20 January 2013

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

(c) David Lloyd (NZ), In a flick of a tail
Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition
Natural History Museum / Wildlife Magazine
At Pataka Gallery, Porirua
Until 27 January

In London I enjoyed several visits to the castle of learning that is the Natural History Museum, located in the museum mile in South Kensington. Thronged with school parties, the long dank underpass from South Ken tube station to the entranceway of the NHM is punctuated with alternative diversions - don't you want to visit the V&A instead? But if you demur and proceed to the end of the subterranean passage, which is usually every bit as cold as the weather outside, you will eventually emerge on the corner of Queen's Gate and Cromwell Road, SW7, with Alfred Waterhouse's elegant museum building looming over your shoulder. Nowadays you usually have to queue for a security check, and perhaps it will be raining while you do so, but once you're through and into the first great hall you can marvel like generations of youths before you at the exciting spectacle of the famous diplodocus skeleton, with its seemingly endless curved neck.

Every year in one small corner of the NHM the world's greatest nature photographers are shown in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. It's a hugely popular event, so the relatively modest room is often crammed with peering onlookers, shuffling awkwardly to grab one clear, unobstructed view of a prized image or squinting purposefully to read the accompanying captions. In fact, the popularity of the event means that entry is by timed ticket - if you miss your spot you're out of luck. And it's not cheap, either - £10 is the going rate for tickets.

Of course living back in New Zealand I miss this sort of access to the fabulous exhibitions on offer in London. Sure, there are a few dribs and drabs that make it this far, and the World Press Photo exhibition is an annual treat, but generally pickings are threadbare. So I was delighted to learn that a gallery in Wellington was displaying the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, and even better, it was free! (I would've been happy to pay to see it, mind).

My visit yesterday was my first visit to Pataka, which is a modern arts centre sharing space with the Porirua library, smack in the centre of the big-box retail wasteland of central P-Town. Like the Wellington region's two other galleries, the City Gallery in Civic Square and the Dowse in Lower Hutt, Pataka is remarkably fond of pseudish conceptual art rather than crowd-pullers like the WPY exhibition, so I'm doubly glad for the highly-accessible, crowd-pleasing photography on offer. It appears to be a little old, with small references to these being the 2011 award winners, and the NHM website indicates that this may be the very last stop on the global tour for the 2011 pictures. No matter - even if the photos are two years old, the fact that you can view them in Porirua for free is a real bonus.

I enjoyed the dozens of superb images on display, and loved the addition of minute technical details in the captions, including camera models, aperture settings and ISO ratings. This also allowed me to tot up a rough count of the machines used by the most successful photographers. Unsurprisingly, the best photographers - or, to be precise, the people who captured the best images - used the most expensive rigs, with the most popular being the Canon 5D (price: around $2500, body only), and the Nikon D3S (price: lots). There were also a clutch taken on an equally-ludicrously-expensive Canon 1D, the one Jonah boasts about to the photographer in 'Veep'. I was surprised and pleased to see that my own camera, the Sony Alpha 350, made a single appearance amongst the exhibition photographs, although perhaps it's noteworthy that it was in the aged 15-17 category - clearly, my camera has now been relegated to photographers' children to use. Nikon and Canon dominated proceedings: in my survey there were only two award-winning pictures taken on Sony cameras (the A350 and the older A200) and a solitary one taken on a modest Pentax K10D.

If you pay attention to the photo captions you may notice another pattern emerging: almost all of the wildlife photographers in the exhibition are men. Perhaps it's a combination of the technical boffinry associated with the most complex SLRs and all the various accoutrements seemingly required to take the very best shots, or, as the comments on this blog indicate, because women are less inclined to relish the solitary isolation of the hermit-like snapper, holed up in a blind for six hours at a time waiting for a single photographic opportunity. Either way, it seems to me like we're missing out on a huge range of potential contributors.

There are so many splendid images in the exhibition, and you can browse them all in the online gallery, but here's six of my favourites:

Jamie Unwin (UK) - Frozen in Flight
This is the aforementioned Sony shot by a teenager, a marvellously kinetic close-up of a great tit taking off from a snowy field in Kiddlington, Oxfordshire. The detail in the tiny bird's outstretched wings is excellent.

Joe Bunni (FRA) - Polar Power
These sorts of exhibitions always seem to feature a near-death experience and as canny photographers know, it's a great USP. This shot from icy Nunavut in the far north of Canada ticks all the boxes: a polar bear looms half in, half out of the water, mimicking the stance of the photographer snapping him only a couple of metres away. The photographer reckons immediately after the shot was taken the bear reached out and touched the camera with his paw, before swimming off. It's a great story whether or not it's true.

Joel Sartore (USA) - Balancing Act
If this mountain goat shot from the Glacier National Park in Montana was ever made into a movie it would probably feature Tom Cruise playing the role of the goat, wedged into uncanny and perilous crevices on a sheer rock face in order to snatch a lick of an outcrop of minerals to supplement its hardy diet.

Ross Hoddinott (UK) - Territorial Strut
Part of the beauty of zoom photography is being able to get incredibly close to the smallest creatures, and this square-framed portrait of a proud and ostentatious red robin in a snowy Devon field is a classic example.

Xavier Ortega (ESP) - Sleeping Infant
For maximum cute value this close-up image of an infant chimpanzee being cradled by its mother in the Mahale Mountains National Park in Tanzania is hard to beat.

Gregory Basco (USA) - Chachalacascape 
One of the most stylish and well-composed images in the exhibit, this monochrome photo of jungle birds in Costa Rica is wildlife photography as high art.

See also:
Exhibition: Who Shot Rock 'n Roll?, Auckland Art Gallery, 28 December 2012
Exhibition: Sukita / Bowie: Speed of Life, Masterton, 15 September 2012
Exhibition: World Press Photo 2012, Wellington, 19 August 2012
Exhibition: Three photography exhibitions, London, April 2011
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