Nature is what is—all the things and forces existing at a given time. A ton of iron extracted from the earth, refined, shaped into an I beam and woven into the skeleton of a high-rise apartment building is no more or less a natural wonder than a badlands butte. Yet in practice, Nature with the big N—the thing so many want to love, protect and be uplifted by these days—is only a phenomenon manufactured and defined by man. From an almost infinite number of possibilities we have selected a handful and declared them to be nature. For example, the whooping crane, though almost extinct and living as a ward of man, has come to be a kind of shorthand symbol for nature. The cockroach, on the other hand, which is more than holding its own in competition with man, is a wild and independent animal, but it is seldom admired by nature lovers or even commonly associated with nature.
There is no objective standard for determining what is part of nature, but nearly everyone has strong subjective feelings about what is nature and what by implication is unnatural. We feel as we do because we have accepted the word of self-styled authorities on the subject. Early New England poets and essayists, who thought highly of lonely seascapes, bosky glades, clear brooks and shy woodland beasts, got in some heavy licks in this area. A variety of 19th- and 20th-century artists and writers—Wilson, Audubon, Bodmer, Catlin, Thoreau, Burroughs, Muir, Seton, Krutch—wandered about the continent and came back to tell us what was instructive, beautiful and rare in nature. Artists and writers of this sort are still with us, but to a considerable degree they have been superseded as arbiters of nature fashion by photographers.
In much more glorious color, more intimate detail and more dramatic action, the best nature photographers have captured for us things their predecessors could not. In fact, the photographers have often propagandized for nature, shown it to be more attractive and charming than most people have observed it or imagined it to be. This is not to say that, with the exception of an occasional tranquilized beast, posed corpse or transplanted flower, the photographers have manufactured nature. It is just that with their artist's eye and sophisticated equipment they have lighted, composed and stopped nature at its best—at least from the viewpoint of conventional esthetics. Also, being professionals, they have had the time to develop field techniques for finding the most interesting subjects—say the female raccoon followed by three cubs foraging along a clear stream against a background of rhododendron, the kind of thing that the majority of us no longer have the opportunity or the skill to experience personally.
The photographers have done more than simply satisfy our appetite for coffee-table books or full-color magazine spreads. They have helped create this appetite, giving us a new awareness of the true majesty of nature and fostering in us a desire to conserve and protect it. Today large numbers of citizens are passionately interested in saving beauty spots, wildernesses and wildlife. But many of them never will see the objects of their concern. These things, their desirability emphasized, have only been witnessed through the lens of the photographer's camera. In a certain sense—and no cynicism is intended—the object of many conservation battles is not to keep the rascals out of nature but out of nature photographs.
July 22, 1973
To the extent that they define what is beautiful and worthy of preservation, the photographers are opinion makers of considerable influence. The principles and prejudices of the most influential of these men may be as important to society as those of the average advertising executive, television commentator or politician.
Here are the thoughts and seldom-expressed philosophies of three of America's distinguished nature photographers.
As a profession, nature photography enjoys a good reputation these days, particularly among restless youth. All across the land, riding their thumbs, marking time on irrelevant campuses, rapping in youth bistros, there are ponytailed young men and women who—along with a set of tie-dyes and a guitar—own a Nikon, Leica or Rollei. An inordinate number of them say they intend to become nature photographers once they get everything together. On the surface, it would seem to be a calling that permits a groovy life-style. It appears that the nature photographer is free of the restrictions that mar many other vocations and make them grubby. He roams freely about the pleasanter parts of the countryside. (Nature is everywhere, or at least everywhere that man is not much in evidence.) He is an artist, so he can enjoy the pleasures of self-expression, yet the feeling is that taking these pictures does not require special talent or arduous training. The photographer has no visible bosses telling him what to do and when to do it, and he does not have to hassle with people to do his thing. Being a nature photographer has the same kind of appeal for the young today as being a foreign correspondent had for their counterparts in the 1930s.
