Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Nature of Nature Photography

The Winning Shot by Paul Sounders
Three jurors for National Geographic Magazine's annual photography contest discuss their criteria for selecting this year's winners.

The photograph that they gave top honors -- Paul Sounders shot of a submerged polar bear with the Arctic sun hovering above a distant horizon -- was a clear favorite of all three.

A photograph of distinction. And yet it looks to me like an image of a type that is all too commonplace at National Geographic and other nature photography publications. While proficient in technique, composition and execution, it's all too familiar to the genre -- an animal in its natural setting -- to be staid.

National Geographic invited photographers from around the world to submit photos and received more than 7,000 images. Through a marathon series of elimination rounds, they winnowed the pile to a handful of finalists. And this is the image that survived the cut.

"Your really looking for a specific way of seeing of everything in the frame being intentional," says National Geographic contributing photographer Stephanie Sinclair. "Aesthetics are important to seduce the viewer but not actually the meat of it, to connect."

"Great still photography possesses this ability to make us stop, and make us think, and to make us question, and to make us look," says juror Ed Kashi, also a seasoned National Geographic photographer.

Yes, but think about what? Question what?

Often in nature photography the thought is about the methods of the photographer and not about the meaning of the image. The goal seems to be presenting viewers with new surprises in advanced photographic technique. and new ways of depicting the wonders of nature.

But you can only push that particular envelope so far, using ever improving developments in image making, until the technology and craft crowd out everything else.

In an interview with National Geographic, the winning photographer focuses on the lengths he went to "get the shot." He slowly approached the creature in his Zodiac, extending his camera on a six-foot boom as the bear watched him from beneath the water's surface.

We learn little about why Sounders took this photo other than a brief comment about motivating viewers "to take an active interest in experiencing and protecting [wildlife]."

Motivate them how?

"[T]he essence of the creative act is determining what the question is," landscape photographer Robert Adams said in an interview with Art21. "Once you have the question then it’s all pretty much in the can. I believe if your list of questions is long, that shows you’re on top of this."

Nature photography for National Geographic is more about sticking to a proven formula of success, bolstered by decades as the leading publication in the field. It's more about technique and less about experimentation, about answering questions and not asking them.

"It's easy to make a good picture," says juror Kashi. "To make a great picture requires this combination of qualities that are so inherently unique to the medium of still photography."

Right, but perhaps the most inherent qualities of photography are the questions it provokes in both photographer and viewer. The bigger the better.

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