on 6 September 2013
The Masters of Nature Photography is a hardcover book published via the Natural History Museum (UK) and is very closely linked to the globally renowned Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition.
It's unusual, but this is one book where the photographs are outshone by the words. You'll have seen many of the wonderful images before, but this isn't the point of the book. The point of the book is to explain, to give insight into the encounter, or the challenge, or - and I felt this particularly in a 21st century, high capability culture - to get a sense of how difficult things were in the past, even just 10 years ago with low ISO film and constrained decision making ability. It is the text that should warrant your investment in this book, rather than the photographs - particularly you, the photographer, but also you, the awe-struck citizen who admires the dream-makers.
Keen wildlife photographers will known Rosamund Kidman Cox well, who provides the introduction (and I assume some oversight!) to the book - Ros was editor of BBC Wildlife magazine for 23 years and has been involved in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competitions and particularly the annual compendiums resulting from the competition, as well as a very welcome fixture at the annual WildPhotos conference held at the Royal Geographical Society in London. A comment she makes in the introduction appeals to me: "Though the tools they work with are far better than in the days of film, tools are just tools. Knowledge and experience, and vision and passion, are still the most crucial elements."
The book spans 30 years of wildlife photography and picks out only 10 photographers - each choose 10 of their favourite images. 10 photographers is a small number, but they are 10 who delineate almost the whole spectrum of wildlife photography, with different (conflicting?) views, different equipment, different vision, and different risk levels.
I dare not spoil the prize that awaits the purchaser of the book too much, but some personal highlights - just 5 of 100 images - of humility, integrity, and steely arrogance stand out:
"Sometimes I look at this picture and think I can't believe I shot it" (Ice Wolf, Jim Brandenburg, 1968 on Kodachrome 64 (I would think the same today with a 5D3 on 4000 ISO))
Baby Clowns by David Doubilet - if I have seen this photograph before I don't think I can have spent enough time on it to understand it at all. When I first saw the photo - in the book, the typical layout is one image facing text on the opposite page - I might still have skirted over it, which says more about me than the photographer or designer - we are too fast, too quick to decide on our indulgence in a new thing, too quick to dismiss. This is an utterly, utterly astonishing photograph which brings tears to my eyes and shows astonishing vision, both technically and emotionally, on the part of the photographer.
"The last mega-mammals on Earth, running out of time" (Twilight Of The Giants, Frans Lanting, 1988 and a near-perfect shot for many new photographers to dream about)
"I moved around until I found a good angle and then waited a few hours until the swans had finished resting" (Volcano Swans, Vincent Munier, 2008 - great photographers wait, and it's because they know something always happens; you have to be in the right place, time will sort itself out)
"It was too late." (Whiskey, Michael "Nick" Nichols, 1989 - I can't even look at this photograph, let alone think of creating it.)
There are many more, and photographers I haven't mentioned who are no less deserving of inclusion in the book but for whom I'd rather people read the book and give each page time to sink in. This isn't just a coffee table photography book, it's a compelling journey through the minds and the eyes of the photographers who have awakened a renewed sense of natural belonging, risk and hope, and who have successfully brought it into the public eye, in part through such valuable events as WPOTY. For the new and aspiring wildlife photographer I would be likely to recommend this book above almost others in that it gives both breadth and depth - for the experienced wildlife photographer, well, if you aren't continually aspiring and haven't seen anything new recently then I'd go and seek out that, and take the book with you to inspire your journey.
This is a stunningly good book, full of remarkable images and stories.
Each of the 10 photographers chosen for this book has won awards in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and each has choses 10 photographs. Under these circumstances, it's hardly surprising that the pictures are stunning.
This does not mean that I like - or expect other people to like - all of the images in the book. The styles of image produced by the photographers are very different. The simple Japanese influenced pictures of animals taken in the snow by Vincent Munier are almost stripped of colour, but are absolutely superb. Some of the images by Nick Nichols seem (but probably are not) staged, with a strange intensity of light which seems (as far as I am concerned) to place a barrier between the viewer and the subject. However, other images by this photographer are stunning. Its this variety of images that is the strong point of the book. The message seems to be "there is no one way to take pictures" - as long as you can find your own photographic voice, there are many ways to create stunning images.
A number of themes seem to run through the commentary that is provided for each portfolio - firstly the idea of "pre-visualisation" is important - in other words having an idea of what you want to portray in the image before you press the shutter button, and secondly, it is surprising how many images do not fill the page with the subject. In some cases the "if you pictures are not good enough, you are not close enough" maxim may hold true, but these images show this is not always the case. Animals are a part of the environment, and they do not always need to be isolated from it. This is good news for photographers who cannot afford very long lenses!
This is a splendid book that comes very highly recommended.