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This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.
You do not see much in the way of nature photography in the British Journal of Photography, and the above image (an advert for the BJP itself) made me wonder why?
It was not just this image however – it was a number of things coming together. Firstly, there was the spur holiday purchase of Mark Cocker and David Tipling’s Birds and People. This book takes as its starting point not the usual approach of characteristics, habitat and prevalence, but rather the relationship between people and birds. The Guardian has a slideshow which gives an excellent flavour. Personally I found I straight away recognised that the text was trying to do something different, I am less immediately convinced about the photography, but then I would be lying if I pretended I have really sat down and read the book in depth.
Then Jane Horton sent me a link and said ‘why don’t you blog about this?’ The ‘this’ is a rather lengthy video featuring Tim Flach talking about his work. The tigers don’t do much for me, but the section on the chicken woke me up.
So what is it about wildlife photography that has painted it into a corner, excluding it from serious critical discussion? In landscape photography it is recognised that there is a world of difference between the aspirations of different practitioners. Is this not so in wildlife photography? If photography is a language, a means of communication, can it not say anything serious about the natural world?
As it happens, student Keith Greenhough, was in the office to collect his assessment work, and was able to immediately point me to part of the problem. The world of wildlife photography might be trapped in the self-limiting discourse of prowess. It’s not about communication, it’s about being the best. Consider the title of one of the major competitions for the genre: Wildlife Photographer of the Year. Promoted by the Natural History Museum and the BBC, it celebrates the photographer of the year, not the most impactful photograph or body of work.
George Monbiot advances a different argument, it’s snobbery. Actually, his article is more nuanced than this and doesn’t relate to photography per se, but I think you get the point. Art and a concern about nature are oil and water and anyone who expresses an interest in the natural world is no longer cool for art school.
Does any of this matter? Well yes I think it does, but I am not entirely sure and I certainly haven’t got to the bottom of why it might matter. What do you think?

Posted by author: Genevieve Sioka
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48 thoughts on “Tweet!

  • ‘The world of wildlife photography might be trapped in the self-limiting discourse of prowess.’
    Yeah and seen one tiger you seen ’em all!
    Pace the spotter’s book of whatever, a lot of photographs are ultimately tedious because all they’re saying is ‘this is what this entity looks like’, interesting if you haven’t seen that particular thing before but as familiarity increases interest wanes exponentially.
    There needs to be a narrative potential that creates an image which differentiates that photograph from a run of the mill depiction that a search engine will turn up thousands of equivalents to.

  • A poignant post! Nature photography and it’s lack of critical appreciation has always puzzled me!
    This was the question I had when I arranged a visit to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition in Bristol for SW-OCA; we were joined by Jose Navarro who gave us an interesting article by Richard Mabey and much insight. My blog is here …
    As someone who works in nature photography, I find myself making images that help identify species and reveal it in a favourable light. Books want a certain kind of image and art is secondary though remains an important consideration. Wildlife competitions are not interested in accurate portrayal more in the tweaking of colours that often make the result unreal.
    The OCA day earlier this year at The Whitechapel Gallery also discussed nature photography …
    Am looking forward to further consideration of the genre at Arles.

  • I think this post raises quite a few interesting questions. Generally I find most wildlife photography is more closely aligned with sports reportage, rather than anything that critically engages with discourses around the ‘culture’ of nature. I think KG’s point about ‘prowess’ is absolutely spot-on here. But like many fields of photography (particularly sport), I think subject knowledge is really key; not in terms of the best lenses and whatnot, but knowing the behaviour of your subject. I think perhaps the people with the real knowledge in this respect perhaps just don’t really care for a discourse that extends beyond their boundaries? Or is it that since the tourist safari has swapped high powered rifles for long lenses and SLRs, and we’re not allowed the same hunting liberties we once were, wildlife photography allows us to legitimately collect – and celebrate – different kinds of trophies and triumphs over our more elusive neighbouring species? Have a look at Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ pp. 12-16