Doug Faulkner is a short, muscular, well-barbered man of 35 who lives in a home with a patio and landscaped garden in the affluent bedroom community of Summit, N.J. However, in many other respects Faulkner leads the kind of life that romantically inclined, would-be nature photographers dream of. He is one of the best at underwater nature photography. He has established his reputation in what would seem to be a most delightful way. For more than 10 years he has circled the world taking photographs of things that strike him as magnificent, curious or instructive. Since 1962 he has worked in Mexico, all the Central American countries, Peru, Ecuador, New Caledonia, Fiji, Palau, Bali, Ceylon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Australia, Portugal, Japan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Scotland.
On this spring evening Faulkner is in his Summit study, shuffling through a pile of photographic and diving gear. He is in the process of packing to leave for the Galapagos Islands where he will spend two weeks photographing marine life for Audubon magazine. Another mound of shipping crates and cartons litters the hallway. These boxes are awaiting shipment to Palau; Faulkner will go there after the Galàpagos. The photographer moves about the house restively, like a bird of passage, attempting to explain himself and his work.
"At heart, I guess I'm a kind of romantic—restless, looking for things as I want them to be," he says. "I've been that way a long time. When I was in school I was unhappy. I was a bad student and had trouble getting along with people. I was constantly in fights, always beating on somebody or getting beaten. I suppose in a way it was temperament that shoved me first to the sea and then into marine biology and photography. I don't think I could have been happy or have made it the way most people do. Under water I didn't have to protect or defend myself or hassle with other people. I was in a place where I never seemed to see anything ugly and where much of what I did see appeared peaceful, unspoiled, and where I didn't have to force anything."
And what is a man who so values nature and tranquillity doing living in Summit, N.J. in the middle of the biggest, most hassling, competitive megalopolis in the world? "Well," says Faulkner lamely, "my wife and I came from here and her father still lives here. It is close to New York and the editors and art directors and publishers. It is just convenience and habit mostly. It's certainly not my favorite place." ("Summit is just Doug's mailing address," his wife Sally has said.)
In addition to underwater scenes, Faulkner's other abiding professional interest "and specialty has been the portraiture of primitive people. "I was strongly influenced by Edward Steichen's Family of Man exhibit and I wanted to and still want to make studies of that kind." It is a peculiar interest for someone who went into the marine wilderness to escape man and his works. "It's a different thing," explains Faulkner. "I see faces in Morocco, Peru and the islands that are part of nature, in harmony with it. They are marked by living and show they have learned from life." Would not a Summit, N.J. supermarket be a good place to look for faces marked by life? "I suppose so," admits Faulkner, "but they don't appeal to me. I see faces around here that have been defeated by life, are at cross-purposes with nature. They seem ugly.
"Actually, I haven't had a whole lot of success publishing this type of portraiture. It doesn't seem to appeal to editors much anymore, but it appeals to me and one day when I have shot some more portraits I want to present this facet of my work in a book."
Whatever disappointments he may have suffered as a chronicler of faces, Faulkner has made up for them by the success of his marine studies. His underwater photographs have appeared in publications around the world. His work has been displayed in the New England Aquarium, the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Aquarium, and the Smithsonian in Washington.
"I came along at a good time," he says, "what with the new interest in all phases of nature. Also underwater photography was weak. In the beginning, any sort of photograph made under water was a novelty item. It could be badly composed, badly lighted—all those kind of blue tints you used to see—and it could be unnatural in terms of the environment, some frightened fish driven out of its customary habitat, but just because it was taken under water it would be published.
"People have the notion that underwater photography is an intricate technical exercise. It isn't. In some ways it is easier than working above water. The light is more constant. I use just one camera, a Rollei, and some flash lighting equipment. The "big thing is not equipment; it is knowing and having a feeling for the habitat.
"I go out and start working along a reef. I look for things that I think are beautiful and that seem to illustrate a feature of underwater life. I try with light and composition to dramatize the elements that interest me. I want the same thing under water that any photographer wants no matter where he is working—to take photographs that somehow sing. If it doesn't sing, it is a bad photo, whether it is taken under water or in a supermarket. There is no point in trying to explain photographs. You have to look at them. I explain myself with a camera, not with words."
Faulkner rolls down a screen in his study, moves aside the Galàpagos gear, sets up a projector and loads it with a tray of 50 transparencies. "There is no point in trying to be coy. I've taken a lot of things that I'm not proud of, that I never show or I've thrown away. These are the best, culled out of 10 years of work."
