Wildlife Photographer of the Year 53 (2017-8)


exhibition poster outside the museum

At the entrance to the exhibition, text informs one that the jury’s selection is like “a call to action – a plea to band together and cease our destruction of the natural world.

From an entry of some 50,000 images only 100 appear; these are the award winners and we are asked to respect their copyright and not make copies of the images which begs questions about the real motives behind this exhibition being “a call to action”! As Lewis Blackwell, chair of the jury, writes of the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2017 … “images this good can help inspire and educate”. However one does have the facility to upload images from the exhibition to Facebook so the polite refusal I got to use images on my blog appears misplaced!! (In fact, I emailed the press office at the museum who responded with permission to use a number of images; attendants are sometime volunteers who do not know the rules.)

Unfortunately by encouraging a high level of competition often dependent on expensive camera gear and access to special locations, wildlife photography is not being allowed to develop as a medium concerned with accurate representation of subjects as their portrayal is conditioned by popular aesthetics such as oversaturated colours and heavy contrast. Images are designed for impact rather than informing the viewer.

At the entrance I am told there is no audio guide yet one can go online and listen to the captions available in a variety of different languages. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/wpy/captions

Not only are the photographers mentioned by name, technical details are included while there is a world map to show where the image was made. There is a wealth of knowledge on offer to help better understand the subject being portrayed.

The photographs appear on screen rather than as prints though elsewhere when this exhibition tours, prints may be made. Arguably backlit photographs shown via the screen is the best way to view the image as they reflect the original view of the photographer.


Ancient Ritual

The ancient ritual 
Brian Skerry, USA 
(Winner 2017, Behaviour: Amphibians and Reptiles) 

The winner of amphibian and reptile behaviour section is Brian Skerry with a photograph of a turtle on a beach made with flash and a long exposure so that the turtle detail remains while the sea swirls around in the background. A judge commented on the eerie atmosphere that made her consider the vulnerability of the species. In my view, the ghostly shadows to the right of the turtle rather spoil this image.

A finalist of the Invertebrates behaviour section is a Hungarian Imre Potyo who has managed to catch a couple of moths hunting at night by using a double exposure and stroboscopic flash. Two lenses were used also a torch to catch both moths and night sky.

A finalist of the animals in the environment category is Jaime Rojo from Spain which shows a mass of butterflies with only one just below centre with its’ wings out. Although visually stunning, one needs what is happening pointing out as it is not clear.

The next image of a lone male ibex sheltering in the snow on a precipitous cliff face is visually compelling as it takes a moment for the eye to adjust.

The incubator bird © Gerry Pearce - Wildlife Photographer of the Year

The incubator bird 
Gerry Pearce, UK/Australia (Winner 2017, Behaviour: Birds) 


None of the five bird behaviour photographs interest me much although one technicality used in two photographs is remote flash. One of these, an up close view of Maribou Storks at a kill after the vultures had left is striking.


Hornbill interacting with Langur monkey by Dhanu Paran

I am more impressed by an image called “Hornbill losing patience” made by a young Indian photographer called Dhanu Paran who shows a Great Hornbill flapping it’s wings at a langur monkey that has strayed too close for comfort. Apparently he trekked for 22 kilometres to make this image. (The photographer gave me his permission to use this image after I contacted him).

Beside this is another image of wild boar crossing a floodlit road at night who are for some reason using the Zebra crossing marked out for pedestrian use. Made in Spain this image is both humorous and an interesting insight into what goes on while the city sleeps.

Version 2

Polar pas de deux 
Eilo Elvinger, Luxembourg 
Winner 2017, Black and white

The animal portraits section includes both colour and monochrome sections. One of these strikes me on account of the backlighting which is not supplied by nature but by stroboscopic flashes.

 The People’s Choice category is a slideshow from which one can choose an image for the award; images are fully onscreen for nine seconds each. There are some good bird images here such as a stork head hanging ponderously over a chick that sits between the adults legs and an reddish-orange eyed owl that looks directly down at the photographer from a tangle of branches yet my overall favourite is a black and white image of an African man sitting on the back seat of an automobile with his arms around an ape; both ape and human are smiling warmly apparently thoroughly enjoying each other’s company. Titled “Pikin and Apolinaire” this photograph is by Jo Anne MacArthur from Canada and gets my vote. (I later learn that this image is selected as the winner).


