de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). Nature Photography – Is It Art? Serendipity. December 2003. Page 12.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne debates the subject of Nature Photography
In 2003, a blurred Spoonbill in flight took the coveted Nature Photographer 2003 award with a prize money of Rs 100,000. This is bound to stimulate debate and discussion on what nature photography is about. It may well be a controversial choice, but the near unanimity of the judges (8 out of 9) indicates that at least the panel were clear on what it takes to be the overall winner.
As we have done with the past competitions in 2001 and 2002, the winning and commended entries were published in a portfolio. This year it was in A5 format comprising of 40 pages which included 32 pages of full colour, retailing at Rs 350. The portfolios always carry descriptive text on the images to give readers and would be winners of future years an insight into the successful images. As Chairman of the Organizing Committee, I always write a short summary on the overall winning images to make transparent the thinking behind the decision of the judges. In relation to Lawrence Worcesier’s winning Spoonbill of 2003, I wrote the following account.
“Poetry in motion” was the reaction of one judge. Another described it as an image which does not stop growing on you. Laurence Worcesier has taken an image which elicits an emotional response. It transcends the mere recording of detail, one function of photography, to another domain, the artist’s domain. It does not matter whether it is of a Spoonbill or of which species exactly. The visual subtleties dominate over detail. The image is artistic, abstract and captivating.
Eight out of nine judges voted for this image in a strong vindication that the Nature Photographer Competition is an art event, albeit in photographic art. To succeed, images must be one which capture the drama of action, record interesting behaviour or have visual impact in some way. But the underlying requirement, is for visual impact, which more often than not, requires an eye for artistry. This was a theme reflected in the selections of previous years. In 2003, the panel of judges included six photographers, arguably over weight with photographers. Reassuringly, there has been no change in the sense of direction on what the panel has looked for, visual impact and a creative interpretation of nature.”
My narrative carried in the portfolio explains that the panel of judges are aware that photography, including nature photography, is a multi-faceted exercise. On the one hand it can be very prosaic and simply be concerned with the mere recording of details. It may simply be an accurate rendition of a plant or animal for illustration in a text book, or in a field guide. This type of photography can also be exacting and demand skill and patience form the photographer. In the context of competition level nature photography, the international trend it to judge the images on the strength of the visual or emotional impact. This immediately elevates nature photography into the medium of art or journalistic reportage. However, Nature Photography does have certain characteristics which separate it from other fields of photography. It is not only artistic images which are potential winning candidates, but also subjects which have gripping action. But once again they must come under the ambit of being visually powerful.
The best known nature photography competition in the world is the BG Wildlife Photographer of the Year run in collaboration with BBC Wildlife Magazine and the British Museum of Natural History. Their web site once carried a statement on the lines that one of the objectives of the event was to elevate photography to a higher level of an art form and to encourage a new interpretation of nature. I looked this up as we were being questioned on the direction of the event run in Sri Lanka under the lead sponsorship of FujiFilm, HSBC and Jetwing. Interestingly, we had converged to the same principles. This is not surprising as increasingly nature photographers are evolving into artisans. The portfolios of Art Wolfe and Frans Lanting for example are first and foremost the work of artists, whose subject matter happens to be wildlife. However, it would be a mistake to think that an artistic inclination alone is enough to succeed as a nature photographer. A good nature photographer is also a good naturalist. Needless to say he or she must also be a good photographer with a firm grasp of the technical fundamentals of photography. Being a successful nature photographer is thus the synthesis of different disciplines, artist, naturalist and photographer.
The Nature Photographer 2003 Exhibitions runs from 1 December 2003 to 15 January 2004 at the Gallery, World Trade Center. Admission is free.
The writer is the CEO of a Wildlife & Adventure Travel Company. To receive his free, monthly wildlife e-Newsletter, e-mail him at with “Subscribe Wildlife News” in the message header.