This is the first of two posts about wildlife photography. This covers the changes in attitudes towards our own natural history that run parallel to the medium’s progression, and the subsequent industrialisation of the experience. The second is mainly about technology and how that has driven the changes we have seen.
This is not to call into question the skills of the photographers - the photographic quality of top wildlife photography is outstanding. The intent is to ask questions of what is being produced, and why, on a critical level.
Wildlife photography has had a gilded history, and few other genres get more unquestioning praise and adoration from their ardent followers.
The formerly lucrative business is meeting its first stumbling blocks though; industrialisation and democratisation are leading to a lack of progressive creativity and originality, coupled also with the invasion of skilled amateurs. Originality must now come from the professional photographers; on a very simple level because the rates of evolution of the animals are such that they do not change within ten lifetimes, let alone one photographer's career! Admittedly of course the habitat will and the numbers of the species so I guess there's a little change to document.
The main objection I have is towards the glut of animal portraiture. While it might be a profitable business model to produce this imagery, it simply isn’t adding to the photographic world. It decontextualises and idealises the subject, rendering unrealistic expectations of the rural, miring us in fantasy. The majority of the voting public is in the cities nowadays, this is how the outdoor/rural world is represented to them through photography. When the expectations and the reality meet, the reality is inevitably disappointing. In our disappointment, we look for someone to blame, but actually we weren’t told the truth in the first place.
Wildlife photography used to be the pioneering front line of the new love for the outdoors, the new appreciation and understanding of biodiversity, a reflection of the burgeoning conservation-concerned population, also a reflection of a newfound British love and accessibility to the outdoors. Now it is not so exciting, it has stagnated; only a handful of practitioners out there in the UK are breaking the mould, or at least trying to, or adding the context that is so essential (Pete Cairns, Mark Hamblin and Andrew Parkinson are good examples. Globally I can’t think of anyone telling nature stories better than David Chancellor and, at times, Brent Stirton).
Wildlife photographers of the 1980s and 1990s were much praised and lauded for their efforts. And efforts they were - heavy manual focusing lenses, film and poor weather protection on cameras all made the task nigh on impossible. It took time and skill to capture the image, guile and patience too. Weeks of planning and scheming would bear fruit in one image perhaps, one moment. Often no fruit at all, but it didn’t matter, it was in the pursuit of something elusive, untamed and unpredictable. And Wild.
They were, rightly, rewarded for these efforts. They were paid in admiration and, for the best amongst them, remunerated handsomely. What really struck me though was the fantasy of living the life they lived, I wanted to go on the adventures they did. I wanted this escapism. I found it in the books, but I have been consistently disappointed in the reality. It’s nothing like what we have been shown. Nothing at all. Perhaps I was naive, but where else can I get my expectations?
There was a mixture of changes after the boom. Some photographers became too entrenched in the photography that sold - the idealistic portraits and meaningless postcard-cheesy landscapes. Some of the photographers themselves became as well known as their work, eating into the conservational message, whether through their own volition or others' (I think mostly others to be fair).
Initially hunting was as much a defence mechanism as it was a foraging method. The vast stretches of woodland were mythologised and feared – and they were potentially dangerous places. With increasing dominance over what used to be the wilderness, we started to hunt for sport, to take on these dangerous beasts in displays of strength and dominance. Rumour has it that the last wolf was killed by Sir Ewan Cameron in 1680 by throttling it. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant - the mere fact this gruesome anecdote survives is testimony to how the battle of wild and man was perceived.
In the 1800s and early 1900s, curtailed only by the events commencing in 1914, wealthy landowners exploited the land to grotesque proportions. It showed that with sufficient effort we could generate vast numbers of a chosen species for hunting (by killing predators principally). It was 'our land', no longer just 'land', it was a celebration of the loss of fear of the wilderness.
More recently, and I will cover this more in the second post, species have returned to their former hunting grounds (by hook or by crook). This return of species is great to see, but we must be cautious with the implications of what we are doing. This isn’t an equal and opposite reaction to old attitudes, returning us to a wilder Britain like we think, this definitely isn’t a new initiative in rewilding. We mustn’t kid ourselves, this is deeply managed land. These species have been cajoled into renewed vigour thanks to the interference of humans. In actual fact industrialising wildlife photography is the final stage of control, and an extension of a long history of incrementally increasing dominance.
All of this is not a bad thing - much of our dominance was borne of necessities that we can't possible fathom from modern perspectives. My problem is the way we deal with this information and the fact we are very unrealistic about it.
As conservationists we have been left a legacy that we cannot abide, but we must be very cautious of the legacy we are going to leave behind. These ecosystems are deeply dependent on human intervention, and they are not always as sparkly as the images inform us. While the money coming in from wildlife photography excursions is a good thing and can support the ecosystem, it is not the solution if it continues to grow.
In an increasingly homogenising industry, we must become less trusting of photography, we must interrogate it more and we must pursue and demand wider contextual references.
Part 2, Technological Advances and the Rise of the Amateur, will be published here on August 30th.