“ Exhibition at the Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, SW7. Until 25th of February. „
This is now sponsored by Veolia but if anyone wants to see it, just Google "National Photographer of the Year" and it will come up. It is still held at the National History Museum (this place haunts me from my youth - my sister used to want to go here ALL the time to see the dinosaurs). However, you have to respect the fact that this museum is beautiful. And despite the number of visitors they receive each day, let alone each year, the main lobby and the exhibits are kept clean and tidy. Getting into the museum on a busy day is a bit of a palaver. The queues are long and they have to search everyone's bags. Fair enough - but search consists of asking you if you have anything sharp then shining a light and not really searching, so seems a bit pointless. This year - 2010 - the exhibition was not in its usual place and being a busy Sunday afternoon (full of children running around all over the place) we couldn't see the sign posts properly, so got directions from a very helpful member of staff. We weaved our way through crowds, down corridors until we finally found it! A few better signs would be great, but I'm not going to hold it against them. The staff in charge of the exhibition are a bit surly, but then I don't think I would want to spend my day just checking tickets. Now to the actual exhibition! The pictures are amazing! Even if wildlife isn't your thing - and it's really not mine - you can appreciate that the quality of the photos makes every animal seem incredible. With so much detail shown in some of them, even down to the smallest of hairs on an ant carrying a raindrop. It's phenomenal. There are various categories within the exhibition, including photos taken by children, some of them only 10 years old. Obviously they have great cameras, but there is also some exceptional skill displayed here, enough to make any grown up with a digital camera envious. Each photo has been enlarged, and has a piece from the author about it (why they took it, how they felt, that kind of thing), as well as information about where it was taken, a fact about the animal involved, and details about the camera used. There are about 5-6 pictures displayed for each category, with a winner, a runner up and some that were highly commended. My personal favourite picture was one of a baby penguin looking at the footprints of the photographer. It reminded him that he was the intruder in the penguin's world. And I thought it was beautiful. There is some scandal surrounding this year's exhibition in that the overall winning picture has been disqualified because it is believed the photographer used a model wolf. This exhibition can get very popular at weekends, so it's worth booking your ticket in advance. Guests are allowed in in time slots, so pick your slot carefully as you will only be allowed admittance in that slot. The room the photos are in is fairly dark, but the photos are lit up. The room is not so dark that you're falling over yourself, but for people with sight problems, it could pose some hazards.
This is the second year I've visited the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition at the Natural History Museum, and I can see it becoming an annual pilgrimage for me. The photographs are all well worth seeing, the presentation shows them all off to best advantage, and the fact that it's all in the NHM is just the icing on the cake. Displayed in a darkened gallery within the architectural splendour of the Life Galleries, with an unobtrusive soundtrack of wild sounds and simple rhythmic music, the photos are all backlit transparencies. This means the colours are gloriously vivid, and the definition is excellent. Each image is accompanied by one or two paragraphs about the animal shown and/or how the shot was taken, and full technical information is provided as well for those who are interested. (This is all provided in large print as well for the visually impaired.) Rather than being dry, documentary shots of certain species, these images have a huge amount of artistic merit as well, and are often breathtakingly beautiful to look at - this means that even if you can't get close enough to read the information for a minute or two, you'll be quite happy just looking at the images in front of you. The winning shots (Wildlife Photographer of the Year and Young Wildlife Photographer of the Year) are enlarged to huge proportions and take pride of place in the centre of the gallery - they are truly awe-inspiring, no matter whether or not you agree that they are the best images in the exhibition. Each section -- they range from animal behaviour to abstract images of wildlife, from endangered species to "the world in our hands", and beyond -- displays a winner, runner up, and two or three highly commended images. In addition, there is a looping slideshow of more highly commended photos playing at one end of the gallery - it's a shame they don't display more on the walls, but it would need more space in the museu m then. I don't envy the judges their job, as rarely is there a single outstanding image on display, but rather a selection of amazing photos, all brilliant in their own way, and often employing very different techniques. Everyone who sees the