Wild East

6 March 2008

David Grundy sees East Anglia through the lens of wildlife photographer Chris Gomersall

Museum of Zoology

Wild East

7 February – 9 April

The Museum of Zoology, presided over by the unmistakable Finback whale skeleton, stands out amongst a rather drab complex of tall, 70s-style buildings, all dull brick and rows of unprepossessing square windows. The emphasis is very much on the functional, not the pretty, but the exhibition I came to see was less forbidding: a small selection from photographer Chris Gomersall, focussing on wildlife in the East Anglian fenland. Tucked away downstairs, it seems rather incongruous amongst the museum’s various skeletons and stuffed animals, but, as I’ll try and show, it has its own beguiling charms.

In his notes on the exhibition, Gomersall states his desire to show wildlife behaving naturally, unconcerned by, if not unaware of the camera’s presence. He also claims that he is seeking to “dignify my subjects” (hares, barn owls, rooks, bearded tits, and the like), which might seem like a slightly arrogant claim: do they need dignifying? I think what he means is that he’s trying to create an artistic work, rather than a mere descriptive snapshot–thus, though there’s a minimum of post-production technique (apart from colour desaturation in a couple of works, and the use of slow shutter speeds for particular effects), he creates compositions which are as much about mood as they are about representational reproduction. If the wings of a bird in flight are blurred, you can be sure they’re blurred for artistic effect rather than because of any incompetence on the photographer’s part.

In a series of startling, or more gently revelatory images, he tries to place his subjects in the landscape, and capture “the mood of the place, the season and the moment: something that goes a little further than the standard portrait.” This is actually a trickier task, when operating in this medium, than that faced by the painter, who can paint the landscape any way they want, in order to give it a particular feel, a particular interpretation. Gomersall has to work with what’s there already, but he almost seems to mould what he photographs into something new–the photograph as a transformative, rather than merely mimetic process.

His speciality is the morning scene: one can imagine him crouched over his camera early in the morning, capturing that magical hour, the border between day and night, waiting for a barn owl to flap across the fens, its outline picked out by a golden sunrise glimmer, or for a molten, yellow-red sun to emerge eerily behind a row of bedraggled trees, the only spot of bright colour in an otherwise uniform greyness.

Man doesn’t have a place here: there’s none of the domestication of landscape present in, say, Gainsborough’s depictions of aristocrats dominating their neat and ordered estates, or Seurat and Renoir’s leisurely flaneur lounging by the riverbank. Instead, Gomersall tries to create a sense of newness and strangeness, to give us back some of that feeling of natural wonder that’s been lost in an age when picture-postcard scenes are everywhere, made trivial through repetition. As Kenneth Clark wites in his classic Landscape Into Art: “We are surrounded with things which we have not made and which have a life and structure different from our own: trees, flowers, grasses, rivers, hills, clouds. For centuries they have inspired us with curiosity and awe. They have been objects of delight.” Chris Gomersall’s photos capture some of that delight.