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Zoo’s company: the wild world of Tim Flach

Zoo’s company: the wild world of Tim Flach

© Tim Flach

January 2016

British photographer Tim Flach uses his technical and artistic skills to capture almost-human moments from a wide variety of creatures. His work helps us look at our animal cousins in more profound ways, as he explains to CPN Editor David Corfield...

“With a bird of prey, you generally have to get down low so you are non-threatening. If it’s a vulture, on the other hand, you have to stand up tall because if you don’t, you are food...”

Tim Flach is talking about how to photograph eagles. In his impressively tidy studio just off London’s Old Street, he studies recently shot images that are to become part of a new book he’s putting together about endangered species. The multi-award winning photographer has been specialising in animals for the last 30 years and his job as one of the UK’s best advertising lensmen has helped him become – almost by default – a curious mix of David Attenborough and David Bailey.

© Tim Flach
© Tim Flach

Panda bear. The panda is a symbol of the World Wildlife Fund and its image is universally recognised. It was this bear that inspired Tim to document native pandas released into the wild in China with his EOS 5DS.

But in conversation it’s immediately clear where his real heart lies. While the advertising work – of which he has plenty – pays the bills, his passion for his personal book projects and the conservation message each one carries, are what really gets him going. And this latest, due for release next year, is going to be a real labour of love.

“I’ve just come back from China,” he explains, “Where I was the first foreigner ever to be allowed to photograph pandas being released in the wild. I had to wear a kind of panda suit while I was there to avoid any danger of imprinting on the young cubs.” He points to an image of him in a black and white panda-style ‘onesie’. A moment of hilarity ensues, followed by a quick clear of the throat. We move on...

The book is in development and it is fascinating to be witness to a project’s early stages. A wall of Flach’s studio is given over to snapshots of animals that he has on his wish list: Red panda, Przewalski’s horse (the true wild horse), Pied tamarin, Ploughshare tortoise, Bison, Golden snub-nosed monkey, Scimitar oryx (now extinct in the wild). It’s a collection of endangered species that man has more or less driven to the edge and Flach is determined to draw attention to their beauty and their character and remind the world what we stand to lose. He does this with digital and has documented a lot of them with the EOS 5DS.

© Tim Flach
© Tim Flach

Horse and window. From Tim’s award-winning series ‘Equus.’

His discovery of the camera’s 50.6 Megapixel resolution has allowed him to retain the high-quality nature of his work – and partly retire his medium-format digital cameras – and get closer to his subjects by taking the studio to them. We look at images of an endangered Egyptian vulture, and admire the detail in the feathers.

Flach explains: “We went to Gloucestershire with the EOS 5DS to photograph it. What’s great about using a 35mm format camera with this high-resolution sensor is that we aren’t sacrificing quality anymore when on location. When I’m photographing smaller subjects I always use a DSLR, as I like to go close and give them a sense of scale, and depth-of-field is the factor when doing that. A DSLR has much more depth-of-field than a medium-format camera and with this raptor, photographed at f/18 on the EF100mm macro lens, the detail is excellent.”

“I’ve always used Canon alongside the medium-format kit to shoot smaller subjects, close-ups, things that were a long way away, or that which required a higher frame rate when they were moving. But in terms of file size, I must say that having something that is just over 50 Megapixels is an extraordinary jump. Plus it has an incredible sensitivity range. It’s been amazing to use and I must confess it makes me a bit lazy because I can crop in on a details now and not have to worry so much about a loss of quality.”

Communication and conservation

Flach is a soft-spoken but passionate communicator about animals. A Dr. Dolittle of digital? The comparison is not lost on him. “I want to use these images as tools that are not patronising or moralising but in a sense allow us to go down that road to introduce us to something we might not have considered. I draw several different tools together to do that. But they are not necessarily those of a traditional wildlife photographer. But then again, I’m not a wildlife photographer; I take photographs of animals. My book ‘More than Human’ looked at how we shaped animals and shaped our meaning around them. For instance, how a protein extracted from a jellyfish has revolutionised cancer research. Now what I want to do is see how I can best look at the debates of how we manage the natural world and the challenges that lie ahead of us.”

© Tim Flach
© Tim Flach

Running chicken. From Tim’s award-winning series ‘Almost Human’.

