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Book Review: The Pencil of Nature


Book Review The Pencil of Nature By Manabu Miyazaki Reviewed by Sarah Bradley The cover of Manabu Miyazaki’s The Pencil of Nature pictures a black bear clutching the legs of a tripod, standing on leaf litter and surrounded by blackness, it presses its mouth to the camera shutter release. It’s an astonishing photograph; the bear is so perfectly positioned that the image seems without question staged, a trained animal photographed in carefully managed conditions. While the placement and positioning of the cameras were carefully arranged, the bear itself is wild.

The Pencil of Nature. Photographs by Manabu Miyazaki.
Nohara Co Ltd/Izu Photo Museum, 2013.
 
The Pencil of Nature
Reviewed by Sarah Bradley

The Pencil of Nature
By Manabu Miyazaki

$46.00
Nohara Co Ltd/Izu Photo Museum, 2013. 168 pp., 170 color illustrations, 6¾x9¾".


The cover of Manabu Miyazaki’s The Pencil of Nature pictures a black bear clutching the legs of a tripod, standing on leaf litter and surrounded by blackness, it presses its mouth to the camera shutter release. It’s an astonishing photograph; the bear is so perfectly positioned that the image seems without question staged, a trained animal photographed in carefully managed conditions. While the placement and positioning of the cameras were carefully arranged, the bear itself is wild. Miyazaki has been shooting wildlife for over 40 years, gradually honing his technique through meticulous observation and trial and error, eventually learning that he achieved better results when he wasn’t waiting behind the camera. Like most of the images in the book, the bear photograph was made using an unmanned camera. Miyazaki noted he would often recover the cameras he left in the woods with bite marks and scratches, at times torn from their anchors, so he set up two opposite each other.


The Pencil of Nature. Photographs by Manabu MiyazakiNohara Co Ltd/Izu Photo Museum, 2013.

Early exhibitions of Miyazaki’s work drew outspoken criticism directed at the fact that the photographer is not physically tripping the shutter. For some that may indicate questions of authorship, but Miyazaki is beyond a doubt making these pictures. It isn’t simply a game of chance. Miyazaki exhibits impressive precision in the observation of his subjects, taking close account of natural behaviors and determining what he must do to set up the shot to capture them. None of the images in the book are quite as spectacular as the camera chomping black bear, but it alone is enough to provide a metaphor to encapsulate his work. Borrowing its title from the first photography book commercially published, The Pencil of Nature expands the premise that through light, photography allows nature to depict itself. With Miyazaki’s careful orchestration of the elements of the photograph, nature can reveal itself in surprising ways, even in places were it may feel like there are few surprises to be had.

The Pencil of Nature. Photographs by Manabu MiyazakiNohara Co Ltd/Izu Photo Museum, 2013.

Following an engaging essay detailing Miyazaki’s background and techniques and a thoughtful interview, the book is divided into six sections each focusing on a different body of work. From raptors to raccoon dogs to decaying carcasses to scavenging boars, an enormous range of Japanese wildlife is represented in this book. For the gorgeous sequence of photographs of nesting owls Miyazaki set his camera a full year before the nest was built. By the time the eggs were laid the camera was simply part of the environment, allowing for images that seem impossibly intimate. "Death in Nature" shows the stages of decay of an animal after death and the enormous amount of activity that happens around a body after it has ceased to move on its own, nourishing the forest that once nourished it.

The Pencil of Nature. Photographs by Manabu MiyazakiNohara Co Ltd/Izu Photo Museum, 2013.

"Animal Trails" is one of several series centered on the often hidden interactions of animals and humans. Setting up cameras with infrared sensors on recreational hiking trails, Miyazaki captured dozens of species that also walked these paths, making for a collection of images that are both beautiful and striking in the distance that evaporates between man and animal. Prior to this series, it was commonly thought that wildlife avoided these often human-populated areas. "Animal Apocalypse and Contemporary Wild Animals" shows the collision of man and nature, creatures living off our self-created world rather than the natural one; monkeys feast on offerings of fruit left at grave sites, non-native nutrias thrive at the edges of human developments, a hermit crab wears a soap bottle cap in place of a shell. Miyazaki’s photographs have a way of being both scientific documents and poetic ruminations on the condition of nature and mankind’s place in it, elegantly displaying what we simply do not see in the world immediately surrounding us.

The Pencil of Nature. Photographs by Manabu MiyazakiNohara Co Ltd/Izu Photo Museum, 2013.

The book finishes with two pages documenting Miyazaki’s specially outfitted and handmade camera casings and equipment, which are fun to see. At times the images in the book feel crowded; a lot is packed into this small volume, but it accompanies a solo exhibition of the same title at the Izu Photo Museum in Japan, and thus serves as a retrospective of decades of Miyazaki’s work. It’s an entirely satisfying book on its own, but also a good jumping off point into the spectrum of work by this remarkable photographer.—SARAH BRADLEY

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2013 by:
Melanie McWhorter

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SARAH BRADLEY is a writer, sculptor and costumer, as well as Editor of photo-eye Blog. Some of her work can be found on her occasionally updated blog.

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