A chipmunk hunkering in a downspout. A blue jay sneaking up behind a red-tailed hawk. But also luminous, otherworldly miniature mushrooms. Snails. Weevils. Skinks. An aphid in a dewdrop. A tiny sweat bee on a purple-hued grass seed.
Or a favorite of his lately: gelatinous, bacteria-eating blobs known as slime molds.
A macro photographer (as in really close up), Kevin Gaston focuses on finding small creatures and making them big.
His girlfriend, thinking he had some talent with pictures he took on his cellphone, got him a camera as a Christmas gift in 2014. He went to Piedmont Park to try it out.
He hasn’t stopped. Five days a week, the 55-year-old hops on two different buses to get from his modest home in southeast Atlanta to the park in the heart of the city.
He’s become a fixture, crouching near bushes, staring at the ground, scanning the trees, doing his sideways crab walk. He’s not uninterested in the people around him. He loves chatting with them, in fact. He’s just mesmerized by other, half-hidden worlds.
“I could photograph one species for the rest of my life and still not capture it doing everything,” he says.
It’s a bit like the Dr. Seuss’ “Horton Hears a Who!” book, where an elephant discerns the faintest sound from a tiny world others are unaware of. “He talks to a dust speck! He’s out of his head!”
It isn’t always clear what will draw Gaston’s attention. On a recent outing, he stoops over a fallen tree branch lying in the grass and peruses the bark for barely visible creatures. Later, ducks waddle and flap their wings near Lake Clara Meer, but he pays them no mind. Squirrels forage near the swimming pool. He glances, but ... ehh.
Then one squirrel turns just the right way, showing his belly, holding a nut in his paws. The lighting is good. Gaston tries to lock eyes with the fluffy-tailed creature.
“This is the process of me asking the squirrel if it is OK for me to be photographing it,” he explains.
The squirrel, maybe 20 feet away, doesn’t flinch. Gaston raises his camera with its long 600mm lens. He snaps the shutter, but only once, before two women, chatting and walking a dog, approach on the path. The squirrel scampers to the closest tree. Gaston shows no indignation.
At other times, his camera is only an inch from tiny creations he’s photographing. Like aphids, pear-shaped insects that are 1/16- to 1/8-inch-long. Or slime mold stalks no taller than a couple stacked pennies.
Gaston has rules for himself. He won’t try to influence an animal’s behavior to get a better shot. He won’t climb trees — it could damage the habitat for another creature. He won’t use a tripod — it’s too cumbersome and can prevent him from getting on eye level with the subject. Assuming it has eyes, that is.
He tries to start his sessions a few minutes after sunrise, when the light is good and before the heat of the day curbs animal activity. He often shoots for a couple hours. Each part of the park is rich with different finds.
Dewdrops and insects? At the park’s north end, where the elevation is low, the land is wet and there’s plenty of shade. Migrating birds? The lake. Bullfrogs? The botanical garden. Red-tailed hawks? The southern side of the park and the trail around the lake.
Sometimes Gaston goes to the park with a specific theme or two in mind — maybe it’ll be a hummingbird day or a mushroom session. But he finds himself missing other interesting life along the way, just as other visitors at the park do. He reminds himself to be open to the randomness of the world.
“I can’t rely on anything to happen the way that I expect it to,” he says. “I have to clear my mind and be prepared for anything.”
Near trees at the edge of The Meadow, he does that sideways crabwalk.
What does he see? The crows?
Gaston circles. A hawk — a juvenile Cooper’s hawk, he says later — swoops down to harass crows in the grass. Why? Gaston isn’t sure, but he’s often seen the two species go at each other. Another Cooper’s hawk appears from a different angle.
A sweaty jogger trots by, unaware of the unfolding drama or Gaston.
Then comes Jason Seebode, a dog trainer with his cellphone out and three leashed doodles to keep track of. He doesn’t seem to notice the bird ruckus, but he’s seen the photographer many times before.
Years ago, when Seebode first spotted him, Gaston “was down in the bushes. It was kind of weird watching it. What’s that guy doing? He moves slowly. Then I saw him again. And again. And again. He is just doing his thing.”
Gaston built a career as a graphic designer, crafting corporate logos, brochures, business cards and annual reports. He lives frugally. He doesn’t have a car. He says he isn’t rich.
For years he’s gradually been getting fewer and fewer freelance design assignments, and he hopes to soon fully retire from the graphic work. “Technically,” he says, he still has a girlfriend, the same woman who gave him the camera, but she is in Oregon now.
Gaston has never sold a print of his photos, though a friend once bought him lunch after Gaston gave him an image.
But he has allowed some others to use his photos, including the Piedmont Park Conservancy and Georgia Audubon.
Mostly, he is an avid poster on Facebook, such as on his personal site (https://www.facebook.com/kevin.gaston.54), now up to 1,700 friends, Georgia Mushrooming (nearly 24,000 members), Georgia Wildlife and Landscape Photography (”NO FLOWER GARDEN SHOTS”), Georgia Nature Photographers Association and Macro Photography.
“People come to my page for a break,” he says. He mostly avoids politics.
He has posted thousands of photos over the years.
“I still remember my very first bird. It was a Carolina wren.”
But he didn’t know that at the time. He incorrectly labeled it online as a sparrow because, well, it was small. “Which shows how little I knew when I got into this.”
He and two siblings were raised by a single mom. They lived in a subsidized apartment, squeezed among Atlanta public housing projects. His only real connection with nature was through what he saw on TV.
“This,” he says, “is my second childhood.”