“My career has been a progression. An evolution in itself, you might say. There was never – I don't think – a breakthrough moment for me. The work I have always done has brought me into contact with the world of books and things derive from that. It’s rather like blood cells in a body. Over time the cells regenerate so that eventually there’s none of the old left except the body that remains. That’s a bit like how I view myself. The interests I am now pursuing are rooted in my journey but are yet journeys in themselves.”

“I’m philosophical enough to know that good pictures don’t necessarily pay the bills and that the relationship between something that is significant and something in the future that could be relevant, may not be now. I like to be in a space where I know I have the resources to give me a buffer, so I can go and try something out and fail and not be destitute. So sensibly I have always tried to find a balance between my personal work and my clients. But I don’t feel I’ve realised the kind of project I should have done...”

New ways, new methods – the benefit of digital

This last comment tells me something about Flach’s tireless pursuit of his work, and his craft. He’s not the kind of man to rest on his laurels, and with digital changing his workflow, it has offered him fresh impetus to push the boundaries. “We used to go to great lengths to bring the animals to the studio because we needed to be near E6 or C41 processing so we could process and check before we lost our window of opportunity and fed the cat its chunk of meat or whatever, to keep it interested. So we would always do a few frames and get the film back first. Now of course, it’s much easier and I have more creative scope.”

© Tim Flach
© Tim Flach

‘Flying mop.’ A Puli (Hungarian sheep-herding dog). From Tim’s award-winning series ‘Dog Gods’.

“When I did my book ‘Equus’ with the horses, that was a period when we had just acquired the first digital camera that we felt was good enough for us and we started to really see the benefits of digital. It allowed us to take the studio to the animal for the first time and that meant we didn't stress the animals as much. So the stable became the studio. This was a real shift in how I worked.”

“Before I was seeking to take animals out of their habitat, which is a bit of a contrast to what I’m now discussing which is a bit of both worlds. What I’m trying to do now is link us back to the real key issues about habitat and yet convey the feelings and emotions of an animal’s personality.”

The human touch

Tim Flach’s work gives us an opportunity to pause and reflect on how we view animals. But although his approach might sound easy, the reality is anything but.

“In the case of working with the animal and its owner, such as dogs,” he explains, “The dog is as much bonded with its human as it with another dog. Any of us who try to make a living out of this will all say that we work as a team. If the owner is getting stressed because they think their ‘darling’ is being put under pressure – even when the reality might be quite different – then you have a problem because the shoot stops, or the animal gets stressed because it knows its owner is stressed. So I try to engage the owner and give them a sense of what we are doing and how it might be special so that they become recruited and as much a part of the process as possible. Thereby the energy is right and that energy allows for more opportunities and more clarity around the thought process and strategy of what we do.”

It gets harder with animals that aren’t so domesticated, he reveals: “We once had an orangutan in the studio and it took eight people to stop him from attempting to harm one of the handlers, because he had adopted a dominant body language that the orangutan took exception to. And then we had another instance with some big cats and a girl on set, who was quite diminutive as a person. We had to watch out that the cats didn't go for her. Eventually as a precaution we chose to remove her from the set.”

“The more you are conscious of what’s happening to the natural world, the more you feel compelled to engage with it. As Sir David Attenborough said, ‘Damage to the natural world, is damage to humanity.’ And that’s never been more apt than now and I hope my work encourages consciousness around these concerns. If we don’t look at the outcome of damaging the natural world, we will be the poorer for it.”

Biographie: Tim Flach

Tim Flach

Over the past decade, Tim Flach's work has increasingly focused on animals, ranging widely across species but united by a distinctive style that is derived from his concerns with anthropomorphism and anthropocentrism. His interests lie in the way humans shape animals, and shape their meaning. Whether genetically, as with the featherless chicken, or with the symbolism that gives a special significance to a dove but dismisses a London pigeon as a flying rat. His images aim to promote discussion and encourage debate. He has three major bodies of work, concerning different subject (Equus, focusing on the horse, Dog Gods, on canines, and More Than Human, a broad exploration of the world’s species), and has published four books; Evolution, 2013, More than Human, 2012, Dog Gods, 2010 and Equus, 2008. Flach is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society, and was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Norwich University of the Arts in 2013. He lives and works in London, with his wife and son.


White tiger. From Tim’s award-winning series ‘Almost Human’.