“It was all the dog’s fault,” explains E.J. “Eli” Elithorpe, from the living room of his Bristol home attached to his chainsaw business, White Rock Sport. He got a new Akita accustomed to long walks on a leash. As they’d walk, Eli would hear interesting birdcalls and wonder what the birds were. He began carrying his binoculars.
It was a small step from binoculars to his old, manual-focus Minolta camera, allowing him to capture images of the birds. He soon discovered the need for more lenses. Unfortunately, the new lenses weren’t enough; he often wasn’t quick enough with the manual focus, and he’d end up with a blurry picture of a bush and a vague recollection that there was bird somewhere in it. So he upgraded to a new autofocus camera.
“It becomes a disease,” he explains with a wry smile, speaking of his then blossoming passion for photography, and the seemingly constant need for new and better equipment. He was spending a hundred dollars a week on film developing alone. When digital photography came out, he soon went in that direction, which meant a need for new computer equipment to store and display his images.
Though Eli refers to himself as an amateur photographer and calls his passion a “disease,” the result of his many years of dedication is a collection of stunningly beautiful wildlife photographs, primarily of the avian variety. Some of his work can be seen at his website, www.whiterockphotos.com. That his online gallery shares its name with his chainsaw business is itself interesting. To the first time visitor to White Rock, the setting may seem incongruous. The front room has a small display of new chainsaws and a few workbenches smattered with oil and lined with parts, tools and a few saws in various states of repair. This is where Eli works 8 a.m. until noon, six mornings a week.
If you glance into the back room, you may notice a classic car he is currently restoring for someone (right now it is a 1957 Volkswagen convertible). This is where Eli spends his afternoons, when not photographing. But the classic car shop also has a 1911 Old Town canoe he is (very slowly) restoring. And classical music is playing. A large flat-screen monitor overhead displays the current selection.
And then if you look up at the walls over the front desk, instead of posters of rugged lumberjacks (or scantily clad female models) standing by tall trees with their Jonsereds, you will see some of Eli’s photographs. And that’s when you sense, as Eli acknowledges, that this not a “normal, run-of-the-mill, honky-tonk place.”
His work includes landscape and general wildlife photography, and also a gallery of NASCAR images. But his focus — and his particular gift, though all his photography is compelling — is birds. There is a great variety in his bird work alone. And though he’d one day like to travel to the north Atlantic coast and photograph puffins, one thing that makes this variety all the more startling is that essentially all of it is from the Champlain Valley.
Talking to Eli — who served in the Air Force from 1959-1963 — or looking at what he has done, despite his humility one gets the sense he can do just about anything. Indeed, telling him he can’t do something is probably the best motivation to get him to try. He bought a kayak for photographing waterfowl. It was not a kayak designed to have a rudder. Eli figured out how to add a rudder, so that he could turn the kayak with his feet while following the flight of a bird with his lens.
Some of his photos he also worked really hard at. He recently captured an image of a hummingbird outside his window. There was no luck involved; he waited with his camera and a pot of coffee to get that one particular shot. Most of his other images, though, were more a matter of being in the right place at the right time, with the right equipment; he’ll just go out paddling in his kayak and photograph whatever he finds. Osprey and other birds of prey are among his more common subjects.
The Dead Creek Wildlife Management Area is one of his favorite haunts, and not only because of the abundance and variety of bird life, or the fact that he can get away from the crowds and out to places people can’t walk. It turns out that Eli helped build it. He grew up in Shoreham, and for four summers in his youth, he worked for the Fish and Game Department helping to build the dams that made those wetlands. Now, decades later, paddling his kayak around the little coves and setbacks, he will sometimes break into a big grin at the memory of when it took shape.
Eli doesn’t get out as much now as he used to. In the early days of his photography, he was out almost every day. Now he might have a couple half days a month that he can really devote to photography. Age, he admits, has taken some toll. Still, he’s managed to get photos of birds — like the sandhill crane — that few others even knew existed in Vermont.
Indeed, for all of Eli’s demurring about his own skills or amount of time and energy he still has for photography, he readily admits the best thing about owning his own business is that he can close the doors and head out with his camera when the urge grabs him.
“If someone says ‘bird,’” he tells me, “zoom — I’m out of here.”