I’ve got to be honest; I’d almost prefer to watch chess than talk about tripod heads. It was then, with lukewarm enthusiasm (read ‘none’) that I greeted colleague Andy Rouse’s call about a new model on the market. As he eulogised about the unique merits of UniqBall with its unique 2-ball mechanism and its unique levelling ability, I could feel my eyelids getting heavy. At the end of the call however, I’d established that the head was indeed unique and that a demo was hightailing it in my direction.
I enjoy being alone but even I have a limit, so after two full days isolated on Shropshire’s Stiperstones ridge recently, I welcomed the arrival of another photographer and his obvious desire for some philosophical musing. After some collective grumping about the light, he popped the question: “So who’s the best nature photographer in your opinion?” I’ve been asked this a fair few times over the years and never been able to offer a definitive suggestion as to who, or a convincing argument as to why. This was no exception and I fudged my response but a 450-mile drive home gave me time to ponder.
There are many contenders in my book. My old buddy Mark Hamblin for his insane consistency; the annoyingly talented Vincent Munier for his visual artistry; the equally annoying Stefano Unterthiner for his ability to spot a story and nail it; colleagues Andy Rouse and Danny Green for their work ethic; Alex Mustard and Tom Peschak for their pioneering underwater work, ditto Paul Nicklen; Staffan Widstrand for his unrelenting drive; Orsi and Erlend Haarberg for showing us true beauty; Niall Benvie for provoking thought and discussion; Laurent Geslin for sticking to a tight plan and making the most of it. Sandra Bartocha for just being bloody good. And then there are the giants from across the pond – Mangelson, Brandenburg, Doubilet – all proven, committed and talented artists. There are of course many, many more.
I fudged my response to the young man at Stiperstones because it’s impossible to choose just one; it depends what the criteria is. There’s one thing that each one of these photographers has given me at different times: Inspiration. The question then is not “Who’s the best?” but “Who’s the most inspirational?” That of course is even more subjective and opens up a different can of worms (I can tell you though that despite my gratitude for years of help, Hamblin’s toilet etiquette puts him out of the running at this point. Ditto Benvie’s weird ideas about chocolate and Green’s pie-eating prowess. And Munier is just too nice to be inspirational).
Anyway back to the issue at hand. Around 20 years ago I nervously picked up the phone to Laurie Campbell who kindly offered me some advice on my rather naive perspective on a career in nature photography. At that time – and things have changed radically in the last two decades – Laurie was almost unique in his creative approach to capturing British wildlife on film (just google ‘film’ if you’re under 25). The range and extent of Laurie’s coverage remains unsurpassed even if his style has been endlessly emulated and, if Laurie doesn’t mind me saying, developed and improved. So in terms of personal inspiration, Laurie gets my vote even 20 years on.
But there’s something else to consider here. If there are two things in life that I can’t abide (other than Bush and Palin – sorry but my respect doesn’t even stretch to using their forenames) it’s cruelty and unfairness, however they might manifest. Laurie’s work, perhaps above all others, has shown consistent honesty, humility and regard for his subjects. In a world where competition increasingly drives unsavoury behaviour, these are undoubtedly traits to be proud of.
If any of us nature photographers are to leave a legacy, and in my opinion we should all at least try, it surely should be one of inspiring others. Occasionally being thanked for doing so is without question the greatest reward in this often-unrewarding work. I’m presently pondering my future direction (does that sound like a pretentious out-of-work actor?) but whatever I end up doing, I’ll strive to inspire. And I’ll strive to be fair. If I succeed in either I’ll be content.
I didn’t exchange details with the young man at Stiperstones but I’d like to thank him for catalysing a thought process. It won’t be the last time this subject is visited but at least when I’m next asked the question, I’ll have some thoughts put aside.
Votes of your own, criticism of mine and general comments welcomed. Perhaps we should all meet on Stiperstones ridge one day?
A couple of decades ago, the spiritual home of stand-up comedy was arguably the working mens clubs of the industrial north. Sure a few of the top artists made it to TV spots but the thought of Michael McIntyre, John Bishop or Lee Evans filling an arena, historically the preserve of headline music acts, was at best, far-fetched. Stand-up comedy has broken new ground, broken new records and broken new audiences. The same needs to be done for nature.
Spring/Autumnwatch goes some way towards bridging the gap between science and a mainstream audience, but does it reach beyond Middle-class, Middle age, Middle England? Possibly yes, but it’s a two-dimensional platform.
The other night I finally got around to going to an Andy Rouse talk in Warrington. By a quirk of fate I was passing through (no disrespect to Warrington but this is not an everyday occurrence). The hall was packed and encouragingly, a generous splattering of young couples were present – the sort that might go and see Michael McIntyre at the O2. Now I’ve know Andy a fair few years but I’d never seen him speak in this context, so I was intrigued, not so much by the show he put on, but by the reaction of the audience to his rather ‘non-conformist’ style. I’ve got to say I winced a tad at some aspects of his approach, but the crowd were taken along, not on an evening of natural history, but on an evening of entertainment. Yes entertainment. Even nature-lovers like to be entertained!
I dare say the real purists would have recoiled at the occasional sexual innuendo and the anthropomorphic interpretation of some of his images, but the purists are not the ones who need convincing. Andy entertained first and educated as a consequence; it’s much more difficult to pull that off the other way around and my hat goes off to him for that.
Whether you agree with the Rouse approach or not, there is no question over his passion, drive and photographic ability. Factor in that rare resource amongst nature photographers, humour, and it’s an entertaining combination. I’m not sure he’s ready for the O2 just yet but I’m sure someone once said that to Michael McIntyre. I for one, would like to see more Andy Rouse’s sticking their head above that very serious and often painfully tedious parapet, that is traditional nature photography. Andy has fun and so does his audience. Job done.