Art Director Lee Wheatley explains his long-term fascination with the wildlife photography of Lou Coetzer. Brutal, beautiful and boldly graphic, Coetzer’s photography of the natural world is unflinching. No surprise Darwin’s the Origin of the Species features in his inspirations!
I first came across Lou and his work at Wildphotos in 2008, and I’ve been trying to sign him ever since. Back then he showed me his portfolio, large mounted prints in a book, and I had one of those moments that happen all too rarely; I was transfixed. Seeing a lot of photographers’ work, you are always waiting for the one that transcends everything else, where its almost a mash of genres to create something new. That’s what I got from Lou’s work. There is almost a studied spontaneity (I know that’s a contradiction) to what you are seeing. Its fast and furious, yet he will catch the moment, the behavioural shot that matters. He brings that emotional depth to the image, be it the sadness and beauty of a wildebeest stampede, or the lioness snarling at her cubs.
In fact this shot sums up Lou perfectly. It is utterly relatable, you can identify with it as behavioural trait. Here is a mother keeping her offspring in check, teaching them a valuable lesson. Her ferocity belies the fact that she will defend her cubs to the bitter end. As a side note, I like the humour of the other cub trying to act all tough and get in on the act. Lou is a wildlife photographer, and then some.
Lee spoke with Coetzer to find out more:
A shot of a single object that expresses a powerful memory/event?
During the white bearded wildebeest migration in the Mara Masai Triangle in September 2013, a crossing went horribly wrong. After crossing the Mara river from Mara main in the east to the triangle for weeks on their way to the Serengeti I woke up one morning to a multitude of wildebeest as far as the eye could see making their way back to cross the Mara river but this time from west to east. This time they choose a crossing point that caused many casualties in years gone by. The entry point into the Mara was deceptively easy but when the wildebeest arrived on the other side disaster struck. The embankment was simply too steep and the only way they could get up and away was to either look for a different crossing point or to climb on top of each other. Instinct drove wave after wave to climb on top of each other killing nearly a hundred. A young wildebeest calf struggled to free it self from the pile of broken, lamed and killed wildebeest. When it finally freed itself it stood covered in mud in a total state of shock. At that very moment the next wave of wildebeest arrived, wet hides glowing in the sunlight. The hopeless calf looked at them in desperation as if to ask what the hell the adults got them into. This is not my best photograph ever taken but surely one that will forever evoke powerful memories.
Favourite photo you’ve taken, and why?
I have been thinking about this many times and I truly do not have a specific image that I have taken that is my overall favourite. At the end of every year I look back and enjoy a number of favourite images of the year gone by. I then commit myself to improving on the best ones in the year to come. The previous images are then archived mentally as well as physically.
Favourite artist/photographer/image maker?
I do not have a favourite current photographer whose work I aspire to but the photographer that had the biggest influence on my photography past and present is an 80 year old gentlemen by the name of Koos Delport. In the good old days of film photography he placed the pegs in the ground for my own photography. Technical perfection, superb lighting, and storytelling through action, interaction and behavior.
Three books that have inspired you?
The image depicts 3 books. Origin of the Species by Charles Darwin, a National Geographic Atlas of Africa and a condensed Reader’s Digest version of Jeffrey Archer’s As the Crow Flies.
I grew up in a house where both my mother and father had to work very hard to give their three sons, me being the first born, a better life that what they had. Both grew up in poverty. I was already in my late teens before I had the privilege to enjoy a first hotel meal. Family holidays were few and far between but the one thing that my dad brought home every month after pay-day was the National Geographic magazine. As a young boy paging through the National Geographic magazine I was introduced to a young man by the name the of Charles Darwin and his travels. The theory of evolution and survival of the fittest was way beyond my comprehension but Darwin’s travels to the Galapagos Islands somehow stuck with me and made me long to understand wildlife behaviour better.
As time went by the realization slowly downed on me that the nature stories being told in the National Geographic magazines were carried by strong photographs and I became fascinated by the men behind the cameras although I never really bothered to learn more about specific photographers. More so it was the fact of photography that intrigued me.
