Worth A Thousand Words

29th May 2020

If the invention of moving pictures allowed us to capture and recreate how we live, the invention of photography, predating film by some 69 years, allowed us capture something way less tangible to the naked eye.

In movies lie all the hustle of the world. But in a photograph, the world stands still. Nothing in nature is fully permanent. Polaris shifts; rocks erode; coils are mortal. 

But a photograph captures a moment, unchanged for all of time. This happens only once in a human life. It is the moment of death. 

It is frequently recounted that humans expire their last, they open their eyes wide to muster maximal attention. Many explications are offered for this phenomenon, including the usual reductive physiological one about muscle spasm. 

I prefer a more metaphysical death-bed narrative: so eager are we for life that we will ourselves to capture the world one last time. For that passage beyond life, we take our only still photograph. Pharaoh-like.

A picture is a precious and extraordinary thing, precisely because it is so unnatural. 

Human cognition is dynamic and choiceful. Much of what we could see, we choose not to attend to, consigning it to the semi-visible periphery. In contrast, the photograph captures everything, and equally. With it, we get the preternatural experience of perceiving what we ordinarily would not. 

It was early photography which unlocked a riddle of zoology. In 1878, Eadweard (sic) Muybridge developed special triggering equipment for the nascent camera to settle an enduring conundrum: does a horse lift all four legs simultaneously from the ground as it gallops? A thoroughbred named Sallie Gardner was captured on Muybridge’s camera, and he found the answer. 

Indeed, yes. 

And now there was photographic proof. The proto-photographer discovered a small wrinkle: the levitation did not happen when the horse’s legs are splayed, as anticipated, but rather when all four are gathered underneath the body. Sallie Gardner’s leggy revelation resonated around the world. There is little quite as satisfying as verifiable, unequivocal new knowledge. 

Since smartphones have made us all photographers (and I mean this sincerely), we are all called upon to create a  new relationship with images. 

What is it we wish to capture? To what end? And for which audience?

Canadian self-taught professional, Steve Biro, began taking the camera seriously in 2007, with random courses from time to time, while all the time following his photographic wit and intuition. Biro’s canvass was Nature, and he set about creating, on the advice of photography doyen Ansel Adams, ‘twelve great photographs every year’. 

This is counsel relevant to any domain of creation. The point of art is quality, not quantity. I must discard many lines in my head before ‘the beautiful sentence’ spills upon the page. 

Last year, Biro captured a great image. 

Its power and beauty flew around the earth. The exquisite symmetry and focus in the image arrested the viewer with visceral awe. 

But what is the meaning of this elliptical, ethereal bald eagle we are seeing? And is Biro’s contribution timeless like Muybridge, or impermanent like rye on the Canadian prairie?

The photograph’s story starts not with an age-old riddle, but with a day at the Canadian Raptor Conservancy, which breeds and trains birds of prey in captivity.

[That word ‘raptor’, a synonym of ‘bird of prey’, grabs my attention. It feels so powerful and dangerous in its two-syllable concision. My instincts are right. The word originated in the root verb rapio, meaning to plunder or take by force. If Nature is indeed ‘red in tooth and claw’ as Tennyson claimed, this cohort of briefs is surely its crimson ambassadors. A frisson is in the air when the raptors take flight.] 

The Conservancy provides outreach services to photographers – a way to bring the magic of birds of prey to a wider audience. The programme notes are straightforward.  

‘Our Birds in Flight Photography Sessions allow the amateur photographer a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with a variety of birds of prey. Each session is three hours in length and includes six flying birds and four static birds as time allows. This is a great chance to capture some amazing photos and learn about the natural history of each species.’

In the days following his famous image, Biro described how he perched himself low to the ground, on a rock, which he knew to be on the flight path of a bald eagle. He took hundreds of pictures during the session. But this one felt special. The bald eagle seemed to be threatened by his chosen low rock position. Its consequent flight path seemed like an angle of attack. 

What are we to make of this? We now know that Biro’s picture was constructed. In a way, purposefully stage-managed. It was not the result of fate and alchemy, but rather planning and orchestration. 

Is our enjoyment of its beauty and intimacy diminished in this knowledge? 

I have read several missives criticising Biro for the ‘abuse of animals’, effectively calling him a fraud. I’m having none of it. 

To hold a camera in one’s hand is to plan; to work with conservationists is to plan responsibly. And when that eagle took flight, in the presence of shutters and humans around whom it has been raised its whole life, it took flight using the arts of its primal nature, not some invented, manufactured artifice. 

And there, caught in a moment of poetry, lay an oval-shaped beauty which our human eye is too lowly to capture – so fast and ephemeral was its being. 

Power. Focus. Symmetry. Perfection. Within it is revelation, just as Sallie Gardner’s gallop revealed something to her observers. 

At a time of impending cataclysm of our eco-system, our thirst of today is not for Victorian understanding, but for emotional engagement. We need to feel the value of Nature in order to respect and protect her. In this sense, most profoundly, the weight of the world rests on eagles’ wings. It is borne with such grace. 


Note: this essay is part of a remarkably infrequent series of essays on photographs, the last being from 2014 and found here

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