The Trusty, Trusted Camera

Welcome to the latest in a series of posts about wildlife films and their representation of nature.  New readers can catch up with an introduction to the history of wildlife films, Disney’s True-Life Adventures or Disney’s more recent foray into big screen family-friendly wildlife documentaries.

In this post I’ll be rewinding back to the precursor to wildlife filmmaking: photography. Concern about a film’s authenticity or the decisions of particular filmmakers are in line with a much older discourse regarding the authenticity of photographs of animals, and with the prevalence of professional and amateur photographers today, publishers walk a fine line between disclosing the gory details (which nowadays include staging, rented animals, and Photoshop) of how certain shots were obtained and losing an audience expecting the increasingly spectacular between the pages of National Geographic.

Picture theory is a useful guide in our quest to understand how such photographs have historically been interpreted. Even though the camera was an instrument trusted to investigate the natural world scientifically,1 the characteristics of photography’s visual medium were such that elements other than what a picture is a picture of had consequences for the image produced. Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film is based on his observation that the image of a photograph is “a compromise product” between the physical object photographed and the photographer’s craft, between physical reality and picture-maker’s ability.2 In Rudolf Arnheim’s “On the Nature of Photography”, he emphasized that knowledge of the mechanical origin of a photograph affects the viewer’s experience in terms of the image’s connection to the world being depicted, but also that for photographs to make sense they ought to be understood as an encounter between “man and world”, where physical reality grounds man’s creative expression, which in turn elevates and transforms the world.3 Finally, Jonathan Crary argued in Techniques of the Observer that in looking at a photograph we bring assumptions about what is depicted, which can be exploited in various misrepresentations. To be an observer is in effect to be a rule-follower, seeing according to a prescribed set of possibilities which are embedded within a system of conventions.4

These characteristics of photography as a visual medium are equally true of film: footage produced by multiple images retains the man-world connection and the connotations of faithful mechanical production, as well as rules for its viewers to follow, especially as sub-genres such as wildlife films developed their own conventions.

There is, in addition, one element of picture theory that will be especially relevant to an inquiry into the trustworthiness of wildlife filmmakers. In “On the Nature of Photography” Arnheim produced a 3-axis categorization dealing with a photograph’s “documentary qualities” that translates well to analyzing wildlife film:

[…] we ask three questions: Is it authentic? Is it correct? Is it true? Authenticity, vouched for by certain features and uses of the picture, requires that the scene has not been tampered with […] the lion is not taken in front of a painted oasis. Correctness is another matter; it calls for the assurance that the picture corresponds to what the camera took; the colors are not off […] Truth, finally, does not deal with the picture as a statement about what was present in front of the camera but refers to the depicted scene as a statement about facts the picture is supposed to convey. We ask whether the picture is characteristic of what it purports to show.5

If an authentic scene is one which has not been tampered with, then staging photographs, building enclosures or using tame animals in the wild counts as inauthenticity. Correctness has to do with whether the viewer perceives the same physical scene that took place in reality: if colors were changed in editing, for example, the image would not count as correct. Finally, truth is the criterion dealing with what the scene tells you explicitly about its content. Misleading descriptions or secrecy about events that took place before the shot was taken to generate behavior would not count as true for Arnheim. Often scenes can be both inauthentic and untrue, if for example a scene is staged with tame animals and the description explicitly describes it as conveying a natural, unaltered scene of wild behavior. This is alleged to have taken place in the case of José Luis Rodriguez’s “Storybook Wolf” (seen below) which won the UK’s Natural History Museum’s prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year award for 2009; the picture was later disqualified when the judges decided that he used a tame wolf from a Madrid animal park (via The Guardian).

According to wildlife photographer Les Line, editor of Audubon magazine between 1966 to 1991, ‘‘Nature fakery has been going on in photography since the days of glass plates. The earliest issues of Audubon [circa 1903] tried to pass off photos of stuffed birds as live ones. That’s minor compared to what’s been happening since.”6 Audubon, National Geographic and other publications which document wildlife photographically contend with pictures that Arnheim would consider neither authentic, correct, nor true: photographers employ game farms such as Animals of Montana to supply photogenic captive animals on cue, color and imperfections can be digitally altered, and the results are passed off as untouched photographs of wildlife. Conservation advocate Ted Williams opines that the available options to photographers and publications who want to improve transparency in wildlife photography are difficult to implement:

Of course, a photo of a tame animal isn’t a lie if it is clearly identified as captive […] But what is full disclosure? Is full disclosure a caption that says “controlled conditions”? What are controlled conditions? Is full disclosure a photo credit that says “captive”? In a few situations, where format precludes captions, maybe that’s as close as possible. But credits often go unread.

These same issues faced wildlife filmmakers as the genre developed, and as will be illustrated in future posts, claims about the trustworthiness of the filmmaker became a guarantee of authenticity7 of footage of wild animals both in terms of the virtues of their character and the kind of endorsement they could receive from scientific institutions.

  1. Winston, Brian. The Documentary Film as Scientific Inscription. In Theorizing Documentary, ed. Michael Renov, 37-57. (New York: Routledge, 1993), 41-42.
  2. Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film (1960). In Arnheim, Rudolf, “On the Nature of Photography” Critical Inquiry, 1:1 (1974: Sept.) 157-58.
  3. Arnheim 156, 159
  4. Crary, Jonathan. Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1990), 6.
  5. Arnheim, 157.
  6. Williams, Ted. “Picture Perfect,” Audubon March-April 2010. Available
  7. While Arnheim employs the term “authentic” to mean that the scene has not been tampered with, the discourse of the wildlife film genre’s documentary qualities uses the term to include other kinds of fakery or artifice. Situations that Arnheim would consider incorrect or untrue are described by historians, scientists and film critics as “inauthentic.”

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