Selected Print


Photowisdom features commentaries from original interviews with world-leading photographers alongside exquisite reproductions of key images chosen by the artists themselves.

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 realised 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 though 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.

I believe that aesthetics is of a higher order than technique, but technique must be mastered first and relegated into the subconscious so that the photographer can concentrate on seeing. Digital photography has liberated me from many of the constraints of traditional photography, but it also encourages a less disciplined approach. So when I switched to digital, I stopped using the motor drive and decided to be very selective about when I pressed the shutter. I do not use remote cameras, preferring to rely on hand-eye coordination when taking pictures. The moment it all becomes too technical and gadget-driven, the artistry is diminished.

Picasso taught me to be less inhibited in my photographic seeing. David Hockney's photo collages went on to embrace Picasso's cubist ideas. Hockney was also vociferous about all that he perceived to be wrong with photography - its lack of layering, its single viewpoints, the unnatural distortions caused by lenses. These views are both challenging and liberating. I struggle against the limitations of my chosen medium, and that hopefully encourages me to search for new ways of understanding. 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 16 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 3km 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 bring 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.

My subject matter always changes. I am always learning how to see. I am fascinated by the notion that advancing technology is moving photography closer to painting. Photographers can now incorporate some of the ideas that were once the sole domain of painting, the same kind of ideas that spurred the birth of modern art.

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' behaviour will help photographers to know how to behave and so minimise 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 centres, 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.

I hope my images are stimulating and provocative, otherwise they cease to have a real purpose. Photographs are interpretations of experience, so I cannot help but stamp my feelings on my images, mindful of the fact that no two people will read an image in exactly the same way.

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.

© 2009 Copyright - May not be copied or distributed


The latest project from Steve Bloom has seen the photographer take inspiration from his roots to produce a comprehensive and highly personal new book devoted to Africa

Over the years we’ve come to know Steve Bloom as one of the most highly regarded wildlife photographers of his generation, but with the launch of his latest book, Living Africa, he’s moving into new territory and showing that he is equally adept when photographing people as well. The project has been a massive one and has taken six years to come to fruition, although some of the images it contains go back fully fourteen years. This is Steve Bloom paying homage to his upbringing in South Africa and his extensive experience of this great continent, and it’s no great surprise to discover how much of it has a personal feel, from the seven essays which accompany the pictures through to the choice of the subject matter which has been covered.

“It started out as a book about animals,” Steve discloses, “but as it progressed I decided that I wanted it to cover much more than that and I started to look at broadening it out so that it became more of a reflection of the continent’s culture and life, and the struggle that the human population, as well as the wildlife, has to survive at times. So I sat down to think about how I might do this, and I took into consideration some of the other books which have been published about Africa and I looked to see how I might do things a little differently.

“It would have been very easy to have looked at some of the more obvious pictorial things, such as the camel trains across the desert and remarkable sites such as the pyramids, but I wanted to come at things from a more personal angle and so I chose to look at things such as gold miners in Mozambique who were working in difficult conditions nearly three kilometres underground through to traditional fishermen in Senegal who were starting to struggle economically due to the effects of giant trawlers just offshore which were depleting the fishing stocks. I wanted to show something of the diversity of life throughout Africa and to cover things which might not have been seen so regularly before.”

The photographs in the book are fairly evenly divided between people and wildlife, and Steve has tackled both subjects in the same hard hitting, uncompromising style. Wildlife is shown in the raw, with sets of pictures, such as the sequence of lions attacking a hippo or wild dogs tearing apart a pregnant impala, being particularly hard to look at and, as it happens, pretty difficult to shoot as well. “There is a rule in Africa that you can’t interfere when animals are hunting for food,” says Steve. “That’s why you have to accept how cruel nature can be at times, because you have no right to influence it.

“I must admit however that I was particularly affected by the sequence with the lions and the hippo because in this instance the hunt was not about food but was purely behavioural. It’s very difficult to listen to an animal in distress and to not be able to help, but had I intervened then I would have been thrown out of the reserve for life. It still made me feel very uncomfortable to witness what I was seeing however.”
This same ethos of observation rather than involvement dictated Steve’s approach when he looked to document some of the people who live throughout Africa. He chose his subjects carefully and then dedicated enormous amounts of time to making sure that he achieved the pictures he required to tell his story.

“Some of the most dramatic pictures in the book depict women from the Surma and Mursi tribes who have giant plates inserted into their lips,” he says. “To reach this tribe I had to take a flight out from Nairobi to a remote landing strip in Ethiopia and then travel nine to ten hours to a camp site. From there we travelled down a river in a boat to look for where the people were and when we finally caught up with them I had no more than an hour to take the pictures I wanted, while the time scale to get me into position was more like four to five days.

