Words and images by Lianna Bell.
Take the most respected wildlife photography competition in the world, with a prize and title that pros and amateurs alike will covet. Let it run for 49 years with, at the helm, the powerful marketing duo of the world’s most famous natural history museum and Britain’s most read wildlife magazine; a competition that has grown through the years and now attracts up to 42,000 entries annually and in which judges have judged somewhere between 500,000 and many million photographs through its history. Now take the best 80 images, ever, and create an exhibition. This is the Wild Planet Photography Exhibition (WPE) and it’s touring the UK.
Billboards and photos set up on the busy pedestrian shopping street, the Moor, in Sheffield.
The exhibition launched in Sheffield, and when our favourite photography website handed their launch ticket to me, I was naturally delighted!
WPE is run by the Natural History Museum and the BBC Wildlife Magazine, and their main aim in running the annual BBC Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is to find beautifully composed, fabulously lit and technically perfect images of the wild world around us.
The goal of the exhibition however, is subtly different. Dr Michael Dixon, the Director of the Natural History Museum in London, explained that, while the competition engages photographers and wildlife enthusiasts, the exhibition aims to engage the general public. By carefully selecting a variety of images from the best of the best, the panel hopes to open the eyes of the urbanites to the splendour of the world we live in… and to that end I found myself one Tuesday evening in an unexpected part of Sheffield City Centre surrounded by Pound Shops and passing pedestrians.
A dancing troupe - Hype, from Sheffield - performed an amazing animal-inspired dance to entertain the launch guests and the passing public.
The exhibition is outdoors and all photos are printed on large billboards next to brief explanations of what the viewer is looking at. It’s on a busy pedestrian shopping street and it’s free. Almost everyone walking past stops to look at a few images and I’d say the goal has been achieved.
And so to the launch party I went... I mingled with scores of London types, suited and booted in the finest Italian pinstripes, the glitterati of the Sheffield Council, a mayor with his medallions and a few slightly nervous-looking photographers more used to being the composers than the subjects of photos. There was plenty of champagne, freshly pressed lemon juice, non-stop canapés, and the gentle hum of corporate networking and journalistic hobnobbing, all set to the soothing sound of the live jazzman trumpeting his tunes to the passing pound-shop shoppers.
Champagne and Hobnobbing at the Wild Plant Launch.
An unusual amount of pomp perhaps, under those grey Sheffield skies, but nothing less would do the photos justice.
The 80 images chosen cover the four corners of our planet, and the clever selection pays homage to the animal kingdom from its smallest to its largest, but that’s not all. It would please any botanist, mycologist or geologist, any fan of natural architecture as well as those of us who just like to look at a pretty landscape.
One of the guests of honour was Mark Sunderland, the photographer responsible for spectacularly framing the natural form of the red water-worn rocks of Antelope Canyon in the States. The image demonstrates an enviable control of light in a narrow dark slot canyon with strong beams of light cascading in from above, bouncing off the side-walls of the canyon so strongly that they cast their own shadows. I chatted to Mark about the lengths to which he’d gone to capture this, and the photo is clearly the result of a great deal of patience, persistence and physical rigour, travelling into and out of the slot canyon time and again to wait for the perfect moment. He freely admitted that he was immensely proud of the image, but still seemed shyly overwhelmed by the attention it was receiving. For me it was a stand-out in the exhibition.
The crowds enjoying the exhibition.
After talking about his image for some time – he’s clearly very passionate about it – we ambled slowly through the other 79 masterpieces and tried to identify our favourites. I think we managed a shortlist of perhaps 60 out of the 79 but got no further than that. Each individual image has its own story to tell (told in brief in a small blurb next to the images) and its own ways in which to impress. Since the launch I’ve been back again for another look. I imagine that I’ll go again before the tour moves on to other cities (as yet unannounced).
If you can possibly make the time to see the exhibition, then do. It’s worth it.
is held on The Moor in central Sheffield. It is unfenced and therefore ‘open’ 24/7. It is completely free of charge and will run until 27th March 2011. There is a shop from which you can buy prints, posters and postcards of all the images, and a variety of notebooks, address books, coasters and t-shirts of various selected images. There are some inspiring wildlife photography books to browse through and buy, and of course the obligatory selection of mugs and fridge magnets.