THE CENTRE CANNOT HOLD
A Look at the Photographs of DAVID GULDEN
By Conor Higgins
Photographer David Gulden’s latest collection, The Centre Cannot Hold, captures the emergence and withdrawal of a world prophesied by Yeats” “The Second Coming”:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Set primarily in Kenya’s Aberdare Nature Park, the series renders an ominous vision of what may be the last decades of species like the endangered bongo antelope. The permeable “hard edge” of the park divides the church and state, the realm of fences and right angles from the world of zigzagging branches, tendons, and imbricated feathers. A floating zebra head and a dead-eyed elephant carcass are as vivacious as the caracal’s sharp, living gaze. Some photos border on abstraction, zooming so closely to fragments of dead wood or a crocodile’s maw that the viewer’s perspective is distorted as if by a wave of African heat.
Much like the elusive wildlife in his black and white portraits, Gulden himself had to adapt to the environment. He sets trigger switches deep in thick brush at night; he dangles lenses from nylon cords above eagles’ nests; he shoots irons rods attached with fishing line in an arc over crisscrossing branches, climbing a tree while gripping permits, cameras, and mounts. From these unpredictable angles, Gulden captures the startling beauty of a lioness’ gaze or the delicate brush of an eagle’s wing against a suspended lens. Eventually, however, photography itself becomes the subject of his work. In a world where technology and order intersect with (what was once) the realm of leafy chaos, a shot of iPhone-clad tourists ogling over mating mountain gorillas seems as alien as his photo of a chameleon clutching a fountain pen.
Yeats’ poem suggests that the old methods of categorization no longer apply. Gulden captures an animal’s startling individuality by intricate scars on its face, their deaths, and their wriggling tendons and feathers. In an age where technology has made photography more accessible than ever, Gulden preserves the technique that no cutting edge camera in itself can produce: patience. Out of a deep respect for the individual organism, The Center Cannot Hold recognizes that if an individual animal is to be portrayed compassionately, the artist must be willing to wait.
Conor Higgins: What first drew you to photography and especially wildlife photography?
David Gulden: Photography never pulled me, rather it followed behind me. I found myself living an interesting life–or at least I found my life interesting–and I felt I should record it. As for safari and wildlife, well, I needed an excuse to be out there.
CH: Why did you decide to use a line from Yeats’ “The Second Coming” as the title of your collection of photographs? Considering the poem’s ominous tone and description of a chaotic, post-war world, do you feel like your work deals with an apocalypse on a thematic level?
DG: The negativity is there up front and center. We’ve entered the Anthropocene, we’ve initiated the Sixth Extinction, and we keep barreling forward blind to the consequences. There is still amazing wildlife in Africa, but it can’t last. Get over there, see it while you can, mass tourism is the last hope.
CH: I’d like to expand on the intersection between technology and the fragility of the natural world. Several of your photographs seem to be as much about photography as much as they are about the wildlife. In the introduction, you write “Each subsequent morning, I hoisted the camera into place, and like a channel-surfing couch potato, I then lay on the forest floor, my hand on the wireless remote control.” The photo of the group of photographers, surrounded by a thick brush, some holding up their iPhones at the silverback also comes to mind. Do you think that as photography develops technologically (and especially photography of the natural world), something is lost in the process? In your own work, did technological advancements (like infrared beams) ever insulate you from the environment?
DG: Taking pictures is fundamentally the same as it always has been since the invention of the SLR camera–it always has been and always will be about the light. If anything technology has helped gain further insight into the natural world, think: ability to shoot in low light, remote controlled cameras, drone photography. So no I don’t think anything gets lost in the process. I do feel insulated, but that’s when I’m in my Land Rover, so much African wildlife photography takes place out of the back of 4x4s spewing diesel fumes. The irony is that many of the places that I shoot are far from being wild, where there is a lot of tourist traffic the animals become oblivious to vehicles. Driving around all day gets boring, but you get good results. Camera traps on the other hand involve getting out on foot into remote places, and operating them is very complicated. But once they’re operable the camera does all the work for you while you’re at home sipping champagne–metaphorically speaking of course–I prefer whiskey.
CH: Your work highlights the individual animals’ personalities, and seems to push away from sweeping classifications about “species.” Though the particularity of an organism (and its environment) is foregrounded, are you interested in any universality with regard to certain animals or plants? Getting back to the poem, do you think that the age Yeats describes considers a “species” to be a vague abstraction? In your opinion, does using this terminology about “genus” and “species” dilute the richness of the individual organism?
