Nature is what is—all the things and forces existing at a given time. A ton of iron extracted from the earth, refined, shaped into an I beam and woven into the skeleton of a high-rise apartment building is no more or less a natural wonder than a badlands butte. Yet in practice, Nature with the big N—the thing so many want to love, protect and be uplifted by these days—is only a phenomenon manufactured and defined by man. From an almost infinite number of possibilities we have selected a handful and declared them to be nature. For example, the whooping crane, though almost extinct and living as a ward of man, has come to be a kind of shorthand symbol for nature. The cockroach, on the other hand, which is more than holding its own in competition with man, is a wild and independent animal, but it is seldom admired by nature lovers or even commonly associated with nature.
There is no objective standard for determining what is part of nature, but nearly everyone has strong subjective feelings about what is nature and what by implication is unnatural. We feel as we do because we have accepted the word of self-styled authorities on the subject. Early New England poets and essayists, who thought highly of lonely seascapes, bosky glades, clear brooks and shy woodland beasts, got in some heavy licks in this area. A variety of 19th- and 20th-century artists and writers—Wilson, Audubon, Bodmer, Catlin, Thoreau, Burroughs, Muir, Seton, Krutch—wandered about the continent and came back to tell us what was instructive, beautiful and rare in nature. Artists and writers of this sort are still with us, but to a considerable degree they have been superseded as arbiters of nature fashion by photographers.
In much more glorious color, more intimate detail and more dramatic action, the best nature photographers have captured for us things their predecessors could not. In fact, the photographers have often propagandized for nature, shown it to be more attractive and charming than most people have observed it or imagined it to be. This is not to say that, with the exception of an occasional tranquilized beast, posed corpse or transplanted flower, the photographers have manufactured nature. It is just that with their artist's eye and sophisticated equipment they have lighted, composed and stopped nature at its best—at least from the viewpoint of conventional esthetics. Also, being professionals, they have had the time to develop field techniques for finding the most interesting subjects—say the female raccoon followed by three cubs foraging along a clear stream against a background of rhododendron, the kind of thing that the majority of us no longer have the opportunity or the skill to experience personally.
The photographers have done more than simply satisfy our appetite for coffee-table books or full-color magazine spreads. They have helped create this appetite, giving us a new awareness of the true majesty of nature and fostering in us a desire to conserve and protect it. Today large numbers of citizens are passionately interested in saving beauty spots, wildernesses and wildlife. But many of them never will see the objects of their concern. These things, their desirability emphasized, have only been witnessed through the lens of the photographer's camera. In a certain sense—and no cynicism is intended—the object of many conservation battles is not to keep the rascals out of nature but out of nature photographs.
To the extent that they define what is beautiful and worthy of preservation, the photographers are opinion makers of considerable influence. The principles and prejudices of the most influential of these men may be as important to society as those of the average advertising executive, television commentator or politician.
Here are the thoughts and seldom-expressed philosophies of three of America's distinguished nature photographers.
As a profession, nature photography enjoys a good reputation these days, particularly among restless youth. All across the land, riding their thumbs, marking time on irrelevant campuses, rapping in youth bistros, there are ponytailed young men and women who—along with a set of tie-dyes and a guitar—own a Nikon, Leica or Rollei. An inordinate number of them say they intend to become nature photographers once they get everything together. On the surface, it would seem to be a calling that permits a groovy life-style. It appears that the nature photographer is free of the restrictions that mar many other vocations and make them grubby. He roams freely about the pleasanter parts of the countryside. (Nature is everywhere, or at least everywhere that man is not much in evidence.) He is an artist, so he can enjoy the pleasures of self-expression, yet the feeling is that taking these pictures does not require special talent or arduous training. The photographer has no visible bosses telling him what to do and when to do it, and he does not have to hassle with people to do his thing. Being a nature photographer has the same kind of appeal for the young today as being a foreign correspondent had for their counterparts in the 1930s.
Doug Faulkner is a short, muscular, well-barbered man of 35 who lives in a home with a patio and landscaped garden in the affluent bedroom community of Summit, N.J. However, in many other respects Faulkner leads the kind of life that romantically inclined, would-be nature photographers dream of. He is one of the best at underwater nature photography. He has established his reputation in what would seem to be a most delightful way. For more than 10 years he has circled the world taking photographs of things that strike him as magnificent, curious or instructive. Since 1962 he has worked in Mexico, all the Central American countries, Peru, Ecuador, New Caledonia, Fiji, Palau, Bali, Ceylon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, Australia, Portugal, Japan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Scotland.
On this spring evening Faulkner is in his Summit study, shuffling through a pile of photographic and diving gear. He is in the process of packing to leave for the Galapagos Islands where he will spend two weeks photographing marine life for Audubon magazine. Another mound of shipping crates and cartons litters the hallway. These boxes are awaiting shipment to Palau; Faulkner will go there after the Gal�pagos. The photographer moves about the house restively, like a bird of passage, attempting to explain himself and his work.