  • I tend to agree with the views being expressed here. I leave wildlife photography exhibitions impressed by the technique, but with a general sense of “What did I discover?” and a shrug. It’s like a gobstopper – it leaves you speechless for a bit but has no nutritional value.
    There seems to me a number of things that inform this position:
    – the Attenborough effect – we have been brought up for probably two generations with the wow factor which accompanies the latest BBC nature blockbuster – so we are culturally directed to think that is how great nature photography is made – but photographs are just the film stills from these videos and have no narrative effect.
    – another cultural effect relates to our folk histories – we know (because we were told so as children) that lions and tigers are brave, elephants are wise, mice are mischievous, as are bunnies, rats are filthy and virtually everything else is a mystery. So we have a tendency en-masse to reject the pictures that would show the difficult interactions between villages and tigers for example, or the impact of warfarin on rats.
    – then their is the industry itself – if it sells wow, then it is immediately in a position where you need the latest 2000mm f1.8 to even stand in the same room as the pros. This will bias the discussion towards technique and equipment and away from narrative.
    – this leads to another problem – nature photography is, for the most part personally demanding. Spending days lying in a muddy puddle trying to capture the interaction between oil-drillers and gnu is more testing than driving across America taking a few pictures of prostitutes you visited on the way and claiming major insight into the death of the American dream (excuse my cynicism)
    Finally (until I think of some more) it seems to me the art establishment itself has a mind-set which tends to discount figuration, and it’s difficult to be anything other than figurative when photographing animals (I think there was a prize winner a couple of years back who achieved this with some bathing elephants but he’s a rare exception). If you can’t recognise the subject it’s hard to say too much about it.
    Art photographers have to take some of the blame as well though – where are the typologies of cats (and if we call them field guides, why aren’t the Bechers field guides), where are the stories, where is the visual equivalent of “How to be a bad bird-watcher”. Nobody thought New Topographics was interesting until there was a big enough body of work to make it worth exhibiting.
    And a final question – why doesn’t the OCA develop a course that might help address this issue? Or at the very least a module in a course.

    • Very good points Nigel and I didn’t think it was cynicism, I found your comment about the American Dream funny.
      To answer your question, I think that this is something we will need to reflect on. The pat answer would be that students can choose their major project at level three. The key criteria are that the subject merits in-depth investigation and the student believes there is something they want to express about the subject. So, while a standard field guide to birds of prey is unlikely to be justifiable as a subject, an investigation into the motivations for feeding garden birds could easily do so. It is a globally widespread phenomenon, supported by a multi-billion pound industry, so it clearly speaks to something significant in many people’s lives. You could respond by saying this is documentary photography rather than wildlife photography and I would be inclined to agree, but it does highlight another issue which is the helpfulness or otherwise of genre classifications.

      • Gareth, my first module in my art and design degree started elsewhere was by negotiated study, I made my subject “birds” and set about investigating what it was about them I found myself responding to, I looked at all aspects of representation of them in art from illustrations, scientific drawings through to fine art past and present, through doing that in an open way I was able to work out that I wasn’t interested in being a bird illustrator so much as I was in looking at using them as metaphors to follow up ideas and emotions that were more subtle, things I couldn’t have verbalised when I started. It was a very formative experience for me with my art and I think its a shame we can’t have a bit of openness that would allow the same kind of journey for OCA students. If we tie down what we are doing in advance then it can be problematic in my experience. Whereas if you start with what you know interests you, then look deeper and deeper so you can answer “why” it does and justify your work in an artistic framework of some sort – well I personally found that a very good experience.

      • Hmm! It’s possible – reading the other stuff here – that I have fallen into the same “bird on a fence” trap that I am muttering about. There clearly are people who take it beyond glitz – and I’m doing documentary now, so there’s clearly a thread I can follow and a vehicle for following it.
        That said – a nature photography course would be fairly popular, and possibly result in some confusion if it followed the lines being discussed further down this forum and concentrated on narrative and story rather than the probable expectation of equipment and shutter-speeds.

  • I was reliably informed there are three things that are sought for ‘wildlife images’ i.e. ones that sell – feeding, fighting and mating – I think that’s how it went. I am always impressed by the technical brilliance and dedication of the photographers who produce this work, but I have never been moved by it. Perhaps by Kevin Carter’s vulture picture….

