“I seek not to capture anything with a photograph,” says Graham Springer. “Not the essence. Not the spirit. For, by very definition, these things cannot be captured. The essence and spirit of the places and animals that I photograph are, however, inextricable from the images that I create.” And while he photographs wildlife, Graham does not consider himself a wildlife photographer in the true sense. Rather, he sees himself as a photographic artist whose muse is the wild places and animals of the African landscape. “I try, as much as one ever can, to portray a sense of the majesty and spirit that wild places and creatures inspire in me,” he says.
It’s this sense of majesty reflected in his images which first made us fall in love with Graham’s work. Amatuli's passion for photography started in our early years but we struggled to partner with photographers who had the ability to do more than just capture an image; the ability to find the magic. We found that in Graham. Our connection with Graham was instant, not least because his roots – in Zimbabwe and the Eastern Cape – were similar to ours. It was a chance meeting but the friendship has endured and we have grown together. We're always excited to see images of Graham's latest adventure. And the man behind the lens? We asked him to tell us more about his life and his art.
Who is Graham Springer?
I was born in Zimbabwe and my first home was on the banks of Lake Kariba. My parents told stories of elephants reaching through the kitchen window to take fruit out of the fruit bowl. Throughout my childhood, my family moved around a lot and I still have a strong nomadic streak.
I have always been drawn to wild places and have a strong creative drive, so after studying at UCT, I began pursuing a career as a wildlife film maker. This soon took me to northern Botswana where I lived and worked for 12 years. After initially managing safari camps and guiding horseback safaris, I worked in wildlife film for almost a decade. I loved filming, but I came to realise that it is creating still images that holds the strongest appeal for me. Filming wildlife is thrilling and technically very challenging, but I find I have far more latitude for creative experimentation shooting stills than I do with film.
I now work full time as a photographic artist. I base myself in Cape Town, where I have my printing studio, and travel to African wilderness areas generating new imagery.
Your favourite places?
I am happy in any wild, remote location. And every area has its own unique essence. The resilience of life in the Namib desert is a stark contrast to the abundance of life in the Serengeti. But each has its own allure – both from a naturalist’s and a photographer’s point of view. The mountains and forests of east central Africa have their own tangible primal energy and the great Zambezi river system holds its own special appeal.
But, my favourite place in Africa will always be the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. Unique, ephemeral and utterly beguiling – it is one of the few truly wild areas left on our planet. It is a land of impossible contrasts. The annual flood originates thousands of kilometres away in the mountains of Angola and gently ekes itself out into the sands of the Kalahari Desert during the dry winter season. This sustains an improbably lush and verdant delta – the largest inland delta on Earth. Late in the year, when the seasonal flood has all but receded, the summer rains begin. It is a fascinating place to live and work and I feel very privileged to have lived there for so long.
Do you remember when you took your first photograph?
A very long time ago. I have never studied it formally, but the art of photography has captivated me since I was a young boy. I used my parents’ camera from a very young age and they gave me my first SLR camera when I was 12 – an old, fully manual, Pentax Asahi K1000. It was what I learned to photograph with. I still have it.
Your favourite photograph?
I haven’t made my favourite photograph yet.
How would you describe your photography style?
I photograph only for the purpose of producing prints and thus approach the craft from a fairly unique perspective within the genre. An image that works well for a magazine article is often very different to one that works well as a large print hanging on a wall. I’m far less interested in ‘capturing’ perfect portraits of wild animals or recording behaviour than I am in making engaging visual artwork using the wildlife and the landscape. Lions hunting buffalo, for example, whilst always fascinating to watch, holds very little interest for me photographically. Art, I believe, is defined at inception, and I try to make images that will appeal to people on an aesthetic and emotional level.
Your favourite subject matter?
Penguins. I also have a particular soft spot for elephants. Partly because they make very good subjects for the type of images I try to make and partly because I enjoy spending time in their presence. I tend to photograph them a lot, but I enjoy photographing any wild subjects.
Your most hair-raising experience?
I was once followed to my tent at night by two lionesses. Because they had seen me go in to the tent, they spent a good two hours trying to figure out how to get me out of it. I was alone in camp at the time and there was nothing I could do but wait it out. That was a bit uncomfortable.
Living in wild places for extended periods of time will always bring its fair share of close encounters, but you learn to deal with these as best you can.
[Rather him than us… watch one of Graham's (extremely!) close encounters here]
What do you hope a person experiences when they see your work?
I just hope that my imagery elicits some sort of emotional response. I hope that people who see my images feel something. Anything, really.
My work is very personal. Every image I make is my interpretation of a scene that I was part of. I strive to make images that interpret my subject matter in a way that has a genuine creative appeal and engages people on many different levels – aesthetically, intellectually and emotionally. My hope is that my images communicate this love for the African wilderness and that they, in turn, inspire some sense of spirit of place in those that see them.
Anything you dream of one day capturing on camera?
A penguin riding an elephant.