Thursday, October 21, 2010

Reconstructing trees

"The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way. Some see Nature all ridicule and deformity, and some scarce see Nature at all. But to the eyes of the man of imagination, Nature is Imagination itself." William Blake

These days autumn is really showing off here in Abruzzo, with the foliage-cliché at its best. I went out photographing my beloved beech forest and experimenting with stitching together multiple images of nice, old trees. It forces yourself to analize the complexity and harmony of each plant. This is a technique first used for photographing giant sequoias by James Balog, then recently also by Michael "Nick" Nichols. I must say it works and I love to reconstruct big trees from pieces: it is fun like solving a puzzle...

P.S. I built this from 9 horizontal images. The resolution is amazing, now let's see how the prints look like...

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The moon, the mountains and I. 24 hours alone

"We live as we dream: alone..." Joseph Conrad

August is holiday time for many. The usually quiet mountain village where I live gets crowded. Woods and meadows serve as dining rooms for hundreds of people (and the garbage left behind often echoes their lively voices for a long time...) Even the highest mountain peaks become a common destination for the adventurous citizens on vacation. But this doesn't necessarily mean that I dislike this month or its crowds. It can be fun, just that it spoils a bit the holiness of many places I love and makes really hard to find that special intimacy with nature I am so often looking for.

"If the sun lights up people holidays", I thought, "then the moon can show me the way through the wilderness!" I had luck: the turbulent summer weather gave me a lucky break in correspondence of the last full moon. So, once again, heavy backpack on my shoulders, I was hitting the slope leading to the top of Majella massif with the plan of exploring its vast altitude plateau at night. Alone.
I started at 12AM and met the last people at 5PM: then the mountain was all for me. I walked on and on. Explored ridges and crossed saddles. Looked down to the deepest valleys and up to the fast-moving clouds.
At sunset, I had the purest and simplest light. When night came, I was tired but exhilarated, so I kept on. I dropped my backpack in a little cave and took only a bunch of nuts, my camera and tripod with me. Wind came in full force and didn't leave until the morning. At 11PM I was still shooting the landscape, holding fast my camera to not let the wind toss it to the ground. The moonlight gave the round, barren mountains a touch of indefiniteness. Dark shadows and silvery colors. Deep contrasts and vague horizons.
It was midnight when I went back to the cave, crawled into my sleeping bag and dropped dead. At sunrise, I enjoyed the most perfect stillness. The moon, still high, was now competing with the first sunrays. All around me just blocks of blue, pink and gold.

At 6.47AM, I spotted the first two hikers and then I realized how much exhausted, dehydrated and hungry I was...

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Wild, wild Bayerischer Wald!

On a special assignment of the Bayerischer Wald National Park administration, me and other eight nature photographers had four days to roam and take pictures in the wildest corners of the National Park (far away from the "Tier Freigelände"...), to celebrate its 40th birthday. On the last morning there I was blessed with this encounter: a fabulous female Ural Owl bringing food to the chicks. The Bayerischer Wald NP (together with the neighbouring Sumava NP) is much more than just its animal enclosures: it is wilderness coming back into the center of Europe! Happy birthday BW!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Pit stop with black grouses. Or, "how to detect a vanishing species".

"We stand now where two roads diverge. (...) The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road -- the one less traveled by -- offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of the earth." Rachel Carson

Black grouses have been one of my photographic nemesis during the whole time I was working in Slovakia. They are not particularly difficult (once one knows a good spot and obey the rules of the game - set up your hide at night, get there when still dark, etc.), but bad luck always played a role on all the attempts I made in Tichà and so I never got a single, decent picture...

Therefore, while I was planning a trip to the Bavarian forest in Germany on mid-May, invited by the National Park to photograph the Park's wildest corners (and not the animal enclosures...), I decided to try my luck with this species one more time and stop somewhere in the Alps for just one morning attempt. My friends and great nature photographers Luciano Gaudenzio ( and Gabriele Bano kindly invited me to a grouse lek (area where the males display) in Friuli, the region where they live and work. The area sounded very promising, with stories of more than 40 (!) displaying males back in the 80's. This, and maybe all the kilometres driven the day before, made difficult to catching some sleep in the already short night. We would get up at 2.45 AM and walk to the hide in the darkness. A thin layer of fresh snow on the barren ground, stars in the sky: the best premises. Already before sunrise the first male came in front of the hide. After this one, other four reached the lek. Only the calls, a loud "chooissshhhh" and the repeated, fluid "rooo...proooo", revealed their presence in the fading darkness. Once outlined their figures, I tried some pictures with crazy shutter speeds of 2-3 seconds, just to see what they would look like. The sun came out, or, better, the day came out, as a sudden layer of clouds had obscured the clear sky. The resulting hours were nice, but the light was dim and quite boring for any good picture. Nevertheless, I won my nemesis and got some pictures of a black grouse! At 7Am the birds left and for me was time to pack all my stuff and quickly make my way to Germany. It had been a nice "pit stop", especially by enjoying the great company of Luciano and Gabriele Bano, the breathtaking mountain landscape and the colors of this unique bird: I was happy.

