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Into the Wild: The Story of the World’s Greatest Wildlife Photography

Into the Wild: The Story of the World's Greatest Wildlife Photography

When a book like Into the Wild: The Story of the World’s Greatest Wildlife Photography comes along it’s worth taking note.

Wildlife photography generally gets short shrift in photography histories. That’s a slight that is shared by several genres. Most histories of photography make an occasional mention of a significant “first” from the 19th or early 20th century, but few devote significant space to nature, sports or wedding photography for example.

That is the case even though, in terms of sheer volume, these genres may well represent the bulk of photographs taken, published and displayed.

Most histories are written by art historians and the focus remains firmly devoted to photography as a means of personal expression or as a reflection of aesthetic movements. Documentary photography, photojournalism and fashion are treated as serious and influential contributors to the history and evolution of photography largely because, for the bulk of photography’s history, these genres dominated the photography collections of many museums.

But other genres are often neglected, leaving significant gaps in the history of photography. This book helps fill one of the gaps.

Buy Photo Books for the Pictures

I’m of the opinion that one should buy photography books primarily for the pictures and if the text proves to be worth reading, that’s a bonus. The pictures included in Into the Wild never disappoint and for the most part the text, which is not voluminous and makes for a fairly quick and easy read, enhances the experience.

Early Wildlife Photography

The long exposures and bright lighting required for photography in its earliest years meant there were very few successful pictures of animals from the first decades of photography. But, as emulsions became more light sensitive, enterprising photographers quickly set about trying to capture nature.

The first 60 pages or so of the book concentrates on wildlife photography from the 19th century through the first half of the 20th. That leaves the bulk of the book to concentrate on everything from about 1950 onwards.

Personally, I enjoyed the early photographs the most, as I imagined and admired the skill and determination those early photographers needed to capture images under challenging technical conditions. If the dates were not published and if the images were not mostly in black and white, many could be mistaken for shots taken today.  

This is not to take anything away from the more recent photographs and photographers featured in the book. Anyone with an interest in wildlife photography will find much to be inspired by and envious of.

Digital Has Changed Everything

The incredible advances in digital photography during this century can lead us to forgot just how challenging it was to take good wildlife pictures just a few decades ago. It’s worth reminding ourselves that most, if not all, of the images chosen to represent 1950-2000 were shot on film.

Those of us old enough to have learned during the era of film have to respect the photographers who shot these impressive nature images at a time when ISO 400 was pushing the limits of acceptable resolution, when capturing action meant manually focusing a lens and when an error of a fraction of an f-stop meant the difference between a winning shot and failure.

But, those technological advances have also meant that producing truly stand-out wildlife photographs today requires that photographers push themselves to the edges. As the book demonstrates, nature photographers are no longer content to simply capture a telling image of a rare specimen.

Not surprisingly, wildlife photographers are among the most passionate defenders of nature and many of the recent photographs in the book dramatically illustrate some of the environmental challenges facing wildlife today.

The New Concerned Photographers

In 1967, photojournalist Cornell Capa opened the exhibition, “The Concerned Photographer,” to showcase the work of Robert Capa, David Seymour “Chim,” Werner Bischof, Dan Weiner, and Leonard Freed, under the auspices of his International Fund for Concerned Photography. The phrase referred to documentary photographers and photojournalists who sought to use their images to spur opposition to war, violence and the exploitation of the underprivileged.

As global warming and other environmental challenges threaten our ecology and the well-being of wildlife, nature photographers are incorporating those threats into their images, creating a new generation of concerned photographers focused on man’s impact on the environment.

Credit here should also be given to the great W. Eugene Smith whose 1972 Life magazine essay and 1975 book, Minamata, chronicled the impact of environmental mercury poisoning in Japan. Smith’s work represented one of the first efforts by photojournalists to turn their attention to industrial pollution and its impact on people and the environment. 

Inspired by Smith and others and no longer satisfied with showing wildlife in a pristine, idealized natural setting, this new generation of concerned photographers are documenting how wildlife interacts with and is impacted by the detritus of modern society.

In all, Into the Wild contains a wealth of powerful, compelling images that will challenge, delight and inspire both nature photographers and those who simply love beautiful images of wildlife.

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