Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Talking some more

When he still wrote a free and regular column called the Sunday morning photographer, Mike Johnston was one of my favourite reads. One of my utterly favourite column was called "Scenic fatigue". I think I'm going through that sort of fatigue with shooting in general, I get exhausted just looking at my pictures.

Oh, I don't think I'm doing unfocused photography, there is a story to tell (more about the story itself when I feel like telling). Just sometimes I think that theres a huge danger in nature photography that you'll have everything just so and empty it of photography and leave it all biology or worse, prettiness. The interesting subject, rule of thirds, perfect light, colours, sharpness, low grain, selective focus, the little catchlight in the eye, the action/dynamism shot....you know. There are too many conventions/rules in this business. And too many times keeper shots are keepers because the meet an appropriate convention.

How do you break this little problem, cause all of those conventions do have a reason you know? They make things look...good. In a certain way. So I think I'm getting on a mission now, to find images (not necessarily mine), nature photography images that look good while breaking at least one convention... and then see whether I can work through, why the image works....lets see how it goes...

(I'm using this image for criticism, which I believe is ok under the fair use clause of the US copyright act. I've linked the originals and credited the author.)

We'll start with the obvious guy, Mike 'Nick' Nichols. He's a out there 'I dont want to make pretty pictures' nature photographer. This compelling shot was taken as part of his project called 'Brutal kinship' on the nature of the relationships between humans and chimpanzees.

It's not a pretty picture, and some would argue its not even a nature picture. Does it break conventions? Some, you dont see the eyes of the animal, the face is hacked at the chin. (This is probably so its possible to look at the picture without turning away in disgust.) Its a portrait of an animal with no identity, which defies the genre portrait itself.

There's blood in the image and theres no denying the agony in those hands being restrained. The animal frames his own blood as in an act of display; "here, here's my death". There's no attempt however to prettify it, neither to judge the death as needless. The syringes, the tubing both suggest medical intervention in some form. Either an attempt to save the animal or maybe what caused the death in the first place.

The caption tells us its a chimp that died of systemic failure after a vaccine against HIV almost worked on it. It almost saved so many lives but died. Its a matyr's image. Its not an image of an animal, its an image of what happened. Its littered with clues to what might have happened and leaves us to figure it out before the caption reveals it. I think the tension already exists in the image, the justification of the death is ambiguous, and yet this is not an obvious 'animal rights' image. It becomes more so with the caption. But it does not lean so far as to condone the whole extreme animal rights stand of never using animals for research. Its a marvellous walking of the thin line, and in my opinion its why it works.

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