Having set out early last Saturday morning, I was somewhat surprised to see hundreds of people already crowding the high street. I looked closer and found that they were all lined up outside a shop called “H&M”. Every Brit loves a good queue but I was immediately concerned that my more modern, urban counterparts had beaten me to the latest ‘thing’…again. What treasures was I missing out on? I enquired further and discovered that the economic downturn has forced some people to get up early in the morning, travel miles and queue for clothes. But I am one of the lucky ones. I have clothes.
Nevertheless, the experience sent me in search of a queue I would enjoy in equal measure. I found this, with no small sense of superiority, outside the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. Fortunately there weren’t nearly as many people in this queue as the one down the road. It moved quickly and a few minutes later I was shuffling into the hush of the exhibition.
The first photograph you see is a striking shot of a polar bear swimming at the camera, the image is split by the water-line so that you have a view of the head above the water, and the body below (Polar power, John Bunni). It has to be said that I am a little bored with polar bears swimming. The imagery usually allows us to do a sum: the bedraggled bear is swimming because it doesn’t have any ice to stand on because we drive cars (2+2= 36,245). Think nothing of the fact that polar bears learnt to swim even before David Walliams, and that they’re really rather good at it. But here, the bear is proud in its element, and as the title suggests, this is not patronising imagery. In fact the picture is defined by how much more powerful the bear is than the photographer; a scared diver has taken the shot moments before the beast has pawed at his camera. I enjoyed speculating that if the polar bear was even a little hungry, it might just have had a nibble of that paparazzo before it swam away.
Some of the pictures have insane stories behind them. One ludicrously stupid photographer submerged himself under Canadian rapids for two hours until the salmon journeying up-river were comfortable enough with his presence to crowd around his lens (The Salmon Jam, Thomas Peter Peschak). In others it is the skill that gets you going. I’m about as good at photography as I am at the physics questions on University Challenge, but even I can see in Wings of a Gull by Jan Van der Greef, that a very ordinary subject has been transformed into an angelic vision by an artist at the top of his game.
Some simply remind us that there are places of such immense beauty on this planet that belie the doom mongering that is noisily spread by political lobbyists: Celestial Arch by Stephane Vetter will stun you with a curved cliff face that is mirrored in the sky by a staggeringly clear view of the Milky Way. I particularly enjoy the inclusion of a whole section in which the wildlife is interacting with, well, ‘tamelife’ – OK, I’m struggling for a word, but the silhouette of a coyote between train tracks, and a fox on a landfill site are shown here as positive images of our coexistence on this planet, a step into the reality of the world we live in. This really was a very enjoyable celebration of all things earthly.
What I know about the facts of climate change and pollution fills a very small percentage of an already diminutive mental capacity. But I do know that people are very bored of being blamed for our presence on this planet. So thank you, Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, for embracing the positive side of the natural world, people just might like it.
I then came to the glaring divergence from this rule – the winner. One look at the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photograph of the Year and it became immediately apparent that a tosser had cast the deciding vote. Still Life in Oil, by Daniel Betrá is, frankly, an abomination that swims so strongly against the positive tides of the exhibition that I left feeling cheated, livid even. A small group of brown pelicans cower in the corner of a cardboard box, covered in oil from 2010’s Deep Sea Horizon disaster. From the soap box, I was once again lambasted that my car was destroying the world. It is, of course, a beautiful photo, but in stark contrast to my favourite polar bear, the photographer is adding to the pelicans’ fear and as they shrink from the camera I not only wished that this photo wasn’t in the exhibition, but that Daniel Betrá hadn’t been at the scene to disturb them either.
I thought I had found a gem, a sanctuary from the negative imagery that pervades our media, but I was disappointed. I think I won’t be the only one to feel this way – particularly when we have more pressing concerns, like queuing for their clothing outside H&M.
by Oliver Campbell