As Faulkner says, attempting to describe something that is made to be seen is a frustrating and largely futile exercise. However, what might be called the theme of Faulkner's work is a kind of exotic impressionism. If he were a word man rather than a photo man, he might be compared to William Blake. Rather than a "Tiger, tiger, burning bright/ In the forests of the night," Faulkner offers great sharks burning ghostly in the depths of the sea, flamboyant patterns of coral, tropical fish in patterned schools that are so glaringly colorful as to silence a man.
"I'm glad that people like the things I like well enough to pay to see them," Faulkner says. Are those who pay to look at Faulkner's dramatic work taking from it a kind of vicarious escape? "I suppose going all the places I have, doing the work I have, has given me a certain kind of escape. Maybe some of my photographs pass that sense along to people who will never see what I have seen. If they do, there is nothing wrong with that. In fact, it might be a good thing."
A year ago Ron Austing accepted an assignment from Audubon to go to Bathurst Inlet near the Arctic Circle to photograph nesting peregrines, the legendary hunters. The trip was a success. Austing found two pair of peregrines nesting on outcroppings in the Arctic plains. He brought back a magnificent set of photographs in which the hawks, down to the smallest feather, to the glint of light on the golden lores, are portrayed with such startling reality that the paper birds seem to be gathering themselves to swoop down out of the frames.
Austing was asked to return to the Arctic to take more photos, but he turned down the job. "It was an interesting place, but I have too much to do here to go back this year," he says. Austing is a large, easy-moving man who talks slowly, often shifting a cigar in his mouth. "I travel now and then, but it doesn't mean much to me, it's not that necessary. To do the kind of work I do [meticulously accurate studies that portray the birds of the Central Midwest and their behavior], the important thing, much more important than clicking the shutter, is being familiar with the habitat of the species, even the idiosyncrasies of individual birds. When most people travel, they go as tourists. They can take pretty pictures, even dramatic ones, but there is a danger that what they get will be superficial because they don't fully understand or appreciate the habitat in which their subject is living. I know the country around here pretty well. I never run out of subject material. The better I get to know it, the more things I find that interest me. There is enough here to keep me as busy as I want to be and I don't feel the necessity to travel to look for subject material."
Here, for Austing, is the Miami-Whitewater Forest Park, 25 miles west of Cincinnati. A county-operated facility, it comprises several thousand acres of bottomland, hillside, woodlots, sanctuary and recreational facilities. Austing is the park's assistant chief law enforcement officer and photographer; he lives in the middle of the preserve in a rambling farmhouse, surrounded by his family of seven and a menagerie of wounded and orphaned animals—a pair of fledgling great horned owls and a few red-tailed hawks.
Austing and Faulkner are very different individuals and very different types of nature photographers. Faulkner is restless and hyperactive. Austing conveys an aura of patience and calmness. During the last decade, while Faulkner has been photographing in 30 different countries, a continuing project of Austing's (one that interests him far more than another trip to the Arctic) has been making a series of photographs showing the nesting behavior of the belted kingfisher. The kingfisher is a common bird, especially along the creeks and ponds near Austing's home. Though it is in evidence at other times, the bird is a secretive nester, laying its eggs, hatching and rearing its chicks in riverbank burrows. Austing has been trying to get his camera into one of these burrows without disturbing the birds or forcing them to abandon their nest. He is still not satisfied with the results.
Doug Faulkner says he wants his pictures to sing and the best ones do, often like a romantic ballad, occasionally like hard, exotic rock. Austing should be thought of more as an essayist. His photos give the impression of being statements of natural fact about the character and actions of his subject. It is as if he said about one of his most memorable photographs (pages 72-73), "This is a saw-whet owl. This is a deer mouse. They are shown meeting in what is a moment of truth for them both."
"People ask me about my favorite shots," says Austing. "One of them is a very simple scene, a wild cottontail rabbit nursing a litter of young. I like it because it strikes me as a technically good photograph in an artistic way, and it shows an essential act in the life of the cottontail. Also, to be honest, I like it because I don't think anyone else has ever been able to photograph a wild rabbit nursing. That I caught something nobody else has been able to satisfies my hunting and competitive instincts.
