Wild & Wonderful

18th December 2009

If you’re into wildlife or photography – and certainly if you’re into both – then the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition must be a key event in your calendar. The awards were announced in October, and, after a stint in London, the exhibition has just opened at the Natural History Museum’s outpost at Tring. Jill Glenn went to see it.

To see all the pictures referred to here, go to www.nhm.ac.uk and follow the link to Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year.

This exhibition seems very much at home in the classical surroundings of the Walter Rothschild Building in Akeman Street, Tring. True, it’s startling to come face to face with a life-size stuffed polar bear as you head through the main galleries down to the exhibition room, but there’s something poignant about seeing all these fine examples of endangered animals so closely juxtaposed with photographs that celebrate the diversity of an environment in danger.

The competition has been running for an astonishing 45 years. Back in 1964, there were just three categories and only about 600 entries, but even then it was the leading event of its kind for nature photographers, and its popularity has never waned. In 1984, BBC Wildlife Magazine and the Natural History Museum came together to create the competition as it is today… when more than 43,000 entries are received into some 15 categories (including three for children and teenagers), from 94 countries around the globe. It’s a real achievement, therefore, for any photographer to be able to see his or her work in the exhibition, which is reserved for the winners, runners-up and highly commended entries. I don’t envy the judges (this year headed by zoologist, writer, photographer and tv presenter Mark Carwardine) their task.

The first pictures that you see, in a small vestibule opening into the main display area, are from the Nature in Black and White category. Don’t pass by too quickly. These may not have the arresting quality of some of the colour work, but they display some fantastic aspects of nature, revealing form and texture that we might otherwise overlook. The winner, Danny Green’s Starling wave, taken at Gretna Green, is a stunning portrayal of hundreds of thousands of starlings sweeping over farmland and trees – and I defy anyone not to be moved by both the technical brilliance and the romantic nobility of Britta Jaschinski’s Lone lion.

The exhibition shows impressive breadth and depth. Images that document animal behaviour or capture spirit and character, for example, brush shoulders with the top entries in Creative Visions of Nature, where an imaginative or abstract view of wildlife or wild places is conveyed. The winner, here, called Fantail, and shot by Esa Malkonen (Finland), is a beautifully coloured, beautifully realised image of a rare bearded tit, landing on ice, its feathers fanned like the reeds in the background.

All wild life is here. There’s cute factor (Brian Matthews’s Borneo baby, a very young orangutan) and drama (Respect, by Igor Shpilenok in which a domestic cat chases off a fox in Kamchatka, and a very telling shot by Andy Rouse, Stalking the tiger, in which jeep-loads of tourists – wildlife paparazzi – are seen pursuing a female tiger in the Ranthambore National Park.

Constraints of space mean that the junior entries are displayed separately, on the top floor of the building. It’s worth climbing a couple of flights of stairs to see them, though. Junior definitely doesn’t mean inferior. Fergus Gill’s fabulous picture of a pair of fighting yellowhammers, taken in Scotland, earned him the title of Veolia Environnement Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year, and demonstrates a superb ability to envisage and create a superb shot. It shows too, that all the necessary ingredients for great photography can be found in your own back garden; travelling to exotic foreign parts is by no means a prerequisite.

Ilkka Räsänen, from Finland, also deserves a mention; wild bird photography has been his passion since he was six, and the effort he puts into it has really paid off, with this year’s winning entry in the Ten years and under group, plus two highly commended pictures as well. Ilkka is clearly a name to watch for the future… and with entrants like him, the future of this engaging and very worthwhile competition is assured.

The 2010 competition opens in January; see www.nhm.ac.uk for information.

The Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition continues at the Natural History Museum, Tring, until 10 January.
Admission free.

See www.nhm.ac.uk/tring for more information.

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