“The morning was beautiful,” says photographer Albert Horner as he walks into his darkroom and picks up a recent photograph that will be part of the New Jersey State Museum exhibition “Preserving the Pinelands: Albert Horner’s Portraits of a National Treasure,” opening on Saturday, October 12.
Horner continues talking about his morning excursion to one of his regular photography sites, Beaver Dam in the Wharton State Forest — New Jersey’s largest forest.
He says he headed out around 5 a.m. with a fellow photographer. “It was just sort of a ‘let’s go there!’ So we went and stayed. All the conditions were right. There was a mist on the water that turned into a fog. As it went away the sun came up and started lighting up different areas.”
That is when he found what he wanted: a successful photograph. Then he called it a day and headed back to his house in Medford Lakes, a small borough that is one of the gateways to the New Jersey Pinelands.
With about 1.1 million acres or 22 percent of New Jersey’s land mass, the forest is the largest open space area between Boston and Richmond.
“I’ve been in this location for 22 years,” he says about the rustic single-story home that he shares with his wife. A daughter lives in a nearby town, another in Washington D.C.
Now moving into his backyard — a small park-like setting — and sitting under an umbrella-shaded table next to a pond with running water, Horner starts talking shop.
“For the last 14 years I have almost exclusively photographed the New Jersey Pinelands,” he says about how he became a single subject photographer. “I realized the intuitive photographer photographs where they live or lives where they photograph.”
That revelation hit him after several photography excursions to Europe and the American West brought little satisfaction in terms of photos taken.
“I spent at lot of my life (in the Pinelands),” he continues. “It was my area of exploration since I was able to drive. So I’m familiar with its central core. And I know the right spot to go at the right time.”
He also made another choice. “I reduced my expectations and look for only 12 successful, printable photographs per year.”
That, he says, comes from his approach. “When I take a photograph, I have the image in my head of what it is going to look like on the wall. So if it meets my criteria, I take the photo.”
Since he uses a digital camera, he also thinks beyond the lens. “I know before I take the photo what I can do in PhotoShop. Not that it’s magic; PhotoShop isn’t going to make a good photo. But I can control shadows and highlights. So I preconceive the image.”
But, to be clear, he says his main intent is “to create exactly what I see.” And what he looks for is a combination of stillness, air, light, and water.
To get the right photo he says he uses his “gut feeling” to get something that “looks like the Pinelands. Something that evokes an emotion to me, (something that) makes it attractive and beautiful.”
He is also guided by his habits and preferences. He photographs only in the morning so there is mist that will make colors more luminous. The air must be still because he uses long exposures, so windy and rainy days won’t work. And the equipment must be capable and quality dependable: He uses only Canon cameras, Zeiss lenses, and Epson printers.
Horner says he has not always lived so close to the Pines. He was born in 1946 in Riverside, New Jersey. With a salesman father living in Florida, he was brought up by his mother who made sure they were rooted to nearby communities and institutions.
His early experience with the Pinelands was when he spent time at a boyhood friend’s cottage on Lake Atsion. There, he says, he learned to smell the air.
After being drafted and serving in Europe, getting married, and working with a vehicle renting service, he moved to another Pinelands town, Medford, and started a sporting goods store.
He eventually sold the shop and became a representative for a national fishing line distributor.
He says he had an interest in photography when he was in his 20s and someone gave him a film camera. He became so interested he built his own darkroom.
Then family, work, and a move to a smaller house pushed photography to the back of his mind until retirement enabled him to pick up a camera again. “I decided to build a digital darkroom and jumped into digital photography.”
Since then he has amassed a strong collection of Pinelands images, saying “I have 150 images I would be proud to print and hang anywhere.” Or as a Courier Post newspaper article put it, images that are “Picture-perfect Pinelands.”
“It is all self-taught,” he says about his images. “The greatest lesson I had is an incredible library of coffee table photography books — people form Europe and us photographers. It gives you an understanding of how things can be done — how to use light and composition. I don’t imitate them, but I use them as stimulus.”
The result has been his own book, “Pinelands: New Jersey’s Suburban Wilderness,” published by Schiffer Publishing; and various exhibitions, including one at the D&R Greenway in Princeton. He is also on demand for talks regarding his work and the Pinelands.
The New Jersey State Museum exhibition — featuring nearly 40 of his works — started when he had his book sent to museum director Margaret O’Reilly.
“I really wanted to get an exhibit at the State Museum because (the Pinelands) is a Jersey thing and important to the state,” he says.
He adds that the importance is not just photographic but also environmental.
Calling himself a Pinelands advocate and preservationist, Horner says, “Since the (Pinelands) comprehensive management plan was put in place 40 years ago, there has always been some kind of intrusion into the Pinelands, like builders and developers. There has always been a lot of pressure. People owned property in the Pinelands and when it was preserved it wasn’t easy for the towns and municipalities to deal with. Today the biggest problem that I see are off-road vehicles — dirt bikes and ATVs. It’s become a Wild West area. They’ve been banned from the Pinelands, but the laws have been reduced.”
The effect, he says, is that these vehicles and some trucks are destroying wet lands, paleo-dunes, hills and ridges, open forest, and the infrastructure of the road.
His activism is demonstrated by a phone call from another activist. And while it briefly interrupts the interview, it confirms Horner’s plan to meet at an upcoming Pinelands ATV event to record the activities.
“I was waiting for that call,” he says as he returns to the exhibition — one he hopes helps people to realize “how important the Pinelands are to our state — for ecological importance, recreation, and wildness. It is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. If it’s important to the world, it should be important to New Jersey.”
Then he adds a simple hope: that “people fall in love with the Pinelands and take care of it.”
Preserving the Pinelands: Albert Horner’s Portraits of a National Treasure, New Jersey State Museum, 205 West State Street, Trenton. Saturday, October 12, through June 28, 2020. Tuesdays through Sundays, 9 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Free, donations requested. 609-292-5420 or www.statemuseumnj.gov.