50 Years of WPY - the 1970s: a home for nature photography

05 September 2014 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer

No. of comments: 9

Wildlife Photographer of the Year rapidly established itself as the home for nature photography. Our series exploring the history of the competition continues as developments in colour reproduction, travel and conservation begin to transform the world of wildlife photography.


In retrospect, it's as though the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition came along in the nick of time. It was becoming progressively clear that all was not well in the natural world. Concern for environmental issues was growing, and global campaigning organisations, such as Greenpeace, were gaining influence.

The most prescient of activists realised that, if anything was to be done, one thing in particular was imperative: raising awareness. 'The conservationist's most important task, if we are to save the Earth, is to educate,' said Peter Scott, the first environmentalist to be knighted for his work. 'He was an artist, a naturalist and a brilliant communicator, and he recognised that the wildlife photography could play a powerful part in helping to raise awareness about the need for conservation,' says Rosamund Kidman Cox, former editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine. 'He was a supporter of the competition right from the beginning, and throughout his life.'

Other key conservationists of the time - Guy Mountford, Peter Jackson, Malcolm Penny, Janet Barber, Nicole Duplaix, for example - all recognised the value of using the media to spread their messages. More magazines, books, newspapers, radio programmes - and, increasingly, film and photography started to appear. In America, National Geographic magazine became a major publishing phenomenon, whilst in Europe, GEO's German and French editions launched in 1976 and 1979 respectively. The power of nature photography for photographers and for green causes all over the world was becoming increasingly apparent.

But for some photographers (then as now), taking pictures was less to do with worthy causes and more about personal passions. William Baxter was camping in Scotland when he was woken by strange noises in the nearby wood. 'I crept out of my sleeping bag and edged towards the sound,' he said. 'Then I saw them - a herd of wild goats, and they were magnificent. From that moment on, I was obsessed.' Thus began years of goat-watching, cliff-climbing and risk-taking. Finally, in 1970, William managed to turn his passion into a title-winning image.



William Baxter's grand title-winning image from 1970


When the competition launched in 1965, it invited colour transparency entries only. Twelve years went by before a category was created for black and white photographs, with the hope of having entries with the quality of composition that the masters of the art of black and white had achieved in the past.

One of the photographers to enter the new category was Fritz Pölking. He was at heart an artist, describing his photos as 'thought pictures' - that is, ideas that deserve a place among other forms of art such as painting, literature and music, but for which photography happens to be the best medium of expression. 'Most of the pictures that won in the 1970s were portraits,' says Rosamund Kidman Cox.

'They were technically brilliant, and the behaviour was fascinating, but the people taking them were mainly wildlife lovers and scientists photographing nature.' The introduction of the black and white category in 1977 recognised the potential for more creative interpretations of nature. Fritz won both the category, and the grand title.



The black and white category was introduced in 1977, and won by Fritz Pölking the same year.


By the mid 70s, a growth in nature books - mostly identification guides and textbooks - boosted demand for colour photographs to illustrate their pages. The transformation of global travel, and the rise of the package holiday, also opened up the world of wildlife photography to those who could not previously have raised the finances to fund trips to the field.

Trips that had once taken months to set up were becoming easier to organise and cheaper to do. Combined with the falling costs of camera equipment, this meant more people taking more images in more countries. For those who were able to seize these opportunities and meet this demand, a golden era for nature photography was beginning.

Photographically, the world seemed to be bursting open, and the competition continued to deliver images of species and behaviour that had simply never been seen by the wider world. David Cayless found himself in Tanzania's Serengeti National Park at the height of the wildebeest migration. The impact of seeing thousands of wildebeest crossing the Mara River for himself was awe-inspiring. 'I will never forget that moment,' he remembers, 'I was completely blown away.' The image he submitted to the competition electrified the judges too, who awarded him the grand title in 1979.



David Cayless's image of the wildebeest migration electrified the judges in 1979


Buoyed by this success, David took up photography seriously. 'It opened my eyes to the opportunities, opened the door to photo agencies and publishers, set me off on a semi-professional level of natural history photography and encouraged me to believe in my capabilities as a photographer,' he says.


David Cayless receiving his award from Eric Hosking in 1979


David's image won in the same year that David Attenborough's hugely popular BBC series Life on Earth transmitted and, as the new decade dawned, the public's appetite for wildlife imagery was well and truly whetted.


50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year: How Wildlife Photography Became Art


A commemorative book charting the history and development of wildlife photography, edited by Rosamund Kidman Cox, will be published by the Natural History Museum in September 2014. Read more about the book.




Roz Kidman Cox was editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine for 23 years and a WPY competition judge for 32 years. She re-launched the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, together with the Natural History Museum in 1984, and added the young categories. Roz also edits the annual competition Portfolio and associated WPY publications. Alongside her long-standing involvement with Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Roz also works on a variety of projects exclusively with nature and environmental photography and publishing, including producing the Wildscreen Photography Festival every year.




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