Covered in marbled scales, a snake juts out from a crack in the rock to snatch a bat in flight. The scene unfolds in a fraction of a second: enough to snap a shot. The snake’s jaw has not even shut yet, we can see the bloody snout of its prey pointing out. The outstretched wings of the mammal, caught mid-action, frame the predator’s head on either side.
The geometric composition, so perfect that it looks like a montage, earned its author, the Mexican photographer Fernando Constantino Martinez Belmar, the 2022 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award, one of the highest honors in wildlife photography, in the category “Behavior: Amphibians and Reptiles.”
A very special discipline in the history of photography
Wildlife and nature photography is a very special discipline in the history of photography, although it has not always enjoyed a high profile. “It used to a niche discipline, a fringe subgenre that became more popular with the advent of digital photography,” says Vincent Munier, multiple award-winning wildlife photographer and co-director of the documentary The Velvet Queen.
“Wildlife photography had long been seen as having a purely documentary, illustrative function, devoid of any artistic qualities. Even today, it struggles for a place in art galleries and recognition in the photography milieu. But it is making up for this late start…”
The practice of wildlife photography, it must be said, raises delicate issues of technical, artistic, and scientific nature. When photography was still a recent invention, cameras required several hours of exposure to capture an image, making it impossible to portray an animal in motion. In 1850, the first animals photographed were inert: killed to fulfill for the photographer’s needs.
The photographer Sarah Moon once said in an interview with the Polka Magazine in 2020: “I sometimes say that taxidermy and photography are alike. When stuffing an animal, a taxidermist tries to make it look alive. It is like photography, where the border between animate and inanimate is often undetectable…” Around 1870, photographers turned to captive animals, in circuses or zoos, trained to stand still for the duration of the shot.
In the 1880s, the invention of chronophotography and the photographic gun by the physician and physiologist Etienne Jules Marey paved the way for photography in the wild. At the turn of the twentieth century, the size and weight of the cameras shrank, increasingly faster shutters were introduced, finally sending naturalists into the field properly equipped.
In 1905, the National Geographic Society began to publish spectacular photographs to illustrate its magazine. “The Anglo-Saxons have a special relationship with the natural world,” acknowledges Vincent Munier. “They have always been pioneers in this field. When I started out, it was very hard to make a living from this work, which was not sufficiently recognized in France, despite a few trailblazers like André Fatras. Anything to do with nature was often pushed into the background….”
Indeed, the oldest and most prestigious competition of its kind, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award is British. Bestowed every year, awards in various categories reflect the diversity of the natural world. The winning entries are then brought together in a large exhibition held each year at the Natural History Museum in London, where we were able to see this impressive bat hunting shot.
“This contest was a real springboard for a hermit like me, hidden away in my forest in the Vosges,” smiles Vincent Munier. “I won it three years in a row at the turn of the millennium. This boosted my reputation and allowed me to earn a living from my passion.”
The race for awards
Yet today he is wary of the race for awards, which young photographers sometimes tend to confuse with a technology race. “We can easily slip into the recognition-hungry logic that makes us forget why we take pictures in the first place. And there is no need to bring out the heavy artillery to make beautiful images! The drone is, for example, a very intrusive instrument, and should be used only sparingly…” This year’s exhibition regularly mentioned the use of drones and camera traps: the result of technological advances that have only accelerated in recent years.
Since the 1970s onwards, brands such as Konica, Nikon, Canon, Pentax, or Minolta have been mass-producing increasingly powerful telephoto lenses; this, combined with the miniaturization of cameras, the constant increase in their performance, and the drop in prices, created the conditions for a true digital revolution. Not all the effects of this revolution have been positive, as the sole objective has often been performance.
“The absence of the solitary approach, of potentially fruitless wait, entails a certain loss of nobility,” emphasized the famous photographer and diver Laurent Ballesta, writing for Reporterre in 2021. Productivity is prioritized to the detriment of what makes wildlife photography special.
“Art is sometimes more visible in nature than in a human-made environment”
Many photographers plead today for a more sensitive, aesthetic dimension to be taken into account in order to take wildlife photography out of the informative sphere to which it has long been confined. “Art is sometimes more visible in nature than in a human-made environment,” says Vincent Munier.
“Introducing poetry into this so-called ‘illustrative’ format is one of my goals….” While digital technology has made wildlife photography more accessible, questions about nature and living beings, which affect society and by extension the artistic field, are not without impact.
This ethical dimension largely informs training, for instance at the Institut francophone de formation au cinéma animalier de Ménigoute (Iffcam), which, for the past twenty years, has educated its students about approaching to animals and contact with wildlife.
“The issues of positioning, rules of good conduct, and boundaries to be maintained are at the heart of our trainers’ skill set,” says the Institute’s director Marie Daniel. “Reducing our impact as much as possible, having a solid scientific and naturalist knowledge, contacting site custodians to benefit from their advice…: You must know the animal before you know how to use a camera: wildlife photography is not just a technical skill.” Many in the field assert a naturalist vision of the image.
The photographer Teddy Bracard is one of them. “I came to photography through nature,” he explained to Reporterre. “I try to identify animal tracks and understand how they live. The photo is a bonus.” The “Iffcam standard,” with its particular attention to living beings, has thus raised the prestige of a profession that had lacked official certification.
“The cliché about a discipline aimed only at a public passionate about nature, people who are ‘into plants and animals’, lacking any artistic aspiration, has had a long life,” sighs Marie Daniel. “Emerging photographers are trying to break down this popular/elitist divide by proposing a broader artistic reflection to reach a more diverse public.”
“Today, there is an abundance of talent, and it reaches higher levels at a phenomenal rate,” rejoices Vincent Munier. “Fifteen years ago, there were only a few leading countries, such as Finland (in the tradition of the excellent Hannu Hautala) and Germany, a pioneer in reporting on rare species.”
At present, there is no shortage of French initiatives: such as the international festival of Montier-en-Der, which welcomes nearly 40,000 visitors a year. Marie Daniel agrees: “Many students with a more naturalist background are committed to developing a plurality of ways of looking at the living environment. Disciplinary boundaries are melting away, and photographers are increasingly interested in what once was a marginal field.”
Because what counts in the end is finding one’s own style, one’s personal way of engaging with the world beyond the camera. Munier, for example, was greatly influenced by the photographer David Attenborough, a British naturalist whose way of recording the sensational aspect of the natural world is, in his eyes, without equal—even though Munier’s own style is vastly different. He also recalls the story of Michio Hoshino, a Japanese photographer killed by a brown bear, who had spent months in the field, waiting for caribou in the heart of the tundra…
Waiting is part of the eventual encounter, and it is a lesson in life. Teddy Bracard knows a thing or two about it. As he explained to Reporterre: “Today, with social networks, many people are there only for the photo, like those photographers who hear stags bellowing during the rut and try to get close to get a shot, which disturbs the ritual. I, however, prepare my observation posts in August, and I get there two hours before sunrise in October.”
Total commitment, the only way to take a photo that will really count? “Money and means can produce a beautiful image, but if it has neither merit nor history, it will quickly become boring,” warns Munier. “Receiving a César for Best Documentary for The Velvet Queen was gratifying, but what counts is the labor of stalking and tracking we had done over ten years. Photographing a species without knowing anything about its philosophy makes no sense!”
The artist, who is now a leading figure in the field, advocates an identity built around a geographical anchor point and asserts that a personal trajectory is as important as a role model—and never mind the temptation to satisfy the consumer market.
Exhibition : “Wildlife Photographer of the Year”, Natural History Museum, 14 October 2022 – 2 July 2023, East Pavilion Gallery, South Kensington, London.