James Balog's "Animals"
features a diverse range of photographs, from medium format portraits
to abstract images captured with a Holga camera.
James Balog's latest
book, Animal, published last month by Graphis, turned out to be something
of a revelation for Balog himself. Although he's a noted naturalist
and one of the country's leading wildlife photographers, he can,
he says, still feel as though he's "just stumbling along,
year after year, fumbling in the dark. Then I look back when I assemble
a book like this and realize, OH, yeah, it really does make sense after
all. There is a continuum of photographic experience here." The
line connecting the images is, of course, Balog himself.
Although not a retrospective, the book ranges over the different styles
and treatments he's brought to his subject matter through the
years. "One of the unifying elements embedded [in my work] is
the personality of the animals. The animals are the main characters
in all the photographs."
In the book there are distinct sections: Portraits features images made
under controlled conditions in studio-like settings with medium format
cameras; African Wild is Balog in "nature photographer mode,"
on location with his 35mm equipment; Africa Portfolio is a collection
of black and white images taken with a Holga, a $15 plastic camera that
has one shutter speed, two f/stops, and a plastic lens; finally, a section
titled Requiem encompasses, in Balog's words, "the darker
aspect of humanity's relationship with animals," and for
this he photographed in the "realistic mode of 35mm color photojournalism."
Balog says that photographing with the Holga, in a more "contemplative,
abstract style," represented "a discovery of the pleasure
of seeing again. I was unencumbered by the expensive technical apparatus
that I sometimes feel controls me. The Holga just let me enjoy my life
and the process of seeing."
Although the styles of the sections differ, Balog finds at least one
element of his approach consistent. "Someone pointed out to me
that no matter what the situation, I rarely do pictures where I slip
into that wildlife photography conceit that pretends the photographer
isn't there, and that we happen to be stealing in on a moment
in these animals' lives. Which is, of course, absurd--every wildlife
photographer knows that his presence very much influences the moment;
it's sometimes 50 percent of what's going on.
"Most photographers try to hide that, often in visual terms by
doing the pictures with huge telephoto lenses. I actually don't
enjoy very much the pictures that I do with telephotos. I do them when
I have to for stock or commercial purposes, but I much prefer to find
situations where I can go in with wide angle lenses and be practically
underneath a lion's paw to get a picture. I want that emotional
interaction going on between my psyche and the animal." When that
happens, Balog says, the viewer is seeing in the photograph the exchange
between photographer and subject. That exchange is also a unifying factor
in Balog's images--it's there no matter how diverse the
experiences, no matter if he's holding a medium format, 35mm,
or Holga camera. As the pages of his latest book demonstrate, there's
always present a unity of purpose and sensibility in James Balog's