Fat Wolves

- - Awards

I remember my first encounter with a fat wolf. I was researching stock images of wolves for a story we were running in Outside Magazine and I could find nothing I liked. All the wolves from the specific location in the story looked like mangy old flea-bitten dogs. It wasn’t until I widened my search to include any wolf photo available as stock did I discover healthy, strong, wolf looking wolves. Upon further inspection I learned that these were captive wolves (who apparently are well fed).

If you haven’t heard the recent uproar about Spanish wildlife photographer Jose Luis Rodriguez being awarded first place (here) in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest run by the British Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine then being stripped of the award (here) after people called into question the authenticity of the wolf in his winning image (here).

I quickly lost all interest in the controversy when I read this (here):

“José Luis started by placing meat in the corral.”

Great wildlife photography for me is equal parts photography and sport. If baiting the animals is acceptable to the judges who cares if it was captive or wild?

I like what photographer Bob Keefer  has to say (here) about the whole kerfuffle:

But the weirdest thing is, the winning photograph is awful. Whether “real” or staged, it’s utterly cheesy, the kind of demented nature porn that has come to dominate the nature photography market around the world. Who cares if it’s a picture of Ossian? It’s boring, overwrought and melodramatic. The judges knew this when they picked it, referring to its “fairy tale” qualities.

The judges should be fired, both for choosing the photograph in the first place and then for their handling of the complaints about it.

Someone online obviously felt the same way. Why stop with one jumping wolf when you can have 3 and a full moon to boot (UPDATE: obviously an homage to the three wolf moon t-shirt phenomenon that went completely over my head – ape):

There Are 41 Comments On This Article.

  1. Regarding the last image, more moons please, the wolf eyes should be red like in Twilight, also please change the star field – everyone knows the moon doesn’t pass through the constellation Sagittarius this time of year.

  2. The only suggestion I have for the “three wolves and giant moon” photo is that you really should replace that boring night sky with a lovely ocean sunset. Some birds in the sky would be a nice addition.

    Do you have any unicorn photos?


  3. I don’t follow wildlife photography and had not heard about this… wonderful post today. Very interesting and entertaining.

  4. While interning at National Geographic TV after college I noticed a human hand grabbing a clam out of a riverbed during a quick cut away from a bird plunging into the water. I then learned about fencing techniques for capturing certain animal behaviors in “the wild”. I quickly lost faith in wildlife filmmakers and the industry during that time.

  5. I wish we knew how to find that line between photography and illustration – it’s no longer the least bit clear and getting fuzzier all the time.

    Wouldn’t it be interesting if our photo files were tagged with an indelible mark in the metadata as soon as the pixels were altered returning that element of authenticity we now miss? Just sayin’

  6. Tame vs. Wild. There doesn’t seem to be any question that the photographer violated the rules of the contest. The picture seems hokey and set up, so I’m surprised it actually won the contest. Whether the rule makes sense, given all various “acceptable” tricks used to facilitate the photography of wild animals is certainly something that could be debated.

  7. Mixed Message

    “Great wildlife photography for me is equal parts photography and sport. If baiting the animals is acceptable to the judges who cares if it was captive or wild?”

    So how do you reconcile this statement with your take on Andrew Zuckerman’s “Bird” coffee table book where you said:

    “He’s certainly at the forefront of testing all these cool new ways to get the word out. Certainly worth keeping your eye on, plus the pictures are fantastic.”

    Where is the “sport” in having birds chase bait in a studio?

    Velveeta vs. brie perhaps, but both are pretty cheesy.

    • @Mixed Message,
      Zuckerman’s “Bird” is not wildlife photography. It’s basically animal portraiture and in portraiture it is understood that most of the time the photographer “makes things happen”.
      Classifying Zuckerman’s “Bird” as wildlife photography is like saying a portrait of an NFL player in the studio is sports photography.

      • Mixed Message


        Maybe because it isn’t an analogy. It’s a question about consistency.

        A famous photographer shoots captive animals on a white seamless background using food treats to encourage behaviour and it’s fantastic art. A not-so-famous photographer shoots an apparently captive wolf in a wild setting and it’s a sin against photographic integrity.

        This seems like a double standard to me. And Mr. Haggart appears just as guilty as the British Natural History Museum and BBC Wildlife Magazine.

        I’ll guarantee if Nadav Kander did the exact same shot as Jose Luis Rodriguez not only would he have been allowed to keep the award, they would have created a special award to praise his tenacity in finding a particularly photogenic wolf.

        It’s not about Zuckerman, or Rodriguez for that matter. It’s how we hold superstar photographers to a different standard than lesser-know photographers.

        • @Mixed Message,

          No, it’s a terrible analogy. I’m going to use non-fancy words.

          Your argument directly compares a studio shoot with a bird to a photo of a moment supposedly captured in the wild of a wild animal doing wild animal things. The wolf was not captured in a studio for a book.

          Really is a terrible analogy.

