Katia Faroun | Associate Photo Editor
There once was a time when academic journals shunned photographs. Now, we can’t imagine a publication without them.
The artistic and scientific contributions of photography to the development of our society are undeniable. By displaying images of our Earth and its wonders, photography unites billions of people spread across millions of miles of land and sea. National Geographic is reinforcing the significance of natural photography by putting it on display, right here in Pittsburgh.
For the next few months, the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is housing “National Geographic: 50 Greatest Wildlife Photographs,” a collection of some of the most stunning and pivotal wildlife photographs in history. The idea of the exhibit is to share the stories behind some of the world’s most iconic wildlife photos taken by National Geographic’s most skilled photographers, while promoting an overarching narrative of the delicate nature of our planet. The purposeful selection of each of the 50 photographs aims to portray the sensitive relationships between photographer, technology and nature.
The exhibit begins with images detailing the start of wildlife photography. The first photos featured were taken at the turn of the 20th century by George Shiras, known as the pioneer of wildlife photography. His innovative use of flashlights and cameras to capture nighttime images of animals created the concept of wildlife photography, and his images paved the way for its future development, earning him a well-deserved spot as the premier photographer of the exhibit.
Moving on from the historical beginning photos, the exhibit includes a vast array of breathtaking images from some of the world’s most renowned wildlife photographers. The layout of the exhibit compels visitors to marvel at the bright colors of the photos by contrasting the prints with dark walls. Enlarged images on the back and side walls present visitors with an almost humbling perspective, in which the wild animals stand taller than humans admiring them.
The thoughtful arrangement of the exhibit turns the attention solely on the photographs. Accompanied with short captions, each image presented a theme evident in not only the composition and subject of the photo, but also the story of its creation.
The most notable characteristic of the collection is its diversity. Selected photos include film shots from the late ‘90s to pictures taken with the newest photographic technology.
A multitude of photographers are represented, each with their own personality that appears in the frame. Standing out among the rest is a photo seemingly of a smiling underwater creature. Upon reading its caption, visitors attracted to the glowing colors of the image discover photographer David Doubilet’s famous photo, “Parrotfish.”
“I thought of my dentist as I photographed its winning smile,” Doubilet writes in the caption.
The inclusion of this particular image shows that taking a fantastic, National Geographic-worthy photo does not always mean getting a by-the-rules perfect shot; different forms of expression are encouraged, including photos that portray a bit of humor.
Other noteworthy photos include selects from award-winning photographers Michael “Nick” Nichols and Tim Laman. One of Nichols’ most captivating shots, “Charging Elephant,” displays an image of a blurry elephant in the Central African Republic. This is one of only two pictures Nichols took while hiding behind a tree in the forest, attempting to avoid the elephant’s intimidating charges as it heard his shutter click. It ran as the cover of Nat Geo’s July 1995 issue.
Laman’s contributions include “Orangutan,” an image showing a high-perspective shot of an orangutan climbing a tree on the hunt for food, the forest floor below him. Laman rope-climbed a fig tree several times a day, setting up GoPro cameras and switching out their batteries to get this shot he’d been dreaming of for years.
The stories that accompany these photos, and the rest of the collection, depict the processes that go into wildlife photography, from unpredicted encounters with nature, to failures in trusted technology and dances with danger. Each photo and story underlined the overall reverence the photographers had for their subjects and their attempts to avoid imposing on their natural customs and habitats.
Included in the exhibit is an interactive space that encourages visitors to answer the question, “What steps can we take to protect wildlife?” Sticky notes and pens are available for visitors to post their responses and contribute to the overarching narrative of wildlife and environmental protection.
Overall, the exhibit highlights some of the world’s best photographs in a beautiful and unforgettable way. The curators used the images to invite visitors into the wild and remind them of our shared responsibility to protect these animals and their habitats.
The exhibition is located on the third floor of the museum in the R.P. Simmons Family Gallery and will be on display until May 25, 2020. Admission is free with the purchase of a museum pass.