David Gulden is a good host. That was the first thing I learned about him when I stepped into his union square apartment and he proceeded to offer me some earl grey tea before giving me a tour of the place. He just got back from Africa, a place where he has spent the better part of ten years taking photos for his amazing new book, The Center Cannot Hold. He’s been busy experimenting with his own printing set up, is trying to get into a gallery somewhere, and also will be flying back to Kenya after only staying in New York for a week. This is a man who has had a lot of time to think about the subject matter of his photographs and I was more than happy to pick his brain.
The title of your book comes from a William Yeats poem titled “The Second Coming”. What is the significance of that poem on your work in this book, specifically the “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” line?
The title, The Center Cannot Hold is the line that comes directly after “Things fall apart,” which is also the title of a very famous and historical novel by Achebe, the Nigerian writer. It talks about a village in Nigeria, the coming of colonialism and all the problems that it brought. Fast forward to my book, The Center Cannot Hold, it’s the next line in the poem and it represents the same sort of negativity in a sense. If Achebe’s book is about the destruction of local culture because of colonialism, my book is about the destruction of nature from globalization and how these animals are getting pushed out. There’s just less habitat and overall it’s a sad story. The Poem itself is rather vague, but it’s a very profound poem and I think the poem was written at a very interesting time, at the end of World War One, where things looked very bleak for the whole world after a very destructive war. There is a lot of negativity there and a lot of energy. I think about the wilderness in Africa, it’s in a tough place and it has a very tough future and I think it’s well represented in that poem. There is another part of the title, which is that as these wilderness areas in Kenya, or Africa or anywhere in the world rather, is just getting smaller and smaller and what we find is little pockets or islands of nature and those islands, even if their protected, their just not as vibrant, their biology is not as dynamic, their just not as robust as they were when they were pieces of a larger nature. That is the theory of biogeography and it was co-founded by a guy named Edward O. Wilson, probably our most famous scientist who is from Harvard. It’s kind of hard to bring it to life but if one book could, it would be The Song of the DoDo by David Quammen. We have these beautiful, beautiful wildernesses that are just becoming these little islands and even within the protected areas, it’s just not going to be as vibrant, as dynamic as they were when they were part of a larger ecosystem.
At times, you spent years attempting to get one perfect photograph. Can you tell me about the experience of waiting that long to fulfill an artistic desire so strong?
Yeah that’s the game of nature photography, it’s a waiting game and it takes patience. The defining factor is time, no matter what your creative vision is, what your skill level is, time is the one thing that is greater than all else. I spend about two percent of the time photographing and ninety-eight percent of the time finding animals to photograph. The one animal for me that was particularly difficult, that I didn’t even see with my own eyes, [the photograph] was captured by a camera trap, was the mountain bongo. This was an animal that was thought to be extinct in the wild; there is less than one hundred total in all of nature. It took about three years to get this photograph; we would hike out once a week to check these cameras. There was a lot of disappointment, but finally we got a shot of this incredible animal and hopefully that photograph will last forever.
You spent uncountable hours honing into your own primal instincts to capture photographs like those. How did you prepare for these moments?
There is so much local knowledge involved. My photography skills only get me so far, I really had to rely on the people who live in these areas and are in the know. We always talk about Tenzing Norgay, who helped Hillary climb Everest. Everyone has a similar character or group of characters that help and that was the difference. In photographing the mountain bongo, I got involved with some conservationists who directly aid in conserving this animal. There was also a researcher who was working on a doctorate on the mountain bongo. He became a good friend of mine. This person who was studying the mountain bongo did a year of field work in this national park and did not see one once. That’s how hard it is to see one. This guy who did a year of field work and has a PhD on the animal. It just describes how difficult they are to see. Finally I had some really good trackers, guys who used to be poachers but are now employed by conservationists. They are the ones who are indispensable. They know the animal’s habits and they know the footprints. They are the ones who really brought me in and helped me set up the camera traps.
Did that change you as a person in any way, having to become more of a primal being?
I would say that overall, my experiences in Africa have forced me to become a better person by becoming more primitive in a way. It definitely brought out the better part of my nature. Maybe not one individual photograph but just the entire adventure that started when I was fifteen and my father introduced me to the wilderness there and it’s been going on ever since.
There is a clear movement in The Center Cannot Hold from life, to death. Was it always a goal to represent both sides of this essential process?
You want to show people nature and a lot of these photographs end up as beautiful shots of these animals but that’s not even half of it. Most of the story is that we have these beautiful animals and no one knows if in fifty or a hundred years that these animals are even going to exist. There is this negative side to it. If I had my way there would be even more dead animals in [the book]. You have to have the Yin and the Yang together. There is a lot of harmony in some of the more beautiful shots, but you have to put a bit of dissonance in there too in order to illuminate the harmony a little bit more.