          • Mixed Message


            Wild animals do wild animal tings all the time. It’s what they do. The question is whether the circumstances surrounding a particular photograph were contrived. In both cases they were. Zuckerman never claimed his images were shot in the wild. But I haven’t seen any evidence that Rodriguez did either. He submitted a photograph of an animal, in a wild setting, doing wild animal stuff.

            Most images, other than perhaps pure journalistic shots (even then it’s debatable), are contrived to some extent.

            • @Mixed Message,

              “So how do you reconcile this statement with your take on Andrew Zuckerman’s “Bird” coffee table book”

              the question is you are comparing the two statements on two wildly different photographic presentations and presenting them as the same through analogy, and as they are not even close, terrible analogy.

  8. In college, my mentor and professor Mark Kauffman told us of a story he did for Nat Geo where he and other photographers were trying to get a shot of a certain bird and a sunset over the nile river. After several days of waiting for the right shot they finally got a local guide to catch a few of these birds, set up the camera so they could capture the perfect sunset and then had an assistant throw a bird in front of the camera. This went on for several shots. Looks like this sort of stuff has moved into the digital age!

  9. Rather amusing.
    First there is the contest NOT presenting a clear argument for why they feel this image has violated their terms.
    Followed of course by the NON rebuttal of the photographer.
    Resulting in a lack of information to form conclusions about the “controversy”.
    Next, a fellow that sells hand colored images using the descriptive terms: “chessy”, “demented nature porn”, “boring”, “overwrought”, “melodramatic”, “fairy tale”…. Ha! :D Thanks for the laugh. (Not that I don’t like a nicely colored image :)

    It seems people want their simulations to appear more genuine. Even if the ‘genuine’ may look simulated. Most of the time photography is pandering to pre-conceived archetypical notions of beauty, composition, stories. That’s true even when counter culture norms lean towards *documentation* of reality, and changing the notions of beauty (raw beauty). The late philosopher Baudrillard theorizes *simulation* has become more genuine than the original. I believe this to often be representative. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulacra_and_Simulation

    In the case of nature photography what elements would make the simulation of photography seem more ‘genuine’? Would images be more appreciated if the lighting was flat and hazy? High noon sun with blown highlights and blocked shadows? Missed focus? Blurry images? Bad composition? Poor resolution? Awkward body language of the subject?

    There is a reason why visual elements can become romanticized and cliche.
    Given the opportunity to live in a house with a view of a strip mine/parking lot, or a sunset on the ocean, lake, or mountains where would most people choose (all other factors being equal) to live?

    Another irony is that of the environmental cost of capturing *true* simulations of nature. It’s very much like trophy hunting. It may take years (a lifetime) of continued effort traveling, stalking, waiting, being prepared for a fortuitous moment. How many gallons of (jet or auto) fuel to achieve this feat well? What is the footprint to capture a ‘genuine’ moment in *nature*, as opposed to luring the subject closer? If the subject is willing, how much of a divergence is that from it’s *true* nature?

    While we in the first world discuss such weighty topics, the corporations still lobby the bloody daylights out of our government, healthcare costs rise faster than the price of unobtainium (or any other cost), and the majority of the world focuses on daily survival.

    • @Bob, I’d like to apologize to Bob Keefer. I stepped over the line with my comment above. I do enjoy hand painted images, and have done them myself in the past. It really doesn’t matter what type of imagery he creates – or even if he creates any at all. If comments bare reality, it matters not who says them.

      The wolf image does not bring up the same feelings for me. Do some people have romantic idea about images?

  10. I Love the comments above even Bob’s diatribe, since I have been know to ramble on. I think the efforts if they are true, lean towards inginuity, yet the results belong in a disney movie. I think the lighting was off and the position of the wolf over the fence (wild or from a zoo who cares) was off, it definitly would have been a better image if the legs were in a different position. To me I would wonder why it won first place when I have seen much better baited image. So there really not any controversy of this….

  11. Rob I think you just found the art for a company Tshirt. You’ll need a talented graphic designer to figure out a place for a giant goth “APE”. Rights clearance might be a bear tho –

  12. I couldn’t agree more with Bob Keefer in his explicit description.
    It is ..like so many other touted photographs these days a one liner. Someone on blow or too much expresso gobbling up all the magic tricks that Photoshop has to offer. It’s a perfect example of………….drum roll………..PHOTO ILLUSTRATION, not Photography! Who gives a toss weather he baited the wolves or fed them by regurgitating the ‘food” he ate hours earlier at Starbucks. It’s a shite image …period. I have been recently asked by my new agency to take part in these Awards type contests, and am always apalled ,amazed,and bewildered at the “judges” idea of a photo. I remember years ago when the winner of a certain contest for best photograph was a naked man with angel wings hovering over the ocean??????????????????????????? If that’s considered photography then i’m quitting and opening a bagel shop…

  13. The BBC contest for 2010 has finally stopped zoo shots from the contest now if they would just stop photographs taken by movement trip wire instead of an actual person behind the lens.

    We’ve applied several times to the BBC contest and recieved honorable mentions. It was interesting the one year that they scolded photographers for sending in too many dead animal pictures just because the year before that’s what had won one of the top prizes.