A visit to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition

Not a competition winner but one of my own more imaginative nature photographs, this time of a Barn Owl flying in the morning sunlight (wan yellowy morning light has been made more golden).

This was a meeting between a handful of OCA students and OCA tutor, Jose Navarro. I had initiated this because as someone engaged in making nature photographs, I am interested in a more intelligent way of seeing or just looking at images from nature. Since this exhibition is the result of a competition, one might suppose that any scrutiny towards the images is based on whether or not they deserved to win the prizes yet this was not the kind of interest I had and from what Jose Navarro had said to me over a year ago, it was not what interested him either. So the controversy over the wolf jumping over a fence that won a previous competition only to be later disqualified, was not even mentioned rather we were more concerned with the aesthetics.

Being the “organiser” for the day, meant collecting the payment of £10 each from all attendees which I placed in an envelope marked SWAG; this went without hitch and everyone was able to sign the catalogue of the exhibition which was useful for our discussion and made a good gift for Jose. Out of 7 people due to attend, 6 turned up which was enough though we could have stretched to 10. Interestingly, the one attendee who did not appear, is a nature photographer whose website reveals a series of wonderfully crafted images; such work can leave one in awe but I consider nature photography to be something more than a skill and this study day was really about that X factor, about seeing rather than winning.

A Pied Cuckoo being fed by a surrogate parent, Jungle Babbler; a different take on the subject of parasitism by cuckoos but not colourful enough to win anything in the Bird Behaviour category into which it was entered.

Jose started by giving us all a print out about “The Hyper-realism of Simulation” by Jean Baudrillard; for the uninitiated, it can be confusing that many writers on photographic theory have names beginning with the letter B namely Berger, Barthes, Batchen etc which borders on the incredible. The fact that Jose Navarro has no B in his name and neither does Peter Havelland (who wrote the OCA course module Understanding Visual Culture) did not in anyway impinge on our appreciation of Jose offering us some basic advice about looking at the photographs we were about to see. He also gave us a CD in the goodie bag that contained an article by Richard Mabey about voyeurism in nature photography as well as text by Guy Debord from the book Society of the Spectacle. I shall return to these later because at the time, we did not refer to the information merely bagged it; however, quotes from Debord have been added to give depth to this account of seeing the exhibition.

Jose talked about the way in which specific representation of the natural world tends to be a spectacle rather than a genuine representation. The natural world is something that transcends us yet when we exhibit it we become voyeurs, spectators. The exhibition reveals the desire to catalogue the natural world. In “Society of the Spectacle” Guy Debord writes, “The images detached from every aspect of life merge into a common stream in which the unity of that life can no longer be recovered“.

Jose asked us to choose a particular photograph to comment on afterwards.

One of the first images I looked at was “In the Valley of Giants”, a photograph of a snowy mountain range in which there was a streak of red as a volcano erupted. Described by one judge as “nice” (the word is repeated three times) owing to the colour contrast of deep blue with a touch of unexpected red, Jose Navarro commented that the lenticular cloud formation shown was a very rare one. The photograph was a runner up in the Wild Places category and one assumes it’s interest was not merely pictorial but also because it conveyed important information even though this is not made clear in the judge’s commentary or caption.

The intense colours one sees in the photographs on show are not true to life. For example, the saturated greens of a photograph of the aurora borealis or Northern Lights remove the subtlety of the original vista. It is as if colours are being enhanced in an attempt to relive the original experience. Are not the real colours attractive enough? What is the need for super-saturation?!

The winner of the Wild Places category is called “Heavenly Light Show” and is a panoramic made from 24 photographs stitched together. While this image gives the required “beautiful light, a true feeling of wildness and a sense of awe” (quote from exhibition portfolio) the long exposures have created something removed from the real, a fictional eerie atmosphere.

Making an abstraction out of the real works well in wildlife photography! Many of the photographs in the exhibition are more like paintings than representations of the real.

Debord again … “The spectacle cannot be understood as a mere visual excess produced by mass-media technologies. It is a worldview that has actually been materialized, a view of a world that has become objective.

One section that attracts the interest of myself and others in the group is called “In Praise of Plants”. The portrayal here is abstract with recognisable shapes blurring into backgrounds of strong colour. One is left wondering about the method used to make these images.

One remarkable image has been achieved through patience rather than using clever technology. The photograph is of a vixen that the photographer got to know well over several months and to which the photographer was able to get very close to, eventually making a remarkable image that speaks of intimacy and conveys the beauty inherent within wildness though one might argue that the creature has been tamed. Many wildlife photographs seem to be taming the wild element (photographing in zoos and with captive animals is becoming more common as this year’s winner emphasises).

