When a group of good friends and I entered the exhibition wing of the Natural History Museum a few weeks ago, we were more preoccupied with chatting than with looking where we were going, but within seconds of glimpsing the first photographs on display, a curious and reverent hush had settled between us. Though unified by overarching themes of “biodiversity and sustainability”, and grouped into a handful of prize-winning categories, each photograph evoked its own narrative and distinct mood. This year’s three overall winners (Tim Laman and Charlie Hamilton James taking joint Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and Gideon Knight taking Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year) have much to be proud of, but I intend to focus more on the greater number of finalists, some of whose shots are so extraordinary that it makes the prospect of judgment and rank a difficult and unenviable task.

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition has been going under various names since 1965, and attracts tens of thousands of entries from around the world. Judges look for “photographic excellence, artistic merit […] freshness of composition, technical proficiency, innovation, narrative form and ethical practice”.[1] Over approximately forty-five minutes of rapt examination, I subconsciously began grouping the pictures according to my own categories, picking out recurring motifs like patterns in a rug. These are themes that remind us that photography is more than a means of delivering instant, virtual gratification through a smartphone camera: it has always been, and continues to be, a complex discipline striving to make the best use of the most cutting-edge image-capturing technology available in order to speak volumes about the external world without using a single word. Through this, it reminds us that beauty and artistry exist independently of airbrushes and digital filters.

At the outset, I should say that this exhibition would have been markedly different without the inclusion of captions. While choosing to omit these boxes of story and technical specifications might have allowed the viewer to decide whether the photograph can be praised on solely aesthetic grounds, with or without context, it is equally rewarding to include them as an enhancement of the viewing experience. Indeed, as the photographs are judged on technical proficiency, narrative form and ethical practice, it is clear that this exhibition invites the audience to appreciate more than the formal qualities of the images. Upon reading that Andrew Parkinson lay alone in thick Scottish snow for six hours, on the off chance that a hare or two might appear on the white crest, I could feel the biting winds and frosted skin, the stationary marathon of press-ups to keep the blood warm, the mental and physical sacrifice required to achieve the shot. This stark and endearing photograph is a perfect embodiment of patience and luck (A Sporting Shot, Andrew Parkinson, “Mammals” finalist).

Like so many others in this year’s exhibition, Parkinson’s image conveys the beautiful quirks of a natural, undisturbed landscape. But several photographs excellently conveyed the other, darker side of wildlife: entropy and brutality in the survival of the fittest. In the wake of a bloody stampede, fortuitous timing guided a lone hyena’s gaze across the Mara River into Simon Stafford’s camera lens, wildebeest corpses strewn behind it like a grittier version of The Lion King (The Aftermath, Simon Stafford, “Mammals” winner). In Saud Alenezi’s wittily named “Birds” finalist, Remains of the Day, a martial eagle returns to the site of its kill several hours after being scared away by tourists, feathers littering the ground. Call it shameless anthropomorphism, but to me the eagle’s enormous yellow eyes look ambiguous, as though the bird is vaguely aware of the moral implications hovering over the crime scene, but unequipped to process them.

Floe of Life by Joanna Lentini, “Impressions” finalist, is more understated, and more an example of resourcefulness than the patience and luck that the other two photographs demonstrate. Originally, Lentini had hoped to get a shot of a polar bear feasting on a seal in the Arctic Circle, but there wasn’t enough time to change lenses. What she gives the viewer instead is something less explicit, but no less brutal: a lone trail of blood spatter petering into nothing on a canvas of snow, composing a simple but striking palette of icy white, rust red, and river blue.

Moving away from the implications of what happens off camera, photographs that are supplemented by increasingly sophisticated equipment work an underrated kind of magic: it renders the invisible visible, and in startling detail. “As tree and cave roosts have become scarce, many bats live in cracks in buildings or derelict spaces,” the caption to Mario Ceo’s “Urban” finalist, Crystal Precision, tells us.[2] Thus the theme of resourcefulness appears again, as Mario Cea directed himself to an abandoned house with the intention of capturing a bat mid-flight, which, without sensitive equipment, would be like catching a flicker of smoke in total darkness. But by the power of infrared, we’re treated to a bat zooming through a broken windowpane like a tiny, blackened WWI fighter plane, its toothy mouth half-open as if conceding that it has been caught by surprise.

Taking similar advantage of scenes that otherwise play out behind the curtain of night, Eric Médard ventured inside his barn to get a black and white action shot, full of tension and delicacy, in his “Birds” finalist, Hunting By Ear. Using an infrared light and camera trap, Médard captures a barn owl with its head cocked at ninety degrees, scoping out a rat who unwittingly takes a final scurry across a hay bale.

But the image that truly delivers on making the invisible visible is another by Mario Cea, possibly the most high-profile and recognisable in the whole exhibition, owing to its title as winner of the People’s Choice category.[3] The Blue Trail is literally that: a line of interconnecting blues that the naked eye could never hope to catch otherwise. A kingfisher dives at high speed, needling the smooth surface of a pond with its beak, captured in the split second before the first ripple forms. High shutter speed makes it possible to deliver this astonishing symmetry, producing that rarest of things in the post-postmodern digital age: original, one-of-a-kind material.

