January 2: “To help in the least degree to accomplish the extinction of anything beautiful and interesting is a crime against future generations…” to know that those words were written more than a hundred years ago is a chilling reminder that our species has responsibility to other animals. Reading them, we know we have not met that responsibility.
If I say that I’m about to write about Yorkshire brothers who were keen bird-watchers, yes, ‘twitchers’, your reaction might be ‘how quaint’. But they are the writers of those damning words and their work in photography and film is worthy of our curiousity.
In contrast are works by Volker Seding (born on this date in 1943) and Tania Mouraud (born this day in 1942).
Richard Kearton (born on this date in 1862) and brother Cherry grew up in the Yorkshire Dales as boys who used to hunt birds’ eggs and came to enjoy the wildlife that surrounded them, going on to experiment with photography to record it, taking the first ever photograph of a bird’s nest with eggs in 1892.
This feat, and the success of Richard’s first book, Birds’ Nests, Eggs and Egg Collecting, published in 1890, inspired them to go on to make extraordinary pictures of the habits and behaviour of birds and other creatures. They became the world’s first professional nature photographers. Cherry, after Richard’s death, travelled around the world taking photographs and making films.
Cherry (1871-1940) and his brother Richard (1862-1928), became pioneer wildlife photographers. In our era when natural history shows are commonplace on television and streaming video we take it for granted, but without the Keartons it is unlikely to have begun so early. We are still as entranced as they are by what we learn about wildlife in all its forms, as close to first-hand as possible, though with most of the world now living in cities, this knowledge, for our children, comes second-hand through the lenses of others. For instance, their photograph of a female sparrow hawk and young proved that sparrowhaws could build their own nests rather than taking over an old one of a crow or wood pigeon.
Their career began with a box camera before they moved on to more sophisticated equipment and eventually to making movies, but in the process had to invent the genre, build much of the equipment themselves and undertake feats that anyone would now regard as daring or foolhardy, to achieve their ambitions.
Before the advent of reliable and fast telephoto lenses, proximity was paramount, but hampered by the available bellows cameras using large glass plates and the necessity for a tripod. Here they have extended the legs of the tripod by lashing sticks to them, unfazed by the need to perform acrobatics to secure their quarry. While their antics look comic, rather like a Robert and Shana ParkeHarrison shot, the results are remarkable.
They had to devise ingenious forms of camouflage to get close enough to animals in their natural habitat to fill the frame. Richard hit upon the idea of getting the local butcher to skin a whole ox which they took to a taxidermist who constructed a frame for the hide, light enough to carry, from which the brothers could photograph by placing the lens of the camera at a hole in the head.
Despite one incident (above) in which it tipped over in the wind, trapping Richard inside, the ox ‘hide’ did fool the birds, who paid it no attention, thus cheating the Heisenberg uncertainty principle: that the presence of the photographer and the act of taking the picture might change an animal’s behavior. Naturalistic ‘dummy’ animals are a method that’s still used in natural history photography, but most creatures are happy with anything that disguises the human photographer, as long as they can’t see, hear or smell them. The hollow ox is just one example of the way the brothers spared ‘no pains, danger or expense’ for their work:
We lay in wet heather for hours at a stretch, tramped many weary miles in the dark, and spent nights in the open air on lonely islands … we have endured the torturing stings of insects, waited for days and days together for a single picture and been nearly drowned, both literally and figuratively.
They developed other hides cunningly disguised as boulders, tree stumps, wagons loaded with farmyard refuse, part of a stone fence, and a sheep which unfortunately fell victim to attacks by farm dogs.
Night shots were made with explosive magnesium flash powder and equipment far more unwieldy than our much more powerful and portable flash units, and yet their shots appear convincingly natural.
Three years of field work resulted in their first book. Richard Kearton, the writer of the pair, moved to London from Yorkshire in 1882 to work for Cassell & Co. publishing house who published their book British Birds’ Nests (1895), the first nature study to be illustrated entirely with photographs; 160 of them.
In 1896 the pair ventured into the Atlantic to document life on St. Kilda, a mostly barren mountain of rock thrusting up from the ocean amongst other islands of the Hebrides. There they photographed the people of the tiny settlement and their means of living by catching fish and trapping or lassoing the seabirds on the perilous cliffs. This resulted in With Nature and a Camera, written by Richard and with Cherry’s pictures, secured with as much, if not more, risk to personal safety as were the islander’s bird catches.
Richard published many more books, including his autobiography, A Naturalists’ Pilgrimage and became a sought-after public speaker, illustrating his nature talks with lantern slides.
Cherry made the first phonograph recording of birds (a nightingale and a song thrush) singing in the wild in 1900 in the same year that he married Mary Burwood Coates, with whom he had a son, also named Cherry, and a daughter, Nina.
The brothers shot a number of ‘shorts’ of birds and animals for Charles Urban in the years 1905-1908, then Cherry began making documentary films in 1910-11. He then graduated to making and starring in his own movies, such as With Cherry Kearton in the Jungle in 1926.
His ventures into Africa resulted in this unrepeated and now unrepeatable shot of Masai hunting a lion. There he developed the use of an early camera trap, now in common use to calculate animal populations and record their health and habits.
