Wildlife Photography

A ‘Timeless Classics’ production. First published February 2010

In which a family of kingfishers manage to trick a former Art teacher into rejecting a process-led model as a metanarrative of a discredited Modernist formal orthodoxy. It also features some spectacular stunt flying, courtesy of the Red Sparrows.

It has slowly become apparent to me that I’ve been had. Done over.  Hook, line and sinker, I have been stitched up like a kipper by … a family of kingfishers

Why? Because I have failed to listen to my own best advice and have allowed myself to be seduced by Product at the expense of Process. I know! …  Me! The Process Kid! ….Me! who has spent a lifetime  teaching a process-based model (I’m getting more and more angry as I write this) Me! a signed and fully paid up champion of a process-led aesthetic. I can’t believe it. Tricked, out-witted and out-manouvered … by a family of bloody kingfishers. I mean, they’re only 6 inches tall with a brain the size of a pea!

The Readers Digest Book of British Birds describes them as ‘mainly sedentary’ and confines the bulk of its entry to an almost obsessive interest in the spectacular colouring, superlative flying, and dramatic diving. Ha! Where are the warnings that this orange and blue – alright – ‘turquoise’ critter will quite happily lead the unwary out onto one of the most treacherous visual arts battlefields of the Modernist era and leave you beaten and bloodied for your troubles? Where does it suggest that it might be wise to re-aquaint yourself with Walter Benjamin before you go birdwatching?

Here is my story.

 I take my bike from out of the shed and leave the house I share with my wife and two children, at work and school respectively. And why do I do this? … well … it’s because  we’ve got the bloody builders in. They have just ‘knocked through’. Any sign of a dustsheet? No! Any respect for personal space? No! Any interest in the fact that I too may have some objectives I’d like to acomplish –  preferably before sunset and so therefore really cannot  spare the time to make another cup of tea and listen to another ‘Clumsy Tony’ anecdote. No!

So I’m going for a bike ride to escape, because if I hear that fucking dopey roofer sing ‘Karma bloody Chameleon’ one more time I swear I’m going to pound his brains to mush with one of his own roofing tiles.

And so to the park (tip) at the end of our road.

Just listen to that … Silence! … (Well silence that  is if you filter out the playground noise from the school, the trains passing on the Met. line, the plane landing at Northolt, the coarse chatter of the jackhammer from … Oh gawd!..  Our house by the sound of it)

And so I’m off. A quick three lap burn up of the ‘Nature Reserve’ This presents a major test of skill and nerve as you try to avoid the dog crap everywhere, and today? … well, let’s head off down past the park and along the brook (sewer) and back again.

I’ve got to say, all joking apart, that in the dappled sunlight under a flaming canopy of Horse Chestnut, Ash, Hazel and a couple of Oak and Beech, it is extraordinarily beautiful down here … and quiet. The Parrots look a bit out of place though. There’s a … (collective noun for parrots? a squawk? –  sounds alright) There’s a squawk of parrots, about 6 in total who divide their time between the park and the big old tree behind our house. Escapees, I guess. A novelty at first, they are now right up there with the dopey roofer on my hate list courtesy of the bloody awful racket they make: that’s all seven of them.

I am just imagining what roast parrot might taste like and indeed how it might compare with roast roofer (I suspect a parrot, no matter how well fed might present a challenge in feeding a family of  four. The roofer, on the other hand has been nicely looked after and …)

Bloody Hell! See that? A kingfisher! Brilliant!

Wonderful! One of my favourite birds as a child. Not that I ever saw more than about three. Seeing a kingfisher gave me an electric thrill (and still does) as the streak of sapphire and orange flashed past, seemingly unconcerned, but busy nevertheless.

Who would have thought it?  On smelly Yeading Brook. I saw it again the following day and again and again. I was surprised talking to local dogwalkers, regulars along the brookside path, that although ‘vaguely aware’ of the bird’s existence at some time or other, no-one had seen it (or them) this season. Yet I, having begun to observe the bird’s pattern of behaviour and favourite branches on which to perch, saw it two, sometimes three times a visit.

