Double Exposure: Twin artists capture Alabama’s wildlife
By Nick Thomas
As children, John and Jim Denney were captivated by a cousin’s artwork of medieval knights. During youthful summer vacations, the brothers soon began creating their own drawings and paintings of comic book heroes and dinosaurs.
As the boys matured, so did their art and the pair blossomed into first-rate artists who now specialize in wildlife paintings, photography, and commercial graphic art. But even more remarkable, the brothers are identical twins with near identical careers.
John and Jim were born, raised, and still live (five miles apart) in Alexander City, near Lake Martin – a wildlife oasis in south-central Alabama, just north of Montgomery. It remains the setting for much of their art and photography.
“You never seem to run out of subjects to photograph,” says John. “There’s anything from wildlife in the winter and fall, to fireworks on the 4th of July, and concerts at the amphitheater.”
“Many consider Lake Martin one of the most beautiful lakes in the South,” adds Jim. “One end has great tributaries flowing in for moving water photos, while the other has rocky cliffs and vast open bodies of water for stunning sunsets. The water clarity makes it an excellent area for photographs.”
After studying art and graduating from the University of Montevallo, the brothers worked as graphic artists for the Russell Corporation. While it paid the bills, the pair became progressively more involved in painting, which led to an interest in photography.
“After I became a graphic designer, it made sense to take my own photographs rather than buy stock photos,” says John. “It also helped us as painters,” adds Jim. “Finding good reference material to paint from – photos that show animals in detail – was difficult. This is important when submitting work to contests because they are judged on accuracy and detail.
The Denneys have entered and won many art competitions, including the highly competitive Alabama Waterfowl Art Contest. The winning design is used each year for the state waterfowl hunting license stamp. Between them, the brothers have won four of the last seven contests.
“We’re extremely competitive,” says John. “When Jim won (for the 2008-09 hunting season), I was determined to win the following year, which I did. Being so competitive has driven each of us to do better.”
The Denneys sell their work around the country through their websites, but many clients live in the Lake Martin area. “People from all over the region have homes at the lake and want paintings and photos that relate to the area,” says Jim, who is occasionally contacted by locals when they stumble upon interesting fauna.
“I remember a call from a man who found a fox den, so I went up and constructed a blind,” recalls John. “Finding dens is not easy, so this was a great opportunity to photograph these beautiful animals. Over a period of days I photographed them, but some days I’d sit there for six hours and never see one.”
Great photo opportunities are elusive. “One time I was out photographing wood ducks and saw a mink coming out of a creek,” says Jim. “Right in front of me it attacked a snake. The battle only lasted a few seconds, but I had the wrong lens on my camera for a close-up. It would have made a great shot.”
Birds, however, remain the brothers’ favorite subjects. The Lake Martin area is especially rich in waterfowl and raptors, including bald eagles. The majestic birds – symbols of the nation – were nearly wiped out in the 1960s due to the widespread use of agricultural pesticides (DDT), but made a dramatic comeback through aggressive conservation efforts.
“Bald eagles are now found throughout the state, but I photograph mostly at Lake Martin,” says John. “I first started seeing them on the lake around 2002 and they were a very rare sight. These days I see them on a fairly regular basis.”
For amateurs hoping to photograph bald eagles, John says fall is the best viewing time, since they may venture further from their nests in search of food during the breeding season. He recommends early morning or late afternoon surveillance, when they are more active, and using a minimum 300 mm good quality lens and a heavy tripod.
“You also need patience to be a wildlife photographer,” says Jim. “It helps to be a good woodsman and to learn the animals’ habits. For example, ducks will often come to the same area at the same time of the day. Studying animal behavior and their patterns can save a lot of time. And get the best equipment you can afford.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, John and Jim even use the same camera model. “We both have a Nikon D300,” said Jim. “It just made sense to get the same brand so we can swap lenses back and forth.”
They also both have near-identical websites (www.johndenney.com and www.jimdenneyart.com). “I told John we can’t have them exactly the same, they’ve got to be slightly different,” says Jim. “So mine has a black background and his is white!”
Despite the incredible similarities in their lives and careers, there is one area in which the brothers will never agree. “John is an Alabama fan, and I’m for Auburn,” says Jim. “Our mom went to Alabama and dad graduated from Auburn, so we think it’s only fair to split the loyalties!”
Auburn University at Montgomery professor and freelance writer Nick Thomas has written for more than 300 magazines and newspapers. Contact him at his blog: http://getnickt.blogspot.com.