Interview | Harry Skeggs
British fine art photographer Harry Skeggs is currently presenting his latest work at Clarendon Gallery, Mayfair. Beyond documents expeditions Skeggs has made in the last year to the Antarctic peninsula, South Georgia and the Falklands, as well as to Alaska. On these expeditions, Skeggs captured images which embrace the spontaneity of the animals which inhabit these dramatic landscapes. The exhibition coincides with the launch of a documentary exploring Skeggs’ practice, and the realities of shooting in such difficult climates.
The animals and their comfort are central to your work. How would you usually prepare a shot, given that you do not pose or bait animals
Much of what I do it about pre-visualisation, mentally preparing the shot long before the opportunity presents itself. A successful photo needs a sense of narrative, and this must be clear in my head before I take a step off the plane. Not only does this focus your eye to a very specific scene, but it gives an image its authenticity – it means I am proactively looking for a scene not reacting to one. Too often you see narrative applied retrospectively after the event and this often feels contrived.
Whilst in the field, having an understanding of the nature, body language and habits of the subject is essential. This helps you predict what might happen ahead of time and prepare accordingly, greatly increasing the probability of success. I am also constantly assessing windows around me where I would like to shoot my subject so, if they act according to plan, I am ready to seize the opportunity. These together allow me to construct an image that has all the threads I am looking for, whilst ensuring the subject remains at total ease, something that is profoundly important to me.
There will be a film on your artistic process and expeditions debuting alongside this exhibition. What did you hope to achieve when you were approached to make this documentary?
I am strongly of the belief that there is much more to wildlife fine art than simply aesthetics. Everything that goes into making a work is a part of the fabric that makes it art. So, when we discussed making a documentary, I was keen for people to witness my mantra of ‘wild and free’ in practice, working with animals on their terms to show them in all their beauty, all the more so for being in their natural habitat and displaying their natural behaviour. I also wanted audiences to see my process, as I discussed in the previous question, where the narrative informs the image, rather than vice versa. In doing so, I hope people can see through the surface of the images and see for themselves both the passion for wildlife and authenticity of my work, with the aim that audiences can garner a richer understanding of my work and why, I hope, it matters.
Your work has led you to places which are, whilst perfect for penguins, not very hospitable for humans. How do you find working in these conditions?
Spending time with animals in the wildernesses they call home is, for me, one of the greatest privileges of my life. This makes the remote and inhospitable corners of our planet a joy for me. Of course there are challenges and discomforts, but these honestly pale in comparison and, if anything, push me harder. People often ask me if I am ever scared when facing, say, tiger sharks or lions but the truth is animals, as well as the harsh environments they live in, are predictable when treated with respect. With the right amount of research and deference, they should never cause any real threat to life. I have never had a dangerous encounter with an animal, and I believe I never will for that reason.
Although your key subjects are the animals, it is inevitable that the landscapes of the places you visit makes a part of your practice. Recently you have mentioned that climate changing is having an impact on your practice and on the animals you photograph. Would you like to talk a little bit about this in regard to your recent expeditions?
Increasingly landscape is playing a pivotal role in my work. In a time of climate disaster, to remove the subject from its habitat is to lose half the story. As you say, this is making a wildlife photographer’s job more difficult than ever before – no longer are seasons predictable, or wildlife sightings reliable. A year before there can be 100,000 nesting Adele penguins in a location and, a year later these can all but disappeared – an exact scenario we witnessed in Antarctica as an unseasonably warm summer meant their nesting ground of ice had vanished. This makes planning a trip incredibly hard But, just as this has made the job more difficult, it has also made it more relevant than ever – it’s down to us to be the voice for the voiceless and it’s my hope that in my work, and by partnering with incredible charities like WWF and Tusk, I can make a difference to the animals I am fortunate enough to spend time with.
This exhibition comprises some of your previous work as well as pieces from your most recent expeditions. What was it that led you into the world of nature photography and can you see it in these images?
I was an animal lover long before I ever picked up a camera. I grew up in a family that valued animals as equal members of the family and I was surrounded by dogs that had such deep and distinct personalities that I realised, at a very young age, that all animals are sentient, intelligent and possess a soul, in so far as we do. At times I suspect more so. An upbringing I wouldn’t change for the world. So, in my early forays into photography, it was clear to me that all I wanted to shoot was wildlife, but more importantly it was clear that my work had to be more “for’ wildlife than ‘of wildlife. This is something that still burns very strongly in my approach and imagery. I would rather have one photo of an animal at complete ease than one hundred award winning pieces where a subject had been put at risk. Christine Riding, the curator of the National Gallery, once said that my work had a profound sense of calm – and I believe this is why because my subjects are exactly that. Knowing this means much more to me than any successful piece.
To learn more about Skeggs’ practice, visit skeggsphotography.com, or follow him on Instagram, @harryskeggs. You can visit Clarendon Fine Art, 46 Dover Street, London, Mon – Sat, 10am – 6pm.
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