Line Of Sight
Unique Views Of A Singular Artist

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 images.
--Barry Tanenbaum