Those Beautiful Bastards

©2011 Warren Hedges

Having an animal’s eye in sharp focus is traditionally a make or break element in wildlife photography. Perhaps for evolutionary reasons, we like to look at things that can look back at us. Here is the background, but clearly distinguished from it is the subject, which is also a “subject,” something akin to us, something that looks.

While I work hard at learning how to create these kind of photos, I’ve been thinking about the limits that accompany their strengths. I recently found out from Frank Lang, a local biologist, that wild turkeys, which I find visually interesting, aren’t native to the area. That their presence is, in fact, “an ecological disaster.”

How could I photograph this fact? I can think of many ways to graphically illustrate it. For example, I could do a fun chart mapping out how, as Frank explained, turkeys deplete the lizards who, by a fascinating alchemical dance with ticks, help keep Lyme disease in check. I could also hope to catch a turkey in the act of eating a lizard, or at least overgrazing acorns. But neither of these approaches would make much sense without supplementing the image with a narrative, with words.

I could also stage a photo. I could build up a huge mound of acorns and plastic Godzilla lizards, and then film the rafters of turkeys as they descend, zombie-like, for the acorn feast. (Assuming, that is, that they would play along, and not be afraid of the swarm of Godzillas.) But, again, this would be illustrating something, even staging it. Much as I enjoy deconstructing the boundary between natural and cultural, constantive and performative, this would not satisfy me. It’s not the sort of photo I think I’d find myself coming back to or lingering over. Nope: just a clever message to be consumed and discarded.

Another approach would be to emphasize time. I could document how a landscape changes over a course of years after turkeys are introduced. There are lots of ways to do this kind of time-based documentation without photographs per se. For example one could attach GPS devices to the turkeys and then superimpose the path of them traversing territory on top of a map or satellite photo.

But that does take one away from the photo, from the snapshot. A snapshot is not, strictly speaking an instant in time. (Consider, all the steps, including automated ones, from the shutter click to the final, processed image, as well as the technologies for disseminating it and the contexts in which the image is received, considered, and interpreted.)  Nonetheless, I think it is a slowing of “duration,” as Herni Bergson describes it, to the point where we perceive a photograph as something still.

How, then, do you photograph the turkey’s effects? Not on the level of an individual bird, but on the level of a population. How does one photograph a population, photograph movements of biomass, gradients of population density and of diversity? In short, how does one photograph change on a level that exceeds the individual–that other so clearly delineated from the background, that individual who looks–who we find so appealing?

I’m not sure where this will end, but I think one place to begin is to spend some time looking at Daoist art where living figures are 1> often subordinate to their contexts, and 2> not always different in kind from the larger environmental forces around them. Indeed, the individual and the environment are not entirely distinct, even on the level of living and non-living forces.

Nine Dragons Hand Scroll (Detail) - 九龍圖卷 (陳容) Chinese, Southern Song dynasty, dated 1244 Chen Rong, Chinese, first half of the 13th century

One thought on “Those Beautiful Bastards

  1. Warren,
    Tonight, while readying my palate for seafood fajita’s I ran across reference made by a FB crony of yours of Immanent Domain, and began to devour, along with the Tilapia. I appreciate the challenge put forth in this piece, as I have always attempted to bring three-dimentionality to my photography, in the metaphorical sense. To portray motion without blur, story without hand holding and consequence. You made reference elsewhere on FB about the challenge of capturing dawn and dusk without producing a postcard. I certainly understand the desire to avoid the cliche for a more compelling and unexplored portrayal of an exceedingly familiar phenomena.

    How to graphically illustrate the ramification of a non-native species is most challenging. Most who view photography and their product as more than ‘getting a pic’ know how fortunate it is when one of the 27 pictures taken of the subject is something to be displayed (one of the glories of digital photography). To ‘be there’ takes luck or patience and often both. But this is really more about getting the ‘shot’ where you are considering ramification in this piece. Certainly an ecologist would weigh in on the opportunistic flora and fauna who gain advantage because of the presence of the bird, that was very nearly our national symbol (glad they didn’t listen to Franklin about every matter). A biologist might offer the body mass difference, if one exists of the North American bird compared to where it was indigenous, offering explanations including predators and microorganisms. I suppose this type of thing was documented in frogs who have bizarre malformations or the fragility of the aviary shell that began gaining attention after Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring.’ Yet, the challenge with either is the need for extensive knowledge that is really only possessed by the expert or enthusiastic enthusiast, or dependent on wordsmithery.

    How would one capture the essence of recession, global warming, unconditional love. Good photographs leave implication without being too overt. Yet the challenge expressed in this piece is to portray effect, perchance relying on overtness to send the message. Photography in some ways is like one held note from an entire symphony, with dynamic overtones and consonant or dissonant chord. It can certainly stand alone in a way that a snapshot of a piece of music cannot, yet is frozen, limited by its own essence..unchanging. I resist the resignation that such a thing to ask of a medium like photography has hit the glass ceiling. I just need to get out of the box and muster sophistication and naiveté in concert. I know there is a way to capture essence, I just don’t yet know how to capture essence in two dimensions.

    Perhaps I should have been a composer.

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