In hindsight, the decision to visit the Natural History Museum on a Saturday afternoon during half-term was not one of my finest moments. The Museum was overrun with children and their harassed-looking parents, and it took a while for my friends and I to work our way from the main entrance to the gallery where the photographs were on display.
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is one of the great worldwide photographic prizes, run jointly by the Natural History Museum and the BBC. Anyone can enter, whether amateur or professional, and there are also special categories for teenagers and children. Over 10,000 entries were received in 2012, and the exhibition at the Natural History Museum showcases 100 of the best images across various categories, such as Young Photographer, Endangered Species and Portfolio (a sequence of photographs with a narrative thread). The photographs are displayed on backlit screens and text below each image provides the name of the photograph, some biographical details about the photographer, where the photograph was taken and information about the animal or the natural wonder depicted.
I clearly know nothing about photography, because I was completely unmoved by the overall winning image, an underwater shot of penguins. The picture that resonated most with me was Jordi Chas’ Turtle Gem, taken in Tenerife: the colours of the turtle’s shell are just stunning, its scalloped pattern mirrored by the sea, creating an other-worldly effect. The photograph has a hypnotic quality to it and manages to capture the turtle’s grace; I could have gazed at it for hours.
Other highlights included Lion in the Spotlight by Joel Sartore, a picture of a lion in a tree taken in Uganda, and Lookout for Lions, Charlie Hamilton-James’ black-and-white photograph taken in Tanzania, showing two cheetahs from behind in a mirror-image of each other. Relaxation by Jasper Doest was also fascinating: a close-up colour photograph of a Japanese macaque (a breed of monkey) that had fallen asleep – it looked like an old man until I read the accompanying description!
Two of the landscape photographs that caught my eye were Painting with Snow by Glenn Upton-Fletcher and The Cove by Moonlight by Miquel Angel Artus Illana. The former, shot in Lancashire, is of oak trees in a snowstorm, but could almost be of cracked ice on the ground – it’s an enthralling mixture of dark and light, and the spectral trees loom out from behind the snow the longer you look at the photograph. Illana’s photograph, of a Spanish cove, looked like it could have been taken on another planet, but was also incredibly peaceful, with the moonlight shining on the water.
In addition to the single images there were also various photographic sequences. These left the greatest impression on me, particularly those that examined the impact man has on the animal kingdom. A series of six photos taken by the award-winning photographer Brent Stirton depicted rhino poaching from the wilds of Africa all the way to a smiling Vietnamese woman dealing in powdered rhino horn. It was shocking to see the brutal actions of the poacher contrasting with the woman’s delight at having something valuable to trade. The second was a group of images by different photographers entitled The World in our Hands, which showed animals on the verge of extinction: tigers in Malaysia, polar bears in Svalbard and yellow baboons in Mozambique. The strongest image, however, was of an elderly American man photographed at home in Dallas, Texas, surrounded by taxidermy and antlers mounted on his walls – the remains of all the animals he had killed during his lifetime. He was like a king in his castle, trophies from battles won depicting his strength and prowess, symbolising his power and masculinity in an age-old manner.
There was a good balance of photographs on display, from amateur to professional photographers, and from both adults and children. There was also the opportunity to examine the various photographic techniques and the possibilities they offer: particularly illuminating were the wonderful examples of the fisheye lens. The majority of the images in the exhibition were stunningly, breathtakingly beautiful, depicting the natural world at its finest. Yet the curators’ decision to position The World in our Hands sequence at the end meant that the final sense I was left with was one of fragility, and the knowledge that much of the beauty I had just witnessed stands on the edge of a precipice, poised to fall.
Categories: Museums, Galleries & Exhibitions