When is a wildlife photograph ‘more than’, more than, that is than a good example of the wildlife genre, or category, to which it belongs?
I take the essence of wildlife photography to be a celebration, a celebration of the beauty and diversity of fauna? That’s enough in itself. But when and how might a wildlife photograph become fine art as well?
My answer is when it connects us, beyond celebrating the creature’s intrinsic beauty as a-thing-in-itself, to a wider discourse or conversation.
That is when the photograph connects us, if we have the eyes to see, to one of the great conversations about being human in the world, with others – the ‘others’ of course means other humans but also other creatures as well. For me a photograph to be fine art has to have the extra dimension that invites us to engage more deeply than in the simple, entirely valid, enjoyment of celebrating the animal, bird insect or fish.
Such conversations are about questions such as ‘what is real?’, ‘how should we be living our lives?’, ……………….
OK if the so-called fine art photograph has a plus factor, that connects us to these conversations, through what is that connection made? How do we come to feel that we have been taken into one or more of these conversations?
The answer is via some detail or added dimension.
This is a perfectly respectable wildlife photograph of a hippopotamus that might get taken on a ‘safari holiday’ (Source: WikiPedia);
This I take however to be an outstandingly good fine art photograph
It’s a bit over-cropped but the main elements of people, bars, hippo and reflection are all there.
It was taken in 1852 by Juan, Count of Montizon. The hippo’s name is Obaysch (1849 – 1878) and he was the first hippopotamus seen in England since prehistoric times! Obaysch came from Egypt.
To what does the photograph connect us, other than celebrating the fact that this is a very fine hippo, and not a zebra or platypus – and by what means does it make the connection?
For me the details that engage my heart-mind to this photograph are the closed eyes and the line of his mouth. He is imprisoned but he looks sublimely happy, whereas the people if anything look anxious.
From here we can ask who is imprisoned most the people or the animal? The important detail is the bars behind which the people look to be the imprisoned ones? If so how and why and through what?
Supporting this is the point of view of the photographer. His shot is not impeded by bars – he is, to all appearances, inside the world of the hippopotamus.
It takes us to consideration of how animals are treated, and the effects upon us. A deeper more philosophical discourse is that of the nature of freedom and imprisonment and such like.
Let’s look at one more example, this time looking at a hawk as opposed to hippopotamuses/hippopotami.
Here is a hawk (notice the use of differential focus)
It’s an immature goshawk. (Source Wikipedia)
But here is a picture of a hawk that engages more deeply;
Photo used by kind permission of Des Bray
With hawks, and other birds of prey, which bits engage our attention? Answer claws and beak. But here ‘the eyes have it! The eyes have it for more reasons than one. Birds of prey have an imperious look, and we know they have incredibly good sight compared to us humans. But it is the eyes, and the detail of the eyes, that provide the plus factor, the extra dimension. In the eye we see the blue sky and the outline of what I take to be a line of people – not unlike those leaning on the rail beyond the bars of the hippo’s cage – waiting to see what, if anything, happens.
The reflection in the hippo picture leads us to thinking about one of life’s great themes; appearance and reality. The reflection here leads us to back to ourselves and to what impact people and the hawk are having on each other
For me the reflection-in-the-eye immediately catapults this photograph to the highest level. Could it be better/ Perhaps if the eye and its reflection were larger so that the line of people were seen a bit more easily and clearly that would be better.
There is another dimension of fine art photography that adds to the ability to derive deeper satisfaction, richer meaning-making, in a work of art and that is its referentiality – it’s ability to refer, to connect up to other works and to other ideas within one or more of the great conversations.
Did the photographer here choose to connect the ‘who is the real prisoner’ idea, and all of the other ways of making rich and deep meaning in his photograph, with the same idea in the Count’s photograph? Perhaps not but it doesn’t alter the fact that they both contribute to, and are both part of, a range of conversations – if we have the eyes to see. Developing ‘eyes to see’ is a matter of extending outwards the connections we can see, connections that deepen and enrich meaning-making.
The referring to, the referentiality, of a photograph is not something consciously looked for when much photography has to be done very quickly. It is afterwards we can see that sub-consciously we may have sensed something. The hawk and hippo photos connect up with many other works in various art forms. For me most powerfully they connect up with the poet Ted Hughes animal poems – particularly ‘Hawk Roosting’ and ‘Jaguar’
We are meaning-making animals and fine art photographs, which can be photographs from basic categories but with a ‘plus factor’, give us far greater opportunities to experience delicious satisfaction. That delicious satisfaction is in two stages;
a) firstly there is the standing in awe of an image – we are united with it, at-one because we identify with it, and we know that ultimately it is pointing back to a mysterious whole, but
b) after the unity that we feel in the first impact we shift to engagement as having dialogue, we interrogate the image (and ourselves) – and seek to squeeze out the pleasure and satisfaction of the meanings.
These two stages are part of reading and appreciating a photograph. The reading allows us to derive deep meanings – as part of conversations that humans have been having since the time of primeval forests.
Art is about experience + meanings made.
The eyes have it – but so does the beatific smile of the hippo!
1st draft 9th Nov 2011 – Roger Prentice