NEWPORT NEWS — For his 1979 graduation from the College of William & Mary, Michael Poplawski’s parents gave him $200. He spent it all on a 35mm manual focus film camera.
Poplawski was a geology and biology student who had never taken a photography class. He still hasn’t, and he swears his pictures of people are invariably unflattering.
Yet his images of landscapes and wildlife in Newport News parks now hang in offices all over the city. Since 2000, they also have filled a popular local calendar.
As director of the city’s Parks, Recreation & Tourism, Poplawski describes himself as an amateur snapper blessed to have regular exposure to the natural splendor within a bustling city.
“A lot of people will look at these pictures and say, ‘Wow, that’s Newport News?’” he says. “Yes, they’re all Newport News. Nothing is photoshopped or set up by me. Often my camera is just on an automatic setting. The beauty is not anything you really have to search hard for.”
The 2,000 calendars printed each year, distributed to various local organizations and also sold by Parks & Rec for $5 apiece, are a powerful marketing tool, adds Renee Popernack, promotions coordinator for the department.
“People discover our lesser-known parks,” Popernack. “If you like a photo but do not know anything about that park, you can look it up on the chart on the back page and learn about its unique features.”
A longtime hobby
During his 44-year career with the parks department – which began as a part-time park ranger aide as a student at Menchville High School – Poplawski has shot extensively in all of the city’s 37 historical, recreational and natural parks. He keeps a camera in the back of his SUV at all times.
From the 0.3-acre miniparks on 29th and 47th streets to the 7,711-acre Newport News Park, Poplawski has captured scenes of sunsets and sunrises, snow and sun, day and night, water and land: rays of sun sparkling through the branches of a 200-plus-year beech tree at Causey’s Mill Park; white-tailed deer peeking through high grasses at Riverview Farm Park; a winter sunrise at King-Lincoln Park; pink lady slipper orchids nestled in leaves and pine needles at Newport News Park.
Over the years, Poplawski has archived roughly 80,000 slides and, in the post-film era, 700,000 digital images. Other than a rare silhouette, he doesn’t include humans or cars in his shots.
“Those tend to date photos,” he explains. “I want people to concentrate on the scenery instead.”
Poplawski, a longtime park ranger and father of three who has held his current job since 2003, moved to Newport News with his Air Force family when he was in second grade. A lifelong nature lover, he collected pine cones and empty birds’ nests as a boy and remembers the pure darkness at Newport News Park before the construction of Patrick Henry Mall.
His photography has given an intimate knowledge of city parks, from trees that have fallen to individual flowers that have never failed to bloom. Snowy scenes, already stark and dramatic, tend to be easiest to shoot; animals, much less so.
“If I don’t have my camera, they’ll decide to build a pyramid,” he jokes. “As soon as I do, they decide, ‘Let’s scatter now.’”
Creating a calendar
The Newport News Parks calendar usually goes on sale by Thanksgiving and includes a map of locations along with park events and festivals. The department sells several hundred a year; last year, 114 sold at the entrance gate to the annual holiday Celebration in Lights alone, Popernack says.
Staff members help Poplawski whittle all his images down to 12 photos. Sometimes, his physical recollections of a moment shape his view of a photograph, such as a foggy shot that feels peaceful to him but “totally spooky” to someone who wasn’t there.
Poplawski’s name, meanwhile, appears only once – on the back cover.
“I would far rather people never knew who the photographer is but to ask that question: ‘That’s Newport News?’” he says.
And then, he hopes they’ll venture out and see for themselves.