50 Years of WPY - the 1990s: aesthetics, young photographers and international networks

27 May 2015 posted by: Rosie Pook, WPY Comms Officer

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From its new home at the Natural History Museum, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year blossomed. Our history series continues with the 1990s, when the competition forged ahead with its commitments to artistry, young photographers, conservation and international reach.


From the day she took over as editor of BBC Wildlife Magazine, Rosamund Kidman Cox saw the potential of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. "We needed to find new, creative photographers for the magazine, and growing the competition was a very important way of doing that," she remembers. "We needed photographs that were more than record shots. We also wanted to raise the status of wildlife photography as a genre."



Fritz Polking's category winning image from the 1991 competition 


So Roz recruited the renowned British wildlife artist Bruce Pearson to join the judging panel. Bruce remembers how he was "amazed to be sitting there alongside these big names in wildlife photography, people like Simon King and Heather Angel. But I realised that what I could offer was aesthetic insight drawn from a very different way of interpreting nature. As an artist, I can work in a very loose way; I can unbolt my experience of something into its constituent parts, look for the essence of the subject, and then re-assemble these into something that one hopes is greater than the sum of those parts. With the photographs, I looked for a sense that the photographer had given full vent to creative passion in order to do something similar, to search for and then interpret the essence of what they were photographing."

Towards the end of the previous decade, artistically minded photographers such as Jim Brandenberg had begun to push the boundaries and submit images that were, first and foremost, beautiful (Jim's 1988 title-winning image of a gemsbok on a dune in Namibia gained iconic status). But it was in the '90s that the idea that wildlife photography could (and should) take its place alongside other forms of photographic art became mainstream. Bruce points to one particular image that, he says, marked a turning point in the aesthetic focus of the competition: Martyn Colbeck's 1993 title-winning image of a bull elephant dusting. "It distilled the essence of that elephant in a truly painterly way," fulfilling one of the stated judging aims of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition "looking first and foremost for aesthetic appeal."



Martyn Colbeck's 1993 title-winning image of a bull elephant dusting



Martyn Colbeck receiving his award from Sir David Attenborough at the 1993 WPY ceremony


The decade also saw the competition make great strides in other areas, too. The Eric Hosking Award was launched in 1990 in honour of one of the UK's most famous photographers and an early WPY judge, offering a platform for young photographers aged 18-26 and a financial and promotional aid to those struggling to turn professional. And in 1995 an award highlighting the conservation of endangered species was introduced in memory of the writer and conservationist Gerald Durrell, one of the competition's awards presenters.



Jean Pierre Zwaenepoel's image of a Nilgiri tahr was one of the first recipients of the Gerald Durrell award for endangered species


Competition manager Helen Gilks launched the first portfolio book, which was published in 1991. The portfolio book has appeared every year since then, and early editions have become collectors' items (at the time of writing, a pristine copy of the first portfolio is selling for £267 on Amazon). The World Wide Web had not yet taken off, and so it was the print media that continued to fuel interest in nature photography. Adding to the reach of BBC Wildlife magazine, the travelling exhibitions and the international press coverage, the book helped to spread word about the competition and share the images internationally.

The exhibition was soon touring not just within Europe, Canada and the US, but also in New Zealand, Australia, Japan, India, Kazakhstan, Trinidad and Brazil. The massive local publicity generated from these various events resulted in yet more international entries, and the total number of entries jumped from 12,000 in 1994 to 21,000 in 1999, with submissions from 66 countries - a leap of 75 per cent.

By now, the competition had been in existence for three decades. Many young nature photographers had grown up with it and were starting to forge successful careers. One of these young talents was Chris Packham, who first entered in 1985. For Chris, as for other young photographers such as Charlie Hamilton-James, the WPY was simply part of the nature photography landscape. As far as they were concerned, it had always been there.



Charlie Hamilton James won the Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year title in 1991 with this image of an otter family



Charlie Hamilton James, Sir David Attenborough and 1991 Wildlife Photographer of the Year, Frans Lanting, present their winning images at the Natural History Musuem, London


Chris Packham went on to become a multiple category winner, continuing to win prizes well into the 1990s. "The competition played an immeasurably important role in the development of wildlife photography," he says. "I knew that my images had a fighting chance of taking on some of the greatest photographers in the world, and that made me fiercely competitive. I'm convinced you can create an artistic image from everyday subjects. My first images were up against images from the Arctic, the Antarctic and every imaginable exotic location in between. I'm proud of the fact that mine were all taken within a few miles of my home in Southampton."



One of Chris Packham's winning entries in the 90s, taken near his family home in Southampton, UK


Later, Chris joined the judging panel and twice chaired the judging. He has also presented the awards on several occasions, and his memories of doing so reveal just how passionate he is just about nature photography, his fellow photographers and the competition itself. "The awards ceremony was the highlight of my year," he says. "The winning images were always so great. I knew how chuffed the photographers were to be there, so it was an immense honour for me to help make the evening memorable and special for them. I know what it is to love photography, and I know what it is to love nature. So on the night, my job was easy: I just had to stand there and love those photographs."

As the 1990s drew to a close, the wildlife photography community was beginning to hear of, and use, developments in technology and communications that would have more of an impact than even the early adopters could have imagined: digital photography and the World Wide Web.


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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