Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at NHM

I made my annual trip to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. I thought it was particularly good this year. Here’s a pleasing and particularly original long-exposure photo of a gannet colony by Andrew Parkinson:

You can see all the winners on the NHM website, but obviously it’s better to go and see the pictures blown up nice and big on lightboxes if you have the chance.

Wildlife Photographer of the Year at the NHM

I made my annual trip to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum. Which was, as always, well worth a visit. Obviously I recommend you visit it in person, because little jpegs don’t do the pictures justice, but if you can’t do that, you can see all the pictures online here.

Picking your own favourites is part of the fun of going to any exhibition, I think, but that’s even more true at WPotY, because you can compare your own choices to those of the judges. And my perennial complaint is that they tend to give the overall prize to a portrait shot of a large charismatic mammal: lots of elephants and lions and leopards. Yawn. Don’t get me wrong, those are fabulous beasties, but there’s a whole world of beautiful and curious lifeforms out there.

Well, this year, the winning shot is, once again, a portrait of a large charismatic mammal; but for once I have no complaints at all. Because the winning photograph, of a wolf jumping over a gate, is absolutely jaw-dropping. I have my quibbles with some of the other choices; I would have picked the booby or the whale as the winner of the underwater section ahead of the pike picture, for example. But for the overall winner, I think they were spot on.

» Fantail, a picture of a bearded tit landing on the ice, is the winner in the Creative Visions of Nature category. © Esa Malkonen.

Darwin and wildlife photography at the NHM

I went along to the Natural History Museum to visit a couple of exhibitions: Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Darwin.

The WPotY exhibition is an annual treat; some years are  better than others, but it’s never less than enjoyable. My long-term gripe is that the overall winner is almost always a portrait of a large charismatic mammal (usually one of the African big games species) rather than ever being a picture of a shrimp or a toadstool or something. This year I’m willing to give them a partial credit on that front; they’ve picked a picture of a big cat, but it’s the fabulous, rare and extremely elusive snow leopard, and the picture, a night-time shot with falling snow, is pretty great.

You can see all the pictures online, but they also put the show on in other venues around the UK and around the world, so if South Kensington isn’t convenient you still might be able to see it somewhere near you. The shot above is of a polar bear at sunrise. Cool, innit. And how about this one, of leafcutter ants carrying petals:

The Darwin exhibition, part of the build-up to his 200th birthday next year, takes us through his life and work, and is full of artefacts (notebooks, letters) and specimens he collected. It does a good job of telling us about his life, I think, although as I’ve read two biographies of Darwin, and the Voyage of the Beagle, and The Origin of Species, and a biography of his grandfather, and one of Huxley, most of the material was familiar to me. I did enjoy it — it’s good to see all his scribbly handwriting and there are some great items on show — but none of it was really news to me, so I may not be the key audience.

btw, if you’re going to the museums at South Ken, you could do worse than have lunch at Casa Brindisa. Brindisa are a Spanish food importer with a shop in Borough Market who now have three tapas bars, and the lunch I had in there was just excellent. The website has the menu on it, so I can tell you exactly what I had: the pan fried sea bream with morcilla de Burgos and Bierzo peppers, a herb salad with moscatel vinaigrette and a serving of patatas bravas. It was all really delicious; the fish was crisp and perfectly cooked and went beautifully with earthiness of the morcilla and the slightly spicy peppers; the salad was fresh and herby with just enough slightly sweet dressing, and the potatoes were golden and crunchy without being oily and not drowned in the sauce. They even make an excellent cup of coffee, which is almost harder to find than a good plate of food.

Dry Store Room No. 1 by Richard Fortey

Dry Store Room No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum is about the behind-the-scenes work at the Natural History Museum in London. Whether you find that an appealing subject for a book depends, I suppose, on your feelings about museums and/or natural history; personally I found it irresistible.

The public face of the museum — animatronic dinosaurs and overexcited schoolchildren — gives relatively little sense of the scientific work that goes on behind the scenes, all of which is centred on the museum’s collection of biological specimens: pressed plants, trays of pinned beetles, drawers full of bird skins or fossils, jars of starfish in alcohol. The sheer scale of these collections is hard to comprehend: the museum holds over 70 million specimens. That means every person in the UK could be given one to take home and they’d still have enough left over for everyone in Sweden. 28 million of them are insects.

The collections haven’t been accumulated simply through an excess of acquisitiveness, although there must be some connection between the satisfaction biologists get from collecting beetles and other people’s collections of stamps, obscure soul 45s or golf memorabilia. The point of the collection is that it is a vast reference library: if you find an earwig in Burma and you’re not sure whether it’s a new species, you can start by checking the literature; but if all else fails, the last resort is to go to a museum, open up the drawers full of earwigs, and start peering at them through a microscope.

This kind of taxonomical work — preparing specimens, describing species, working out their relationships, publishing highly technical articles about it — might seem to be complete drudgery to an outsider; it is slow, careful, precise, unglamorous. But it obviously has a hold on people, because the book is full of people who spend decades working on some particular group of organisms, retire, and then keep coming in to the museum to continue their work in retirement. Fortey himself is apparently one of them, retired in 2006 but still working away at his trilobites.

The books combines a history of the museum, examples of the work done there, anecdotes about characters on the staff (not surprisingly, perhaps, there have been a few notable eccentrics) and a passionate defence of taxonomy as a valuable field of study. It’s well-written, entertaining, pitched at the interested amateur, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

» The pictures, from the Bombus pages at the NHM website, are of male bumblebee genitalia. This isn’t a highly specialised branch of pornography; it’s a normal way of identifying them (and quite a few other kinds of insects).

Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition

I went to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum yesterday, which is always worth a look.

Apart from the fact that there are loads of great photos, there’s the fun of deciding whether the judges have made the right decisions. I’m always a bit disappointed when they choose a portrait of a large charismatic mammal as the overall winner—a yawning hippo or a leopard or something—because much as I like those animals, I think it would be cool to see it won by a photograph of a shrimp or a toadstool or something. This year it’s an elephant (boo!) but it’s an abstracty kind of picture which I guess makes it a less obvious choice. And it is a good photo.

singing Corn Bunting

I paid slightly closer attention to what kit everyone was using this year; I was interested to see that the victory of digital is almost total. The only bastion of film was the ‘In Praise of Plants’ category; I guess if your subjects are stationary, it’s less important to be able to take thousands of shots and discard most of them without having to get them developed.

You can see all the pictures on the NHM website, so if you’re not going to pass through London before April, you might as well check them out. If you are considering going to the show, I’d suggest you don’t look at the website first, because the pictures look so much better seen large on lightboxes than as piddly little jpegs.

» the picture is of a Corn Bunting singing, with its breath forming rings in the dawn air. Which is cool. As you can see, it’s © Gastone Pivatelli.

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