The Photographic Sublime

It is easy to see why photography and nature fit so seamlessly into each other’s hands. In early documentations of animals, plants and landscapes, it was never enough for the author to simply describe a natural element – they more often than not felt the need to show it as well. Sketchbooks of explorers, scientists and naturalists demonstrate the habit of humankind to recreate what we see. Cave paintings too are of course testament to this. From sketches and paintings to the modern technologies of film and photography, humans have always retained a sense of the visual in their perception of the natural world; after all, if we can’t observe it, then can we truly understand it?

More than ever before, photographic technologies are now allowing us to delve deeper into both the sublime and the everyday of nature. Modern cameras allow us to observe organisms that previously escaped the naked eye. Comparatively, they can also portray landscapes on a much grander scale, encouraging humans to envisage the Earth from a less insular point of view.

Jointly run by Australian Geographic and the South Australian Museum, the ANZANG Nature Photographer of the Year is Australia's premier natural history photography exhibition. As well as the publication of a book, selected photos are displayed in an exhibition held at the South Australian Museum and, for the first time this year, at the Australian Museum in Sydney. The book and exhibitions ensure that millions of people have access to these incredible images and that the organisations involved can continue to encourage the human connection with the environment through the art of photography. As the title of the award suggests, photos portray the natural world of Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica and New Guinea, making for an amazing collection of diverse portraits.

Titled Australasian Nature Photography and now in its thirteenth edition, the book itself is presented in a simple fashion, divided into the various prize categories (such as Botanical, Animal Portrait and Landscape). In this case, simplicity works, allowing the photographs to stand alone and speak for themselves with only short pieces of text to accompany them. It is fascinating to discover the stories behind the work, yet it is also satisfying to quietly peruse the images, immersing yourself in the non-human world that has been captured all too knowingly by the human.

The high standard of the winners makes it difficult to pick a favourite, so my selections below represent just a small sample of the fantastic collection included in the publication. I am also not a photographer – just a would-be naturalist with a love for metaphor and the aesthetic.

Well, Hello!  - David Westcott

Winner – Animal Habitat

Despite the obvious cuteness of the subject, this photo truly encapsulates the significance of habitat in the life of an individual. Captured off Russell Island in Queensland, Westcott admires these smallspotted combtooth blennies for their fun and curious behaviour; as I would agree, he believes that ‘it’s the little things in life that bring pleasure’. The coral folds of the blenny’s home suggest continuum and safety in an environment that would definitely not be without its challenges.

Well, Hello!  Image: David Westcott

Well, Hello! Image: David Westcott

Jupiter – Diana Yong

Landscape – Shortlisted

I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been for the judges to select a winner in this category. Every image evokes an almost unbelievable sense of place and leaves the viewer stunned with the capacity of a photo to pull one into another world. Resembling rough brush strokes on a painter’s canvas, this photograph was taken at Lake Martin in Victoria. Yong describes how the image reminded her ‘of indigenous art and the topographic relations to the imagery’. The name of the piece suggests an otherworldly nature, as well as the interconnectedness of places across time and space.

Jupiter .   Image: Diana Yong

Jupiter. Image: Diana Yong

Piercing Headache – Matthew McIntosh

Overall Winner 2016

I could hardly describe my favourites without reference to the official winner of the ANZANG competition. McIntosh’s captivating snap of a male orange-eyed tree frog and his bloodthirsty friends graces the cover of the book, and was selected by the judges for its storytelling ability: ‘the bulging orange eyes grab your attention and the mosquitoes add a layer of complexity.’ Indeed, this image draws you in to a non-human world that is too often forgotten and reflects the survival needs of even the most miniscule creatures. As McIntosh explains, the female mosquitoes featured in the photo require the blood of the frog to ensure their ‘future egg development’. This image is an outstanding evocation of the miniature, the marvellous, the connectedness and the intrigue that make life possible, all in one tidy (and amazing) package. Perhaps more simply, it is also a stark reminder that humans are not the only animal whose blood mosquitoes enjoy!

Piercing Headache.  Image: Matthew McIntosh

Piercing Headache. Image: Matthew McIntosh

Buller’s Albatross, Thalassarche bulleri – Georgina Steytler

Threatened Species – Runner-Up

Of course it wouldn’t be a wildlife photography competition without one or two decent bird shots! Whilst this is only one of many incredible images, there is something sublime about this photo that stops you from turning away. Like the eyes of the Mona Lisa following you about the room, the piercing gaze of this albatross suggests an intelligence and awareness that is both foreign and relatable to that of the human. Simultaneously, it bridges the gap between the human and non-human by bringing us into this split second of life above the ocean’s waves. Appropriately featured in the Threatened Species category, Steytler describes how ‘Buller’s albatross is a common by-catch from long-line fisheries in the Southern Ocean.’

Buller’s Albatross,  Thalassarche bulleri .  Image: Georgina Steytler

Buller’s Albatross, Thalassarche bulleri. Image: Georgina Steytler

As the last image suggests, the Nature Photographer of the Year is more than just a competition. It is a means for both photographers and those that view photography to better engage with the natural world, to help in the fight to protect threatened species, and to understand the plight of the non-human in a world that is being irrevocably changed by the impacts of the human. As amazing as they are, the featured photos above do little to capture the diversity and talent on display in this must-have book. Without competitions like this and the broader world of nature photography, it is not difficult to believe that our perception and understanding of nature would be very different indeed.

This book can be purchased from Andrew Isles Natural History Books, where the review was originally published.

Rachel Fetherston

Rachel Fetherston is an Arts and Science graduate who is passionate about communicating the importance of the natural world through literature. She recently completed her Honours year in Literary Studies, involving research into environmental philosophy and the significance of the non-human other. She is the Arts and Philosophy Editor for Wild Melbourne.

Find her on Twitter at @RJFether.

Banner image courtesy of Georgina Steytler.