“The ways these things work is that negotiation takes place on your behalf and they agree to be photographed for money; you can’t just turn up there and start taking pictures of them. I’m comfortable with that because they have things that they need money for and it’s only right that they should get something out of the process, but it does mean that they have an idea that you want something from them and it’s difficult to get pictures that look natural. When they see the camera they act like photographic models and pose for you and the toughest thing is to come away with images that have a candid feel.”

Another key shoot saw Steve shoot a festival held by the Wodaabi people, where the men of the tribe wear make up and take part in a beauty contest, the ultimate aim being for the women to come and choose a partner. “It’s that type of cultural diversity that made this project so interesting. I also covered a circumcision ceremony which is held every four years, and where the boys are not allowed any anaesthetic and have to hide any pain. I took one picture of a boy there whose mask had dropped for a moment and he was looking incredibly anxious, and it’s being able to grab moments such as this which help the story to be told.”

Heading down the gold mine in Mozambique stands out as one of Steve’s most enduring memories from the whole exercise and he recalls that even some of the hardened workers were obviously terrified as the flimsy lift cage descended at high speed for two minutes to reach the rock face three kilometres below. “It’s a very dangerous place,” he says, “and there have been accidents and fatalities there in the past. It’s also really humid and the first thing that my cameras did was to steam up and to become impossible to use. I had to wipe them constantly with a cloth which became increasingly grimy, and a lot of my initial images were out of focus.

“It was also a very challenging environment because it was so dark that it was pretty much impossible to check focus accurately. I had to rely on my Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II’s autofocus pretty much one hundred per cent, and I used flash off-centre to try to get round the problem of red eye, while the flash itself was fired into a Stofen Omni-bounce reflector to cut down on its intensity and to give the shots a more natural feel. 

“I came away from the difficult conditions in that mine and flew to Johannesburg that evening where I had dinner with friends in a nice restaurant. The contrast between the two environments was a real eye-opener for me and put my whole life into perspective.”

Many of the shots in the book have been converted to black and white, and once again, although the pictures are digital in origin, this return to monochrome represents a return to his roots for the photographer. “Some images just don’t work so well in colour,” he says. “I looked carefully at what I had and made choices of which images to convert and then printed these out on an Epson Stylus Pro 4800 printer [which features a third black ink] in a way which simulated warm duotone. The emotion created by response to a warm print is quite different to the one which is created when you show a cold print, and that’s what I was after.”

Since it was such a long term project Steve worked with a range of different equipment to get the pictures he wanted, finishing up with Canon EOS 1Ds Mark II cameras and lenses that ranged from fisheyes through to a 600mm. “The Mark III 1Ds came out just as I finished,” he says, “and so I didn’t really use this. However I have always looked at cameras as tools in any case, and my feeling is that it doesn’t really matter what you are using so long as it helps you to achieve what you set out to do. There are even some early film shots included in this book, and yet there is still continuity throughout the project.”

Clearly this has been a labour of love as well as a job for the photographer and the understanding of, and devotion to, the subject shines through on every page. It marks a new direction for Steve Bloom and marks him out as someone who intends to reach out to a still wider audience in the future.

© 2009 Copyright - May not be copied or distributed


Turning 40 can prompt many people to re-evaluate their direction and priorities in life; for Steve Bloom, the decision came to turn his back on a successful career in the graphic arts industry and become a wildlife photographer.

In the years since, Bloom, now 55, has established himself as one of the most successful and prolific photographers of his generation. He’s published several ground-breaking collections, including Spirit Of The Wild, Living Africa, Elephant! and Untamed. Bloom’s work stands out for many reasons, but is characterised by its raw power and emotional impact.

At the same time, Bloom is a master of photographic craft, and somebody who is engrossed in the deepest philosophical questions about photography and visual communication – “how you convey and interpret an experience in two dimensions,” as he puts it with characteristic economy and elegance. This combination of emotional energy and intellectual rigour helps to shape some unforgettable images, so we were keen to learn more.

From the heart

“As a child in South Africa, I’d always been interested in visual images, as well as cinema,” he explains from his home in Kent. “There was no TV in South Africa, too, as the authorities at that time had banned it, so I spent a lot of time looking at Life and other photo magazines. That’s how I got to know the work of Eugene Smith and other great photographers.”

As he got older and his interest in photography developed, Bloom began photographing the lives of people living under Apartheid. Eventually, the oppressive atmosphere of his homeland prompted a move to London in 1977.

He subsequently carved out a career in the graphic arts industry and photo labs, but decided to properly pursue his interest in wildlife photography in the early Nineties. “I’d heard you could earn good money by selling images of cheetahs running and other iconic wildlife to stock libraries, so the decision was a commercial one, too.” Bloom’s early photo expeditions did indeed prove lucrative and stock libraries began to snap up his work. So what does he think made his photos stand out in such a competitive marketplace? “I tried to work from the heart but I also had experience of working with ad agencies, so I understood how images communicated.

