Commissioned by Outdoor Photography. © Niall Benvie 2010
In the introduction to the massive book marking 60 years of the Magnum photo agency, critic and curator Gerry Badger comments, “As photographers realise that objectivity is probably [impossible to achieve] it becomes more acceptable to wear one’s subjectivity on one’s sleeve.” While he is commenting on the evolution of photojournalism, similar trends can be identified in our field: post-modernism, with its emphasis on ideas rather than form, is slowly creeping into nature photography as photographers dare to put a little more of themselves and their worldview into their pictures. Sometimes a picture may amount to more than the sum of its aesthetic parts; the idea may be bigger than the subject, for better or worse.
Even as nature photography is adopting more contemporary sensibilities and maturing into a fully fledged art form, and it is hampered by one fundamental problem: it has no literature – it is hard to define the lineage of the images we see today. While photojournalism can trace its development over time and identify its influential practitioners and their key images, nature photographers have no equivalent to the Magnum tome. There is no record of who first put the camera down to subject level for a new sense of intimacy, who consciously moved the camera during exposure for a creative blur, who first used ultra wide lenses for macro photography. We all think we know who these photographers are but they almost always have precedents. And this matters because each successive generation of nature photographers is inclined to end up re-inventing the wheel when we should in fact be improving the creative chariot.
There is one important photographer who, arguably, has no significant forerunners in the field of colour nature photography and that is the American, Eliot Porter. A contemporary of Ansel Adams and Alfred Steiglitz, Porter started working with Kodak’s new dye transfer colour process soon after it was developed in the 1940’s, at a time when colour was not regarded as a credible medium for art photography. But colour was central to his vision. His popular 1962 book, “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World” (Sierra Club) established a way of portraying the intimate landscape that initially looks chaotic but in which, on longer examination, order can be discerned. These pictures lack the immediacy of the dramatic vista but are all the more enduring and satisfying for that. Rather than merely mimicking Porter’s work the Swedish photographer Jan Töve took the portrayal of chaos to a new level in his 2001 book “Beyond Order” with a refined vision and modern colour palette. Photographers in future who want to explore this field should consider Jan Töve’s work as the base camp for their climb to greater creative heights.
There is another good reason to look at what has been done before: changing approaches often mirror wider attitudes within society to the natural world. The prevailing style in British landscape photography at the moment, for example, portrays the landscape as a beautiful, benign place to visit. There is no suggestion that we belong there, only that we may come and “consume” its beauty then leave again. The fact that people are assiduously excluded from most landscape photographs and references to modernity minimised hints at landscape as a refuge. It is all about escapism. This contrasts with pictures showing the American west before it was opened up. In some of William Henry Jackson’s work created during Hayden Geological Survey in 1872 , for example, there is a palpable sense of menace as people are dwarfed by massive, unsettled landscapes – that have since become tour bus destinations.
In the field of wildlife photography, “celebrity” species – polar bears, penguins, sea eagles, seals and lions – continue to attract far more attention than more humble ones. This is at a time when we are all supposed to be interested in biodiversity but that certainly isn’t reflected in what we photograph and what is published. Interestingly though, the fact that some photographers dissemble about the circumstances under which their photographs are made – be it by using game farm models or providing live mice as bait for owls – suggests that many people in society disapprove of these practices and deceits– something that may not have been the case even 30 years ago.
While post-modernism frees individual photographers to re-define what they mean by nature photography, the primacy of the “artist” rather than the subject can be a mixed blessing if other fields of photography are anything to go by. So that their work is not confused with the romantic, objective photographs they are striving to move beyond many “art” photographers adopt an anti-aesthetic approach. The pictures, though loaded with meaning to those who can be bothered to figure them out, are often unattractive to look at and do little to inspire interest in, or empathy with, the subject. If we see our role as ambassadors for the natural world to the rest of society, then that is a dangerous path to tread. Our challenge is to create those Trojan Horse images that bring the viewer in to hear our own story, to understand that nature is more than something to be consumed.