the trouble with wildlife photography

I’m sorry, I really am.

But I just can’t stand wildlife photography. In fact, I find people showing me their backyard shots of red-breasted robins, feeding squirrels and vast skies with small speck (lookan owl!) yawn-inducing and an offensive waste of time. Again, I’m so sorry.

Unfortunately the practice attracts a truck load of cliche, done-to-death images of birds resting on snow-layered branches and foxes feeding in suburban gardens. They just don’t do it for me.

However, the prestigious Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition has attracted a plethora of talented wildlife photographers who endeavor to push boundaries and get creative shots. The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition rarely displays your usual, cliche shots.

I came across the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition in 2009 when I stumbled upon a photography exhibition being held in a small venue in Gloucestershire, UK: the exhibition was on tour. To my surprise, I spent a nice afternoon enjoying the photographs. The winning shot of 2009 was taken by photographer José Luis Rodríguez*:

'The Storybook Wolf' Jose Luis Rodríguez photography

Bence Máté won 2010’s the Winner’s title with this image:

'A marvel of ants' Bence Mate photography

Year after year, professional and amateur wildlife photographers produce stunning photographs often evoking an enjoyable oooh and wonderful woaah.

A few favourites:

'A starling wave' Danny Green photography (2009)

'Footprints' photographer Robert Friel (2009)

'A carcass-eye view' photographer Jürgen Ross (2010)

You can’t argue with photographs like these. Although I consider wildlife photography a very separate discipline to fine art photography, when the wildlife photograph truly stretches its wings and is taken with an artist’s eye it can fly high*. I find myself (begrudgingly) looking forward to seeing 2011′s finalists.

*update: The Storybook Wolf’ by Jose Luis Rodríguez was disqualified from the competition after claims that wolf was actually tame and the shot was staged. I’ve not removed it from the blog item as I still think it’s a pretty awesome shot (thanks for the heads up wernerpriller). 

**suggestions for better decent metaphors gratefully received. 

10 comments

  1. Sounds like you don’t dislike wildlife photography, but clichés.

    That’s something I totally understand. I live in a city with quite a bit of tourism and promised myself I will not take a typical postcard photo of any view in my city. I will not show anything that resembles a postcard photo I took by accident to anyone else.

    Photography at its best shows a unique persepctive, something another person couldn’t or wouldn’t do the same way, even if it doesn’t attempt to be fine arts, but simple documentation or communication.

    I absolutely love the “Footprints” photo.

  2. I think you’re spot on; I do have an in-built aversion to the cliche.

    Perhaps wildlife photography displays the photographic cliche more prominently than other photography avenues; although I’m the first to admit fine art photography often falls into the over-done, done-again and done-to-death.

    I couldn’t agree more with your apt definition of photography at its best; I applaud creative individuals like yourself who rises above the ‘safe’ to create their own stamp of style.

    Footprints is gorgeous – I also hope Jürgen Ross had an extremely long lens for his shot; if not, he has a far stronger bladder than I.

  3. Hi dawn, cool statement; the wolf shot by J.L.Rodriguez looks great, but its a fake (with a tame wolf) and he got stripped of his 1st prize later on;

  4. I understand your aversion to clichés, which are also common in landscape photography. That’s primarily what I do, but as the place where I live hasn’t the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains or the California coast or Yellowstone, I’ve mostly narrowed my vision to the plants that are native here (and I’ve incidentally included some of the many small creatures that live on and near those plants).

    I’ve striven over the last decade to portray the native plants that are my subject in a way that’s different from what I’ve seen other people do. I use the word “portray” deliberately, because I’ve come to think of the resulting photographs as portraits, a word normally reserved for people. Sometimes I fail and sometimes I succeed, but even the successes create a new problem: how to photograph those species the next time in a way that’s different from what I’ve already done yet still good in its own right.

    So take a look at the column I started less than a month ago at

    http://portraitsofwildflowers.wordpress.com

    and see if you don’t find at least some portrayals of the natural world that differ from the clichés of the world of “scenics.”

    By the way, I notice you’ve included a Garry Winogrand photograph in your post. He taught at the University of Texas during my first years in Austin (the late 70′s and early 80s). He produced, purposely or involuntarily, a legion of clones among his students, many of whom practiced “street photography,” shooting from the hip without even looking through the viewfinders of their cameras. It was the rage back then, but I could never understand the appeal of that sort of random view of things.

    • Hi Steve, many thanks for your comment.

      Firstly – thanks for sharing your landscape photographs. They’re quite stunning, and I’d say they are certainly more fine art than your average scenic shot. I can understand your definition of plant ‘portrait’ – you’re capturing something of the character of the flora.

      That’s fascinating – did you study with Garry Winogrand? The legend of Winogrand and his methods certainly live on; reams of students enjoy playing the part of street photographer with waist-hanging TLRs and Leicas, hip-shooting and processing in black and white. It has been done. And done.

      But I suppose where the appeal is for me would be the documentation aspect of street photography. The streets are always changing. People change. Society evolves (or regresses…) and so although a method such as hip-shooting becomes cliche, the results can still be original.

      Can we lay ‘blame’ with the teacher, or do the students take responsibility for not pushing the creative process and falling to the cliche of the ‘street shot’?

  5. Hello, Dawn. I’m glad you can relate to my portraiture of flora. To answer your question, no, I didn’t study with Winogrand. When I went to graduate school at the University of Texas in the 1980s it was in linguistics, not photography. I’ve developed (the word would have been a pun in the old days of chemicals) my approach to photography on my own. Many people end up, intentionally or not, as copycats, but I’ve always preferred to go my own way, for better or worse. I have to hope that on the whole the better outweighs the worse.

    There’s one thing that street photography has in common with what I do. Just as a person who spends enough time wandering the streets with a camera will eventually run across spontaneous scenes worth recording, someone who spends a lot of time in nature can’t help coming across new sights. No matter how many times I’ve gone wandering in nature, even in the same places, I keep encountering new things, and for that I’m happy.

    • Hi Steve. I myself have, many times, fallen into the copycat realm – I’ve come to realise these phases can be part of a process of establishing an individual stamp of style. I think it’s about gaining the confidence (and technical skill) to branch out on your own.

      Perhaps if the wildlife photographer, too, has enough passion and motivation he will push his own styles forward and step away from the cliche. I could be cutting them down before they have chance to grow.

      It sounds (and looks!) as though you’re way ahead of your own expression, able to capture within your own style with the lure of new discovery motivating you on, as it does for so many fine art photographers.

      Thanks so much for your comment – always insightful.

  6. The ants are awesome and creepy at the same time, and there can be no doubting the power of the lion and the carcass. And that many starlings? Astounding. Back yard photos are fun… for those who are taking them, but photos such as what you have posted have a much more universal appeal.

  7. Wow the last image is so shocking! I love it!

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