Alaska Wildlife Photography (Part 2)


Alaska Nature Photography


Alaska Wildlife Photography (Part 2)


The development of digital photography has been revolutionary. Digital capture has replaced film, highly wasteful and toxic in both manufacturing and processing.

For consistent results in the film era, mastery of photographic skills was imperative. Today, the digital world is divided between purists and techies. Purists place emphasis on a well-practiced craft using all their skills and techniques to produce good photographs. Techies obsess over mega pixels, processor speeds and pay far too much attention to their computers to fix fundamental errors. They correct basic photographic mistakes with mouse clicks.

Now, due to computer software, almost anyone can produce quality imagery. Thanks to digital corrections, many images show idealized animals without imperfections of any kind.  Wild animals are often wet, muddy, molting, scarred, or covered with insects, in hiding or camouflaged, but you’d never know it from the re-touched pictures favored today. In the film era an eye-popping photograph often provoked a ‘Wow! What a shot.’ Sadly, the response today is often, ‘Wow! I wonder if it’s real?’        

Today’s imagery has complicated our ability to separate photographic fact from fiction. A composited image does not capture a true moment but creates one. Digital photo fakery silences the old dogma “that the camera does not lie.”

            In truth, a picture is not literal, never has been. Since its invention, the medium has been a subjective rendering of reality. The content of any photograph starts with what the photographer decides to include or exclude from the frame, the timing of the shutter release, or choice of lighting, film, filters, or lens. Reality can be modified by simple elimination of distracting or unwanted elements. Photographers have a history of using darkroom techniques to alter their work but software makes it easy. Ansel Adams created his best imagery not in camera but in the darkroom. “The negative is the score,” he wrote, “[but] the print is the performance.” His prints were absolutely not literal representations but rather interpretations of landscape.

            Technology always advances faster than ethics. When does computer manipulation become unethical? Is it OK to remove a branch from in front of a bear’s face? Or digitally clone in an entire bear into a scene? Software allows the technically proficient to re-order nature in spectacular ways, create dramatic, often artistic, imagery at low cost, and at minimal discomfort. No need to get cold, wet, hungry, or bitten by bugs.

Nature photography is booming. Legions of people own telephoto lenses and high end digital cameras. An estimated 1.3 trillion digital photographs were taken in 2017. Sometimes the competition for photographs is so great that many resource managers fear that the sheer numbers and drive “to get the unique shot” poses a serious threat to wildlife. Wildlife harassment is of great concern. (One accepted definition of the term: any human action that causes unusual behavior, or change in behavior.) Each species has a different level of tolerance to human intrusion, with individual variations. Wintering wildlife may not over-react to the approach or passage of a single individual but repeated intrusions create stress and energy drain that may affect the animal’s very survival. I’ve often passed up winter opportunities when I felt my presence might disturb or displace an animal. A nationally recognized ethical standards states: “The welfare of the subject is more important than the photograph.”

The very best wildlife photography today shows an animal within the context of its habitat, no crowding necessary. Such images evoke a sense of place, an emotional and spiritual connection to the natural world.

One of my early role models, photographer Bill McRae, strongly felt that a wildlife photographer carries a responsibility for the well-being of his subjects and that their territory, strengths and weaknesses must be respected. “I think animals have a sixth sense about whether or not you mean them harm,” he once told me, “I don’t just go barging into their world. I ease in and sometimes move in a very meandering route so as to be less threatening.”

The late Charlie Ott, a pioneer in Alaska nature photography, believed patience was the key virtue, coupled with an understanding of “the rights and feelings of the ‘wildfolk.’ I can tell if they don’t want their picture taken, and I won’t,” he said. Throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s, Ott photographed the McKinley (Denali) Park more completely than anyone before him, everything from lichens to wolves. His outspoken activism and staunch support of conservation ranked him as a true zealot protector of the natural world.

Intentional feeding carries risk, both to wildlife and public safety. Resource managers say, “a fed bear is a dead bear,” because a bear hooked on human food or garbage often turns dangerous. No mammal, large or small, should be fed, especially for photos. In Denali, David Rhode once watched a fox hunting in willows and apparently catching numerous voles. Suspicious, Rhode investigated and found a quantity of cocktail sausages skewered on the twigs.

A retired teacher, Charlie Vandergaw, took bear feeding to an unprecedented level. Completely ignoring the conventional wisdom he attracted dozens of bears to his “Bear Haven” cabin in a remote corner of the Sustina Valley. For years he fed both black bears and grizzlies, conditioning them to tolerate human contact. He claimed to have “introduced hundreds of people to life-changing encounters [with bears]”, animals he viewed as misunderstood. 