But, hey, wait a minute. Five males? Where were all the grouses gone? As said, people once witnessed dozens of birds here, so what was going on? We asked some locals that morning and figured out that the previous hunting season surely took a large toll on this population. Could that be the cause of such a rapid decline? Even in other European countries, where I had the chance to observe this species, people spoke of sudden decreases in numbers. In Tichà, for example, nowadays only few single males come to the alpine meadows in May. What is going on? Is overhunting the one to blame? Could it be that this once-common mountain bird is suffering from a vast, unknown menace? Climate change?? Will the Black grouse be a next vanishing species? What can be done to save it?

Way too often I am experiencing or hearing stories similar to this also about other species. It is a weird time to be a wildlife photographer and a though one to be a conservationist. There are few answers for many questions. But one thing is for sure, we cannot take the diversity of Nature for granted anymore. It is time to do something and act firmly, before spring would become silent even in the most remote corners of Europe!

Friday, March 19, 2010


"One does not need to see a wolf to benefit from its presence" A. Murie

Recently there has been a lot of talk about wolves and photography. Who did not follow the events connected to the winning image at the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition 2009 (a spectacular shot of an Iberian wolf jumping over a fence)?  I was very (and positively) impressed by the great interest the public opinion paid to the inquiry of the judges of the competition to verify whether the overall winner picture was depicting a wild wolf or just a captive one, as reported by some Spanish photographers. Everybody knows now the verdict. The photographer has been disqualified and his title withdrawn: the subject, a wolf named Ossian, lives in an enclosure in a wildlife center near Madrid and had probably been trained to jump in such “unwolfish” way. The photographer had declared that his secret was to have lured a wild wolf to go to a certain spot by means of repetitive baiting. Apparently, the fact that the circumstances in which the picture was taken had already been so severely manipulated was not of pivotal importance for the Competition board as the real nature of the subject.

Months ago, groundbreaking pictures of "wild" European wolves (i.e. close-ups of pups at a den site and a stunning shot of a pack hunting a wild boar) appeared also on the blog of the project “Wild Wonders of Europe” (WWE). The images, taken by the Russian photographer Sergey Gorshkov after fourteen months of work in the field, then have been also published in a large portfolio on the pages of the prestigious British magazine BBC Wildlife. It seemed… The bar of wolf photography was set inexorably higher. This, at least, until the comment of a Russian reader of the WWE’s blog raised the question that also those wolves could be the same living in a local rehabilitation center, where herself had previously taken surprisingly similar shots. As this fired a lively discussion, the project’s organizers committed themselves to verify the circumstances behind those pictures. In reply to it, the photographer told about the many hours he spent in the hide, how he tried to make two wolves packs accustomed to people (“as in Finland”) and how he did rely on hunters’ help to locate a den with pups, whereas the animals were “cunning and cautious” and constantly changed den site.

I will skip for now discussing further such practices of habituation and stalking, which I personally find ethically unacceptable and seriously dangerous for this species, especially in a country like Russia, where it is far from being protected. A first official response came from the organizers: they declared that some of the wolves in the pictures had been released from a rehabilitation center, so de facto “wild”, even though still accustomed to people. For all the other images, they guaranteed the photographer’s good faith. Nevertheless, this didn’t satisfy some keen readers, who confronted the single pictures with what had been declared by the photographer and found some inconsistency both on technical and ethological level. The debate kept on and was eventually solved few days ago with the official exclusion of the photographer and his images from the project. 

I also have a photography-related wolf story. Like many people, I also nurture a deep passion for this species and for everything it represents. Despite living in a wolf-rich country, the Abruzzi region in Italy, I must treasure the rare occasions, when I could observe or photograph this animal in its habitat. Recently I was assigned by a magazine to work on a story centered on the ongoing conflict between men and wolves in Abruzzi and the ways for a possible coexistence. For the article to be complete, I needed a nice picture of a wolf in the typically barren Apennine landscape. I knew it would have been difficult, but I had some sort of plan and enough time. Since I do this job mostly because I like to spend time in nature and observe wildlife, I would have kept myself off from captive animals or controlled situations. It took me almost four months of research, phone calls, walks and hours of wait to obtain some satisfying pictures. On a nice November day, I stumbled upon a solitary wolf male feeding on a horse carcass. Barely hidden by a small bush and a veil of fog, I took dozens of pictures of the feeding animal, even when some cows passed next to him. Unbelievable. 

At a certain point, for some divinity’s benevolence, the wolf left the carcass and trotted straight into my direction. Then, perhaps aware of my presence, he stopped some 50 meters from where I was sitting and, more curious than scared, gave me a brief glance. I will never forget the moment his eyes met mine. Eventually, as true ghosts do, he disappeared into the thickening fog and the magic was complete. The thrill of such a perfect wilderness moment vanished a bit after showing my pictures to the disappointed editors. My idea of a wolf clearly didn’t match theirs. They didn’t look into the wolf’s eyes, but rightly lingered on the dull colors of the pictures, the dry grass in the background, the pixel noise of the digital files. The late American wildlife biologist Adolph Murie wrote: "One does not need to see a wolf to benefit from its presence", but, in the age of animals which jump and kill their prey right in front of the photographers, is the hazelnut-colored look of a wild wolf still enough to persuade an audience?