Tuesday, January 23, 2007

How many pictures of leopards does the world need?

We went to the (staggeringly busy) Natural History Museum on Sunday, to see the Wildlife Photographer of the year exhibition. I've been coming to this for 20 years or more now. Usually I ooh and aah at the lovely pictures, and go away saying to myself it's a wonderful world. But this year, for some reason, I didn't react like that (or anyway, not just like that).

Here then, in no particular order, is the case against wildlife photography — or at least the vision of the natural world presented by this competition — that I found myself making as I walked round the show:

The same things seem to come back year after year — comical penguins, majestic birds of prey, big cats, cute baby animals. All set against atmospheric backdrops of sunsets, sunrises, snow, clouds of dust, and so on. It's a fine line between naff and beautiful.

Interestingly, the pictures that win the big prize tend not to be like this — more often, they are impressionistic (which I don't like, because they seem to be trying to imitate painting, which misses the point) or abstract, such as this year's winner, of a walrus, or last year's (which I think is an exciting and original image), of a peregrine attacking some starlings.

Does, and can, wildlife photography develop and change — like, say, portrait photography does. Obviously equipment gets better, but do the genre's aesthetics develop? Not much, would be my suspicion. There seems to be a very narrow version of what's beautiful and impressive about wildlife, that doesn't have a place for anything scary, or horrific (does anyone photograph parasitoids eating their way out of caterpillars?), or strange. Yet, let's face it, nature can be all of these things, and they are meat and drink to other forms of visual art.

The feeling that nature was being boiled down to a series of money shots also came to me while watching the BBC's Planet Earth series which, although it had some staggering images, and showed me lots of stuff I never new existed, lacked the narrative and scientific integrity of David Attenborough's various 'Life' series. Basically, the message was: 'Look at that! And that!'

(If Planet Earth was anything to go by, one thing that has changed in wildlife TV is that filmmakers are much less keen to show the violence that's often thought to be a staple of the genre — usually, the hunt was shown, but we cut off to somewhere else before the kill. This is probably a mixture of Good Taste, and a sense that this sort of thing is getting clichéd. Similarly, in the still photos there was no blood, or shagging.)

Such a highlights-reel approach commodifies nature. These photos blend seamlessly into the high-gloss adverts that surround and tempt us, and a lot of these pictures wouldn't have looked out of place in Condé Nast Traveller, say, or an advert for wide-screen television.

It also exoticizes nature, making it something that happens elsewhere. There's a category for urban wildlife, but it's weak, and this year's winning photo was of that noted urban species, the grizzly bear, pictured on that noted metropolis, the Kamchatka Peninsula. The risk is that we'll think of wildlife as something glossy, impressive, and expensive, not as all the stuff that surrounds us, and is worth checking out and looking after.

You can't blame photographers and exhibitors for this — folks wouldn't queue up to look at a whole roomful of pictures of starlings. But I would applaud the wildlife photographer who actually tried to capture the real experience of watching wildlife, rather than an idealized freeze-frame of wildlife. Usually, this involves a brief glimpse of something's arse as it scuttles into the undergrowth, or squinting at a distant silhouette. But such views are much more satisfying, because they're real, and because we have got them ourselves. Where's the Martin Parr of wildlife photos?


Anonymous said...

I'm disappointed to hear that Planet Earth lacks the same rawness (for lack of a better word) of Attenborough's 'Life' series. As far as I know, Planet Earth hasn't been released in the states yet, but I'll watch it just the same, I think.

Great points about wildlife coverage and the media.

John Whitfield said...

PE is awesome, and well worth watching, even though it does lean towards eye-candy.

Anonymous said...

Some people just enjoy photography and hell, if you can get something for doing something you enjoy, why not? People watch football games over and over because they enjoy it. How many times can you watch someone sing horribly and then be berated on the TV? How many times can you go out to eat at the same restaurant? If you enjoy it, you'll do it over and over again and if you can get paid to do it. Well! Fantabulous!