FLEA MARKET PHOTOBOOKS: 19 / MAR / 2020
MASTERPIECES OF BIRD PHOTOGRAPHY
by Eric Hosking & Harold Lowes
Collins: London, 1947
Reviewed by Annebella Pollen
What constitutes a masterpiece of bird photography? Is it the rarity of the specimen, the style of its depiction, or the difficulty of achieving the image? The editors pose these questions but do not answer them explicitly in their text. The contents of their volume, however, suggest that what matters most is how hard it was to make the picture. Masterpieces of Bird Photography is about triumph. In the first instance, British superiority in their field is asserted from the first line, perhaps due to the era in which the book was produced. The opening pages detail the 1890s origins of the genre, attributing the status of pioneers to the Kearton brothers. An extraordinary image - the only one in the book that is not of a bird - shows one brother stood on the shoulders of the other behind a large plate camera on the spindly legs of an extended tripod. They were as much acrobats as ornithologists (a story told recently at greater length in The Keartons: Inventing Nature Photography by John Bevis).
Given that fifty years of production precedes it, the book claims to be, surprisingly, the first collection of its type. Ralph Chislett, in his historical survey chapter, claims that it presents "the best work of bird photography, past and present, without fear or favour". He acknowledges the contribution made to the field by "men and women of all types" but the content is dominated by contributions from photographers of a particular mould; only one woman is included. The book is as much an account of masters of bird photography as it is of masterpieces, not least as it is structured alphabetically by practitioners, each of whom receives a fawning biography. The book also emphasises mastery in its emphasis on bird photography heroics, which are described in the language of derring-do. Cherry Kearton, for example, was dangling over a cliff trying to capture a rare specimen when his rope snapped and he plunged into the sea below. His brother Richard was left with one leg six inches shorter than the other following a childhood fall from a high tree in pursuit of a bird's nest. The co-editor of the volume, Eric Hosking, who devoted his whole life to the subject, lost an eye in 1937 to an owl; his submission is, fittingly, an image of a similar bird in the act of catching a rat.
The standards of the form are laid out briskly. Douglas English, former president of the Zoological Photographic Club, established 1899, the organisation to whom the book is dedicated, states: "publication of a natural history photograph which purports to be a photograph from life, but which is in fact a photograph of a posed specimen, is in our view, a contemptible form of dishonesty". One can't help be reminded of the controversy in the Natural History Museum's Wildlife Photographer of the Year prize in 2018, whose winning subject turned out, rather comically, to be stuffed. Photographs of captive specimens are also given short shrift. One of the most celebrated of recent bird studies outside of the world of natural history, Luke Stephenson's delightful Incomplete History of Show Birds, would thus not qualify. Another reason Stephenson's studies would be sniffed at is their emphasis on colour. One might assume that the black and white photographs that make up the entirety of the book's pictorial content had to be suffered due to technical limitations of colour film and printing in the period, but not so. Chislett claims: "to those with the knowledge to discriminate, good monochrome is preferable".
Technical limitations certainly shape the style of the images included. Stationary birds are more common than those in flight due to challenges of shutter speeds. Nocturnal birds are hard to picture in the period unless one is prepared to innovate with flashlight (the specialism of Hosking). A few images show signs of a Pictorialist yearning for fuzz and appear retouched for atmosphere; most, however, are taken straight, as the survey seeks to be zoologically informative as much as aesthetic. The layout of the book is conventional, with one plate to each double page. All appear on the right, with a broad white border and with titles limited to the name of the bird. Framing of subjects is mostly square-on; the few exceptions thus appear refreshing, such as the dramatic modernist diagonal behind the nuthatch photographed by H. M. Stone. The emphasis on photographing specimens au naturel means that subject and backdrop sometimes lack sufficient contrast; here monochrome seems to be a significant shortcoming to actually seeing the bird clearly. An exception is John Barlee's Kittiwake, whose black and white gull against a pale grey sky would appear much the same in either format. The clarity and technical skill of this image explains its choice for the book's dustjacket although, for me, the photograph of the Kearton brothers in action is the best of the lot.