Vivianne Peckham was born in Antwerp, Belgium; raised mostly in Tucson, Arizona and New England and now resides in Washington, D.C. Her design sensibilities were strongly influenced by Arizona with the hard light, sculptural plant shapes, neon-hued cactus flowers, Native American art, birds and reptiles. She received a B.A. in Art History from Wellesley College and taught middle school for 13 years while raising her son. About a year and a half ago, Vivianne first started photographing seriously for expressive purposes when she bought the Leica X2 and later bought the Leica M. Since then, she has taken Leica Akademie workshops and is constantly learning about technical skills, composition and photographic art history. Below is her story of images, her first full photographic collection, taken at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Q: Are you a full-time photographer or would you describe yourself as a serious enthusiast?
A: I’m a serious enthusiast but am striving to improve my skills and get to a higher level.
Q: Can you provide some background information on these images?
A: Last year I moved across the street from the National Zoo. I assumed at first that a 35 mm lens, being neither a macro nor a zoom, would be a poor choice for photographing animals. Then I decided to take that on as a challenge. How could I embrace the frame and create interesting compositions? I excluded enclosures that offered limited design possibilities (bland, poor light) or kept me too far from the animals. Most of the charismatic megafauna – lions, tigers, bears, pandas – were ruled out in favor of animals with smaller enclosures, sculptural shapes and great textures – mostly the large flightless birds (emu, cassowary, greater rheas), reptiles (especially crocodilians), Asian elephants and the Asian small-clawed otters. I embraced reflections, fencing, metalwork shadows, cement blocks and the water droplets, dirt and grime that accumulate on glass. Philosophically, I also felt that it was important to photograph the animals as individuals in a specific setting and not to try to make them appear to be in the wild.
Every enclosure has different lighting and architecture: for instance, the green anaconda terrarium has extremely limited camera angle possibilities, the gharial’s enclosure receives the best light from midday sun that shines directly down into it during the summer, while the greater rheas are best shot in the late afternoon during the late winter or early spring when the sun’s rays can penetrate the trees and cast shadows from a specific fence.
Animal behavior obviously had a huge effect as well. Generally speaking, I’ve had to learn to be in sync with the seasonal and daily rhythms of the zoo. Some animals have eluded me, like the spoonbills. They live in a beautiful long and deep enclosure with the scarlet ibises, and I have a picture in my mind that looks like an early Renaissance painting, but in the million times that I’ve been there it hasn’t clicked. I’m still trying.
Q: Many photographers who shoot pictures of zoo animals go to great lengths to de-emphasize bars, fences, enclosures, and other elements that indicate the animals are living in captivity, yet in most cases you have done just the opposite. Why did you decide to take this approach, and what do you think these pictures say about zoo animals and zoos as human institutions?
A: I want to be honest about the living conditions of these animals. They’re not on a safari, and some display disturbing behaviors that don’t occur in the wild, like compulsive pacing and self-induced vomiting. A little dirt and grime is natural and would occur anywhere, but other features, like tiny concrete enclosures and metal grates, are not. Zoos in general have come a long way, and there are impressive environments for specific animals, but visible problems remain. It’s important to honestly face how animals live in zoological institutions. In my opinion, certain long-standing practices should be re-examined, like showcasing large mammals in lieu of establishing more natural and humane environments for important and fascinating smaller species that live very happily in limited spaces.
Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?
A: These images are studies in texture, shape and light. I hope the character and beauty of the animals comes through as well. I’m a slow photographer – no continuous exposure, and because I use an EVF, there’s a time lag between shots. This means that I have to really consider compositional possibilities ahead of time and predict animal behavior based upon past observations. If I miss a shot, that’s it for the day.
Q: You used a Leica M with a 35 mm f/1.4 Summilux ASPH. lens and a Leica X2 to shoot your zoo portfolio. What are some of the characteristics and features of these cameras, and the 35 mm focal length, did you find especially useful in executing this project?
A: I love working with the M and 35 mm Summilux combination. The rangefinder lets me focus very precisely on animals where focusing is critical, and the sensor picks up fine textures in both color and black-and-white, like turtle scales two feet away in water behind scummy glass. There’s a lovely quality to the Summilux f/1.4 even under artificial indoor lighting, and I was able to work in dark conditions without flash. The scope of the 35 mm lens is ideal for environmental photos and its size is unobtrusive to animals and easy to carry around. A 35 mm isn’t the lens of choice for zoo photographers, but I encourage people to try it out.
Q: What are some of the advantages of using an EVF on the Leica M and X2, and what is the nature of the time lag you refer to?
