The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, jointly run by the Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine, celebrates two landmarks this year. 2015 is the 50th year of the annual photography prize, and it’s also the first time it’s come to Brighton.
A TV screen displays a carousel of the award winners from previous years, showing the impressive depth and breadth of work on show. This year’s overall winner, by American Michael Nicholls, is a subtle and intimate black and white shot of a pride of lions sunning themselves on a vast slab of rock in the Serengeti, while shafts of sunlight break through the clouds in the background.
Attending the press view we weren’t allowed to take our own pictures of the photographs on display for obvious copyright reasons. After the event this has a curious effect. In an exhibition made up of dozens of stunning and powerful wildlife images by established professionals, which particular ones stand out in your memory and why?
For me there were several and all had a certain poignancy, coupled with a hard hitting conservation message that resonated after the initial wow factor had worn off.
Brighton in the Picture
First of all there was the work of runner up Andrew Forsyth. His shortlisted piece Murmuration in the Storm, has a more recognisable setting than most, being an almost impressionistic, inky blue shot of starlings murmuring in the eye of a squally storm in the shadow of the West Pier.
Being Brighton-based, Andrew attended the press event and was on hand to answer questions. This year was his second time on the shortlist, after a 6 year gap. He stressed just how important a platform the award is in getting recognition for his work as a serious wildlife photographer.
I asked him how he chooses which images to submit and interestingly he told us that the selected shot was not initially among his personal favourites, and often he’s led by reactions of friends and peers to his work, before narrowing down a set of 20 or so images for submission.
Raw Reality & Mortality
Others etched in my mind include a shot of a lone puma striding in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, hundreds of miles north of its usual Mexican habitat. Another was the shot of a Fennec Fox cub, nervously nestled at the sandled feet of a trader at a Tunisian market, its oversized ears only adding to the sense of vulnerability.
And it’s impossible to forget the stark and rather grisly series of photos in the photojournalism strand of the exhibition picturing ‘canned lions’ specifically bred in South Africa to be hunted at varying stages of being ‘processed’, alongside the torso of a man who lost both his arms to the jaws of these fearsome animals.
Mortality looms large in the exhibition as you might expect, and perhaps the most affecting piece of all was the deceptively simple shot of the snowy outline left by a dead fox.
Of course the exhibition is not entirely sombre. There are more light hearted images on display and plenty of eye-popping scenes of dramatic weatherscapes, extraordinary patterns found in nature and timelapse wizardry, demonstrating the technical mastery and patience of the photographers.
Then there’s the People Choice Award winner. Marsel van Oosten’s Facebook Update is perhaps the most famous picture in the entire exhibition. It speaks volumes about our relationship with technology and the natural world. It pictures a bathing Japanese Macaque monkey wielding an iPhone (snatched from the hands of a tourist) and studying the screen with uncannily human intent.
The Booth’s Booth
To complement the photographs, the Booth Museum has a corner within the exhibition, where it displays specimens from its own impressive natural history collection, mostly of critically endangered species.
The star of their show is undoubtedly the Giant Anteater, which somehow manages to dwarf the skeleton of its adjacent gorilla companion. Alongside these sits a case of vividly luminous hummingbirds and the skull of a Sea Turtle, which manages to look distinctly alien in a certain light.
Stripping an animal down to its bare bones does strange things to its impact. In one case a rhino skull looks strangely naked minus its trademark horn, while the giraffe skull next to it is far more familiar.
As I’ve said in a previous post, the Booth does death very well, focusing largely on what we might call ‘the Three Bs’ – birds, butterflies and bones – and the work of photographers in this exhibition does likewise, as well as capturing moments of startling natural wonder.
After you visit, leave it a few days and then try to conjure up which images burned themselves onto your own visual memory.
Jools Stone, Blogger in Residence
Wildlife Photographer of the Year is on at Brighton Museum until 6 September. Admission from £3.