I think we see that a little bit in the first photograph of the book as opposed to the last one, especially in the context of the poem. To have this beautiful, lush shot with all these trees and then you have this almost nuclear looking sky.
The first shot of the book was taken from the Aberdare national park, across the valley and off in the distance is Mt. Kenya, beautiful landscape with two beautiful forests, the Aberdare and the Mt. Kenya forests, which are both under great threats. I want to take the viewer out of the dream, out of the clouds. If you thought those clouds looked a bit ominous that’s definitely correct because the future is uncertain.
After spending ten years in Africa, how did you choose the images that eventually made it into the book?
I kind of have to credit my book designer, Yolanda Cuomo. By the time I started putting the book together, I had maybe eighty or a hundred thousand images. But I whittled them down to maybe two hundred photos. I had pieces that were greater than the whole and in that final push to the finish line, Yolanda was so helpful and now the whole is greater than the parts. She just held my hand the very end and I was just too involved to see it as removed as she was. Of course I was very biased because I lived the whole experience. Thanks to her help, we whittled it down to ninety-five.
Can you speak a little bit on the select few photos in this book that display acts of development and human interference with nature?
Well, there is a photo of a bushbuck behind a fence, and that’s at the Aberdare national park. The sad reality of that shot is that the animal is outside the fence. It’s not in the wilderness area; it’s outside of the fence. It will probably miss out by the fact that the fence went up and it got stuck on the outside. Now is that fence a bad thing? No, that fence is a great thing because in theory it will keep the animals inside the park and outside of the farmland, for example elephants cause a lot of crop damage. The poachers and other people trespassing on the park get kept out. It’s a great victory. A lot of conservationists have a tough time with that. They think animals should be able to migrate from park to park and that corridors are so important for the animals. We don’t want to isolate the gene pools, which is what happens when the animals get isolated. The more new blood that is brought in and out can affect the population of that animal.
Conservations are not big fans of these fences but the reality is that Kenya has forty million people and is growing quickly. People need places to love eight and a quarter of Kenya’s land is protected and at the end of the day, if that is the part of land reserved for animals to inhabit, that’s still a victory. It’s a noble goal but maybe an unrealistic one to keep these corridors open. If there was less people perhaps. But the reality is that Kenyans need this land to farm, to develop. It’s not fair to expect these people to give up their land to animals that can be very destructive. Like buffalo for example can be very dangerous, elephants can just destroy wilderness areas. The hippopotamus is very dangerous as well. There is a photograph of an elephant getting its tusks taken out. As far as we know that elephant died of natural causes and those are the good guys removing the tusks. When an elephant dies of natural causes or otherwise, the first thing that happens is that the tusks get cut out. That could be poachers because they can sell the tusks for a ton of money, or if it’s the authorities, they take the tusks and stockpile them. Here’s one of a black kite, which is a beautiful bird of prey hovering over these trash dumps. In any developing country there is a lot of trash.
I found the pictures of the animals at rest or sleeping particularly striking. How did you manage to capture those?
That’s back to patience. You’re lucky. I was lucky enough to get a photograph of a sleeping leopard and that was amazing because she was very relaxed around people. Maybe she grew up around tourists but I was in a vehicle and therefore invisible. She was just taking a nap and it was amazing. She was taking a snooze and there I was, ten feet away. Couldn’t be more relaxed. They always talk about how every photograph is staged, every single one. You always have the elephant outside of the frame. In my case it’s usually in. Just outside of this one, you have other tourist vehicles stuck in the mud, making noise, tourists yapping and there she was just taking a mid afternoon nap.
So in a lot of these photographs there is a lot of stuff going on outside of the frame that we cannot see.
Some yes and some no. Dirty secret, I go to wilderness areas that have vehicle traffic, that which makes the vehicles and myself invisible. Where as in true wilderness, you’re going to pull up on foot or in a vehicle and the animal is going to run away. There is no reason for the animal to stick around when there are humans there. In high trafficked areas, the vehicles are more invisible so you can pull up an ten extra feet closer and the animal acts more natural because [its like] you’re not there, these vehicles are not there. It’s something that becomes part of the wilderness. It sort of sad but its interesting.
With the fence and the vehicles, it sounds like your navigating circumstances that were preexisting.
Yeah I think so. If it were a true wilderness, like back in the day with nature photography, there would usually be two people on foot. One person would be holding the gun and the other the camera. Maybe you tried to provoke the animal and eventually the animal would get shot. There was no animal rights movement and there’s nothing wrong with that. They just had to get the photograph. Fast-forward to the twenty-first century and I go to wilderness areas that are contained where I know the habits of the animals. Now in true wilderness, which is getting fewer and fewer, the animals are too shy. It is too hard to photograph the subject, let alone find it. In high trafficked areas, there are still animals, they are just more relaxed around cars.
The Center Cannot Hold is available here, published by Glitterati Incorporated.