  • Flach’s images have an anthropomorphic beauty that initially compel but I found more and more cutesy and then commodified as I looked further:
    Strength, Purity, Wildlife, Horizontal, Studio Shot, Standing, UK, White, Polar Bear, Arctic, Colour Image, Rearing Up, One Animal, No People, Photography, White Background, Power in Nature.
    Anticipation, Desire, Satisfaction, Enjoyment, Lifestyles, Square, Indoors, Human Body Part, Close-Up, Human Mouth, Lips, Front View, African-American Ethnicity, Part Of, Day, One Person, Sensory Perception, Adult, Tongue, Licking Lips, Colour Image, Women, One Woman Only, Photography, Adults Only.
    Survival, Wildlife, Vertical, Studio Shot, Full Length, Indoors, Close-Up, Front View, Animal, Animals In The Wild, Green, Leaf, Poison Arrow Frog, Colour Image, Poisonous Organism, Yellow-Banded Poison Arrow Frog, One Animal, Animal Themes, No People, Photography, Coloured Background.
    Ugliness, Bizarre, Contemplation, Wildlife, Vertical, Studio Shot, Looking At Camera, Indoors, Close-Up, Side View, Digital Enhancement, Animal, Animals In The Wild, Blue, Green, Captive Animals, Praying Mantis, Colour Image, Two Animals, Animal Themes, No People, Photography, Coloured Background.
    Four images from one page of his collection for sale. These surely tell us virtually nothing about animal life but maybe raise an issue or two to do with the spectator society. I’ll have to take your word about the text of the holiday impulse purchase, as I tend to agree about the photography.

  • “Art and a concern about nature are oil and water and anyone who expresses an interest in the natural world is no longer cool for art school.”
    I don’t think this is really true, I think its more a question of being not what you do but the way that you do it.
    For me the problem with much nature photography is that it seems to stop with depicting images of animal/bird in nature or out of nature and doesn’t look beyond appearance. If I’m wanting a book to ID a bird with I prefer illustrations as they are able to represent the bird so that the jizz of it comes over more obviously (ie the what it is about it that makes it THAT bird) Photographs don’t seem to do that so well and the more flashy the photograph the worse the problem. For me that kind of photography is also better defined as illustration than as being art, it has a purpose.
    Then there’s wildlife photography that is a kind of extended study or research into a subject area, I don’t have any problems with that either, but to me its more like science than art…I imagine it would be better appreciated by someone with expertise in the subject than someone in an art gallery. I’m not so sure that technical excellence or aesthetics is all that relevant if the photography does its job.. In the current issue of Hotshoe there’s a page of 18 photographs of elephants that Hotshoe tells me are all different, although they look pretty much the same to me. I should imagine they all look different to another elephant, and they might be of interest to an elephant specialist.
    On the other end of the scale is Masahisa Fukase’s “Ravens” which are more about emotion and metaphor, not about what ravens look like but how they can be used symbolically to talk about other things. I find that much more interesting.
    Or how about Susan Derges tadpoles? So much more interesting than a straightforward photograph of a tadpole.

  • I enjoy my wildlife photography but due to the sniffy attitude of the art practitioners have very seldom brought it anywhere near my OCA output. Its on the basis of knowing when to back off, yes you do have to to be a tad technical and it does often require kit the price of a small car. On the other hand I will get up 2 hrs before dawn drive into a forest, walk a mile, set up and sit for hours very still waiting for deer. Maybe some will come maybe they wont. When they do I am pleased,I remember the techy bits and take the photographs. Why do it ?. Because I enjoy it and there wasn’t any of the angst that art photography seems to deliver in wondering “why”. Having said that its not easy. You do need to know where deer live, what they eat, which way the wind is blowing and where the dawn light will be coming from. Then try it again with a bird 2″ long and get a full frame image. I would encourage everyone to have a go. After many years though its still not easy, but a good image at the end will look like it was.

  • I too love wildlife photography and that’s one of the areas i want to specialise in, however so far I have only brought a little bit of this into my OCA work. For me, to be a good wildlife photographer takes a lot of technical skill and attention to detail for planning and implementing this, even when dealing with animals in captivity ( as a member of a local zoo, I spend a lot of time there with the camera) and bucketloads of patience too!

    • An interesting thought prompted by your comment Sarah is whether I should be distinguishing between ‘wildlife photography’ and ‘photography which touches on our relationship with nature’. This image by Garry Winogrand wouldn’t make it into many field guides.

  • This has been an interesting thread, particularly as I love the wild and visit our National Game reserves as often as possible – ‘On Safari’ as so many say. While there i love making images of the wildlife and birds and now wonder why. I suppose it is the challenge of making a ‘good’ image with the kit I have and wishing I had more. I have never really thought of these images of mine being ‘fine art’ but rather simply images of things I see. I will have to think about this more next time I am making images of the birds and animals.
    Interestingly though is that I used wildlife images in my TAOP Assignment 2. Here if anyone is interested:

  • The interesting thing here is that if you exhibited a perfect picture of a cow and an indifferent picture of a tiger, the latter would be judged the better of the two.

