The loss of wonder

These days it is unusual for any bird rarity to not be accompanied by a mobile ornithological paparazzi. From the boys (they mostly are boys) with the big lenses to the boys (they mostly are boys) with the bridge cameras. There might even be some retro snappers with their compact cameras jammed up against the eye-pieces of their telescopes. And they too will be mostly boys.

Billions of pixels will have gone to make up the tens of thousands of images that will have been created at the altar of the recent ‘big’ rarity, the Desert Warbler in Northumberland. And many - many - of these images will have been let loose into the public domain via Twitter, What’sApp groups and blogs. Most of them will be of an exceptional quality.

It wasn’t long ago that such saturation of high quality images of rarities was unheard of. When I started birding in the mid-1970s there were but a handful of rarity photographers and some of them were still shooting in black-and-white. A lot of the equipment being used was, compared to what is available today, limiting. This created a world in which the images that were released for public consumption tended to be few in number and modest in quality. Some of them became iconic. The graininess, colour imbalance and subtle blurred edges of the birds that characterised many of these images bestowed upon them a mystery. They were other-worldly. Created a myth that these birds were unobtainable, things you could but dream of. Like a Yeti or the Loch Ness Monster...

And now we have images that leave nothing - absolutely nothing - to the imagination. Pin-sharp. Colour rendering that is accurate. Feather tracts, emarginations, barbs and wing formulae open for forensic examination. From every angle possible. In different lighting. At different times of day. This is true of the Northumberland Desert Warbler, quite a few of the recent Blyth’s Reed Warblers, one or two Red-footed Falcons and many of this Summer’s Rose-coloured Starlings. Close-ups that suggest the photographer must have been getting intimate with the bird to obtain such shots. These pictures almost seem intrusive.

I know I will be in a minority here, but some of the wonder of the bird, and it’s rarity, is lost when the photography is this... pornographic? That seems too strong a word but I cannot find the right one at the moment. When you strip away the mystique and expose the detail then the wonder evaporates. Of course, these images are great educational tools, much cherished by the rare bird records committees and fawned over by the travelling twitching circus. Many of the photographers have spent thousands of pounds on their equipment and put a lot of effort into honing field skills and gaining the know-how to obtain such top-notch results. But - dare I say it - such close-ups lack soul. They can appear cold and insensitive. There is no art involved. They become diagrams, like something from a biological text book.

All of the rare birds mentioned above have had some truly artistic photographs taken of them. A flock of a hundred Common Starlings in flight with one shocking-pink interloper a visual disturbance within them. A Red-foot on a sunlit hunting mission above the sweeping South Downs. The Desert Warbler, beady eye shining through a gap in the leaves. All of them giving so much more than just the rarity they depict but all still capturing the wonder of the bird. It can be done.

One of my birding acquaintances suggested that they don’t feel the need to travel and see these birds once they have been exposed to so many ‘in-your-face’ images. I also believe that, inadvertently, these photographs are casting the birds as consumer goods, to be catalogued, processed and then moved on. But that’s a subject for another post.

Comments

martinf said…
I'm in total agreement, Steve. I also find a similar thing with music. Because there is almost complete saturation of media, imagery, video etc there is just no mystery anymore. Imagine 1000s of hours of live footage of Joy Division or similar in HD at the end of a few clicks....
I think it completely changes how we react to, assimilate and in some ways mythologise some of this stuff.
Imagine what will happen when a Wallcreeper eventually turns up....
Steve Gale said…
Noooooooooooooo!!
Ric said…
Steve, in a way we could almost describe modern photographic coverage as devalued. There's just so much of it.

When 99.999% of the world didn't wake up to photography until they had evolved into having a smartphone welded to their hand, then those of us who've clicked away since the days before 35mm film canisters could be justified in casting a jaundiced eye over the proceedings. But what the hell. Let em get on with it.

After all. Should one have the funds to stump up £6,000 for the latest Canon camera body and another £8,000 for the lens. It would be picky not to expect them to not use it at every opportunity.

I'd just show them the pictures of 50 plus years ago just to remind them how late to the party they are. I mean. Some of the new guys are our age. Where have they been all this time?

Quality pictures they have and sheer volume. But scant history. They can't go back and have another attempt. No one can. But at least we can prove we were there in the first place.
Derek Faulkner said…
There's also the fact that by the time that you have travelled to see such a rarity and got there, so many photographs of it have already been sent round the country that it's become boring to many people.
You also over-looked mentioning that should there be a bit of doubt about said rarity, there is also the opportunity to scrape up a bit of it's poo and send that off for DNA testing.
At least we can remember when bird watching had a simple thrill about it.
Skev said…
Birding lost it's soul decades ago, long before the digital revolution. When grapevines, nods and winks turned into phonelines and then into pager services .... changes which many (I'm sure not all) birders of the day one way or another absorbed and perpetuated. As for the current saturation of fine images; I actually find the opposite, I see some of these photos and increasingly find myself wanting to go and see it for myself. I rarely do, more for practical reasons and responsibilities that I didn't have to think as much about 25years ago.
Stewart said…
Great post Steve. I try to get a photo when Im lucky enough to see a rarity, but thats secondary to seeing it. I went for the Bamburgh Little Bittern 2 yrs ago and deliberately left the camera at home to ensure I focussed on observation. I regret that a bit now. I once overheard some toggers drive by a red footed falcon twitch say, 'sad twats, they dont even have a camera'!. I am a lifelong birder as you know, and only began taking pics in 2005. If I couldnt afford a camera, Id still be out there, It doesnt control me, but I still enjoy the hunt and being able to rake my kill home with me...
Unknown said…
Amazing we were talking about this today totally agree and love the comparison with Joy Division
Paul Trodd said…
Steve, I`ll tell you what was a sense of wonder. Back in the `old days`, when a pack of developed Kodachrome 64 dropped on the door mat (around £8 as I recall) and 2 of the 36 slides were usable! Great post by the way.
Steve Gale said…
Thanks for all of your comments - much appreciated.

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