Photography has captured Tony Pratt's attention for as long as he can remember. Life Magazine, National Geographic, Sports Illustrated; no matter the subject, Pratt was enthralled by the imagery.
“I never did anything except look at the pictures. I didn't read a word for 20 years,” said Pratt, thinking back to his childhood.
It was during his formative years that his love for photography began to develop. His father and grandfather often had cameras around their necks, and Pratt's childhood best friend was also a budding young photographer.
“I remember going down to the Christmas tree one year when I was about 10 years old and there was a box under the tree that said 'Open me first!',” he said. “I knew it was a camera before I even opened it. It was the best Christmas ever.”
“Open me first” tags accompanied Kodak cameras in the 1950s and encouraged the recipient to capture the occasion with the first gift they received. Pratt has been capturing moments just like that for more than 50 years.
“As far back as I remember, everything is very visual,” he said. “My memory is almost like a visual memory. I remember everything in actions that play out rather than words that are written.”
Pratt is the administrator of shoreline and waterway section of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. Many people know him for his work with beach replenishment along the Delaware coast but might be likely less familiar with his photography.
Pratt was born in Baltimore in 1950, but moved to Lexington, Mass., at 4 years old. His family also briefly lived in Connecticut and in Germany. He studied coastal geology at Hampshire College and got a job at the University of Massachusetts shortly after graduation.
He moved to Delaware in the late 1970s so his wife Wendy could earn a master's degree at the University of Delaware's College of Marine Studies. The timing was right to make the move because research grant money at UMass had dried up, Pratt said.
“I came down for the two-year stay, and here we are all those years later,” he said.
Pratt worked in the maricultural labs at UD growing oysters. His schedule provided plenty of time to explore the Cape Region with his camera.
“I took a lot of pictures,” he said. “I have a lot of pictures in my file of Lewes in the late 1970s.”
Pratt was already familiar with the Delmarva Peninsula; during his childhood his family vacationed in Ocean City, Md., every summer. As he got older, he spent his summers in Ocean City working in restaurants. He was less familiar with Lewes.
“Lewes was a town I knew only because the ferry dumped out here,” he said.
Little did he know then that he would one day raise a family in Lewes.
While working for UD, Pratt also picked up a job as a darkroom technician at the Delaware Coast Press. The editor at the time was Terry Plowman, who now publishes Delaware Beach Life Magazine, a publication that has featured Pratt's work on a few occasions. He said his short time with the Coast Press was valuable in his development as a photographer.
Pratt said he fondly remembers the days of working in a darkroom, something that has all but disappeared since the emergence of digital photography.
“The absolute magic of watching an image in the developer come out – nothing beats that,” he said.
Pratt also built a darkroom in his home. He doesn't use it much anymore, but it came in handy a few years ago when his daughter wanted to learn about photography. Like many other photographers, Pratt was initially reluctant to make the switch over to digital photography. For a while, he had a leg in both worlds, using a digital camera for work for the quick turnaround and a film camera for personal use.
“The world was evolving into the instant gratification that we have now with the Instagram, Flickr, 500PX and Facebook,” he said.
While he did eventually dive into the digital world, he said, he will still hang onto his old film cameras.
“I'll never get rid of them,” he said. “They'll probably be paperweights or bookends.”
Pratt got a job with DNREC in 1980. Over the last 30 years, he has been able to use his photography skills in documenting storms, beach erosion and other environmental events.
It was his job at DNREC that connected him with well-known photographer and friend Kevin Fleming. When Fleming was working on his book “Wild Delaware” in 2007, he asked Pratt to help him with finding the best places for wildlife photos.
“I said I would be glad to, but it was going to cost him,” Pratt said. “I wanted to ride around with him sometime when he was photographing.”
They've been going out on shoots together ever since.
“It turned out he and I have a very similar sense of humor, a sort of sick, sarcastic sense of humor,” he said. “We have a good time shooting together. We're still very good friends.”
Pratt and Fleming teach seminars together, and many of Pratt's photos are sold at Fleming's gallery in Rehoboth.
“He has been a really good mentor and friend,” he said.
Pratt believes his photography skill is the best it has ever been.
“My technique is getting better; my understanding of light and form and shadow is getting better,” he said. “You're taking a three-dimensional reality world and trying to put it on a two-dimensional medium. To give that sense of depth and movement and shape is really what it's all about.”
His favorite shoots are landscapes, wildlife, sports and portraiture. He also enjoys black-and-white photography.
“There's a mood and almost a romanticism that comes from a black-and-white image that sometimes color doesn't capture,” he said.
He is a big fan of photographers Clyde Butcher and Ansel Adams, who have taken some of the most iconic black and white photos in history. Adams' work was often taken in national parks such as Yosemite or Yellowstone in the early to mid 1900s.
When it comes to shooting wildlife, he said, it's all about scouting and patience.
“You improve your odds by understanding the animals you're shooting,” he said. “In wildlife photography, you have to employ a kind of hunter's technique and hunter's knowledge. You don't just walk up on what you want to shoot.”
One of Pratt's latest triumphs was capturing one of the few snowy owls visiting the area the last few months. He slowly approached the bird over a 20- to 30-minute period, being careful not to spook it. When he felt comfortable he was close enough to get the shot, he set up and captured one of his best photos yet.
He said wildlife photography is not "right place at the right time." He said it is important to talk with people in the community who know about the animals and their routines. Some of his best nature photos, he said, were found through conversations with bird groups and his own scouting.
It is shots like the snowy owl photo that he loves sharing with the community because, among other things, it shows off the beauty of the Cape Region.
“It's not about me; it's about what's happening out there,” he said. “This is a thing that's going on here. You don't have to go see a Disney film to see it or go to the Discovery Channel and watch Wild America. It's happening right here.”
Pratt resides in the Lewes area with his wife. They have three children, all of whom live in North Carolina. Pratt's work can be found at www.tonypratt.com. He also maintains a blog on the Cape Gazette's website, www.capegazette.com.