IN THE BLINK OF AN EYE

Pho­tog­ra­pher Tim Flach’s as­tound­ing im­ages of our most threat­ened species

Weekend Herald - Canvas - - FRONT PAGE -

If you’ve never heard of the saiga, the smooth-fronted caiman or Sloane’s ura­nia, don’t worry — you may not need to learn their names. They are all at risk of ex­tinc­tion and among more than 90 threat­ened species of all shapes and sizes that fea­ture in En­dan­gered, a mon­u­men­tal new book by Bri­tish pho­tog­ra­pher Tim Flach. Also in­cluded are many more fa­mil­iar an­i­mals whose vul­ner­a­ble sta­tus will be a sur­prise to some — among them, the lion, the monarch but­ter­fly and the African ele­phant.

Flach is known for pho­tograph­ing an­i­mals us­ing the tech­niques of hu­man por­trai­ture, aim­ing to cap­ture the per­son­al­i­ties of his sub­jects. The in­ten­tion is to break down bar­ri­ers be­tween them and us in or­der to cre­ate a sense of con­nec­tion that will bring home to view­ers not just the beauty but the im­por­tance of th­ese be­ings in the greater en­vi­ron­men­tal scheme of things.

When Can­vas rang the pho­tog­ra­pher, it was early on a Lon­don morn­ing but Flach was al­ready at work try­ing to get the feath­ers right in a large print that will fea­ture in an ex­hi­bi­tion based on the book, open­ing in Lon­don next month.

Given its global scope and am­bi­tion, it’s no sur­prise that scale is a prom­i­nent fea­ture of

En­dan­gered. It weighs in at just un­der 3kg and on its 375mm x 250mm pages tiny beast­ies such as the olm and kaiser’s newt are de­picted at the same size as the likes of the white rhino and po­lar bear.

It’s a de­lib­er­ate strat­egy. “You don’t want peo­ple to turn a page and feel they’ve worked it out and can pre­dict it,” says Flach, who in­tended the book to have its own rhythm.

“It’s like any art form — you have to have mo­ments of quiet­ness in mu­sic, and in im­agery there’s both am­bi­gu­ity and clar­ity. There are things that look very fa­mil­iar, and then there’s: ‘What’s that funny thing with the long nose?’”

An­thro­po­mor­phism has been out of fash­ion for some time now, so why the em­pha­sis on per­son­al­ity in th­ese por­traits? In his in­tro­duc­tion, Flach quotes bi­ol­o­gist Ge­orge Schaller to the ef­fect that “you can do the best science in the world but un­less emo­tion is in­volved, it’s not re­ally very rel­e­vant”. Telling peo­ple the apoc­a­lypse is upon us is one thing; get­ting them to care about it is an­other.

“It’s im­por­tant for me to con­nect peo­ple with a per­son­al­ity,” says Flach, “whether it’s a sense of vul­ner­a­bil­ity or an­other el­e­ment. It could be an in­ci­den­tal de­tail or metaphor. It could be that the fire­flies in the for­est re­mind you of Avatar or Poke­mon.”

This can oc­cur in un­ex­pected ways, but al­ways with a con­nec­tion to some­thing hu­mans can ap­pre­ci­ate. “For ex­am­ple,” says Flach, “there’s a bit of lichen that’s ab­stract but might re­mind you of maps. Or you could be look­ing at frog’s eggs and think­ing that looks like an em­bry­onic child. You’re trans­ported to a more emo­tive el­e­ment, even though they’re still frog’s eggs.”

So find­ing the per­son­al­ity and in­ter-species links was a large part of his chal­lenge, as was con­nect­ing th­ese to the wider theme of the links be­tween all liv­ing things and be­tween the liv­ing crea­tures and their habi­tats, which is why the lat­ter also fea­ture ex­ten­sively in the im­ages.

“Some con­nec­tions take longer than others to find. Some­times you stum­ble on them. I asked peo­ple who are much more knowl­edge­able than I what they thought the main sto­ries were, and ob­vi­ously, cli­mate change and habi­tat loss are be­com­ing the cen­tre of con­ser­va­tion thought. You can, as a last re­sort, have an ark but it’s not a long-term so­lu­tion be­cause many an­i­mals have adapted uniquely to their en­vi­ron­ments.”

The pho­tos are also in­tended to show some more sub­tle con­nec­tions. Although “we like things that are fear­some, cute or sym­bolic”, we need also to ap­pre­ci­ate the likes of bee­tles that turn soil or vul­tures that play a role in the heath in coun­tries where they eat car­rion that could breed dis­ease. Where vul­ture pop­u­la­tions have de­clined, dis­eases are on the in­crease.

For Flach as an artist, the prac­ti­cal con­sid­er­a­tions in­cluded many he’d not en­coun­tered be­fore: “I’m used to hav­ing con­trol of my light­ing and mod­els, but when they are on the edge of ex­tinc­tion they’re not quite as avail­able. I had to wait 10 days to get a fire­fly shot in Ja­pan and make two trips to fol­low the an­te­lope with a funny nose like an an­i­mal from the can­teen in Star Wars, which can’t be found in cap­tiv­ity be­cause it doesn’t keep in con­tained ar­eas.

“I’m not a diver but I did go div­ing for the im­ages of sharks. The main chal­lenge was al­ways to keep on track with the main idea, which was to con­nect us with the sto­ries of what’s hap­pen­ing to the nat­u­ral world and speak about how we are af­fect­ing it — not to only de­press peo­ple about the likes of the last white rhino, but to cel­e­brate a sense of won­der­ment about the an­i­mals and beauty.”

Monarch but­ter­flies

Sea an­gel

EN­DAN­GERED BY TIM FLACH (THAMES & HUD­SON, $90).

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