"When I was a kid I was a real hunter. I grew up a few miles from here and lived with a rod or gun in my hand, but I remember the day I stopped hunting. I had bought a good scope and thought I'd be a big squirrel hunter. I went out and killed three squirrels with just three shots. Then with the next one I was off a little bit and I hit the squirrel in the stomach. He ran through the underbrush squealing, stepping on his entrails. I thought, what kind of a man am I? I don't need to do things like that to enjoy myself. I haven't hunted for fun since. But what I do with a camera is just another kind of hunting. It reflects our primitive predatory urges.
"For 20 years this place has been a kind of laboratory for me, one where I could stay in touch with individual animals and accumulate information about them over a relatively long period. Lately I've spent a lot of time studying some woodcocks in a plot in the park. As far as I am concerned, the actual photography is just the end result of a much longer process, getting to know the subject. The photo is the trophy you bring back from your hunt, which is your field study. As far as photographic techniques go, I keep trying to simplify mine because I don't want to get equipment-bound. I see some shots published that are good but they leave me cold because the animal has been harassed, posed, taken out of its natural context. I think to succeed a photo has to be good technically—proper exposure, setting, etc.—but it also should illustrate the natural character of the animal, suggest his niche in the environment. You can't do those things unless you know something about a subject, really a good deal about its existence.
"There is another practical reason why this job at the park suits me. I suppose I could earn my living just with wildlife photography. [Austing, like Faulkner, is regarded as one of the very best in his field. His work has been published in books and periodicals both here and abroad.] But if I did, I might feel the pressure to photograph more and spend less time in field study. I might find myself in the position where I was taking assignments without having enough background information. This way, though I may not have a camera in my hand, all the time I am working in the park, out on patrol, I'm seeing things, learning things that apply to the final photographs. The main advantage is that I don't have to sell or show garbage shots just to make a living."
Besides providing Austing with an opportunity to live in a style he enjoys and to do work in which he can take pride, what, if anything, does the professional wildlife photographer contribute to society? "I don't really think of it in that way. If you want to make a case out of it, you could say that most people have an interest in wildlife, but few have much opportunity to satisfy it. If I can show them with a certain amount of artistic insight things they could not otherwise see, then I suppose I have given them pleasure."
Audubon magazine has become the showcase for the works of the nature photographers. With increasing space devoted to finely reproduced color studies, the magazine has become a kind of periodical portfolio displaying the best in this type of art. The photographs of Faulkner and Austing appear regularly in the magazine, and they have helped create its reputation. Another contributor is Bill Ratcliffe. "I think," says Ann Guilfoyle, the Audubon picture editor, "that more than any other photographer, Ratcliffe has helped to set what might be called the current Audubon style, even though his work is very original and cannot really be compared to anyone else's. He does still lifes, working in close on almost anything—a single blossom, a piece of wood, a rock. He has shown that the good nature photograph is more than an illustration or a record of some scene or creature, that it is a kind of independent art form."
Approaching 50, Ratcliffe is a slight, excessively diffident, subdued man. "Crumbs," or a variation thereof, is his favorite expletive. He lives in a neat suburban house in the middle of a development on the outskirts of Orem, Utah. Except for military service during World War II, he has made his home around Orem most of his life. For some years he worked as an airplane mechanic at a private field in the area, and now he is employed at a federal proving ground near Salt Lake City. He is no world traveler. "I've been trying to get over to the California coast for years," he says. "There are some things there I think I'd like to work with." Nor is he a hunter, stalker or scientific observer of nature in the manner of Ron Austing. "I've roamed about the deserts and mountains ever since I was a boy, and so naturally I know the names of a few plants and animals and a good bit about them, but I never went to school and I didn't have any formal training. Crumbs, maybe I'm just not smart enough to be a real researcher."
Despite appearances and disclaimers, Ratcliffe is regarded by his peers as a superb craftsman-artist. Nature photography buffs speak of a "Ratcliffe kind of shot" to describe a special style that Ratcliffe has developed. He has carried the process of simplification—of viewpoint, subject matter and technique—to what very nearly must be its ultimate conclusion. For this reason, his professional evolution can best be understood in terms of what he has discarded over 20 years as a photographer.