Memorial to a species © Brent Stirton - Wildlife Photographer of the Year

 Memorial to a species 
Brent Stirton, South Africa 
Grand title winner 2017 
(Also winner of The Wildlife Photojournalist Award: Story category)

The overall winner of the competition is from the documentary portfolio section and reveals a heart rendering image of a dead black bull rhino lying on the ground with one eye almost open and the red fleshy area from where the horn has been cut away. “Memorial to a species” is by Brent Stilton who works on long term projects for National Geographic. Fill flash has been used and so allows the sky detail to be retained; light filters through to be shown in detail, an important symbol in the message behind this image. 07.02

Under Urban wildlife, I am struck by Cat Attack in which a cat claws at a Lesser Kestrel defending it’s nest in Matera, a village that is home to Europe’s largest breeding colony of this species.

 There are so many great images in this exhibition as always but I shall allow myself one more which is by Charlie Hamilton James; at first it looks like a portrait of a young native girl her head only visible above green water until one spots the small pet tamarin sitting in her hair. This was a finalist in the Wildlife Photojournalist Award.

The final image I am showing is another one the organisers allowed me to download …

The good life © Daniel Nelson - Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Peter Delaney, Ireland/South Africa 
Winner 2017, Animal Portraits







Young Photographers











Victorian Giants at The National Portrait Gallery April 2018

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As I walked across Leicester Square, I could not help noticing how alike the Odeon cinema is to a church albeit one not pointing east!

This exhibition is described by The National Portrait Gallery who are staging it between the 1’st of March and the 20’th May 2018 as follows …

“This major exhibition is the first to examine the relationship between four ground-breaking Victorian artists: Julia Margaret Cameron (1815–79), Lewis Carroll (1832–98), Lady Clementina Hawarden (1822–65) and Oscar Rejlander (1813–75). Drawn from public and private collections internationally, the exhibition features some of the most breath-taking images in photographic history. Influenced by historical painting and frequently associated with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the four artists formed a bridge between the art of the past and the art of the future, standing as true giants in Victorian photography.

Featuring striking portraits of sitters such as Charles Darwin, Alice Liddell, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Thomas Carlyle, George Frederic Watts, Ellen Terry and Alfred, Lord Tennyson.”

What do the critics make of the show? Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Jones says “This captivating show proves that the most exciting thing happening in Victorian art was photography … ” and goes on to praise Julia Margaret Cameron … “There is a sensitivity to the magic of being human in Cameron’s portraits that makes her the greatest British artist of her time” a view that many would surely contest yet seems to echo what the critic Walter Benjamin wrote in his short history of photography about this era which existed before the commercialisation of the medium. Lewis Carrol wrote of her in 1864, ‘Hers are all taken purposely out of focus … Some are very picturesque – some merely hideous – however, she talks of them as if they were triumphs in art”.

Jones emphasises the importance of women in this show; “Hawarden’s pictures of Victorian women have an intimacy that transcends time and a mystery that asserts the autonomy of her subjects. They are feminist, and gothic too, in their eerie atmosphere.

Writing in The Daily Telegraph, Gaby Wood is drawn to Hawarden describing her as “the greatest discovery in the exhibition is a thrillingly strange image by Hawarden, to my mind always the most intriguing photographer of the four.” Wood goes on to describe Lady Hawarden as a Scottish countess when in fact she was Irish as was her husband, Cornwallis Maude, 1st Earl de Montalt.

Of the four art photographers showing, two are women, Julia Margaret Cameron and Lady Clementina Hawarden, two are men, Lewis Carroll and Oscar Rejlander.

Yet what of my own response to the exhibition?

My viewing started with ordering the catalogue to see what it was about beforehand and read an essay about it. Certainly the pleasure of seeing such work comes from actually viewing the original artworks rather than seeing their reproductions so a catalogue does not pre-empt the exhibition rather prepares one for it.

