960s and early '70s, including David Bowie, Janis Joplin, the Doors and Jefferson Airplane, starting out when he was a 20-year-old journalism student at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Though he maintains strong ties to the music industry and is compiling his interviews into a book, the Baltimore native has successfully reinvented himself as a full-time nature photographer and teacher.

"I've got the knack, the ability and a unique approach, so I figured, 'Why not?'" said Oberman, 64, who goes out with his camera "every nice day."

He estimates he's taken 40,000 photos of herons, which are large wading birds he often observes at Wilde Lake. But he's not a bird-watcher, he says, and he takes so many pictures of birds mainly because "they tend to present themselves more frequently" than other wildlife. He's also taken photos of insects, butterflies, squirrels and other creatures, and done portrait work as well.

Since Oberman became serious about photography in 2004, his expanding portfolio of online images has continued to attract a loyal and ever-growing audience. Publishers, design firms and nonprofit agencies regularly contact him about licensing or donating his shots, he said.

Some of his 700 Facebook fans describe his photos, which he also shoots at Lake Kittamaqundi and Centennial Lake, as "stunning," "amazing" and "superb."

His work appears in kiosks at national parks and in school textbooks in Israel and Malaysia, as well as in an unsanctioned online booklet brazenly titled, "Bird Photos: Stolen from Ozoni 11," which refers to Oberman's user name on Flickr, a website for posting and viewing photos (flickr.com/people/ozoni11/). And he's in talks with a Washington magazine about publishing some of his best shots.

But the most satisfying outcome of his second career may be mentoring online followers who are showing up in increasing numbers at Wilde Lake in hopes of re-creating a small measure of his success. A number of them know him on sight and some have enrolled in his classes, he said.

Not bad for a longtime music industry insider who kept his newspaper job instead of finishing college.

'I use my intuition'

"I've always considered myself an artist," Oberman said from the sunken living room-cum-classroom of his Hickory Ridge townhouse. "I see things that other people don't."

His knack for snapping a bald eagle in flight as it's about to hook a fish with flared talons or an egret as it pops a crayfish into its beak is well-documented on the Internet.

"I shoot for the emotion of the moment," he said, emphasizing that he only uses a hand-held camera and discourages others from plunking tripods down in fragile environmental areas. "I use my intuition and wait for interesting movements."

He never hunkers down for hours, either, but knows the routines of various species and times his photo shoots accordingly.

But despite his confidence, Oberman concedes that he didn't foresee this twist in his life.

Just as he inherited the "Music Makers" newspaper column in the now-defunct Washington Star from his elder brother, Ron, Oberman fell into photography when he began doing album covers and publicity stills for musician clients unhappy with the results of professional photo shoots.

During his many years in a "normal job" as an executive with DMX Music, the Baltimore native began finding time to shoot nature photos with growing dedication. He began taking his Nikon D70 single-lens reflex camera on business trips and shooting wildlife in his downtime from the edges of various rivers.

Though he tucked away his old gear in the late '80s, he grabbed a point-and-shoot digital Fuji model at the last minute when he was leaving for a vacation to New Mexico about seven years ago.

"The light was perfect there, and I knew I was getting some good stuff," he said. But he wasn't prepared for the friends who clamored for reprints of his shots of pueblos and old cave dwellings.

Pleased with the evolving quality of his work, he approached galleries about exhibiting his art and landed his first juried show in Annapolis in 2005, the same year he discovered Flickr. Since he began uploading his photos, Oberman's account has tallied 2 million hits by visitors.

"No one in the U.S. has taken more shots of blue herons than I have," he says, setting that figure at 40,000 of the 300,000 photos he's taken on his Nikon D300, a digital single-lens reflex camera.

Passing it on

His first solo exhibit, titled "The Nature of Wilde Lake … and More," took place in 2007 at Slayton House Gallery and was followed two years later by "The Nature of Wilde Lake: Part 2." The third show in the trilogy, dubbed tongue-in-cheek as "The Nature of Wilde Lake: The Final Chapter," is planned for April 2012.

"Photography has come into its own as an art form and is no longer the stepchild it once was" in art galleries, said Carole Black, gallery director at the Bernice Kish Gallery at Slayton House, which was recently renamed for the retired Wilde Lake village manager.

"Michael's skill lies in action shots and capturing very specific moments in nature in incredibly detailed photographs," she said. "His work is always very well-received."

While he didn't set out to become a nature photographer, Oberman felt that passing on what he's learned was the natural next step in his personal journey. He's the rare magician who's willing to share the secrets in his bag of tricks, and for that his students are grateful.

"I went to his 2007 show and I was just knocked over," said David Humes, an amateur photographer and engineer at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Research Lab near Laurel. "His techniques are so highly evolved and his [photos of] birds in flight are just impeccable."

After discovering online that Oberman offers a two-day course, the Ellicott City resident jumped at the chance to sign up for an April session. Afterward, he said, he "made a quantum leap over what I was doing before, and the results were immediate. It was a privilege to be in his class."

Thomas Andres, honorary research associate at the New York Botanical Garden, made a pilgrimage to Columbia from the Bronx just to learn from Oberman.

"I wasn't getting the results that Michael was," said Andres, a nature lover since childhood. One enlightening lesson involved the camera settings required for best capturing birds in flight, combinations Andres said he'd never before considered.

"We sat at a picnic table by a lake in suburbia, not some remote wilderness area" as one might expect, he said. "He's just that great a photographer and teacher."

Oberman says he's met people all over the world, thanks to his profession.

"But I've photographed 100 species of wildlife just in Columbia," he said. "I've been an avid witness to nature right here."

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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