In my last post I discussed the industrialisation of wildlife photography, the need for context, and how the market is struggling to move forward artistically. This post is more to do with how the technology is integral to the changes, and I look at comparisons between shooting and wildlife photography.
The technological advances are not to be underestimated; they are responsible for great leaps of change in photography. In 1987 Canon introduced the EF mount, a whole new system, with which came the "Four White Lenses of the Apocalypse". These were the first and fastest autofocus super-telephoto lenses, and marked the starting point in the surge in new technology, turning Nikon from market leader into also-ran for many years.
From that point and from the point of the introduction of digital cameras, the technology has flourished. Now we find ourselves in a position that relatively unpracticed photographers can produce images of startling sharpness, displaying apparent technical prowess. The (sometimes) insurmountable challenges of photography of yesteryear are suddenly very approachable, to say nothing of the simplicity post-processing techniques.
One might imagine that this would inspire a new breadth of creative photography, the barriers to entry being lower in terms of skill (albeit higher in terms of cash), but sadly it seems this is not the case. The legends from before are still successful, even more so now they can really push the boundaries of their vision, and the newcomers want to be the legends. The newcomers are making amateur mistakes though - emulating the pioneering old pros. This isn't pioneering any more; this is pandering to expectations of the paying workshop customer.
We need a new wave of wildlife photographers, we don't need another line of people who are chasing the visions of established photographers who, frankly, can do it better. If and when they achieve that skill level, the realisation will come that most of the photos they are chasing have already been taken - what does that say for an artistic (yes it is artistic) endeavour?
This is the key with wildlife photography. Much of it is not a creative entity at the moment, but a recording one. It used to be the overcoming of the elements to bring us something amazing, maybe something we've never seen before. Not only that, but it was also perfectly composed, focussed, beautifully lit, in the most adverse of conditions. This is no longer enough, simply because most of it's been done already.
Formerly the demand for new imagery was voracious, this is now dwindling, partially because people can get these images themselves - they can pay for the elusive experience as well. To quote Pete Cairns on his Northshots Blog (quoting another photographer Danny Green from a while back), "wildlife photography will be the new golf".
Killing aside, and in terms of the surge of amateurs, I argue that it is
the new shooting and hunting. We control and cajole local species into
being more numerous, then set up permanent structures within their ecosystem to
take our trophy. The animal isn't killed of course, but the action of
photographing and the build up to making that opportunity happen is such that
it totally undermines the 'wild'ness that the image is communicating.
The paying customers are complicit in
the control and domination, undermining themselves in
What's more is the new amateur paying public is startlingly similar to those who took up shooting after the invention of the shotgun. Shooting was initially something for only the skilled as the guns were hard to use and dangerous, making successes few and far between. Shooting was really for food, with a few skilled enthusiasts in there. The inventions of the shotgun made all this relatively easy, and, coupled with the major commercialisation of shooting after the Highland Clearances, a fresh influx of interest, money and people flooded into rural UK. In some cases railways were constructed across Scotland with stations right outside the gate of the shooting estates, delivering paying clients from London. This commercialisation was the starting point in the disastrous proliferation of shooting to far far beyond the requirements of food into grotesque slaughters, and it has had profound effect on the landscape (for better or for worse, but this is to be discussed another time).
Of course I'm not claiming that wildlife photography is going to do the same, but I am lamenting the commercialisation, something that can take on a life of its own and can eventually be taken far and beyond the control of those interested in preserving the ecosystem for the ecosystem's sake.
Estates are now looking to exploit growing interests in photography and want to run workshops, the once pioneering industry is being taken over by business, integrating green initiatives with public demand. Taking the photograph has become a more authentic experience than the experience itself. The chance encounter of a predator isn’t interesting; it is too much of a risk to not see it - we are results (trophy?) driven nowadays. Clients want the best chance to see the animal but they won't spend the time and effort, they want someone else to prepare it first.
Of course this means that the quality of the equipment used bears on the process as well. There are nearly as many posts on blogs about equipment as about the imagery - what does that say for an ecological movement?
I can't tell the difference between the images taken on a Nikon D4 or a Canon 1d-X, no more than I would ever be able to afford one. Nor would I care - there is too much airtime given to such discussions, we'd all be far better off talking about the images. The same goes for many high-end cameras, often made famous by the professionals. Think of Leica, made famous by photojournalists worldwide - Salgado, Cartier-Bresson, Capa, all Time Magazine photographers, Tom Stoddart to pick a few off the top of my head - that now costs £15,000 for a top end body/lens set up, and most of these old pros used at least two with more lenses spare. So who on earth is buying these cameras now, and why?! Doctors, lawyers, bankers? Where do the photographers fit in? What's our contribution?
Our contribution will be the time we can give, the intellectual interrogation of our images and the images of our peers. Our attention is required at the cutting edge of an ever-growing medium; critical awareness and a healthy cynicism are absolutely key.
Wildphotos is coming up. This is the big annual conference on wildlife photography, with photographers from all the world's wild places. It is self-congratulatory across the board, sometimes where they are due, sometimes where they might no longer be due. It doesn't ask the awkward questions of photographic intent and meaning. It claims realism in a medium where we simply aren't getting enough of the whole picture. The picture is real, the context is often not. Although there will be inspiring photography, it sits very uncomfortably under the weakest of questioning.
Wildlife photography is beguilingly beautiful, but beware lack of context.