The pair published seventeen books written by Richard and illustrated with Cherry’s photography, and Cherry wrote and illustrated a further seventeen titles of his own. It was in Africa that that his life takes a rather Wodehousian twist (those quaint Brits of the 20s!) when he married Ada Forrest, a South African soprano in 1922, after his divorce from Mary in 1920. He became the Attenborough of his age, travelling on safari to east Africa, India, Borneo, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Canada, making more than thirty films for his film companies Cherry Kearton Ltd and Cherry Kearton Films Ltd.
Though the Keartons are understood in their field to be the first publishers of illustrated naturalist books, all of their original titles are now out of print, and though gradually being reissued are hard to find. However an excellent 2007 biography by John Bevis Direct From Nature: The Photographic Work of Richard & Cherry Kearton, is available from publisher Colin Sackett.
Volker Seding is well known for his Animal Kingdom and Captive series, the result of fifteen years exploring hundreds of zoos located across North America and Europe, of which he said:
Today we are separated from our ancestral past- a time when we lived an integrated life with nature and when animals were respected and essential to our survival. Confronted with the animal world our sentiment now places the animals beneath us; yet they are a mystery which goes beyond us and encompasses us, one which obliges us to face the central mystery of being.
Photography, as a showdown with reality, throws us back to our ancestral astonishment with regard to animals.
The animals in his photographs are tragic, and yet Seding says that they would still ‘reveal their beauty and grace’ for a moment, if he waited, sometimes whole days, despite their artificial, trapped conditions.
He exploits perpective; the effect by which the photographing a rectilinear space, a room, or cage square-on, produces a box that is a reduction of the original dimensions, so that it is like a cabinet, or a casket, or a matchbox.
Seding was born in Germany and studied drawing, painting and cinematography in Hannover before immigrating to Canada in 1966. There he worked making documentary films until 1976 when he returned to his first love, photography, and worked solely as an artist until he passed away in 2007.
Tania Mouraud works across a range of media; painting, installation, sound, video, performance as well as photography.
A recent series Balafres of 2014 – 2015 records broad swathes of landscapes in Inden, Garzweiler and Hambach, Germany, places once organic and fecund now being stripped of life and turned to monotonous expanses of sand and stone, artificially sculpted and graded, in the extraction of coal for electric power generation.
No animal appears in these images, not even the human; the landscape belongs to huge, rolling machines.
Mouraud, speaking of this work says these landscapes “are both the sign of human will and the agent of its erasure”
In his The Moth Snowstorm, given to me by my kind partner, author Michael McCarthy recalls when he was a boy sitting in his parents’ car that moths “would pack a car’s headlight beams like snowflakes in a blizzard, there would be a veritable snowstorm of moths, and at the end of your journey you would have to wash your windscreen, you would have to sponge away the astounding richness of life,” but discovers that all over Britain that is just a distant memory shared only by his (and my) generation, the Baby Boomers. The moths and other insects are vanishing in the onslaught of insecticides freely accessed and excessively used by farmers, and he despairs that his generation is the last to see large numbers of species, or even the sparrows of London.
He opens his book rhapsodically describing episodes of boyhood bird-watching on the River Dee Bay estuary with its huge expanses of mud which are exposed between tides and the extensive saltmarsh as it enters the Liverpool Bay and the Irish Sea between Wales and England. These childhood explorations are wound between his remembrance of his mother’s mental collapse and the effects of it on his family. In the meantime wildlife is being lost, not only in the wholesale extinctions of species but also in the dwindling of those species that still exist. It is painful to read, and by the middle of the book these events, on a personal and global scale seem irrevocable, unhelped by ‘sustainable development’, ecological accounting or good Green intentions.
McCarthy devotes the second half of his book to joy. We read as he talks to many like the Keartons, who have an intimate relationship with wilderness and its inhabitants and who have a profound understanding and respect for them. He undertakes an oddessy to visit the haunts of the last ‘galumphing’ hares, to see all of the butterflies he remembers from his childhood and rejoice in the crystal clarity of chalk streams, and the colour blue in nature, of bluebells, kingfishers and cornflowers. He invokes the great elegies to nature like that of Ralph Waldo Emerson in opening his essay Nature, of Wordsworth and of Iris Murdoch who wrote: “People from a planet without flowers would think we must be mad with joy the whole time to have such things about us.” In doing so proposes that what will save Nature ultimately, is Art, as an invocation of Joy.
This argument of McCarthy’s strikes a deep chord in me. However I take issue with his belief that Modernist art (and postmodernism too I would guess) represents an ‘uglification’ that banishes joy. Regrettably, we can look now to the Keartons for imagery of many ‘Birds of Britain’ that are now endangered, just as is their type, the quaint English naturalist, and only enjoy and remember what they photographed.
More relevant to us, in our time, is to know, and feel, and share Seding’s compassion for the animals in his stark images of zoo enclosures, these bleak Noah’s Arks, and where Mouraud shows us ugliness we know we are to understand her desperation to see and to save great and beauteous landscapes.