The Masters of Nature Photography is a hardcover book published via the Natural History Museum (UK) and is very closely linked to the globally renowned Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. I bought this book a month ago but an article today by the Guardian (tdlr; welcome, but incomplete) prompted me to revisit it and write up the thoughts it provoked in me.
It’s unusual, but this is one book where the photographs are outshone by the words. You’ll have seen many of the wonderful images before, and the Guardian article exhibits them nicely, but this isn’t the point of the book. The point of the book is to explain, to give insight into the encounter, or the challenge, or – and I felt this particularly in a 21st century, high capability culture – to get a sense of how difficult things were in the past, even just 10 years ago with low ISO film and constrained decision making ability. It is the text that should warrant your investment in this book, rather than the photographs – particularly you, the photographer, but also you, the awe-struck citizen who admires the dream-makers.
Keen wildlife photographers will known Rosamund Kidman Cox well, who provides the introduction (and I assume some oversight!) to the book – Ros was editor of BBC Wildlife magazine for 23 years and has been involved in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competitions and particularly the annual compendiums resulting from the competition, as well as a very welcome fixture at the annual WildPhotos conference held at the Royal Geographical Society in London. A comment she makes in the introduction appeals to me:
“Though the tools they work with are far better than in the days of film, tools are just tools. Knowledge and experience, and vision and passion, are still the most crucial elements.”
The book spans 30 years of wildlife photography and picks out only 10 photographers – each choose 10 of their favourite images. 10 photographers is a small number, but they are 10 who delineate almost the whole spectrum of wildlife photography, with different (conflicting?) views, different equipment, different vision, and different risk levels.
I dare not spoil the prize that awaits the purchaser of the book too much, but some personal highlights – just 5 of 100 images – of humility, integrity, and steely arrogance stand out:
- “Sometimes I look at this picture and think I can’t believe I shot it” (Ice Wolf, Jim Brandenburg, 1968 on Kodachrome 64 (I would think the same today with a 5D3 on 4000 ISO))
- Baby Clowns by David Doubilet – if I have seen this photograph before I don’t think I can have spent enough time on it to understand it at all. When I first saw the photo – in the book, the typical layout is one image facing text on the opposite page – I might still have skirted over it, which says more about me than the photographer or designer – we are too fast, too quick to decide on our indulgence in a new thing, too quick to dismiss. This is an utterly, utterly astonishing photograph which brings tears to my eyes and shows astonishing vision, both technically and emotionally, on the part of the photographer.
- “The last mega-mammals on Earth, running out of time” (Twilight Of The Giants, Frans Lanting, 1988 and a near-perfect shot for many new photographers to dream about)
- “I moved around until I found a good angle and then waited a few hours until the swans had finished resting” (Volcano Swans, Vincent Munier, 2008 – great photographers wait, and it’s because they know something always happens; you have to be in the right place, time will sort itself out)
- “It was too late.” (Whiskey, Michael “Nick Nichols”, 1989 – I can’t even look at this photograph, let alone think of creating it.)
There are many more, and photographers I haven’t mentioned who are no less deserving of inclusion in the book but for whom I’d rather people read the book and give each page time to sink in. This isn’t just a coffee table photography book, it’s a compelling journey through the minds and the eyes of the photographers who have awakened a renewed sense of natural belonging, risk and hope, and who have successfully brought it into the public eye, in part through such valuable events as WPOTY. For the new and aspiring wildlife photographer I would be likely to recommend this book above almost others in that it gives both breadth and depth – for the experienced wildlife photographer, well, if you aren’t continually aspiring and haven’t seen anything new recently then I’d go and seek out that, and take the book with you to inspire your journey.