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Wildlife Photographer Of The Year 2009 – Take a walk on the wild side

Natural History Museum, London

Written by Jessica Stokes


This year the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer Of The Year 2009 graces the walls of the Natural History Museum for another year and it’s safe to say this is one exhibition that cannot be missed. Owned by the museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine, the competition is one that prides itself on exposing and celebrating the diversity of life on the planet.


The room dedicated to this exhibition is dimly lit and you discover that this is to make way for the photographs themselves. Each one is displayed on a screen, illuminated from behind so that each stands alone, emitting an almost magnetic glow. The competiton is divided into categories, first showing the winner and then a selection of those that are highly recommended.


Under the heading of ‘Urban and Garden Wildlife’ I find the corresponding winner to be something of a stroke of genius. The entries are required to be poignant, beautiful or striking comopositions of wild animals or plants in urban or suburban settings. The judges look for uncommonly good images of common subjects. It’s easy to see why ‘Respect’ by Igor Shpilenok (Russia) was the judges’ favourite. The centre of the photo is a stage for a stand off – one small domestic cat against a considerably bigger wild fox. This is one cat whose bark(or meow)is bigger than its bite. There’s something quite triumphant about this scene – you feel a sense of jubilation in his victory over the intruder. Shplienok was working as a ranger in the Kronotsky Nature Reserve in Kamchatka, Russia with his cat Ryska for company. He comments that, “One day Ryska, protecting me, ran to attack an approaching fox. The fox bottled it and Ryska instantly earned respect from the foxes – and me”.


In this exhibition, it’s not only the animals that are showcased – there are also categories committed to the plant kingdom. ‘Wild Places’ presents photographs that must show scenes that are wild and awe-inspiring. The judges look for beautiful light, a true feeling of wilderness and a sense of awe. The photograph of ‘The Fountain Of Ice’ by Floris Van Breugel is one that doesn’t quite register at first. It’s easy to read it as a digitally manipulated image and even after a closer glance it’s hard not see it in this way. Had I not known it’s origin, it could just be another picture in the same vein as other framed waterfall paintings found hung on the walls of a garishly decorated Seventies living room. But what makes this all the more impressive is that this is, without question, a completely bona fide photograph. Taken in the Bailey Range in Olympic National Park, Washington, it shows the interior of an ice-cave and waterfall. The ice had melted to the thickness that allowed just the right amount of light to filter through and produce an ‘otherworldly blue, illuminating the waterfall and waterside plants’.


Young aspiring photographers also have the opportunity to be in the spotlight. As soon as they are old enough to hold a camera up to the age of seventeen, the Junior Awards praise the achievements of new emerging talent. The stand out piece for me was by Daniel Szabo from Hungary with his entry of ‘Deer At Dawn’. Although not the winning piece of his category, I wouldn’t hesitate to suggest that Szabo is a very worthy candidate. The impact is instant – the camera feels like it is amongst the leaves and undergrowth of the forest floor, waiting patiently for the arrival of the lone dear at the end of the tree-lined tunnel. There is a grainy quality to the picture, a haze of forest greens and browns. The silhouette of the dear is framed by a halo of day-break and whilst it’s features are indistinguishable, the stricken stance and jaunted angle of the neck tell you that it has stopped in it’s tracks to look straight at the camera. I find the intimacy of this moment breath taking. In my own internal monolgue as I peruse this collection, I ponder the thought that there doesn’t seem to be another entry in this category that captures quite so strickingly, the awe of being in the presence of such an animal; and a shy and secretive one at that. Szabo states that he was “Walking in the forest of Csapod Village in Hungary when a group of red deer stepped out from the bushes. The first were too quick to photograph, but this hind stopped. That was my lucky day”.


The overall winner of the competition went to José Luis Rodríguez with his masterpiece, ‘Storybook Wolf’. Having seen this only on the website beforehand, I am confronted with the photograph displayed on a large screen, back-lit and in super sharp detail. After taking in the whole of the exhibition, I feel that there has been some sort of build up to this pièce de résistance, positioned at the very end and with a space of it’s own. I actually get what I think is a shiver up spine as I stand before it. This photograph was chosen as the most striking and memorable of all the entries in the competition and it’s not hard to see why. Rodríguez has been working as a nature photographer in Spain and is said to be an expert in high-speed photography and a pioneer of this technique in is native country. He specializes in taking photos of rare animals in motion, resulting in this remarkable image. Captured in absurdly impressive detail is a wolf leaping the gated fence of a field taken at night time, but with the wolf itself illuminated in an aura of light from the flash. The nature of the method in which it was taken means that the wolf looks as though it is suspended mid-air, like an stuffed animal or an installation. It is quite surreal. It also puts me in mind of the artwork by Cai Guo-Qiang called ‘Head On‘ which shows an installation of many wolves leaping through the air into a pane of glass (also well worth checking out). A truly enchanting piece, the winning piece encapsulates everything that is beautiful and strong about this enigmatic creature.


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One Response to “Wildlife Photographer Of The Year 2009 – Take a walk on the wild side”

  1. Jake says:

    Hi Jessica
    What an amazing set of images each with its own story to tell I will definately be visiting the Natural History to take a look.Fab piece of work Jessica.

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