A good photograph is one that communicates a fact, touches the heart, leaves the viewer a changed person for having seen it. ~ Irving Penn
A photograph’s true essence is visceral: How does it make you feel? What does the image inspire? It’s an impression that defies pixel peeping — where the mood and meaning of a photo can be crushed in a haze of digital noise, scrutinized at 100 percent.
Technical critique can be limiting and overstated. But there are those photographers who can meld the genuine spirit of a photo — with its pixel-perfect beauty. Glenn Nevill is one such person.
I came upon Glenn’s work, as do many people, while learning about the Peregrine Falcons living in downtown San Francisco. The Santa Cruz Predatory Bird Research Group Project (SCPBRG) has a web cam that documents each year’s Peregrine nesting cycle on the PG&E Building.
Glenn is a fixture among the falcons now, documenting, as he has for five years, their life trajectories — from their juvenile banding operations, through their young adult escapades. They skirt the high rises, bridges, windows and zephyrs that comprise the sky over our city. And Glenn keeps photo diaries of the birds as they navigate the byways of the Bay.
“There is life or death drama occurring directly over your head,” Glenn told me in an email exchange. “All you have to do is look up to see it.” He notes that it took decades of “hard work by thousands of people to bring the Peregrine back from the brink of extinction. I want to keep these birds in the public eye, to celebrate their recovery and to give us something positive to point to. With all the bad environmental news, we need reminders of our successes.”
His work toward this end has paid off in many ways, the most tangible being public awareness. “Today when I am out on the street with my camera, people that don’t know me will come up and ask, ‘Are you looking for the falcons?’ Five years ago they asked, ‘what are you looking at?’ So I think the publicity the birds have gotten has really made a difference. I’m glad to have been a small part of that effort.”
It was an effort that began for him when he noticed a new world, just beyond the glass panes — right about the time he went digital. “Finding peregrines nesting right outside my office window was a critical piece of synchronicity as it occurred at the time of my digital camera acquisition. . . . [Digital] freed me from the cost and time that film takes.” Digital photography+falcons — combined with the ease of uploading digital images — sealed his photographic future.
Perusing Glenn’s photography website you’ll see his well-known Peregrine images, along with a variety of other birds he’s photographed over the years. The photo diaries also contain poignant reminders of why conservation is a critical component of our relationship to wildlife. As he documents the astonishing triumphs of the Peregrines’ lives, he also shares the sorrows — when the challenges of growing up and fledging are simply too much for the young raptors.
Last year was the first time I followed the daily video feed of the city’s falcons. It was a year of awesome discovery but also one filled with genuine travail. Travail took the form of your typical urban hazards. The young male Peregrine (tiercel) fledged and struck a window. He died shortly after leaving the nest. None of the fledglings survived last year in the canyons of the Financial District. It was abject grief for us first-time nest cam viewers.
Glenn confirms that “the chief hazard falcons and other birds face in the city is bird unsafe building design. Too many Peregrine fledglings die from window collisions and millions of migratory birds die every year from this as well.”
Because of the myriad obstacles facing all of wildlife and nature, Glenn combines his photographic vision with an innate belief in conservation and appreciation of — as he says — “all that we hold dear on this planet.” It’s a powerful combination, providing beauty concurrent with environmental understanding. In this way, a photograph can transcend its physical limitations by showing us precisely what we have — and what we stand to lose if we don’t care for our natural spaces.
For those who aspire to a similar focus in their art, Glenn suggests this: “Photograph what you love. Your passion will come through in your photography. Know your equipment and learn as much as you can about technique and composition. Study what others are doing. Join one of the online nature photography groups like birdphotographers.net or naturescapes.net and submit your work there for comment. You’ll learn a lot and improve quickly. Find a nature organization that fits your interests and join it. I list several in my links page but there are lots out there. We can accomplish more together than alone.”
I asked Glenn what singular message he would impart to anyone who stops by to look at his photos:
“I hope to inspire others to care about the world, experience nature first hand, and find a way to contribute to the conservation of wildlife and the environment.”
As one who aspires to the pixelated excellence that marks Glenn Nevill’s photography, I’ve found that you can’t help but feel protective of our wild animals when you spend hours studying and documenting their lives. If photography can, indeed, “explain man to man,” as Edward Steichen once said, then what better medium to explain non-human to human?
My sincere thanks to Glenn Nevill for his picture portal to the world of Peregrines and beyond. His photographs have increased my appreciation for San Francisco’s raptors and the many other denizens of the urban wild.