I resolved to bring my camera, which I did (oh how I rue the day!) There was a lot of activity that morning: I’d seen it two or three times – It had of course occurred to me that there could be more than one: a pair? I was on the verge of leaving when right out of the blue/turquoise/saphhire whatever you want to call it, close by the lower entrance to the park it landed on a branch overlooking a bend in the brook. It was about 70 yards away. Against all odds, which included a standard 50mm lens – no telephoto and uncontrollable shaking as I tried to focus (In fact, if the truth be known, I had a quite incomplete grasp of the procedures for focussing my Canon 450D for having had it for two months, I was too lazy to have read the instruction manual) The shot was an accident: I was pressing the button for a meter reading and overdid it. I got another one in, but with a shutter sound like a skoda car door slamming – that was it. The kingfisher was off!

 

Can you spot it? 

 But I had it! After thoroughly testing the image manipulation giant that is Photoshop CS3 (Extended) I had it!  Okay, it wasn’t exactly David Attenborough: but then I wasn’t on his kind of money.You had to look hard deep into a mess of trees, riverbank, undergrowth but there it was the unmistakeable shape of a kingfisher. Ha! I was about to prove to everyone that this was no fig roll of my imagination…

But it was also to prove my undoing … My dissatisfaction with the quality of my kingfisher picture,  which despite all the power of Photoshop was still grainy and fuzzy, began to be replaced by a growing conviction that here was an opportunity to extend my range as a budding photographer. Yes! It was time to move on from those interminable artsy ‘coffee table book’ guitar pictures( http://www.andydalyphotography.co.uk/  in case you’re interested. I accept Pay Pal and all major credit cards) Let’s face it, any clot with a serviceable camera and a spotlamp could do them – you just had to remember, Do ‘em in black and white and don’t forget: Loads of shadows! No: this was real photography: wildlife photography.

And here, dear reader is where the wheels began to come off. I can hear myself thinking, althoughI never actually uttered the words, but sure enough, like so many of my wayward students over the years I thought them. Words which are enough plunge even the most experienced, hard-bitten, battle-scarred Art teacher into a trough of despair:

“But I know exactly what it’s going to look like”

I know, I know …. Me, the Process Kid! As I sit now staring at words on the screen I can barely believe it. But there I was, a week later, armed with a telephoto lens (courtesy of E Bay. Incidentally, I picked up a delightful plaster cast of the Leaning Tower of Pisa and a complete Morris Marina workhop manual at the same time. Who says it’s a Global Car Boot Sale eh?) and assorted camouflage garments, more usually associated with members of fanatical paramilitary active service cells: ready to do battle with the kingfishers for the ultimate Kingfisher photograph ….

[A small hollow in a sandy bank overlooking Yeading Brook and a family of Kingfishers are sitting around, reading the morning papers and childrens’ comic supplements]

Oh God! Here he is again!

Who’s here again, Darling?

That idiot. You know, the one with the camera.

The one with the wooly hat? You’re too hard on him. You should stop teasing him and leave him in peace.

Leave him in peace? What about us? What about him leaving us in peace? I’ll leave him alone when he stops invading our privacy. Three times last week…three times. You know what I’m like about my fishing –

[The children pipe up] Oh yes! We all know what you’re like about your fishing. We’re not allowed to talk..

We’re not even allowed to breathe!

Now, you two, come on…What your father is saying is that he just enjoys his privacy..

Exactly! Alone. So I can think and unwind and relax. Without having some half-baked would-be ‘wildlife photographer’ sticking his zoom lenses into my beak. And anyway, where do you think your meals would come from if I weren’t allowed to ‘dip this beak’ unhindered?

I caught one yesterday!

That was not a Minnow.

What was it then?

Well, it wasn’t a fish … Now let’s leave it at that … Oh God!

What is it now? You’re ever so tetchy these days…

It’s those bloody parrots, again. I wish someone would sort them out…send them back to where they came from.

But Dear, you can’t say that…

I just did. Okay! So who’s coming to have a bit of fun with old ‘David Attenborough’ then?

Me!

Me!

Me!

Daaad?

Yes, sunshine?

Do you think he knows there’s five of us?

Hmmmmm…Difficult to say… I think he knows there are at least two.

Remember yesterday, when you and Mum had already gone up to bend in the river with the wooden platform, but when I flew past, he went in the opposite direction?

Yes, that was odd. I just don’t think he’s very observant.

…He’s always half asleep

Yes, I’ve noticed that, Dear. I don’t think he gets enough rest…

Rest?! Oh for pity’s sake woman, we need to get rid of him, not mother him. I want my peace and quiet back.

Dad! Let’s try and get him to drop his big camera into the river

Yeeeaah!

And how are you going to do that?

Oh it’ll be well easy … Did you see when he dropped his hat in the river?

That’s right:  So far …Let’s see …  His gloves went in….

