Steve Bloom from Photowisdom: Master Photographers on their Art

Our ongoing Photowisdom Series brings you the story behind the art of the world's most highly regarded photographers. This week Steve Bloom, best-known for his wildlife and conservation photography. Steve's work has been awarded The Power of Photography Award, The Golden Eye of Russia, and Lucie Awards as well as been published in Life, Time, Terre Sauvage, National Geographic, Geo, Airone, and Geographic.

Indian Elephant Swimming Underwater, Seen from Below, India.

I’ve been passionate about photography for most of my life, although I originally trained as a printer. I responded to and thought about photography from the age of eight, when I first picked up a Box Brownie.

As a child, I spent many hours looking at pictures in publications such as Life magazine. Legends like Eugene Smith were my heroes. So when Life published my own pictures many years later, it was like a dream come true.

In the 1970s, I produced documentary photographs in South Africa, which led to me leaving that country and having them published and exhibited. For many years after that I did not work as a photographer, and ran a photo lab and special-effects studio in London which serviced photographers and ad agencies. I did not return to South Africa until apartheid was abolished.

In 1993, I went on a safari holiday in South Africa and, on a whim, took a number of photographs of wildlife. I realized then that there is a lot to be learned from the natural world. We become immersed in our city lives, and the wildlife photography was a way of appreciating the diversity of life, encouraging me to adopt a less insular approach to my own personal world. It also opened my eyes to environmental issues. I hope that the pictures engender a similar effect in viewers.

My animal work started in the heyday of stock photography, before the Internet transformed the industry. The images were marketed to selected buyers at a time when demand exceeded supply, so they were very lucrative. This gave me the confidence to move into speculative photography full time, after which I started writing and photographing my own books.

Irving Penn took exquisite photographs of cigarette ends and Edward Weston photographed peppers with passion, proving that in the right hands almost any type of subject can be photographed excellently. With my own work the content changes continually. My first book was about apes. My second, Untamed, was about wildlife on all the world’s continents. For a while I became passionate about elephants, and produced two books about them. I wanted to photograph elephants in every way I could, including underwater, and so understand them in as much depth as possible. More recently, my book Living Africa was about the common thread of life permeating through all those inhabitants living in Africa, and included gold miners, remote tribes, and wildlife. It was a turning point for me, enabling me to photograph people with confidence once again. Trading Places, a more recent book, is an in-depth study of subsistence shopkeepers, people living in the slums of Nairobi. In this book, I have experimented with multiple viewpoints in a couple of images, enabling the viewer to move through time and space as the eye scans the picture.

Numerous photographers have had an accumulated influence, including Richard Avedon, Ansel Adams, Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, Don McCullin, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. I am as fascinated by the psychological makeup that drove their image-making as I am by their printmaking techniques.
When people look at pictures, they may sometimes know little about the circumstances that led to the creation of the pictures. The most challenging pictures for me are the ones that require much planning and effort, such as the elephant underwater. I travelled to India three times for those images, and worked at it relentlessly. I was working on the final images for my book Elephant! and was determined to get a unique view of an elephant swimming over me. There were many logistical problems, but I was satisfied with the results in the end. When I photographed a shark breaching the waves in its hunt for seals, I had to go out in a small boat for sixteen days, scanning the ocean. When the shark finally leapt into the air, the entire sequence lasted less than a second.

For Living Africa, I took portraits of migrant gold miners working three kilometers underground in dark, cramped tunnels in South Africa. The heat and humidity were so unbearable that the lens dripped with condensation. On another occasion, I spent two days photographing fishermen casting their nets from their boats in Mali before getting a picture I was satisfied with.

These are the types of challenges which are most rewarding. There have also been times when a great deal of effort has gone into taking photographs and the results have been failures. The combination of hard work and pleasing images brings the most creative rewards.

Sometimes there are lucky moments that are handed to me as a gift. For the viewer, such images may be equally strong, but for me they are lesser images. This could be why photographers are not always the best editors, because they see their own work differently. They are too close to their own images, and know too much.

In getting my pictures, human beings have been more difficult to deal with than the wildlife. Negotiating my way out of sticky situations is always stressful. I was charged by a rhinoceros in India. It swerved, missing me by inches. On another occasion I was in a small boat in Kenya’s Lake Turkana, which is renowned for its large crocodiles. The boat took on too much water in the wind and choppy waves, miles from the shore. We only just managed to avoid sinking after throwing containers filled with fuel and other heavy items overboard. I clung onto a month’s worth of exposed images and my camera.

Generally, I try to take as many precautions as possible. The element of risk may be calculated, but it is always there. In wild places it is essential to respect the animals’ habitat, and be mindful of the fact that the photographer is an intruder. Prior research into the animals’ behavior will help photographers to know how to behave and so minimize risk. Physical discomfort is often present.
I can’t get used to temperatures as cold as fifty below, or the fact that hungry biting insects always gravitate towards me. But then the pictures outlast any discomfort, so it is always worth the effort.
My work is environmental in its goals. My large outdoor Spirit of the Wild exhibitions have been seen by millions of people in several city centers, and I feel deeply privileged to have had the opportunity to show my work to so many. The Copenhagen exhibition alone had an official visitor count of 1.4 million. The public responded well to the exhibition which raised awareness of environmental issues such as habitat encroachment, global warming, and the endangered status of many animals.

The process of photographing is partly instinctive, subconsciously driven. I have photographed gold miners toiling in harsh conditions, remote African tribes clinging onto their cultural identities, and people trying to survive in city slums. I am deeply concerned by what I see and hope that shows in the pictures. I also deliberately go for eye contact and anthropomorphism when photographing animals, because when we see ourselves in others, we are less likely to abuse them.
Karo Tribesmen Dancing, Wearing White Chalk Body Paint, Omo Delta, Ethiopia.

Charging Indian Rhino, Kaziranga, Assam, India.

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