Like so many things in life, photography runs in cycles based on reaction and a desire for change, even if that means reinventing the wheel at times. Sometimes these changes lack the proper historical perspective of all that has gone before. Other times, the changes sought harken back to seemingly safer, more predictable times.
In the post-Civil War years, American photographers began turning their attention from the war to the West. They brought home images of the incredible, endless landscapes of the new frontier to an East hungry for expansion. They built an enthusiasm for these places that would help lead to the founding of the national park system, starting with Yellowstone National Park in 1872.
Today, more than a century later, nature photographers are still bringing home images that document and defend the natural world and help shape national, even international, debates - from endangered species to rainforests to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Work like that of Robert Glenn Ketchum, in preserving Alaska's Tongass National Forest (see feature, p. XX); Gary Braasch, in illuminating the effects of global warming; or Art Wolfe, documenting the state of the world's iconic animals in his recent book, The Living Wild, continues to focus attention on new challenges to nature.
But recently, many nature photographers have turned their attention closer to home. This has, no doubt, come partly in recognition of the natural world's increased accessibility. One nature photographer noted recently that he can get virtually anywhere in the world in 24 hours or less. With almost all frontiers gone, fewer and fewer places on Earth remain undocumented photographically. As a result, many photographers are discovering new satisfaction in shooting locally, capturing a single place in different moods and seasons, and working to conserve an important environmental resource. But mostly, this satisfaction comes from finding a new niche - exploring a subject not yet over-documented.
Another seed of change in nature photography as we know it today first sprouted about 100 years ago with George Eastman and his Kodak camera, bringing photography to everyone. Add auto-exposure and auto-focus, and today the field of nature photography is filled with more non-professional shooters than probably any other form of photography. The North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) now has more than 2,000 members. The majority of the members are not full-time, professional shooters, though many aspire to be. The reality of their numbers has shaped the field as much as the small number of true full-time pros, driving the field of nature photography ever inward, closer to home.
Nature photography, as it now exists, is often like an island in the much larger world of photography. It is often ingrown and unaware of the bigger picture, of the history and changes that have shaped it, and of all that is going on beyond its shores. Ask most nature shooters if they have read PDN, American Photo, Rangefinder, Camera Arts or Graphis Magazine, and the response is usually "no." Perhaps it is the consequence of how few nature shooters come to the field from art or photography backgrounds - especially when you hear how schools of photography often tell students that photographers can no longer make a living shooting nature.
Digital: Tool or heresy?
One good example of nature photography's isolation has been its recent grappling over the issue of "digital manipulation." When Art Wolfe released his book, Migrations, in 1994, he was the first major nature photographer to embrace digital manipulation openly - though certainly not the first to use it.
Though the digital debate had already swept through much of the world of photography before reaching the shores of our island, the ensuing years were filled with accusations ("nature fakers"), soul-searching (some healthy, some overblown), and seemingly endless discussion of the ethics of manipulating nature photography and of the elaborate systems of disclosure and labeling.
In sharp contrast, by the annual NANPA Summit in 2001, the seminars on how to use Photoshop by Seattle's own Charles Sleicher were among the best-attended seminars. For most nature photographers, digital manipulation has gone from near-heresy to standard operating procedure - partially due to increased accessibility to the technology, but mostly thanks to the sheer weight of its potential and practicality.
It is interesting to note that this debate is hardly a new one. As the Kodak camera was turning everyone into shutterbugs at the turn of the 20th century, another aesthetic movement, in some ways similar to today's digital revolution, was under way, aiming to move photography away from the precise, documentary style of "straight photography." Salons, like camera clubs of the present, sprung up and embraced the new wave of "pictorialism," a highly experimental period in the history of photography, which was fueled by a startling variety of new photographic processes then available. Soft-focus, naturalistic, even manipulated images were suddenly the norm; images that less recorded the world than interpreted it, merging the worlds of photography and painting. So, in the grand scheme of things, perhaps digital manipulation is another phase resulting from the availability of yet another new tool.