After returning home from World War II, Ratcliffe became active in the Boy Scouts, and as a scouting project made a short movie about waterfowl. "It wasn't too bad considering what I had to work with and how little I knew about what I was doing," he says. The movie was good enough to catch the eye of and impress the Walt Disney organization when it had a crew on location in Utah filming one of its first full-length nature works. Ratcliffe was hired as a cameraman for Disney in Utah.
"It was interesting," he says, "and I learned a good lot, but when they left I had no desire to stay with the business. It was a little hectic and contrived. So I got a 4 x 5 view camera, the same one I'm still using, and started shooting color stills. I liked that better, and eventually I began to sell some scenic and wildlife pictures to magazines."
On the wall of Ratcliffe's basement office hangs a photograph of a black-footed ferret, one of the rarest of all North American mammals. Ratcliffe's scenics of the Great Basin, the desert, the Arizona canyon country and the Rockies would satisfy most photographers, as they have editors of some of the Slickest publications who have used them to illustrate the grandeur of the West. Despite considerable success with it, Ratcliffe is vaguely apologetic about this phase of his work.
"I still do some wildlife and scenics, but not frequently anymore, and I don't think of them as my specialty. As a practical thing, they take a lot of time, waiting for the right moment, the right kind of light, and somehow they don't quite do much for me. Don't ask me why, I really can't explain it. I've just started working closer and closer to subjects. I always seem to be trying to isolate detail, get more inside of things. You could say that I've become more and more interested in the forms and textures of the things that I see."
Ratcliffe's photos probably cannot be explained any better or more simply than that. Moving in tightly, using natural light to achieve a kind of luminescent quality, he now works with what might be called commonplace objects of nature, creating abstract studies of the form and fabric of lichens, ice crystals, seeds, wind-blasted wood, insect-eaten leaves. A peculiarity, a kind of signature to Ratcliffe's photographs, is that without captions it often is difficult to place many of them in terms of time and space. An ice crystal is much the same in Utah as it is in Ohio or New Jersey, or for that matter inside a kitchen freezer. In fact, given his preoccupation with abstract form and texture, it might seem that there was no need for Ratcliffe even to bother with tramping about the bush looking for subjects. There are presumably a multitude of interesting subjects to be found in the Orem municipal sanitary landfill. "Yes," Ratcliffe says, "there are interesting things everywhere, but I enjoy being by myself, working outside in wild places, so that's where I look for subjects. I wouldn't get much pleasure working at the dump.
"Sometimes I'll start out for a place some distance away, say the Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado or a canyon in Arizona. I may get only 40 miles from here and find something I like along the road and spend my weekend working with it, trying to find the right way to show it. Like this...." Ratcliffe places a transparency on the light table in his workroom. It is a picture of a cluster of icicles, sprouting from a ledge and colored orange by mineralized waters. "I saw these last winter and I have decided I want to try to make a sequence on icicles. It just started me thinking about them. Now I have to wait until I see some more ice that I like.
"Sometimes people ask me to lecture at a school or a photo workshop. Students wonder where they can find subject material. I tell them, 'Crumbs, there are good subjects everywhere.' I tell them I'll give them a wonderful subject for a photographic essay, one that I've been working on for years. I say go out and take pictures of the wind. They give me blank looks."
Ratcliffe takes out another set of transparencies and displays them—a pi√±on pine on a mountain ridge permanently bent and distorted by the wind; coyote tracks on a red dune, partially filled in by drifting sand; a piece of the skeleton of a cholla cactus scoured by the wind. "The central point of interest is not the plant or the sign or the sand or the scrub. It is the force of the wind. Maybe these are pictures of the wind."
It is an effective and thought-provoking demonstration. This shy man has turned inward, away from the dramatic objects of nature—the shark, the hawk. He seems to be groping toward a way of seeing, abstracting, transferring to film for others to perceive, the absolutely elemental forces—wind, sun, frost, even time. At his most effective, Ratcliffe injects a remarkable dynamism—the sense of a constantly changing nature—into his ostensibly still-life studies.
"About 99% of what I see strikes me as beautiful," he says. "The best I can say is that I am trying to show these beautiful things that people might never stop to notice. I think maybe we are better off if we have a sense that there are beautiful things everywhere around us."