  • I’m an OCA music student, but also an environmentalist (an work in the environmental sector). I’m pretty depressed about the rate at which we are now trashing the place and doing a great dis-service to other species we share the planet with and that we’ve evolved with over the millennia. I despair that society doesn’t seem to care enough to change things. So, for me nature is an ethical issue, but also from a personal perspective I think nature’s fantastic and great. One of the things I want to do with my music – although I haven’t worked out how yet, is to find a way of using it to connect with people about the environment. Preaching at people to not consume so much, or to start caring more about nature doesn’t really work. So I’m interested in exploring how I could use music to get engagement on the environment. These fusions of different disciplines are where things start to get really interesting.

    • Thanks John … some of the most interesting writing on wildlife photography I have come across! Might there actually be a difference between wildlife and nature photography even if the latter is part of the former? It is a topic that needs further clarification I feel.

      • I think the piece(s) raise some interesting issues I agree. Whether it is about the distinction between wildlife and nature is moot, with me. I am more interested/concerned at the ‘industrialisation’ of the process, the equivalences between the hunter and the photographer which fuel that business, that commercialisation. And how the ‘amateur’ is being seen as a threat to the ‘industry’. I caught a piece on the television yesterday about how the public can vote for their wildlife photograph of the year and admired the vacuous prettiness of it all.

        • “Might there actually be a difference between wildlife and nature photography even if the latter is part of the former?”
          This was a thought I had in response to the article though it does not relate to it directly.
          In my experience, both amateurs and professionals can be a nuisance to wildlife … it depends on one’s approach!

  • Interestingly a friend of mine has recently curated a show of Charles Tunnicliffe’s work at Oriel Mon on Anglesey.
    It seems to me that the discussion on Wildlife photography should be linked to illustration in general and its place somewhere between design and fine art, not to mention its place in scientific taxonomy and research in general. Undoubtedly the cost of the equipment and travel, the expense of time and discomfort contribute to a macho image for WL photography and film-making (particularly the latter). I would suggest that feminist critique might gender the practices differently and I suspect that exposure on television has much to do with this.
    Returning to Tunnicliffe, I am always amazed at the life he could inject into a measured painting of a dead bird; very much on the fine art end of illustration.

  • What I don’t get is the difference in treatment between landscape photos & wildlife photos? None of these arguments really wash for me. There are the same “prowess competitions” for landscape and lots of ‘arty’ wildlife photos. You have to have specialist gear for both (landscape togs spend a small fortune on wide-angle tilt shift lenses and hugely expensive lee filters & tripods etc, how is that any different to super zooms for wildlife – not to mention the expense for travel to the landscape to photograph). You often have to get up at the crack of dawn for both. So why oh why does the OCA (and perhaps the art world in general) have a sniffy attitude towards wildlife and whole sections of the photography course dedicated to landscape? In fact, anyone who’s ever been to the WPOY competition will know it’s not all about gear and prowess. There are whole sections leaning towards conservation and other meaty issues that could be critically discussed. I vote the OCA bucks the trend and gets themselves a nature course. I’d much rather do that than take photos of people or in fact, just landscape.

    • I don’t think we have have a sniffy attitude to wildlife Suzy. I do think it can be a problem elsewhere – hence the post. It is true there is a level 2 course dedicated to landscape and there isn’t one dedicated to nature photography. We will certainly keep the course options under review; in the meantime it is possibly to explore photography of the natural world through the level 2 documentary course and at level 3 in the personal project. Plenty of room to explore meaty issues – one of which might be the environmental consequences of meat production itself, but don’t get me started on that one.

      • I think it is a mistake to see wildlife and/or nature photography and documentary as somehow separate. They are part of a continuum. Landscape and nature/wildlife are in a symbiotic relationship. Try to imagine the Lakeland fells without without sheep or rainforest without flowers and insects – they depend on each other. And many see or use landscape as a documentary practise – Elina Brotherus is one example. Others use use animals to similar effect – Flachs Icelandic horses for example. So nature photography is a subjects that can be explored within at least two genres – I could probly make an argument for portraiture as well.
        The trick, surely, is to move beyond the technical brilliance school to something with a message or a question.

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