After 48 years, the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum is something of an institution. The snapshots are, as always, glorious examples of the complex, myriad beauties our natural world has to offer, but the tried-and-tested formula for displaying these contest winners is in need of a revamp: I can’t help but feel it is not quite as breath-taking as it should be. Nonetheless, this is not an exhibition I would wish to see disappear: it combines an inclusive competition for both amateurs and professionals with exceptional results.
This exhibition displays the winning entries and runners-up of the competition, which fall into a number of different categories: technical specifications such as black-and-white and underwater photography; different age brackets for the young photographers; special awards for endangered animal photos; and the winning entry, the Wildlife Photo of the Year. This year’s winner, Daniel Beltra, won the prize for the striking Still Life in Oil, in which oil-drenched brown penguins huddle away from the camera, waiting to be cleaned after the oil spill disaster of the American East Coast last year. It’s a beautiful shot, elegantly capturing the character of the birds and the horror of the situation in a delicate balance of respect for natural beauty and disgust at how humans have crudely impacted it – exactly the point the exhibition is making.
Elsewhere, photos seem to focus less on environmental impact and more on beauty. There are innumerable pictures of birds in flight, a couple of strangely appealing pieces that have been taken from interesting angles (including an extreme close-up of a pelican’s beak), and some clever underwater shots. They’re all gorgeous, and there’s no denying the talent of the photographers, but this is not an exhibition that’s going to take you a huge amount of time – after a while, they all start to seem very similar. I hugely respect the energy and skill it takes to take some of these photographs — especially those of birds in flight — but I lack the intense interest it takes to look at four photos of flying birds and not think that they’re basically the same.
That being said, there are occasional pieces that just take your breath away – there’s a whole section called ‘Creative Visions’ which features some quite bizarre and really lovely pieces, including a photo of an albino whale from above. The ‘Animals in their Environment’ features a picture of a snow hare in front of a wooden hut in a snowstorm that almost seems to be abstract. These photos, which seem less focused on getting a clear picture of the animal in question and more on the artistry of the photograph itself, I find altogether more interesting, but they are unfortunately few.
Also, for an exhibition of wildlife photography, the exhibition really does little to showcase the pieces. I’ve been reliably informed that the exhibition always takes the same form: photos hung on a wall without an obvious path around the exhibition — this seems a shame. While I can understand not wanting to impose an organisational hierarchy on the images, there’s an inherent hierarchy to the competition. Why not start off with the smaller category prizes, before building up to the overall winners? Also, the photos are displayed in back-lit wall brackets that do little to showcase them. There are some projected in a side-room at the end, but there’s so much wall space that could do with a humongous projector or something similar. The pieces are small, and when crowds are heavy, it isn’t exactly easy to see everything closely.
The Wildlife Photography competition is a fantastic opportunity for amateurs and professionals to present their work, and the opportunity they’ve been given — especially for very young nature enthusiasts — is unparalleled, but the resulting exhibition doesn’t quite live up to its fanfare, and a curatorial overhaul is definitely in order. The photographs themselves are enchanting, but for an exhibition, that really isn’t enough on its own.