On the whole, the exhibition is dominated by images that indulge the human tendency to personify other beings and impose narrative structures onto their behaviour. In another “Urban” finalist, Sam Hobson’s Nosy Neighbour, a young urban red fox sticks his nose over a Bristol wall. Hobson befriended this fox and the rest of its city-dwelling family over several weeks, a dedication that attests to the patience of many of the photographers featured in this exhibition. The fox’s shiny orange eyes are wide enough to complement the burning sodium in nearby street lamps, but narrowed enough to affirm the fox’s cunning reputation. Paws perched on the lip of the wall, like any young resident feeling restless, it’s easy to imagine the fox keeping eyes and ears out for neighbourhood diversions, almost like a child listening out for an ice cream van.

Storytelling is definitely aided by the use of captions. Much of the tragedy from the tiny tragicomedy of Lance van de Vyver’s “Black and White” finalist, Playing Pangolin, would have been lost without the knowledge that said pangolin, having curled up in defense against large cat predators, was played about with like a football for an impressive fourteen hours, only to die later on, because of speculated heat and exhaustion. King of these tragedies, however, was rightly given to Mats Andersson’s winner in the “Black and White” category, Requiem for an Owl, which places a lone pygmy owl on a thin moonlit branch, head tucked into its shoulder and – unusually for an owl picture – its large eyes closed. The caption explains that the owl’s partner had just died and, to rub salt in the wound, that the owl itself died a short while later. We’re informed that its death is most likely because of a lurking predator, but any romantic imagination would believe that it died of a broken little heart.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the photographs that are like poetry, less interested in storytelling than in evoking various moods, from fear to awe. In Gordon Illg’s Ghostly Snow Geese, shortlisted for “People’s Choice”, sunset pink drenches everything, making the blurry flock of geese look like watercolour brush strokes. Also in pink – this time a beautiful champagne tinge – Roberto Bueno’s “Plants” finalist, Grass at Sunrise presents the simple and quiet wonder of grasslands when there were no animals available to photograph.

There are just as many surreal images to be found off land. After six hours of waiting on misty Norwegian waters without a torch, Audun Rikardsen captured the moment a killer whale surfaced in the dead of night. In Night Blow, a finalist in the “Mammals” category, the whale looks more like a steam-powered submarine, at once warlike and ghostly. Even more surreal is Dániel Selmeczi’s “Black and White” finalist The Sardine Round-Up. Across the southern African coast, “[w]ith overfishing and warming waters, the sardine run is becoming less predictable each year.”[4] Selmeczi spent ten days riding rough waves in a lone dinghy until a pod of dolphins came for their sardine lunch. By photographing the surge from beneath, a familiar idea becomes defamiliarised, where bursts of bubbly air look deceptively like cotton clouds, as if the world has been turned upside-down and the dolphins are floating through the sky.

The only thing more breathtaking than the images themselves is the thought that their locations actually exist in the same world we move through every day. And yes, that includes the tiny United Kingdom. Scotland yielded some truly stunning pieces in this exhibition, including the aforementioned A Sporting Shot, as well as my personal favourite: Guillaume Bily’s finalist shot for the “Birds” category, Into The Blue. A lone Shetland Islands gannet flies low against an endless backdrop of teal sky, broken only by the white orb of the sun and a skittering of silver on waves below. It’s like a chalk silhouette brought to life. “The fog created a sort of blue immensity in which the only landmark was the reflection of the Sun,” Bily states in the caption. “It was an intense atmosphere, constantly changing, such a feeling of freedom.”

By the end of the exhibition, I’d figured out which photographs were drawing me in the most: those imbued with a sense of otherworldliness that is simultaneously, inextricably, rooted in the world. Even pieces that fell outside of the “Impressions” category contained impressionistic landscapes, with seaweed and cloud trails, fog, fluttering bird wings and mayflies (see Imre Potyó’s “Invertebrates” finalist piece, Swarming Under the Stars) recreating the kinetic, free flowing strokes of paintings.

We pay thousands, sometimes millions, for works of art, be they realistic oil paintings, charcoal sketches, or Pollock spatter-pieces. What if we threw more of that kind of money towards the living, breathing artwork that somehow, beyond belief, co-exists with us in the real world? How can we stand idly by and not seriously consider the havoc we continue to wreak collectively on this vivid and spectacular earth? An exhibition that breaks these questions out like a small fever before it’s even over has surely achieved what it sets out, year after year, to do. Faced with endless newsfeed images of geopolitical chaos and decay, it is more important than ever to be reminded that there is still so much to preserve, that it isn’t too late to save the otherworldly beauty that exists within our own, real and living, world.

The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition will be running at the Natural History Museum until 10th September 2017. For more information and to purchase tickets, see here.

 

[1] “History of the Competition,” National Portrait Gallery. http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/wpy/about/history.html

[2] http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/wpy/gallery/2016/images/urban/5093/crystal-precision.html

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/in-pictures-38083691

[4] http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit/wpy/gallery/2016/images/black-and-white/5115/the-sardine-round-up.html