This in turn helped develop my aesthetic interest in wildlife photography.” Things really took off in 1996 when Bloom published a collection of his ape shots, entitled In Praise Of Primates – the book became an international bestseller.

Risky business

Bloom is very much his own man and sets himself commissions rather than relying on jobs from clients. Isn’t this a rather risky strategy in the current economic climate? “Very risky! It’s expensive and getting more expensive too. The equipment costs are not rising as fast as the cost of transport and guides. At the same time prices for images are falling, thanks in part to the negative impact that royalty-free images and micro stock services have had on the market. It’s not a volume game for me. I’ll spend a long time working on a relatively small number of images and it can be expensive.”

As mentioned, Bloom’s work is characterised by its emotional intensity – you can feel the bond he has with these animals and his fear for their threatened habitats. We wondered if this sometimes gets in the way as he encounters nature red in tooth and claw (in the introduction to Spirit Of The Wild, he writes movingly about witnessing a young hippo cry white tears as it was attacked by lions). “Not really, no. I heard about one wildlife photographer who got so emotionally caught up with his subjects, he couldn’t work. I don’t go out of my way to shoot distressing or grotesque scenes, but if something bad is happening to wildlife, people should know about it.” Bloom remains convinced that wildlife photography can make a difference in our compassion-fatigued age and cites the tremendous international feedback he receives, both from individuals and conservation organisations.

Shut your trap

As the images accompanying this interview reveal, Bloom has a genius for intimate, candid shots of wildlife. But he has no time for traps, where the animal inadvertently triggers concealed cameras via infrared beams. “I hardly ever use my SLR’s motordrive, never mind using traps!

I prefer the idea of the photographer trying to encapsulate an experience behind the lens. If photographers want to use camera traps to get close-ups of elephants and tigers that’s fine, but it’s not for me. And I get really angry when climb a new learning curve really doesn’t appeal.”

Bloom uses a mixture of flash and ambient light in the field, and mainly uses his Speedlight flashguns to fill in shadows or bring out highlights in the eyes. “Eye contact is crucial to how I work and, yes, I continue to be inspired by portrait photographers and painters in my work with animals. I love Karsh for his mastery of light, for instance, and the edginess of Diane Arbus.

Bloom keeps returning to Africa and works in very remote places. What’s been his scariest experience during his time out in the bush? “Well, I was animals are made to suffer – drugged and rigged up to cameras, for instance.”

As well as eschewing traps, Bloom tries to travel light. “But I always fail! Although digital gear is lighter than 35mm camera equipment, I still have to take two Canon SLR bodies, lenses, the laptop and so on. I’ll try to economise on my African trips by getting my guide to double up as my assistant.” He’s a dyed-in-the-wool Canon user and hasn’t been swayed by the new generation of Nikon pro SLRs. “I’ve always used the EOS system and find it to be solid and reliable.” Bloom uses a mixture of flash and ambient light in the field, and mainly uses his Speedlight flashguns to fill in shadows or bring out highlights in the eyes. “Eye contact is crucial to how I work, and yes, I continue to be inspired by portrait photographers and painters in my work with animals. I love Karsh for his mastery of light, for instance, and the edginess of Diane Arbus.

Bloom keeps returning to Africa and works in very remote places. What’s been his scariest experience during his time out in the bush? “Well, I was charged by a rhino in 2005 and once a chimp tried to grab my camera. But I’m very safety conscious, and get bothered much more by corrupt officials and dodgy border guards.”

Keep on moving

When asked about workflow and the digital darkroom, Bloom is both practical and philosophical. “It’s impossible to say how much I use Photoshop as it depends on the image and the circumstances. I guess I mainly use it to enhance tone and contrast, and I try to get the best shot I can at the time of pressing the shutter button. But I’m fascinated by the possibilities of computer technology in relation to photography… how it can enable us to ‘go into’ the scene we’re viewing, how the brain turns neurological signals into visual experiences. There’s a lot of untapped potential there…”

It’s clear that Bloom is much more than a wildlife photography journeyman, paying the bills by supplying image libraries and calendar publishers with nice pictures of lions. “I shoot what appeals to me and I’m just as happy to shoot still life as I am to shoot wildlife. I have a new book coming out about the street life of Nairobi, for instance. I don't want to be stereotyped. I’m interested in people and their stories, too, but that doesn’t mean I’m a photojournalist either. As soon as you put a label on something, you limit it.”

So if push came to shove, what image, or series of images, is Bloom most proud of? “I have to say that it’s the pictures I’m working on today for delivery tomorrow,” Bloom replies, without a hint of pretentiousness. “I have to focus on my present work or I worry that my creativity will falter. I’m always keen to move on to the next project.”

© 2009 Copyright - May not be copied or distributed