The competition for 2011 Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year received over 41,000 images from 95 different countries. The esteemed and experienced judges were looking for photographic stories that tell of the wonder and beauty of nature and how impoverished we are in its absence. This display of the winners, runners-up and those highly commended creates a wondrous and awe-inspiring experience.
There are several categories which explore the beauty, majesty and diversity of the natural world, the fragile relationships between animals and their environments, and the talents and dedication of the photographers. The photographs are grouped accordingly, and the ethos behind each category is explained and accompanied with a quote from a judge explaining the choice behind the winning selection.
I found the layout of the exhibition disappointing as it was cumbersome and did not flow. With the many categories grouped together, there was not a logical route to follow, which caused people to be moving in different directions, colliding and obscuring views, and caused me to almost miss an entire section. I felt that the constant shuffling, ducking around people, neck-craning and waiting for knots of congestion to sort themselves out, marred the experience slightly as I could not fully enjoy a photograph without being interrupted. Hopefully, this problem will be addressed when the exhibition goes on tour in March.
The back-lit installations of each photograph are accompanied by additional information to provide a more comprehensive understanding of the photograph and its subject. There is a brief summary of the circumstances behind the taking of the photograph and the methods of the photographer. The dedication of many of the photographers is astounding, with some waiting for days in hides for that one perfect split-second where animal, plant, landscape, weather and atmosphere are in perfect harmony. There are also many who happened upon their winning photographs by accident, opportunism, or while photographing an entirely different subject. Each photograph is special, with the creative vision, passion for the natural world and technical skill of the photographers being recognised and celebrated.
There is also information about the subject of the photograph, the animal, plant or landscape featured, which serves to explain the specialness of the photograph. The technical details of the photograph, the camera and lens type, shutter speed and use of any additional equipment, are also detailed, and a map is provided.
Although this is a primarily visual experience, I would recommend listening to the conversations of fellow viewers. The exclamations in awe, and technical discussions on stitching and exposure times, are interesting and enjoyable, made even more so by the child-like wonderment inspired in many for the beauty of our planet and the skill clearly evident in the photographers. The only detraction is from those who mutter “I could’ve taken that”, for, while, it is possible for many people to take a photo of an ant on a blade of grass, the fact is that they do not, or do not do it with such care and artistic vision, which is why Adithya Biloor is a runner-up for the Nature in Black & White Award, and not just anyone.
I would usually take this opportunity to recommend a few particular pieces, but, to be perfectly honest, the entire exhibition is a treat and each image is as glorious and important as the last. Everyone will have their own personal favourites according to taste and interests. As was to be expected, hummingbirds, whales and polar bears were featured, but so were urban foxes, the common garden robin and a car park embankment in Wiltshire, showing that one need not travel around the world to experience natural gloriousness. Even the planned photographs, with pre-placed flashes and use of bait, are no less spectacular, although, for me, the knowledge that they were almost staged did seem incongruous with the spirit of a wildlife photography competition.
On a personal note, I found Daniel Belta’s sensitive and aesthetically pleasing depiction of the 2010 oil spill off the coast of Louisiana, the winner of the Wildlife Photojournalist of the Year Award, to be the most impactful of the exhibition. Belta approached the disaster with aesthetic value, rather than shock, in order to create discussion pieces. His centre piece, the wittily titled ‘Still Life in Oil’, also won the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and the fragility of these oil-soaked pelicans contrasts starkly with the powerful majesty of the animals featured in other photographs. Worth further mention are the installations for the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, divided into three age-defined sub-categories. The achievements of these young photographers rivalled the adults, with Mateusz Piesiak’s lapwings winning the overall award, and the confident experiments of the 15-17 year olds justly praised by the judges.
In addition to the instalments, there is a screen showing many of the entries that were not prize-winners. I thought this was an excellent idea as these photographs are just as spectacular and interesting as many of the others, and the screen is used to enlarge specific areas of the images, drawing specific attention to a particular area. There are also three touch screens for people to select their favourite images from the entire exhibition and access them from home. This is an excellent opportunity to relive the experience in a more comfortable environment and focus on the aspects most appealing to the individual, and I would highly recommend waiting out the queue for this popular resource.
This is an excellent exhibition, showcasing and celebrating both international photographic and artistic talent, and the wonders of our natural world. Animal-lovers are as equally satisfied as camera techies, art appreciators and those who simply want an enjoyable afternoon. It remains at the Natural History Museum until 12th March 2012, to then go on tour around the UK (see http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/temporary-exhibitions/wpy/tourVisit.do for your nearest location). Tickets are £9 for adults, with concessions for children and group family discounts.