We do have time to stop and stare

Three killer whales glide onto an iceberg in pursuit of a penguin. A pack of wolves hunt down bison across the tundra. Eider ducks shelter from subzero temperatures in a giant ice hole. Yes, it’s ‘Frozen Planet’: one of the most successful wildlife documentaries ever made with about 7.5 million people having watched each episode. The reviews were as glowing as the Northern Lights.

Family tree; Paul Goldstein / Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2011

Nature documentary has come a long way since David Attenborough first started enunciating those dulcet tones on Zoo Quest in the 1950s. Widescreen TVs and high-definition have immeasurably improved the viewing experience. I remember being impressed by The Private Life of Plants in the 1990s when time-lapse photography was a huge novelty. Now, the high resolution offered by TV really does justice to the cinematographic techniques of modern documentary style. Earthflight, recently screened on the BBC, also deserves a mention here, with its spectacular shots from lightweight cameras mounted on birds.

So I have been pondering why, given the immersive experience offered by TV nature documentaries, the Natural History Museum’s ‘Wildlife Photographer of the Year’ exhibition still manages to be such a success. Arguably, just about any single frame of Frozen Planet could rival the winning photographs. So why are so many people willing to shell out £9 to see and enjoy a collection of still photographs in a museum gallery?

Having watched the NHM’s exhibition evolve over a number of years, I think there are a number of visual-rhetorical strategies, both spectator-led and curatorial, that have contributed to its ability to compete with TV spectaculars.

1. Backlit display. Back in the day when the photographs were printed out on photographic paper and mounted in the gallery, there was a problem with lights reflecting off the images, drawing attention to their two-dimensionality. The decision to mount backlit transparencies (introduced about four years ago if I remember correctly), convey a real depth of field to the photographs. Ambient lighting is now kept low which helps give the gallery a sense of reverence.

2. Viewing still photographs can be a much more interpolative experience than watching TV. In Frozen Planet we revel in mobile animal behaviour. David Attenborough tells us what is going on so that we don’t have to use our imaginations. When we look at a still photograph, however, we situate what we see in our own imaginative narrative context. The images, mounted at eye-level, place the viewer behind the camera, as it were, allowing us to imagine witnessing the wildlife before us. It’s like vicariously experiencing the Kenyan plains at dawn when cheetahs come out to play, or being in a treetop canopy, keeping company with Qingling snubnosed monkeys, without having to go to the inconvenience of getting there. The TV documentary also takes us there, of course, but there is less room for imaginative contemplation.

3. That the photographs on display are winning entries in a competition is an added draw. I find myself constantly trying to second-guess the judges. What makes a particular photograph a winner rather than a runner-up? What aesthetic values are the judges prioritising? It’s a systematic experience as well as heuristic one – you’re not just letting it all wash over you, but constantly evaluating and comparing what you’re seeing against the parameters set by the judging panel.

4. There is always a paragraph for each photograph, explaining where and how the photograph was taken. It’s gratifying to know that people are still willing to go to a lot of trouble, and display a rare kind of patience, to take a photograph. Of course, this is true of the production teams in Frozen Planet too, but there is something quite solitary about wildlife photography that contributes to an appealing ‘rugged hero’ narrative.

Amateur photograph of cheetahs

5. It could be you. The sophistication of digital cameras means that it feels possible for any of us to take stunning photographs. This is largely an illusion (see the photograph to the right!). The cameras used to take winning photographs are usually top-end and still require a lot of skill to achieve the composition and focal balance evident in the exhibition. Still, one can dream that one’s Powershot is up the job!

These are the main reasons that I think account for the enduring, scopophilic experience offered by the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition. What do you think?

Giskin Day lectures in communicating science at Imperial College London. The Veolia Environnment Wildlife Photographer of the Year is owned by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine. It is at the National History Museum until Sunday and then goes on tour.

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