The black and white section reveals a series of photographs that look good but do not possess the quality possible with black and white film, digital having a much narrower dynamic range. The winner in this section is a fine detailed record of an elephant’s leg where every wrinkled crease of the animal’s leathery hide can be seen. Stefano Winterthur’s Crane Perfection is a picture of a beautiful bird emphasised by a strong design element.

The exhibition space was crowded and there were many images to see in the hour or so we were in there. I felt I could not see it all and wandered slightly aimlessly. It was when we went for a cuppa and discussion that my understanding of the exhibition began to make sense.

Jose discusses "Boy Meets Nature" with Ushma

One photograph that was strikingly beautiful was of a small boy looking out of a window at night, struck with wonder at the sight of a moth hovering outside. Titled Boy Meets Nature, it won the Urban Wildlife section although it was actually made outside a log cabin in the Montana wilderness of the USA. It took the photographer a few years to perfect the technique (the moths only appear for a short time every year) allowing the inclusion of his 13 month old son which gives the image a much wider context since the scene is now also of someone watching nature with all the wonder associated with it. The moth featured is barely recognisable yet strikes the viewer after a moment or two; it can not be taken as the centre of interest and one feels the wildlife factor has been partially subverted. It remains a beautiful image though, a good example of skilled technique and image quality coming together to make a memorable image.

Stephanie’s choice is “Balancing Act”, a photograph of a goat leaning precipitously on the side of a rocky cliff, a sheer wall of rock. This photograph has a strong impact because it does convey the subject directly without recourse to aesthetics.

Student discussion of the exhibition with Jose Navarro (far left)

Eddie goes for “Snow Kings” owing in part to it’s imaginative and artistic approach but also for it’s ability to convey the harshness of the conditions. A lot of effort has gone into making a visual record of an image that only a few people will ever see. In spite of the reality inherent, there is still an impressionistic feel as snow is being blown across the scene.

Seven Indian squirrels in a tree; these squirrels are quite common mammals and do not form a very harmonious arrangement. Nevertheless, the image did get through the first round of judging.

Ushma chooses a photograph of seven cheetahs all on the same tree. She recognises it as a reminder of her childhood years that were spent in East Africa when she did go on safari. This photograph might have been photoshopped, cheetahs taken from different images to be grafted into one; however, in these days of the Digital Negative one can ascertain whether or not an image has been altered.

Marylyn liked the subtlety of a butterfly in grass but chose as her favourite an image of Flamingoes in the mist; there are several layers to this photograph, different colours of light, patterns, a sunset, mist and has three birds flying over the centre of the picture. There is a sepia effect to the image.

One can be over-critical of images and destroy their beauty with one’s own intellectual deliberations.

I considered the image of the Flamingo had been done before though on the previous occasion Cranes from New Mexico were the subject. Of course, it is not the same image but the qualities are very similar … mist, coloured light, subdued tones, the birds as silhouettes.

My own photograph of Knot flying, taken in Snettisham, the same place as winning Knot photographs

My initial choice from the exhibition was of a flock of Red Knot called “Knot lift-off”. The reason for this was partly personal as I had seen them just a few days before in Norfolk yet not seen this image. Interestingly, another winning wildlife photograph had been taken of Red Knot from the same hide and so I showed this to the group. What I liked about this image from the exhibition was the way so many birds are shown in great detail; there is however, a sense of mystery about it because one can not see the full details of any bird. My photo shown here does not capture the individual birds but is an attempt to record the sheer magnificence of the spectacle of so many birds flying around in the sun, the colour of the flock changing occasionally as it twists and turns.

However, another image that struck me and which I saw fit to mention was of a Merlin, one of the rarer birds of prey in the UK, standing over a Snipe which it had caught in it’s talons and pinned to the ground; it is a poignant moment as the Merlin glances towards the photographer before taking the life of the supine Snipe. There is symmetry in the image which is also perfectly exposed. The title though is as Jose Navarro points out, rather fictionalised since it refers to the bird of prey as “the assassin” which is defined as “a murderer, especially one who kills a politically prominent person for fanatical or monetary reasons.” This caption title underlines the way we anthropomorphise animals, making them into something they are not. The Merlin is not killing for any other reason than that of hunger yet to the conditioned mind there is some ulterior motive.

I had interrupted Dorothy, another student in our group, to express my views and it was now her turn to say what she thought which promised to be interesting since she is not a photographic student but studying illustration. She mentioned that she was more interested in composition rather than content although the narrative of images also attracts her. A photograph of Pelicans interests her but the one she plumps for is Forest Fox which reveals a fox, small in the frame, in the midst of woodland; this evocative photograph resonates with it’s own experience of wildlife and it also happens to be Jose’s favourite.