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signage outside the National Portrait Gallery


The title of this exhibition does seem somewhat contentious if not ironical. The Victorian Giants when meaning the photographers exhibited, can be considered so in relation to photography yet some of their subjects such as Tennyson and Darwin fit the description much better. In regards to these photographers being the birth of art photography, this raises questions about art photography and who might have originated it; did art photography start in England? What about Fox Talbot who is often considered both artist and scientist. In fact, the catalogue contains an essay about art photography (pp 98 to 104). This deals with the legitimacy of photography as art as reflected in writings of the time; of interest here is Alfred Wall who suggested that as the art establishment formally rejected photography as art by regarding it as a mechanical medium then it could well be time to think of photography in a different way although this did not really come about until later in the twentieth century and the birth of Modernist photography. Certainly Reijlander had interesting points to make about art and photography as in his “Apology for Photography” and such comments certainly mark the beginnings of “art photography”.
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the downcast look can be seen in the photograph behind the counter

Waiting to buy a ticket for entrance to the exhibition, I notice a photograph which is interesting in the way the subject has been posed. She neither looks at the camera or upwards but downwards without being downcast. An original posture that might well be frowned at these days.
Exhibition suggests art photography was not able to get underway until the 1850’s and the invention of the wet-plate collodion process. The exhibition shows an excellent video of the way this technology works. However not everything is the same in the film as then since modelling lights are being used for the session thereby greatly reducing the length of time the subject needs to be still and UV light being projected from a lamp to greatly speed up the developing of the print which formerly would have happened under daylight. There are also exhibits of original glass negatives from this time which are illuminated from behind by pressing a button.
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lunch beforehand in the restaurant

Collodion photography to which this exhibition bares testament allowed a different approach to photography; as Prodger writes “Speed began to separate photography from every other medium that had come before it. Not the speed to capture galloping horses or birds in flight – that would come later – but the simple ability to record discrete episodes of time.” (p.89) Exposure time could be of a second or less when before it was a matter of  seconds.
There is a sensitivity to these prints that one tends not to see in contemporary photography; the print material renders a softer image.
Initially, on entering the gallery, a brief show of the four photographers involved in this exhibition. It is not easy to differentiate between their styles although Cameron’s work is often characterised by dark backgrounds rather than the more formal white ones. Rejlander had mastered the technique better than the others whom he taught; this mastery is visible in the high level of detail in his prints.
Photographs of Tennyson and Darwin by both Cameron and Rejlander are interesting to view side by side although they do not reveal great differences of approach.
The suggestion that Carroll may have been a paedophile is not easy to resolve. His relationship with the two Liddell girls appears innocent enough. Likewise although his Andromeda photograph of Kate Terry suggests bondage, Rejlander has made a similar image which was inspired by a Rembrandt painting.
Rejlander also photographed nude women which to Victorian eyes was not as acceptable as painting them! However Rejlander interestingly pointed out that his photographs were accurate in regard to perspective where often painters were not. Photographers making documents for artists is a practice that continues to this day.
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view from the NPG gallery restaurant

One characteristic of these photographs is the use of allegory. This is not unknown in contemporary photography and still an accepted practice yet most photography nowadays more strongly denotes its’ subject. Many of the subjects do not look directly at the camera but to one side.
Photographs like The Chimney Sweep by Rejlander point towards social documentary rather than just portraiture but the photographic process was not yet suitable for street photography.

“Art must assist photography!” by Oscar Gustav Rejlander (under licence from The National Portrait Gallery)
albumen print, 1856

Most of the photographs are portraits of females. Is there a reason for this? Perhaps it is a reflection of the then presiding view of photography as only a “handmaiden” of the Arts with women likewise being regarded of secondary importance.
Conceptually, this meant allowing the particular to stand for the universal,  and accepting that photographs, as specific and as detailed as they might be, can stand for something beyond what is actually recorded.
This was an enjoyable exhibition. Apart from visiting it with an old friend, I ran in to another old friend while in the gallery. These images have a beauty perhaps in their relative simplicity though the manner of their making involved a complex process not easy to conduct.
Of incidental interest was The Wilson Centre of Photography whose UK division supplied a number of the prints; more here from the Daily Telegraph.