As a young adult working on a Masters Degree thesis on the relationships between theory and praxis the full impact of Charles Darwin’s work crossed my path yet again. This time around, for the first time I understood the magnitude of what Darwin did – more so in the context of the Victorian society in which he lived. Charles Darwin became a lifelong hero of mine.
In terms of my wildlife photography the only direct influence that the work of Darwin had was a hunger on my side to carefully observe and learn to anticipate behaviour. On a personal level though the full implication of Darwin’s work meant that I was caught in a life that had no future and no possibilities to grow my love of photography.
Then I read As the Crow Flies by Jeffrey Archer. The way Charlie Trumper rose from nothing, found himself a life partner and achieved success against all odds inspired me to radically change my life. I married the love of my life Veronica and photography became the cornerstone of our relationship. Together we progressed through Sports and Portrait photography to the point where we could pour all our passion and creativity in search of a Wildlife photography model that inspires us.
Lou, tell us a bit about your background in photography, why you chose wildlife as the genre of choice?
I started my professional career as a freelance sport photographer and in the process won the South African professional sport photographer of the year award. In a South Africa in the early 90s, isolated from the international world, Sports photography did not offer a viable career so at the end of every Sports season I turned to classic portraiture in the Rembrandt style to make ends meet. This lead to a career in professional portrait photography.
Today, along with my wife Veronica, I still own a upmarket portrait studio in Sandton City Johannesburg. Raising 5 kids me and Veronica used every available school holiday to take the kids to camp amongst Southern African wildlife. Wildlife photography became my hobby. By pure instinct I tried to fuse the best of the sport photography and portrait genres into a new wildlife photography model. The fusion of the portrait photographer’s constant search for exquisite light, clean backgrounds and perfect exposures with the drama, action and story telling of the Sports photographer became the basis of my professional wildlife and nature photography.
From my experience of working with wildlife photographers, there is a real dedication to the craft that goes way beyond taking the picture. Can you give us some examples of the research you put into a subject, its likely behaviour, and habitat – the preparation that goes into planning your shot (perhaps taking time to gain the trust of the animals), and skill involved in getting images that are creative, and not just illustrative.
There are roughly two types of professional wildlife photographers. The ones that have the opportunity to work on their own whether commissioned or selling their work their work successfully.
Then there are those who very rarely have the opportunity to work on their own because they earn their living by taking client out on safari and teach them the skills of the trade. I am one of the latter with a big difference. I have a burning desire to be the best at what I do and let my client take photographs way beyond their own skill levels.
In the process I envisaged the world’s first 360 degree revolving photography chair mounted on photography boats on the Chobe river in Botswana and custom photography vehicles operating across the African continent.
These unique photographic platforms not only took my clients photography to the next level but mine as well. I work hard to make sure that I know the environments I am taking my clients to are photogenic and I stay long period at a destination with clients coming and going in the process. Whenever possible I will arrive early at a destination so that I can study light, species and behaviour before my clients arrive.
When they arrive I am prepared and I work the scene hard. I tell myself that the time that my client have with, mostly his or her annual holiday is all they will have to take a year’s images. Then I apply this to myself. I need to shoot a year’s work in a week. I teach and operate a brutal 1 to 5 image rating system.
The 1 rating being an illustrative image and the 5 rating is a work class storytelling action, interaction, behaviour or graphic image. It is a no-brainer that I constantly just drive by the illustrative scenes and work the ones that I think have 5-star potential.
The set of images of the wildebeest migration, show a narrative worthy of a nature tv programme, please tell us the backstory to what is such a well executed shoot?
A week before our clients arrived in the Mara Masai Triangle, me and Veronica started. We needed to spend some time with our guides upfront and we needed to understand the potential of the different crossing points.
So for a week we worked to understand what is a good morning light crossing point, what crossing points are good for the after and what crossing points will not work for the photography that we aspire to, and should rather be avoided no matter how many animals cross at that point. That established, when the clients arrived we work the areas conducive to great photography.