Tuesday, June 09, 2009


A review of With the dawn by Neville Weeraratne
A passionate affair with wild life
I have been in many minds as to whether it is appropriate for me to comment on this collection of wild life photography by the doyen of wild life photographers, Nihal Fernando; and the running commentary by one I can only describe as a kindred spirit, Herbert Keuneman.
My problem has been compounded by the fact that I was invited to write an introductory note for the book on these two paragons of their craft. But what I did say were generalisations, portraits of Nihal and Herbert painted with a very broad brush indeed. However, it is not possible to allow the publication of a book of this order to go unnoticed; hence, what follows.
The enjoyment of wild life is not universal. It is, I suppose, as much a matter of taste as it is of love. I have known people who have been bored out of their wits at the thought of a fleeting glimpse of a leopard as it slinks into the undergrowth, or at the long, inevitable wait to see a herd of elephants gamboling in a water-hole. Such revelations of beauty are, perhaps, the preserve of a privileged elite, a bourgeois past-time for the idle rich to indulge in? I think not. I believe that an appreciation of all forms of life in its natural setting is an essential facet of the total, civilised human being.
And the patience, the taste, the sheer devotion to such a pursuit is an expression of the highest art, nothing less than an act of worship.
‘With the Dawn’ then, is a sacred text in which Nihal pays homage to all manner of creatures, some great and others small. His eye has ever been open to all the wonders of our world. It has always been selective and discriminating, and by cautiously choosing those images alone that express this sense of wonder he has made many, perhaps thousands of photographs that are profound and exceptional. Consider Nihal’s 1986 publication, ‘The Wild, The Free, the Beautiful’, or the much later and more comprehensive ‘Sri Lanka: a Personal Odyssey’ (1997).
The present publication is based on an exhibition put together by Studio Times and seen at the Lionel Wendt Gallery in 1973. In a note by Anu Weerasuriya (who stakes no claim as its editor), she explains how this collection came about. It begins with Nihal, the photographer and Herbert, his friend, arriving one Sunday morning at the studio. We see them in the act of creating a passionate narrative, Herbert’s eye, just as swift and discerning as Nihal’s, telling the story of a day in the jungle.
The photographs were laid out on the floor and by a process of elimination and of deliberate choice, Herbert designed a sequence of images that was to make up the exhibition. He then composed the written text, often in single, monosyllabic words, brief and unobtrusive, at other times extended to complete the grammar of the experience.
All this is now here in this publication, more than thirty years after they were first seen.
There is, however, a fundamental difference between the dimensions of a photographic print and the inevitable economy of the printed page. The format chosen for ‘With the Dawn’ by its designer, Eranga Tennekoon is 170mm x 180mm, almost a perfect square. Therein lies the problem. It diminishes the impact of the images because, often enough, they have to be reduced to fit into the available space.
There can be no doubt about it: clearly, the bigger the print the greater its impact.
There is also the fact that a photographic print produced in the dark room can be so treated as to obtain certain basic qualities, black and white prints that are the deepest black and the purest white with a range of greys in between. These are qualities which it is the photographer’s prerogative to develop. This is what you would get at an exhibition.
Once this has been achieved and the work is passed on to the printer, the pictures become dependent upon that person’s sensitivities and his technical competence. In the process of reproduction, such being the state of the art, much is lost.
Having said that, the point has to be made that ‘With the Dawn’ is a delight, lovely to see and to hold. It is beautifully designed and presented. It is innovative too, in the plan used by the designer: the publication history and introductory notes are at the end of the book rather than at the beginning, leaving the reader to first encounter the pictures, which is, after all, what the book sets out to show.
The decision of Studio Times to publish this collection of photographs is a wonderful act of faith. It is the certain means by which one of Nihal Fernando’s perennial enthusiasms can be met, his unabated insistence on the need to conserve a sacred inheritance, the wild life of Sri Lanka. I think it is correct to say that Nihal’s devotion to this idea has been his life’s single preoccupation as much as it has been to preserve the bounty of nature as it is manifest in his beloved island, one that survives in the face of an ever-increasing rape of the countryside.
His is a lone voice, like that of the prophet, crying in the wilderness -- but for the appearance of this book. It speaks for like-minded people.

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