exhibition will come away with their own personal favourites. Having just said how brilliant the shots are, I find the WPY exhibition hugely inspirational, as you're usually given enough information about how the photos were taken to at least think about trying some shots yourself. While they're undoubtedly excellent photos, some are brilliant in their simplicity, leaving you to think "I could do that!" - not in any way disparaging the images on show, but realising that "good" photos don't necessarily have to be technically complicated, they just require some thought and planning. Of course, many winners are taken in remote, inaccessible locations such as the Arctic, in the Malaysian rainforest, or on a coral reef in the Indian Ocean, but there are also categories for British wildlife and that found in obviously urban or suburban settings, including the back garden. And there's nothing to say that the techniques used in an African Wildlife Reserve aren't adaptable to use in an English National Park, for example. I'll admit to being ever so slightly torn over whether putting the WPY inside the Natural History Museum is a good idea or not. If you're generally interested in wildlife and the natural world, then you should easily be able to justify the entrance fee (£9, £4.50 concessions) by spending the whole day there. On the other hand, if you've been plenty of times before, don't fancy a day hemmed in by three-wheeled buggies and rampaging dinosaur-loving six-year olds, or for whatever reason just want to see the photos and move on, then you might find the cost a bit steep. You might also find the galleries a bit crowded and noisy, so it's worth t iming your visit carefully (like not on the Sunday before half term, for example...). The good news is that you can easily see the exhibition in under an hour, so you could time your visit for the free admission period just before closing time. There were a couple of things I missed from last year which I hope they'll bring back. One is the huge "slide wall" - simply a huge backlit wall on which were mounted some of the thousands of transparencies submitted for the competition. Although there was no auxiliary information, and the images were tiny, I found it completely fascinating to look at, either from a distance or close up, and felt like I was picking up details that others might miss, and in effect getting my own personal exhibition. As the slides went right down to the floor, there were plenty of images at lower eye levels, which was great for smaller children - both this year and last, many little kids were constantly being begged to be picked up to look at the main images, as they are quite high up. Also, last year the slide show was projected onto a fairly high screen at the end of the gallery, meaning it couldn't be obstructed by people walking in front of it, and it could be seen from almost all of the gallery. This year, it was at eye level and off to one side - children especially seemed tempted to stand right in front of it, blocking the view of those who were sitting on the benches provided, while other people would skip across in front of it to reach the rest of the exhibition. Speaking of benches, that's my other point, and one which applies to the NHM as a whole - there are not enough places to sit! Everywhere you go in the museum, there seem to be people sitting on the floor, or kids complaining that they're tired, and it would really help if there were more places to take a rest. In particular, the beautiful images in the WPY show deserve contemplation and extended viewing, if you have time, and it would be great to have some benches running down the middle of the gallery, facing the photos which are lined up on each side. Finally, the merchandise - as with almost any mainstream exhibition nowadays, there's stuff to buy. The NHM has plenty of shops and little stalls throughout all the galleries, and the WPY is no exception, although there's not much choice. A calendar, still selling at the full price (£9) even though it's February, adult and child t-shirts, a couple of posters, the portfolio of the year's photos (hardback, £25), and a somewhat disappointing selection of postcards (40p). For the most part, the images selected for the postcards didn't seem to be all the obviously appealing ones - while the winning shot of a mother and baby orang-utang was there, and one of a "surfing" penguin, the polar bear shot used on the NHM's own advertising banners was conspicuous by its absence. Not all the photographs in the exhibition are obvious postcard material, but many are, and I feel that the potential of the exhibition wasn't fully tapped in this respect. I would certainly love to have brought home some copies of the images which were particularly attractive or inspirational to me. However, these are small points, insignificant even, in comparison to the overall beauty and inspiration of the exhibition. When it closes at the NHM in a couple of weeks, it will be touring the country, visiting nature reserves and visitor centres for the rest of the year, and I strongly urge you to visit if it comes anywhere near you. The schedule is on the website, as are many of the images - but their presentation there can't hold a candle to seeing them in the exhibition itself. So see it - you won't regret it.