Of course, the pictorial period was eventually followed by a movement back to straight photography. This led to the Group f.64 - a faction of American photographers who embraced an aesthetic of sharpest detail and no manipulation whatsoever. But even this ideology was not permanent for some. Ansel Adams, for instance, was initially a Group f.64 adherent, though his later work would eventually involve a good deal of darkroom manipulation.
Another debate that has been raging in nature photography these days is the practice of photographing captive animals. Although nowhere nearly as contentious as the digital debate, the issue of using so-called "game farms" has found a similar conservative reaction among many nature shooters. Again, there has been an overblown discussion of the ethics of exploiting penned creatures - and of the need for labeling and disclosure.
For years, photographing captive animals have been a mainstay of the commercial pros, who face the dual realities of (1) insufficient time and funds to photograph many species in the wild, and (2) the market demand for tight, picture-perfect portraits. For the most part, many non-professional shooters and some of the professional editorial shooters in our ranks have fueled this unrealistic debate. The debate has been prolonged by protests from nature shooters and others concerned with animal rights. But consider the alternative: More and more nature photographers are in pursuit of fewer and fewer animals in ever-diminishing wild lands. Imagine the impact of nature photographers on any newly designated endangered species, with the market demanding photographs of that species as soon as it is designated.
A bear is a bear
Some things, of course, never change. That has been a plus in some ways in nature photography, but is now becoming a minus. Unlike human models, wildlife is timeless. A good image of a grizzly bear will remain a good image with an ongoing salability as stock photography. Nature photographers once gloated about this. But over time, especially with even more people shooting nature everywhere, the market has been flooded with good images. And hardly any are being retired - except for outdated film or outdated angles (and only after many, many years).
The marketplace has grown so flooded that writers like Bill McKibben ("The Problem With Wildlife Photography," Doubletake, Fall 1997) have even promoted the theory that there are enough photographs of, say, zebras in existence today, that no one needs to shoot any more photographs of them. This theory and much of what McKibben presented in his article are extreme. Such a view denies the possibility of new artistic visions, new equipment and film, and new styles coming into vogue, as they invariably do. But McKibben's point about the glut of nature images is not without some validity.
The world of rights-protected stock photography is flooded with good images of much of the world's wildlife and landscapes and plants. The same is true for the world of royalty-free photography, which has become a real and permanent part of the marketplace. This redundancy of the royalty-free stock threatens to undo the world of rights-protected stock as so many images become indistinguishable from one another. Over the years, assignment photography has shrunk as stock has grown and photography budgets have fizzled. Can we now see an ironic resurgence in this field as a result of royalty-free photography? Perhaps. How else can a client ensure a unique image for a major campaign or a magazine cover? Will digital manipulation prove to be the salvation, allowing the creation of one-of-a-kind nature images from existing stock? Probably, as well.
The picture not taken
But all this does question which direction nature photography is headed. With so many of the acclaimed pros all about the same age, where are the new shooters who will replace them? What will they shoot, and in what new and different way? Or are they all out there sitting a keyboards, manipulating existing stock?
In 1990, James Balog brought a fresh look to nature photography with his studio views of endangered species. He looked to the world of photography beyond the island that is nature photography for ideas and influences - to product and fashion photography. Andy Goldsworthy, with his incredible manipulation of all-natural things (re-arranged icicles, woven leaves, coated rocks, mounded soil, stone arches, rain shadows, etc.) is another breath of fresh air.
For nature photographers, the challenge is to move beyond the tried and true. Part of the picture is to turn to subjects less photographed, to those subjects very close to home, e.g. the wildlife and scenic areas of the Eastern rather than the Western U.S. Part of the picture is to continue to serve the great tradition of nature photography and shoot to save the threatened natural areas, large and small. By shooting the not-so-pretty scenes and documenting what mankind is doing wrong to our natural world, nature photographers help to galvanize public opinion about issues like global warming, proving its reality as only photography can. But photographers can also shoot the beneficial efforts of humanity - like the success stories of species and habitat restoration - so that public opinion, once galvanized, is not lost to hopelessness.
Nature photography must move on - to the next phase, to a new aesthetic - as part of its natural evolution and for the sake of its continued viability as an industry. It is a major challenge to ensure that some things really do change.