The clean version (the one I find hard to remember as opposed to the filthy one) of “My Favourite Things” starts with the line of the title…the purpose of this whimsy will come later (it has been a very long day).
Some comments made by Robert Thompson in one of the occasional emails we exchange have prompted me to put form to an idea I had been mulling over for some time. For anyone who does not know Robert is an excellent photographer based in Ireland who, together with Brian Nelson has produced classic books of The Butterflies and Moths of Northern Ireland, The Natural History of Ireland’s Dragonflies…The Orchids of Ireland (with Tom Curtis) and Close-Up and Macro: A Photographer’s Guide…
His books on the flora and insect fauna of Ireland are substantial volumes beautiful illustrated with Roberts superb photos and authoritative in detail…text, maps drawings. Books like this are seldom produced anymore when so many publishers go for the anodyne that they can translate into a few languages and cover costs… There is a point in these books they are a genuine contribution.
The matter under discussion was the fact that modern digital technology allows anyone with a digital camera to take passable and better close-up shots. That, I believe can/could be a force for the good but there is another side to it. For the uninitiated (eg some editors) one picture might seem much like another: the difference is one is taken by a naturalist who has studied the subject for years and the other you can get for a few cents on-line.
Look closely and the true devil is in the detail – I’ll give two examples and maybe you can agree, disagree or put it down to grumbles.
Robert mentioned a current fashion for droplets on insects ‘taken early morning’ or even middle of the night. The droplets are the result of a mist/high humidity and form on the creature’s body…very pretty. With Pierre-Joseph Redouté it became a trademark to show raindrops in his exquisite paintings of roses.
I have spent a lot of time out and about and am an early riser…Robert, too and we both felt that we had seen something like this very rarely: let’s face it he is Irish, I hail from Wales and boy do you get ‘moisture’. When you do see it, the drops formed in nature coalesce to some extent…on so many photographs they are tiny, evenly-sized. They look atomised and, indeed, I would contend that many pictures are aided by a garden spray… to the cognoscenti it looks wrong.
When I started taking photographs of insects the few books that mentioned the subject always suggested that insects should be cooled in the salad crisper part of the fridge…not the freezer. I admit I once tried it with a very active great green bush cricket – it was the only time I ever did this. The hapless animal warmed up but before it did its legs were splayed in unnatural positions and a fine cover of tiny droplets condensed on the body. In practice it meant that, later, when judging the photos of others I knew what had been done. On a personal note, I wondered what the hell was I, someone who professed to be passionate about nature, doing in recording something in this artificial way ? Maybe I should improve my techniques, choose my times of day and record what is natural…yes, I have and do raise insects (which are local) and then release them – taking the opportunity to photography butterflies as they emerge. Nothing is hurt in the process…I cannot accord with the view that its only an insect. My take is that I am photographing to try and show its beauty, a form of reverence, then maybe I should show it a bit of consideration.
That brings me on neatly to another practice that is obvious on the internet. I have been experimenting in using Helicon for getting stunning depth of field in close-up shots. It is far from easy with natural subjects since they move fractionally either under their own steam or in a breeze. If a flash goes off insects flinch and heads do not return to the same position. If you are hyper-critical than close-examination of a stack of images shows the result of poor registration. My current solution is to use a shallow depth of field and fast shutter speed with natural light…more on this soon.
Insects can be slowed down for photography – the process is called death, though colours of eyes, for example fade quickly. Recently, when looking at some remarkable shots with the kind of depth of field you get from a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) I looked at accompanying comments to see someone asking openly about how it was best to kill insects for this kind of photography. OK they are only bugs, we swat them or spray then…but here is someone wanting to reveal the beauty, for selfish reasons, and I am not happy with that.
So, tell me I am being stupid, over fussy: it won’t be the first time…does it matter, they produce thousands of eggs so many die, etc etc. Accepted (to some extent) but I hold that to celebrate the beauty and kill the creature to achieve that shows the same disregard for life as those Victorian collectors who filled endless trays with butterflies on pins or glass cabinets with every Hummingbird or Bird of Paradise they could shoot…).
It is harder to capture living creature even with modern digital cameras – there is a difference and many people seeing those images do not realise that. Those amazing shots of insect eyes with a depth of field that seems scarcely possible to those of us who have been trying for aeons to balance small apertures with the onset of diffraction…are labelled studio shots. This is euphemism: they are dead, deceased they are no more….their mortal coils have been shuffled orf…
There is a case for a certain amount of collecting for scientific record though one could wax lyrical about the abuse of that term ‘scientific’.
I have been around in this game for a while and have met many people involved with still and moving images…there are dilemmas. When Heinz Sielmann produced his epoch-making sequences of an eagle attacking a young goat…the tether was not obvious. I have heard tales of ‘stuffed’ swallows swooping down to drink with back mounted cameras and moving on a wire…I could go on. Times have changed and many cameramen/photographers who are dedicated to nature and revealing the stories have a strong commitment to realism and brook no intervention that creates perturbations in behaviour. I can remember as a kid watching Walt Disney’s “The Living Desert” – anthropomorphism with living creatures…enough said.
Something that Robert raised and that concerns me is a raft of so-called nature photographers for who the image is all: for those of us introduced to nature as kids the image is the end point of a long process that has involved a hell of a lot of learning on the way. Maybe it is old-fashioned of me to suggest they should get out and learn a bit about the biology and ecology of it all?
One of the things you find if you venture into print is that there is always somewhere out there waiting for you to slip. They write a review (so much easier nowadays with an on-line post) and go for what a friend of mine used to call the “trivial jugular”. You take something small, wax lyrical on it, scoff and show your superiority.
However fastidious you are about checking (I am fanatical) you can and will make mistakes… you see them the first time you open a new book and you cringe. Often you cannot bear to pick it up again for a while. If that sounds like painful memory it is – the first book I wrote Wild Orchids of Britain & Europe was a collaboration with the late Anthony Huxley. Anthony had a lot of other things on the go so I wrote and illustrated it (both with most of the pictures and with line drawings). Anthony felt we should utilise the classification system in the then recently-published Flora Europaea Vol V: I thought it misguided: Rezso Soó (1903- 1980) the author of the Orchidaceae section had not been out of Hungary for decades. I was young and did not have the confidence/temerity to insist. I was the one who took the brickbats: praise (and there was a lot) was shared!
I am interested to know how others resolve those dilemmas – is there a point at which we make decisions about higher life-forms where furry things with big appealing eyes are protected and lower forms can be treated as we wish. Here we get into realms of sensitivity of nervous systems and so on…So, what about spiders – do we penalise them for having more than one pair of eyes and too many legs: “two legs good, eight legs BAD”.
For me it is a part of the respect I have for nature – OK I’m a ‘namby, pamby’ veggie but certainly not evangelical about it. My better half is a dedicated carnivore…But there is more to it than that. Over to you.