Having laid off the high rhetoric for a couple of years, I felt I had some new things to say and Outdoor Photography commissioned a new series of articles in 2008. Here is the first. © Niall Benvie 2008
Travelling through Amsterdam airport recently, it occurred to me that people fall broadly into two categories; escalator riders and escalator runners. The rider is a person who, when given an advantage, uses it to have an easier life. In contrast, the runner doesn’t slacken his pace and uses that advantage to make progress that was previously impossible. Later in the same trip to Estonia I saw how forest-wise teenage photographers are positively sprinting up the creative escalator as they combine digital technology, in-the-blood field sense and a powerful creative drive. It’s enough to make even the most torpid rider sit up and reflect on how our craft has evolved over the years – and wonder where it is heading.
When I started off my “career” as a photographer and writer 15 years ago there were relatively few good pictures in print of wild golden eagle, otter, red squirrel and black grouse and virtually none of sea eagle or crested tit. Information about sites was the professional photographer’s most valuable and closely guarded asset. We now live in a golden age for nature photographers: not only is the equipment for creating and distributing photographs quite fabulous but access to a whole range of species has been opened up to anyone with the money to join a photo tour. I for one am glad that many more people (albeit as part of a group, and at some expense) can get close to the species I’ve worked on over the years and experience the same thrill of proximity; this offers the best possibility of building respect for the animals. But there no longer remains the option for the professional photographer to ride the escalator when recreational photographers all around are murmuring. “I know where he took that; I’ve been there and got a better shot – you can see it on Alamy!”
At the outset, I thought long and hard about whether, from a business point of view, my work needed to be about me or the about animals and places I photographed. Of course, it is impossible completely to erase the watermark of even the most objective nature photographer but nevertheless I decided to keep in the background as much as possible; my ego is in natterjack toad rather than frigate bird proportions, after all. But now, in a world awash with objective nature photography there is hardly room to stand on that escalator, let alone run. I actually quite like viewers to look at my pictures and exclaim, “How did he do that?” rather than scoff “I know how that’s done,” and so I’ve quietly clambered over onto a relatively quiet neighbouring one.
In “The State of the Art” I bemoaned the homogeneity of mainstream nature photography, claiming an urgent need for new approaches as well a willingness to look at “underexposed” regions and species. Well, it’s happening now (just look at some of the work in WPOY in 2007) helped by the advent of superior digital cameras, much improved computing power and software and a good deal of imaginative thinking. The ranks of the escalator runners are growing, headed up by the likes of those creatively uninhibited Estonian teenagers getting themselves out of bed after three hour’s sleep to shoot great dawn locations most of us have never heard of.
This old fart, too, has got a second wind and is now happily trotting up that neighbouring escalator. I’m a “recovering nature photographer”, trying to put the old habits and ways of doing things behind me and letting style be dictated by concept and content. If, for example, I need pictures to illustrate memories of childhood experiences of nature I process them in a way that mimics the look of faded colour snapshots, with a hint of Polaroid transfer transcendence thrown-in. New adjectives are beginning to creep into my photographic vocabulary at long last.
I expressed some pretty strong reservations about how the mindset that goes with digital capture would marry with “natural time” in “Slow and the Curse of the Computer” and after almost two years of shooting digitally (with NO backlog of unprocessed RAW files…) stand by much of what I said in that article. Nevertheless, I can’t deny that digital capture is driving my current creativity as many ideas that have lain dormant over the years become possible and affordable to execute. Foremost amongst these is the “255” image. I first shot plants against backlit white backgrounds ten years ago but it is only now with the ease of refining exposures to balance the plant’s translucence with a pure white (R 255, G 255, B 255) background that I’ve really been able to exploit this technique to the full. All these pictures are made in the field and allow the viewer to see the subject in unparalleled detail. Invertebrates and amphibians are also shot on location after temporary transfer to special sets. The images may not accord with traditional notions of natural history photography but they nevertheless fulfil the primary requirement – they honour the subject – albeit it in a much more subjective, stylish way. And if we want viewers to look anew at familiar subjects, perhaps we need to let a little more of ourselves shine through the pictures.