In 2015 Canon Australia partnered with National Geographic to create a six-episode series that focused on photographers who go to great lengths to get the perfect shot. A visual feast, Tales By Light has now been picked up by Netflix, and is available for worldwide streaming.
Each episode is devoted to the work of one photographer, and director Abraham Joffe painstakingly brings to life the ecstasy and disappointment of living in thrall to the still image. The five photographers (Art Wolfe gets two episodes) showcased here are experts with dedicated interests spanning deep ocean and high mountain, with a dash of culture and anthropology thrown in.
Photography has long occupied the nebulous space between art and journalism. But the best photographs reconcile this conflict, both capturing the moment as well as articulating the photographer’s vision. This is perhaps most true in the case of nature photography, where the image derives its power from the rarity of what is on offer.
Episode one of Tales By Light follows Darren Jew, an underwater photographer who dives in the ocean near Tonga to capture humpback whales. We learn that the stunning pictures that adorn the pages of National Geographic can take hours or even days of careful preparation. The water has to be clear and the light has to be just right – but those are just hygiene factors. What should really work is a magical symmetry of motion that will give the picture a pleasing completeness.
The camera follows Jew as he goes deep into the ocean and reverts to the surface again and again, checking his work, repeatedly dissatisfied until, at last, he gets what he has been looking for: a majestic image of a whale and its calf nudging their snout against the water’s surface, their bodies aligned in almost-surreal equilibrium, the light playing enchantingly on their skin.
While the series pays heed to non-nature photographic journeys – there are episodes devoted to adventure sports and the ribald Holi of Varanasi – it is the most captivating when it focuses on man chasing beast.
In the jungles of Uganda, Art Wolfe follows mountain gorillas like a child besotted. In one scene, he is so taken with a cub that he does not notice its mother in the background. She promptly attacks his camera, and the look of fright and foreboding on Wolfe’s face makes for an intense precursor to his breaking into laughter. Sheer television gold!
Apart from the young and daring Krystal Wright, the photographers on Tales By Light are middle-aged men who have witnessed, and heartily welcomed, the rapid changes technology has wrought in their profession. With increased exposure times and the use of digital cameras, more precise and immediately viewable photos are now possible. Landscape photographer Peter Eastway approaches the densely populated penguin colonies in Antarctica without trepidation, safe in the knowledge of the bird’s benign nature and the many tricks his camera can play.
It is hard to pin down Tales By Light. Equal parts documentary and art project, it is a stunning testament to the power of the still image to capture lost and unknown worlds. But the camera can only do so much. The show is ultimately a tribute to the perseverance of the men and women who have spent their lifetime looking for that which hides from plain sight.