AUGUST CHALLENGE DAY 29

For the silly season I've set myself the challenge of visiting a different art exhibition on every day of August and writing a blog about it.

Saturday 29 August

Exhibition: Wildlife Photographer of the Year
Place: Natural History Museum

Photography was strictly forbidden at the Wildlife Photographer of the Year show, so I have to illustrate this blog – and I really do have to

illustrate it – with snapshots from the catalogue. The pictures at the museum are displayed light-box style and blown up to the size of posters, which certainly enhances them. But the book is also a very worthwhile thing in itself and at only £15 quite a bargain.

catalogue.jpg  

I went along to the Natural History Museum expecting to be slightly underwhelmed. Having been exposed to the feats of photography performed by the moving video camera in TV series like Life Story, it is hard to imagine that motionless photography has anything extra to contribute. I was utterly wrong. The show is inspiring, uplifting and almost universally beautiful.

Beauty, once regarded as the central element in aesthetics, is now more or less sidelined in most discussion of visual art. But in nature photography it is still allowed to hold sway, and in this show it does so breathtakingly. How in thunder the judges decided on prizewinners beats me: almost every one of these extraordinary shots delights the eye, and in many cases the heart.

Nature photography at its best has two principal ways of working. Either it reminds us of our place in nature by showing up the parallels and consistencies between human life and that of plants and animals; or it offers something so blatantly non-human, so strangely patterned and coloured, that it defies you to believe we live in the same world. This latter mode is the one that predominates in this particular show, with an important proviso that I’ll come to later.

Frog.jpg  ‘Transparent Care’/ Ingo Arndt

So often the fact that this is still photography gives stillness to the experience of looking. It encourages a meditative, inventive approach. In ‘Transparent Care’ by Ingo Arndt, a Costa Rican glass frog clings to the underside of a leaf on which its clutch of eggs is glued for their two-week gestation period. Often camouflage in nature is a matter of patterning but sometimes it is about transparency. I imagine the predatory wasp, hoping to feed on the spawn and thinking it’s seen a ghost when the guardian frog materialises to chase it away. Meanwhile, this little squid looks even more like something from Ghostbusters.

squid.jpg  ‘Little Squid ‘/ Fabien Michenet

The photographic use of transparence reminds you that light is the essence not just of vision but of life itself. I particularly love it when the camera exploits unusual light conditions to intensify a scene and, if I had to choose a personal prizewinner in this show, it would be Alexander Badyaev’s etherial confrontation between a mouse and mosquito by the light of the full moon, which doesn’t just pick out the main protagonists but illuminates the object (a puffball mushroom) that the mouse is sitting on to make it look itself like another moon. It’s an almost perfect concatenation of circumstance.

Mouse_and_Moon.JPG

'The Mouse the Moon and the Mosquito' / Alexander Badyaev

Some of the photography is so abstract that it is almost impossible to read it as a record of nature. A strikingly 'Abstract-Expressionist' effect is achieved by Bernardo Cesare in this microscope image of a fragment of rock containing quartz, feldspar and graphite. There are paintings by the American artist Franz Kline (1910-62) that look like this.

quartz.jpg  ‘Kaleidoscope’/ Bernardo Cesare

Unusually the junior category here is very nearly as good as the adult sections. It’s hard to believe that the Spanish boy who took this scorpion was only 8 – yes, 8 – years old when he pressed the shutter.

 Scorpion.jpg ‘Stinger in the Sun’/Carlos Perez Naval

There is one section of the exhibition devoted to showing ways in which human activities impinge on nature, and not to nature's advantage. These are often wide or aerial shots, fittingly since human depredation of nature is on a massive scale, and can have terrible results. Charlie Hamilton James’s title for his aerial picture makes no attempt to disguise his anger at the yellow peril of the expanding gold mining in the Peruvian rainforest.

 gold.jpg 
‘Filthy Riches’/ Charlie Hamilton James

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