All photographs by Vincent J. Musi
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Selfie, Bear Island
All photographs by Vincent J. Musi

Why it Took Me Eight Years to Photograph My Own Backyard

Photographer Vincent J. Musi spent more than eight years working on a photo story about the ACE Basin—which is currently featured in the November issue of National Geographic Magazine. Emails from his editor, Elizabeth Krist, help tell the saga of why it took so long to photograph his own backyard:

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From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 2/4/12

Any inspiration? I just keep thinking: we’ve set loose an obsessive perfectionist in the middle of a swamp…

E

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Sometimes you just can’t get there from here.

I’ve worked around the world for National Geographic magazine but the most elusive assignment for me has been just 50 miles from my home.

In the summer of 2006 I was commissioned to create a portfolio celebrating South Carolina’s ACE Basin. It’s a special place where three rivers and a community came together to preserve one of the last great watersheds.

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Spanish Moss and Live Oaks located a one hour drive from my home in South Carolina.

At eight years from original proposal to final publication in the November issue, the project should hold the all-time record for the longest time on the schedule at the magazine.

Now don’t blame me entirely, some things came up. I’ve been pulled away for at least six other stories deemed by the editors to be more important. Still, in an attempt to understand why it took so long, I retraced the last eight years in emails from Senior Photo Editor Elizabeth Krist. What follows is a very one-sided account, edited for brevity and to make me look good.

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I amassed a collection of mostly 19th century lenses and equipment. Working with vintage large format equipment and modern films was my first idea on how to give the essay a different look. Of course, I knew nothing about this equipment, I just wanted to be like Sally Mann in color.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 10/25/06

Hey, guess what? Ace Basin is scheduled for July 2008, layout due January 1st, 2008. When are the best seasons for you to go into the field? Maybe we could do a pitch meeting early next year?

Elizabeth

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Landscape was never one of my strong suits. What was I thinking? I needed time to get my act together and come up with a stylistic approach. At the same time, Photo Editor Kathy Moran had been calling me about another story and I wondered what it was about.

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2008. Total Fail with 4×5 View Camera. Unintentional double exposure and discovery of hole in shutter curtain that accounts for the “UFO” at the top right.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 9/12/2007

Have you started shooting yet? just curious….

eliz

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That story Kathy was calling about turned into a huge project. It would change my life and keep me on assignment for nearly a year making portraits of really famous animals.

It was a lot of travel. I went to England to photograph a crow; California for a fish; and all the way to Austria to shoot a marmoset who peed all over me.

Yet I couldn’t get to Green Pond, S.C., to save my life. And truthfully, the idea of dodging rattlesnakes and bird-sized mosquitoes was far from my mind. When I got home, I wanted to spend time with my family, recover, and get that marmoset stink out of my clothes.

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The only good picture I ever made with the large format camera was of Charles Lane, an assistant and guide on my first trip. I moved to digital shortly after.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 7/16/2008

Hi, we’re now in the May 2010 issue! So, the pressure’s off.
If you finish sooner, I’m sure they’ll move it up again, but this way you can do it at your own pace….

eliz

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Photo Editor Sadie Quarrier now has me photographing an archaeological site that neither of us could pronounce the name of in Turkey.

Writing Elizabeth from there, I saw utility poles shaking and swaying from my fourth-floor hotel room.

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Controlled Burn. Ernest F. Hollings ACE Basin Wildlife Refuge

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 9/23/2009

An EARTHQUAKE??? Glad you weren’t swallowed up, Vinnie.

[Director of Photography] Kurt [Mutchler] asked me today about Ace Basin. I told him you had made one foray into the field to test out equipment and play with styles, techniques, etc., but that you haven’t done any real shooting yet. Would you say that that’s accurate? I’m assuming you will want to take several small trips next year? (Not just one long trip) We had talked about May 1 as the completion date, but I can change it as we get closer if you feel you need more time.

eliz

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It didn’t seem like three years had passed, but maybe because I was feeling really weak after this last trip to Turkey where we spent time with a family of semi-nomadic Kurdish sheepherders.

Then the South Carolina Department of Health called to tell me I had been diagnosed with Giardia. They wanted to know where I might have gotten it.

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Sunrise, Edisto River. The longest undammed blackwater river in North America.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
12/8/2010

Good news!
Ace Basin moved to Oct 2012.

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Recent travels to Siberia, Kazakhstan, Norway, St. Petersburg, Russia, Edinburgh, Scotland, Indiana, New York, Florida, Minnesota, Colorado, France, England, Turkey…everywhere but the ACE Basin.

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This photograph of young J.D. Cate and his dog after a duck hunt kept the project alive for me and maybe for the editors as well.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 3/30/11

I should probably tell you, even though I really don’t want to, that they’ve talked about killing the story if we can’t wrap up shooting by the end of the year. I keep repeating the fact that you’re so busy because they keep sending you out on other stories, and that the landscape is timeless.

But just giving you a heads up….
E

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Botany Bay Island

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 2/17/12

My feeling is that your coming in to show Ace is the best guarantee that it won’t be killed…

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Pilot Roger Medlin towing us in from the runway on one of our failed attempts.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date: 6/24/2013
sorry to nag, but will you be done with ACE by October 1? THANKS,
E

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The last thing we needed to complete the essay was an aerial, and an aerial was the last thing I wanted to do. Aerials are a delicate balancing act of weather, budget and persistence.

You wait, hope, plan, fail; repeat.

I found a willing pilot and an available aircraft so it became a waiting game over several months. On the very first night the light was great, but we got caught in a severe electrical storm and had to turn back.

Then began a series of outings where the airplane would fail in some way, be it the generator or an electrical short in the avionics.

I wasn’t happy with what I had, but eventually shared my last attempts with Elizabeth in a desperate attempt for more time.

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10/16/2013. 5:25 p.m. A few minutes later, just as the light started to get better, we had to quit and go back to the airport when the airplane broke again. I never went back up again.

From: Elizabeth Krist
Subject: ACE
Date11/20/2013

I love the bottom frame. Are you sure you need to go up again?? I think you should call it quits now. Seriously!
E

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In my mind, I’m not entirely done with the project but after eight years, the story “Lowcountry Legacy” appears in the November 2014 issue of the magazine. Estuary, an exhibit drawn from the project, can be seen from October 21-November 30 at the Charleston Library Society in Charleston South Carolina.

RELATED VIDEO: The Surprising Way Hunters Help Wildlife in South Carolina

Vincent J. Musi lives on Sullivan’s Island, S.C., and was always nice to his mother when she liked his photographs. See more of his work on his website and Proof, and follow him on Twitter and Instagram.