… his hat …

… (Twice) …

… His lens cap …

… and he got bitten by a dog! …

[Together] Twice!

It is easy! All you’ve got to do is make him wait till he starts to get tired…

It’s best to sit quite high up

… and behind him. He still thinks we only ever fly or perch low along the course of the river.

Watch him. Watch his shoulders.  After a while he starts to go into this position and his shoulders hunch over.

What’s ‘hunch’?

Y’know, go all rounded

Then it’s time to fly… Straight at him if you can

Yeaaaah!

He goes all shaky! It’s dead funny.

Okay? We all ready? You staying here, Love?  Oh! Before I forget, I’ve left an article out for you… might like to read it. I thought it was quite good. It’s a frank new appraisal of Benjamin’s ‘Work of Art In An Age Of Mechanical Reproduction’ In fact, I think it will throw more light onto the near polarisation of the visual arts and the acendency of a Post Modern,  pluralist aesthetic for the end of the twentieth century. See what you think. Okay kids? We off?

Chocks away!

[Some weeks later. The Builders have now gone]

                                                               …. ready to do battle with the kingfishers for the ultimate Kingfisher photograph.         

 [Reader]: So?

What?

[Reader]: So where is it?

What?

[Reader]: The ‘Ultimate Kingfisher Photograph’?

You see, people don’t realise just how difficult wildlife photography is. They just think that the photographer turns up, whips out their camera, Click! Click! Home in time for tea and crumpets. No way! It requires methodical planning, deep knowledge of the habits and environment of the subject and consumate camera skills. Never mind thinking … aperture?… exposure?… focus? … ooops, lens cap off … when there’s a kingfisher flying at you. It needs to be instinctive … it’s raw!…It’s man versus beast in an extreme and hostile environment.

[Reader]: ‘Extreme and hostile’? What? Yeading Brook? In Roxborne Park?

Yeah … err … it’s pretty hostile. I came close to losing my hat in the drink on one occasion.

***   Kingfishers 1 ‘David Attenborough’ 0   *** 

 [Reader]: So how long have you been waiting for this ‘ultimate photograph?

Let’s see, where are we now? March .. That will make it uhmm …  Five months … it’ll be five months

***   Kingfishers 2 ‘David Attenborough’ 0   *** 

 [Reader]: And how many pictures have you taken?

Oooooohhhh loads!

[Reader]: Of kingfishers?

Two

***   Kingfishers 3 ‘David Attenborough’ 0   *** 

[Reader]: So your original image and two new ones?

Ahhh ..  No. My … errr…original shot and one new one.

***   Kingfishers 4 ‘David Attenborough’ 0   *** 

 [Reader]:  It must be spectacular … the other one? It must be if it’s your ‘ultmate kingfisher photo’ Can you describe it? I’m fascinated by the notion of it being a battle between man and nature in order to wrest the image you want exactly as you thought it was going to look. That must be some result eh? The suspense is killing me … Thanks … No, don’t see it. Ahhh! That’s because I’ve got it upside down … no wait …. No, Still don’t see it ……..what the hell am I looking at?

Well … can you just see behind that branch…?

[Reader]: You mean that blurry brown line?

Hmmmmm…It’s that spot of blue …. Juuuusssssst ……. there!

*** Game Set and Match: Kingfishers ***         

 Epilogue

Never has the pursuit of artistic endeavour so exausted me. Never has so much time been invested for such little reward. How could I let myself walk into such an obvious trap? One which, because of my training and experience I should have spotted from the outset.

My ‘Ultimate Kingfisher Photograph’ hangs on the chimney breast (I tell people it’s one of a series of abstract paintings I’m working on – sort of diffused spatial enquiries … ‘Yes, they can sometimes look like out of focus photographs. I’m glad you spotted that’) My misery is complete when the Dopey Roofer decides he likes it and offers to buy it.  It reminds him of the lighting effects used at last year’s Ministry of Sound New Year Party. ‘It was sick man, I’m tellin’ yah I was well out of it’.

 I let it go for £5:49 with which I buy a new wooly hat. The house is cold and lonely, the wind whistles through the gap in the front door, making a sound like a maddened wailing banshee. I’m beginning to miss the builders … they weren’t that bad after all.

Cause of all the trouble

  

The Ultimate Kingfisher Photograph’

  HELPLINE

If you have been affected by any of the issues in this post, call 0800 4746 4746 to talk in confidence

© Andy Daly  2010

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