Beauty and the Beach

Taking a close look at the treasures on TCI beaches.

By Jody Rathgeb ~ Photos By Marta Morton and Tom Rathgeb

Beach potpourri is a natural work of art.

The renowned beaches of the Turks & Caicos Islands provide the backbone for so many activities, from paddleboarding and parasailing to quiet beach walks. Yet here’s something that those enjoying the activities might not realize: You really are walking on bone, if not a literal backbone. That soft, white sand is created from broken-down coral and shells, the exoskeletons of invertebrate marine mollusks.
Beachcombers and collectors of shells might be surprised to know that the sand they sift through to find “treasures” was once those very treasures, created through bio-erosion. In the geological long view, you can’t have your beach and walk on it, too!

Multi-colored periwinkles are among the most visible and familiar shells.

Yes, it’s hard to pass by a perfect pink-and-yellow sunrise tellin or a pristine sun-bleached sand dollar, but here’s an alternative souvenir suggestion: Photograph those shells to create your own stunning display that’s beautiful by nature! Our featured photographers here, Marta Morton and Tom Rathgeb, offer some ideas and suggestions for carrying home shells without getting sand in your suitcase.

The natural setting

Sunrise tellin in a natural setting.

Marta Morton, owner/manager of Harbour Club Villas, claims, “I’m not a photographer,” yet she takes thousands of pictures of “whatever catches my eye” when she walks on any of Providenciales’ beaches. She has found shell treasures at Smith’s Reef, Southwest Bluff and Half Moon Bay, which she shoots in their natural settings and light. “I always find something to take,” she says.
Marta uses “my little point-and-shoot” as her camera, a Canon Power Shot SX-720-HS with a 40x optical zoom. “I don’t do anything special,” she says, although she admits, “I can spend an hour doing different angles.” Occasionally, she will “pose” her subjects.
She finishes her photos using a program called ACD-See, using minimal enhancement: perhaps boosting colour or adding to the reflection of sparkling water.
Marta adds that while she knows she should organise her photos better and could print some favourites, it gives her pleasure to go through them and remember quiet days of beachcombing. And isn’t that the purpose of a souvenir?

Isolated beauty

Sunrise Tellin in a studio setting.

Tom Rathgeb, who bases himself on North Caicos during frequent visits, takes a more “studio” approach to shell photography, bringing each shell indoors and placing it on a black background. An old trunk used as a coffee table in his Whitby home ably serves that purpose, he says. Then, “I wait for the afternoon sun coming through the patio doors and re-examine the shell to ensure that the lighting captures what I feel is the shell’s best side.” After checking focus, ISO, aperture, lighting and depth of field, he composes the shot through the camera and takes several shots from the various angles around his feature point.
Tom uses a Nikon D3400 with a Nikon DX AF-S 18-55, 1:3.5-5.6G lens. “Sometimes, if the shell is small, I will use a Tiffen 52mm+2 enlarging lens. I use auto-area autofocus since my eyes are not good enough for manual focusing.”
He continues, “Carrying a traditional camera, with an additional lens, is some trouble, especially since TSA can’t make up its mind if a camera or a lens is an electronic device that has to be taken out of your carry-on. But I find a traditional camera is much more flexible in its settings than a phone camera,” and offers more control. “However, I have seen many phone camera photos that rival traditional cameras as long as you know and live within its limitations.”

This ethereal beauty is likely a partridge tun shell.

To process his photos, Tom goes to Adobe Photoshop 10. He first makes the background colour a purer black with the paint bucket tool, then uses the “quick edit” function to adjust and enhance colour, shine and shadows. He prints the photos himself onto 8 x 10 glossy photo paper. “I like to display the photos in an 11 x 14 mat and simple black frame, as I want the focus to be on the shell. I have contemplated sending the photos out for printing in larger sizes, but have not yet explored that option.”

Sea biscuits are related to sand dollars.

Tom, like Marta, is not a professional photographer, but he has been pushing toward more developed skills and presentation in photography. His series of shell photos is a step in that direction. And why shells? You can ask any beachcomber, but Tom articulates it well, “Shells are like jewels. While we may admire jewels when worn, they are mere adjuncts of the beauty of the person wearing them. Real beauty lies in the jewel itself as well. In my mind, shells, isolated by themselves, with no other distractions, are beautiful in and of themselves. I want to capture and bring out that beauty, and enhance the shell’s shapes, colours and shine, and share that creation with others. Shells make one marvel at the diversity of nature and it is my hope to illustrate some small part of that diversity.”

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On the Cover

Aysha Stephen is Grand Turk’s newest artistic sensation, renowned for her iconic “Cool Donkeys” paintings. Her creations are quite the hit with visitors to TDB Fine Arts Gallery. It recently opened within the Turks & Caicos National Museum on Grand Turk and is dedicated to showcasing art “Made in TCI.

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