Articles – Angel Eyes – Writhing Elvers

Writhing elvers (1970)

Way back in 1972, I made my first trip to the Galápagos on an old schooner with just five other passengers. I can recall there were two British couples – one middle-aged and the other much younger with a popstar photographer husband.  Our sextet was completed by a lady well into her seventies whose sole aim was to tick her last penguin species – the Galápagos penguin. Once achieved, she lost all interest in the rest of the trip.

Recently I pondered how classic wildlife photos never date and continue to sell. Unlike popstars they don’t wax and wane. When a species declines it frequently hits the headlines. So, the concept for a new series of short articles for Nikon Owner magazine was born; it will look back at images that have stood the test of time. I shall outline what inspired me to take each one and why it still appeals to me. Spanning four decades, they will appear in chronological order.

Whilst researching life in estuaries, I read about the tradition for catching young eels or elvers as they migrate up the River Severn. I set off to investigate one March during a run of high ranging spring tides. The fishermen  were gathering along the banks of the river at dusk with their large-handled boat-shaped nets ready to scoop up the writhing glass eels shortly after the tide has ebbed bck down towards the sea.

Quite apart from the fact the fishing is done at night when the elvers are most active, I soon realised the only way to capture the incessant motion of the glass eels was to take them back to my studio, at that time filled with a plethora of specially designed aquaria. To reveal the gills, heart and backbone inside the transparent bodies, I lit them with two small flash units (not TTL) positioned obliquely from behind against a dark background. Attempting to compose a shot with many writhing fish is just not possible. You have to be prepared to take plenty of shots in the hope some will capture the fish not overlapping one another too much. Taken long before digital cameras were even dreamt about, the only digital enhancement has been the removal of some suspended particles in the water.

Cold blooded fish hardly have the same appeal as furry mammals and these ones are not even colourful, yet their constant motion has a mesmeric effect. You may ask who would want to use such a picture?  It initially appeared in my very first book Nature Photography: Its Art and Techniques (1972).  Since then, it has been used regularly to illustrate texts about fish migrations – whether they be general interest articles or textbooks.  In recent years, the European eel has been in the news as the numbers that migrate back to our estuaries have dropped by over 90% within the last two decades. This shot was used on an A2 poster to promote an IUCN freshwater fish group.

When I look at some of my early pictures, if I can envisage another way to capture the essential qualities of a species I will reshoot them.  In this case, I know I cannot portray more effectively the natural urge of the elvers to writhe their way upriver, so they can feed and mature as brown eels  before migrating down river as silver eels and out to sea to breed – making the reverse migration of salmon which migrate up rivers to spawn.

© Heather Angel 2013

This article is reproduced by kind permission from Nikon Owner, the magazine of the Nikon World – where it was first published.

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