A: The EVF gives me a very precise preview of my composition and helps me focus internally – I’m easily distracted. It also allows me to look at an animal obliquely so I can approach more closely without disturbing it. There is a time lag between shots when you use the EVF because it requires live view. You cannot shoot successive photos as quickly as when the live view feature is off, so you learn better timing.
Q: In a photojournalistic sense these images are honest and authentic in that they depict the unvarnished reality of the relationship between the animals and their artificial environment, but how do they make you feel personally and what kind of emotions do you think they evoke in people who view them? In short, what do you think these images convey on an emotional level, and did you have any intentions in that regard?
A: I feel a mix of emotions when I look at the pictures, including frustration, sadness, admiration, calmness and joy (the otters were incredibly entertaining), but I’m familiar with these animals, so it’s hard to be objective. There was no agenda except for honesty and an intention to convey a certain tone, but I think that some of the photos with solitary animals are melancholy because I felt melancholy when I observed them, and that affected my decisions.
Q: This has a timeless and peaceful quality because the animal is resting, the form and textures of its body are emphasized, and it is asymmetrically positioned in the lower left-hand quadrant of the image, and is delineated by expansive shadows. Where was this picture taken, and what were you thinking when you pressed the shutter release?
A: That elephant is actually walking. I was standing on a bridge above him that spans the elephant yard because there was side light, and I knew it would cast strong shadows on his back and also from his body across the ground. I wanted to highlight his protruding spine to emphasize the size and strength of his bones and overall bulk. When he passed the bridge, I worked quickly with a fast shutter speed to take one shot. That’s all you get with a walking elephant, because each step covers a lot of ground!
Q: This image is a striking close-up portrait that is especially dynamic because of the oblique composition and the bird’s intense gaze. Why did you compose the picture in this way, and can you provide the tech data for this image including camera, lens, exposure, and ISO?
A: The double-wattled cassowary is an impressive bird, with huge talons that can eviscerate you, vestigial wing feather spikes that poke out the sides and a crest that gives her the look of a dinosaur. In addition, she’s very territorial; there’s a double layer of strong wire mesh in the front of the enclosure for a reason. I wanted to convey her fierce character and show off her crest with a strong diagonal composition. I had to use a shallow depth of field due to the double layer of wire, so it was a tricky dance of focusing and composing as she walked in and out of the light. It’s fun to get a bit of wire texture, too. If you look closely, you can see some fuzzy lines.
Q: The portrait of a gorilla has, to me, a somber and sullen quality as well as conveying a feeling of immense power due to the animal’s assertive body language and straight-on gaze. Do you agree, and how did you manage to capture these qualities so effectively?
A: I agree with you about the gorilla’s body language. It’s a young male, and he hates to be photographed. Looking a gorilla in the eye is a sign of aggression, so I learned to approach sideways while looking down into my EVF. When I saw him, arms crossed, staring down at the visitors, I wanted to record his dark mood (I try not to anthropomorphize, but it’s hard with apes). His perch and the converging branches emphasized his power and referred to the lines of his crossed arms, so I exposed for his dark fur, letting the background fade out, stood straight in front and took a quick shot.
Q: The image of a group of flamingos is a masterful composition that is dynamic, engaging and fills the frame to perfection. How did you compose this shot and what exposure did you use to capture the subtle lighting and intense colors in such a dramatic way?
A: Thanks for the comments. The flamingos were huddled together (they do everything together) where they knew the morning light would warm their bodies. They were standing on an incline near the fence, so I crouched down to stack their bodies on a flattened vertical plane, with the abstract shapes of the sleepers on the top and the focus on the bottom where the rays of sun would first appear. Then I waited for the light. When a couple of birds moved into the foreground and fluffed up their feathers, I took pictures. ISO 400, f/4, 1/750.
Q: How do you see your photography evolving over the next few years?
A: It’s hard to predict how my photography will evolve because I’m a person who tends to explore lots of different things rather than stick to one path. There’s a list of topics in my head that I plan to work on this year, including more abstracted compositions, working with limited palettes of saturated colors, non-profit photography, and taking interesting photos of rallies and demonstrations – we get so many of them here, and I find it challenging to do it well.
Q: What do you think you accomplished in creating your zoo portfolio, both in and of itself, and also in terms of your evolution as a photographer?
A: I started out at the zoo pretty inexperienced with a brand new M and shot the same animals for months. Through sheer repetition, I learned a lot of basic lessons about composition, exposure, focus and the value of long-term commitment to a project. I’m a much more intentional photographer now.
The zoo portfolio is my first full collection of photographic work. It represents my aesthetic and hopefully something of my personal perspective.
Thank you for your time, Vivianne!
– Leica Internet Team