Text and Images by Gordon and Cathy Illg
I’ve known photographers who were totally oblivious of this fact, and I’ve lost sight of it myself from time to time: nature photography is not a contest. This can be a difficult thing to keep in mind, and it was another photographer–thank you Valerie Millett–who recently reminded me. Nature photography is not a game in which the person who visits the most locations or the most exotic sites wins.
I have fleeting moments when I think it might be nice if it was a game, at least for a little while, but those thoughts are generated by a desire for financial security. Speaking as a photo tour leader, it would be great if everyone was in a competition to see all the places we want to take them. However, for good or bad, it is not a contest, and it makes no difference if you’re photographing in Alaska or your own backyard, as long as you’re out there shooting.
The miracle that compels us to push the shutter button is not something that is only present in far away climes. The beauty and the life and death struggles that we want so desperately to capture happen in our own gardens, just as they do in the rainforest. This orb weaver spider laid her trap right beside our front door, and the fact that we didn’t need to travel to the far corners of the globe did not detract from the engineering marvel that was her web. From our house, we observed the evolutionary miracle that her stronger-than-steel gossamer strands represents and we witnessed the deadliness of her attack.
The poetic naturalist, Annie Dillard, once wrote, “Fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly; insects, it seems, gotta do one horrible thing after another. I never ask why of a vulture or a shark, but I ask why of almost every insect I see.” And the same applies to spiders. You see, spiders do not simply eat their victims. They inject a witch’s brew of poison and enzymes that paralyzes the prey and reduces its muscles and organs to a protein shake. Then it can be sucked out. Don’t you get hungry just thinking about it?
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to photograph exotic locations or to search for the Shangri-Las of nature photography. There, you can find magnificent scenery, charismatic megafauna, and colorful birds. Our business depends upon some of these destinations, and even though Cathy and I have been lucky enough to visit a good number of these places, there are many more that are still on our list. This desire to see new places often has little to do with the quality of the photos we come home with, and a photo of an iceberg or a grizzly bear or a lion cub is not inherently better than one of a flower, a bug or a squirrel. When we judge photography competitions, we’ve found that the most ordinary and pedestrian images are often the ones with the most exciting subjects. It’s easy to make the mistake of thinking the image is exciting just because the subject is. Some of the most extraordinary images are composed of ordinary subjects. I’m not sure if the ones I’ve included with this blog illustrate this fact adequately, but you get the idea.
Personally, I think that nature photography is a contest, the winner is the one who gets to spend the most time immersed in the mystery and majesty that we are a part of.
You can see more images by Gordon and Cathy Illg and learn about their photo tours at http://www.advenphoto.com.