50 Years of WPY - the 1980s: growth and transformation

31 March 2015 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer

No. of comments: 2

Wildlife Photographer of the Year, now a fixture in the nature photography calendar, entered a period of heady growth in the 1980s. Our series exploring the competition's history continues by charting an era of sponsors, high-profile judges, exhibitions and career breaks for young photographers, and a new home at the Natural History Museum.


In 1981, Rosamund Kidman Cox became editor of Wildlife Magazine (the competition's founder), steering it - and the competition - for more than two decades. In 1983, Wildlife became BBC Wildlife and moved from London to Bristol and the BBC's flourishing Natural History Unit. It was the start of a decade that would see an unprecedented wealth of visual material about natural history - photographs, television, books and - later - video.



The 1987 Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Jonathan Scott, receives his trophy from Sir Peter Scott, founder of the WWF


In the early 1980s a few photographers managed to start making a full-time living out of wildlife photography, with most sold to books or magazines while also holding down a day job. But as publishing in the 1980s increased, so the agencies blossomed, generating revenue for wildlife photographers and making it possible for those with archives to make a living. Bruce Coleman, who established his own agency in 1960, was one of the early WPY judges and chair of the judging panel for 16 years. Bruce remembers how photographers began to change the way they worked, "The 1980s was the beginning of the big lens without the hide. It also saw the use of fast or upgraded film to capture the 'decisive moment' and take action shots without the use of flash."



Charles Summers was crowned Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 1985 with this image of a Young cheetah getting to grips with its first springbok 


Competition entries were - and still are - judged anonymously, with no divisions between professionals and amateurs. "From the start, the competition recognised that just because you don't make a living out of photography, it doesn't mean you don't deserve recognition," says Roz. "That ethos continues. Non-professionals still have the chance to see their images alongside work by internationally successful professionals."

The reach of BBC Wildlife was international, and the uniquely international wildlife photography competition attracted more and more photographers from overseas to the extent that, in 1986, they won most of the prizes, bringing new perspectives and interpretations of the natural world. "The competition was becoming a forum for photographers in different parts of the world to see each other's work and the different styles from different cultures," says Roz.

The exhibition of the competition photography was also founded in the '80s: in 1982, winning images were exhibited for the first time in the Mall Galleries in London. The next year, an exhibition was held at at the Qantas Gallery and included a special presentation ceremony, and in 1983, it was launched at the Royal Festival Hall.

But the landmark year was 1984, when BBC Wildlife joined forces with the Natural History Museum and the first exhibition and awards ceremony was held there. The awards were supported by the good and the great in the wildlife world, including Sir Peter Scott, David Attenborough, David Bellamy, Gerald Durrell, Virginia McKenna, Eric Hosking, Bill Oddie, Lady Philippa Scott, Richard Mabey, Simon King, Anthony Huxley, Heather Angel and Tony Soper.



Jim Brandenburg won the 1988 grand title with his image of a gemsbok in the Namib desert


The competition also found its first sponsor, Prudential Assurance, and appointed its first manager, Helen Gilks, who stayed for the next 10 years. The competition office would eventually move from Bristol to the Museum, where the judging was held. "We were in the basement of the Museum," Helen remembers. "Here we would sort out the sackfulls of transparencies that arrived in jiffy bags. Communication then was by letter or fax, and after judging, of course we had to return the thousands of photographs." Sponsorship allowed the competition to grow and thrive. As well as big prizes, including cash, it meant that the exhibition could expand to become the most prestigious of its kind in the world.

In 1986 the exhibition began to tour the UK. And just a few years later, it was touring overseas, showing in the USA, Australia and New Zealand.

The awards and the exhibition began to receive more attention and publicity, and the number of entries increased, growing from 8,500 in 1984 to 12,000 in 1985. Roz introduced new categories to encompass the scope of styles and subject areas, including underwater photography, the human impact on the environment, endangered species, behaviour, wild places, plants and urban wildlife.

Conservation remained an important subject in the competition, which had a conservation partner for the first half of the decade, the (as it was known then) Flora and Fauna Preservation Society. People like Jonathan Scott and Angela Scott, who have both won the overall title independently (in 1987 and 2002), made use of their images to raise awareness of environmental issues. "The competition is the one and only forum that is big enough to attract so much attention," says Angie.

Jonathan, who subscribed as a child to the very first issue of Animals magazine, the forerunner of Wildlife, has tracked the competition since its inception. "I've seen it take this very niche activity, wildlife photography, and turn it into something for all photographers to measure themselves by. You get tremendous feedback by seeing how far you get, and what others are doing. So simply entering is important in that respect, even if you don't win anything," he says. "The WPY story is about moving people from ignorance to knowledge, and the conservation categories are hugely important in terms of doing that."



Jonathan Scott's award-winning image of a wild dog immobilising a wildebeest, from the 1987 competition


To encourage a new generation to enter the competition, Roz introduced special categories for young people, many of whom had an interest in photography as well as natural history. At the same time, equipment was becoming more affordable and wildlife programmes more prolific, all of which helped attract young entrants.

Winning not only brought prizes and kudos but also an invitation to the awards ceremony to meet some of the most famous photographers and presenters in the wildlife world. Many of the young winners of the 1980s - including Bruce Davidson, David Breed, Torsten Brehm, Ross Hoddinot, Charlie Hamilton James, and Warwick Sloss - have gone on to successful careers in wildlife photography or film-making.

Tim Martin, now an executive producer in the BBC Natural History Unit, was one such youngster, " I won the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 1987, at 17, it is the single most important thing that's happened to me in my whole career. First, it made me cool at school - I was no longer this geeky kid who spent all his spare time looking for animals to photograph. Second, it launched my career. I was able to go to the BBC and show them my portfolio. If you can take photos of wildlife, it's proof that you know how to work with animals and that you understand photography. In this case, a portfolio of great wildlife images was worth more than any degree and any amount of field work."



Timothy Martin won the young comeptition in 1987 with this image of a pheasant


At the start of the 1980s, the images submitted to the competition - as with previous decades - tended to be mostly portraits. The photographers were still mostly wildlife lovers photographing what they observed in nature - rather than using photography as a creative medium. "Comparatively few were thinking about how to communicate what they saw or experienced in nature in an artistic way," says Roz.

Luckily for the creative photographers waiting in the wings, Roz's desire to get wildlife photography accepted as an artistic genre of mainstream photography was well under way. By the mid-1980s, judges began seriously to consider the aesthetic value of images, not just their biological content, with the artist Bruce Pearson joining the judging panel. And by the end of the 1980s, the artistic wildlife photographers were starting to get themselves noticed. Wildlife photography was on its way to becoming an art form.


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, is published by the Natural History Museum. 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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