The photograph that Jose discusses is the winning image of a group of Pelicans about to be washed clean of oil following the leakage from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead. It is called Still Life in Oil, a reference not only to the substance polluting the birds but also perhaps to art and the use of oil as a paint. The winner of the wildlife competition is a photograph made in captivity! Jose has his objections, saying that the beautiful photograph obscures the painful story behind the image since one may not see the oil on the birds, the seductiveness of the pictures undermines the seriousness of the situation.

Our final conversation and goodbyes were made at the entrance to the Museum over which hung one of the first aircraft ever to be flown and was complete with a model driver. For me the day had answered a few questions about the genre of wildlife yet it had also raised a few more.

A print out that Jose had given us proved interesting; an extract by Jean Baudrillard on hyper-reality was not easy reading (I needed a dictionary to elucidate a few words such as arraignment and metonymy) but the basic drift of the piece was interesting and seemed relevant. When something is photographed it is no longer seen in it’s original light but becomes transformed into something quite different. One can say it is no longer real although it appears to be so, inevitable as well as intended changes have entered into the process, we no longer see what the photographer saw. In wildlife photography and this competition which prizes itself to a certain extent on making an honest report (photographs entered are not allowed to be cloned in any way though colours and contrasts can be altered to make a more attractive image) one might be guiled into believing that what one is seeing is real when flagrantly it is not. This is not what Baudrillard is saying but it is inspired by what he writes

Nature Photography

Short-eared Owl in flight - a classic record shot

I have often wondered why nature photography is not given due regard by art critics. It seems to be barely regarded as a medium worthy of consideration. In the introduction to his book “Wildlife Photographer”, Chris Gomersall writes …

“Traditionally, the critics have not been well disposed towards the genre of wildlife photography, frequently dismissing it as sentimentalist or nostalgia driven. The art establishment seems to be only interested in the metropolitan, and on the rare occasions it has turned its attention to the photography of animals it has been restricted to the zoo animals and domestic pets … ”

However, Gomersall also points out that as a nature photographer “we”re only just catching up with most other fields of photography in learning how to express ourselves” since previously, the centre of interest was subject matter and from where it came and the message behind the picture.

In his book “The Photographer’s Vision” Michael Freeman does give due consideration to wildlife as a “tighter genre” which he describes as demanding “specialised techniques, the knowledge of a zoologist, heavy logistics and a full time commitment”. Sub-genres of wildlife photography can be even more demanding especially in terms of equipment and as a result are not easily open to the outsider. Nature photography has improved greatly in terms of both technique and creativity yet retains “very specialised standards”. Freeman goes on to explain why the art establishment do not respond to nature photography …
“There is not much room for concept, and even less for the kind of interpretation that curators and critics love” yet continues by saying ” … a profound understanding of the subject and a sensitive eye for imagery definitely have their place”.

Technology has an increased importance in wildlife photography and has played an important part in the development of the genre in recent years as the advent of digital has made many subjects more accessible. Alongside this development, wildlife has become an increasingly important issue in everyday life owing to conservation being a political consideration.

A little more from Gomersall who writes that “sensitive consideration and application of light and colour can transform our photographs from the ordinary to the extraordinary; used sympathetically, it can evoke a mood or trigger an emotion that geometric design alone can’t convey”. In brief, its’ not just about making that record shot, something else needs to come into play.

Short-eared Owl in flight - more aesthetic than scientific record

All photographs copyright 2012 Amano Samarpan (www.amanosamarpan.com)


The Photographer’s Vision by Michael Freeman

Wildlife Photographer by Chris Gomersall

Frozen Planet : the facts

Frozen Planet is a 7 part series made by the BBC that is presently being shown on the BBC channel; it is about life at the poles. Last night, in Bristol, one of the series directors, Vanessa Berlowitz who is also one of the authors of the book of the series, gave an illustrated talk about the making of the series. This was a fascinating insight not only into life at the poles but also into the way the series was put together.

One interesting topic that arose during the question and answer session at the end was about whether CGI (computer generated imagery) was used at all during the making of Frozen Planet. It would have been so much easier and much much cheaper, for the BBC to put much of the series together using material already gathered.

However, it is to the credit of the BBC, that they did not do this and made sure that everything was photographed as it was. They missed a few events such as Beluga whales caught by the change of seasons yet the whole series features events as they happened often caught not only by cameramen on the ground but also by cameras above in helicopters.

The result is imagery that is not only aesthetically stimulating but also informative as we learn more about a vast area of the planet from which we are isolated.

However, there was incident that came to light in the press that the BBC were not being open about. This was the footage of baby polar bears in their den before they emerged into the world. The impression given was that somehow the film crew had got cameras into the den itself situated on a snowy mountain slope in a polar region when in fact it was filmed in a Dutch zoo. Legitimate practice perhaps but some of the public felt duped.

A book of photographs from the series is available.