DG: I’m more interested in habitat, photographing individuals are gateways to that I suppose. I like how animals blend with their environment. I’ll take science over poetry any day, there’s nothing vague about the concept of speciation…
CH: In the introduction, you mention developing a “multiple-sensory alertness” as you spent time with the trackers. While I am sure this skill took time to acquire, did you find it strange or difficult to readjust to a more industrialized environment?
DG: When I first moved back to New York, I would walk down an otherwise empty block and if there was a lone person walking the opposite direction I would eventually have to do a last second stutter step to avoid crashing into them. But within a couple of weeks I could bob and weave around pedestrians like the best of them. Adaptability is key to every species” survival .
CH: What is the research process like before you actually travel to Aberdare National Park? To what degree does improvisation influence your work in the field?
DG: Work in the Aberdares was very focused on capturing a photograph of the endangered Bongo antelope. It took me three years to get the shot, and I never saw one in the wild. It was a camera trap that did the work. Also, many days were spent searching for active eagles’ nests…
CH: What is the role of the photographer in terms of the political situation surrounding the wildlife you are interested in?
DG: In Africa everything is politics, everything! I do my best to avoid it, but it’s difficult not to get pulled in. I am on the board of an outstanding conservation organization called Space For Giants, if that’s what you mean…
CH: One of the most interesting aspects about your latest collection is the unclear distinction between the animal and its environment. Many “subjects” in your photos seem to blur together, especially when you deal with speed. While you capture a violent or rapid movement, does the photo serve as evidence of a world that may soon disappear? Or do you think of a photo as a somewhat incomplete narrative, unable to represent the full richness of the concrete natural world?
DG: Absolutely, the animals are the works of art, not the photos. Nothing compares in beauty to the living flesh. The photos are like cheap appropriation art. Richard Prince wins again. Damn it!
Photographer David Gulden is a native New Yorker who has spent at least half of every year for the past twenty in Africa, primarily in Kenya, where he has fastidiously photographed virtually every form of wildlife across the country from the Masai Mara to Lake Turkana. His book, The Centre Cannot Hold by David Gulden, is published by Glitterati Incorporated.
Written by Conor Higgins
Photography by David Gulden & Courtesy of Glitterati Incorporated
Design by Mina Darius
Separation of church and state (animals in and poachers out): The “hard edge” of Aberdare National Park, Kenya, 2008. From The Centre Cannot Hold by David Gulden, © 2012, published by Glitterati Incorporated www.GlitteratiIncorporated.com
Two young marauding males flehmen responding (the action of testing females’ estrus cycles using the Jacobson’s Organ). Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, 2002. From The Centre Cannot Hold by David Gulden, © 2012, published by Glitterati Incorporated www.GlitteratiIncorporated.com
Mother leopard takes a late-morning nap. Itong Hills, Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, 2006. From The Centre Cannot Hold by David Gulden, © 2012, published by Glitterati Incorporated www.GlitteratiIncorporated.com
Leopard tortoise. Mara Conservancy, Kenya, 2005. From The Centre Cannot Hold by David Gulden, © 2012, published by Glitterati Incorporated www.GlitteratiIncorporated.com
Giraffe bouquet. Masai MaraNational Reserve, Kenya, 2007. From The Centre Cannot Hold by David Gulden, © 2012, published by Glitterati Incorporated www.GlitteratiIncorporated.com
Leopard tortoise shell. Langata, Kenya, 2008. From The Centre Cannot Hold by David Gulden, © 2012, published by Glitterati Incorporated www.GlitteratiIncorporated.com
Captive crocodile. Langata, Kenya, 2005. From The Centre Cannot Hold by David Gulden, © 2012, published by Glitterati Incorporated www.GlitteratiIncorporated.com
LEFT: From The Centre Cannot Hold by David Gulden, © 2012, published by Glitterati Incorporated www.GlitteratiIncorporated.com
RIGHT: David Gulden
Captive crocodile close-up. Mombasa, Kenya, 2004. From The Centre Cannot Hold by David Gulden, © 2012, published by Glitterati Incorporated www.GlitteratiIncorporated.com
Rhinos. Solio Game Ranch, Mweiga, Kenya, 2008. From The Centre Cannot Hold by David Gulden, © 2012, published by Glitterati Incorporated www.GlitteratiIncorporated.com