Vandergaw used food to lure bears into scenic locations for photographs and hosted visiting photographers. His obsession was based on a genuine love of bears, not photography. In 20 years he’d never suffered more than minor injuries but admitted in an interview “the odds are mounting” against him. (See Animal Planet’s The Man Who Lives With Bears; the documentary, Stranger among Bears.)

Recreational cabins, and hunter bear bait stations, dot the area around Vandergaw’s “Bear Haven.” (In Alaska, hunters can set up bait stations to lure bears to the gun; otherwise feeding human food or garbage is illegal, an infuriating contradiction.)

Thus food-conditioned animals, without fear of people, visited area cabins or wandered openly into hunter ambushes. Vandergaw dismissed the notion that he was creating a problem. “Bears have been marauding cabins forever,” he said, “it’s a learned behavior.”  Right. Vandergaw said he meant no harm but I saw him as a Judas setting up bears for slaughter.

In spring, 2010, Charlie Vandergaw was fined $20,000 and sentenced to 180 days in jail, all suspended, for feeding bears. In the aftermath, in not very covert, official/unofficial actions, an estimated two dozen bears were killed in the area near Vandergaw’s homestead.

Are we wildlife watchers and photographers loving to death the objects of our affection? Certain behaviors have directly, or indirectly, killed or harmed wildlife, intrusions at nests especially egregious. It seems to me there are two areas of broad concern in wildlife viewing and photography. First and foremost is a concern for the welfare of wildlife and habitat and the need to minimize disturbance. Second, is the impact on other park and refuge visitors who are not photographers. Some people, brandishing long lenses and obnoxious behavior, have shouldered aside other viewers in order “to get the shot.” In the autumn of 1979, I spent ten days photographing moose near Mile 9 of the Denali Park Road. Johnny Johnson and the late Bill Ruth were the only other photographers there. Today, in the same location, a single moose will draw dozens of people to the road edge, actually hundreds, if you include the occupants of tour buses. Rude and obnoxious behaviors are often on display.

With a flood of amateur and professional photographs afield it is easy to question the rationale for allowing photography in wildlife sanctuaries. The real justification for wildlife photography should be as a tool for conservation. People who are actively concerned with species and habitat preservation recognize that woefully little can be done without wide public support. The protection and perpetuation of wildlife resources requires the backing of ordinary citizenry. Quality photography involves the public like nothing else.  

Biologists like to think they are the cutting edge of wildlife conservation but very few studies and reports ever make it to public consciousness, or make much sense to non-scientists. Nature photography, on the other hand, is a powerful medium that raises environmental awareness and encourages protection of species and habitat. As legendary ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson once said, “We have more of a feeling toward the animal because of the intimacy of the photographs.”  Good wildlife photography evokes a passion for animals. According to Michael “Nick” Nichols, a frequent contributor to National Geographic, “images have a unique power to aid conservation efforts because they hit you emotionally.”  

 I’m inspired by the contributions of exemplary wildlife photographers. Tom Mangelsen is passionate about cougars. He has published two books on cougars and founded The Cougar Fund with the mission of “educating children and adults on their value…and advocating for management based on sound science, to assure a lasting place for these creatures.”

Juneau-based cinematographer Joel Bennett has filmed wildlife throughout Alaska. After filming wildlife in Mongolia, Bennett established a fund for snow leopards that would compensation herders for livestock lost to leopards, a powerful alternative to killing.  Flip Nicklen was a founder of Maui, a nonprofit that advances humpback whale conservation and research. “Photographs capture people’s imagination in a way that graphs and data can’t,” said whale researcher Meagan  Jones.

The  book, Arctic National Wildlife Refuge” Seasons of Life and Land: A photographic Journey, the two-year-long project of Subhankar Banarjee, emerged in 2003 as not only the first year-round comprehensive photographic portrait of the refuge but a powerful tool for its protection.

The work of pioneer conservation photographers, like Carleton Watkins and William Henry Jackson, helped in the establishment of Yosemite and Yellowstone. More recently, Ansel Adams worked for the protection of wild places. The history and value of nature photography is well documented. The imagery often screams: “Look at this. Now take a stand before it’s gone.”

Through my photographs I’ve tried to capture the unique wonder of northern animals and habitat. In comparison to the greats, my success is modest, but if even a few people have paused to take a second look, think deeply, and act, then I’ve accomplished my goal.

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