River Deep, Mountain High

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To my mind, it’s the greatest wildlife photograph ever taken. This is Planet earth, but not as we know it. And that’s what I’m looking for in a photograph that celebrates the natural world – an instant reminder that truth is stranger, and more fantastical than fiction. Cherry Alexander’s picture of Chinstrap Penguins sheltering on a blue iceberg was the 1995 winner of the Wildlife Photograph of the Year award, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. Shot just off the coast of the South Sandwich Islands in Antarctica, the mountain’s of ice look like they’re torn straight from a book of fairytale; you wouldn’t believe the scene before you were it not for the gull flying overhead.

Likewise, Fabien Michenet’s Little Squid (a finalist in this year’s Underwater Species category) captures life in a form that verges on abstraction; so alien to our minds, we can barely comprehend it. And to imagine, the photographer floating 20 metres below the surface in complete darkness, silent except for the occasional call of far off dolphins.

And if the overall winner of this year’s contest – shot by one of the legends of the genre – offers up a more tangible scene, it still feels somehow otherworldly. Does such a place really still exist, where lions remain king of all they survey? And how could such a scene be captured on camera? For Nick Nichols, as for any wildlife photographer, the answer lay in patient observation, spending six months with the pride and gaining their trust, allowing himself to get near enough to photograph the scene he wanted when it eventually presented itself.

His photograph, along with 99 others that went on show this month, selected from more than 40,000 submissions, can be seen at the Natural History Museum in London until 30 August next year. And alongside it, the museum is publishing 50 Years of Wildlife Photographer of the Year: How Wildlife Photography Became Art, celebrating the competition’s achievements.

“Great pictures of nature have one thing in common – they are unforgettable,” saysSir David Attenborough, a trustee of the museum. “They can also be a profound source of beauty, wonder and joy. This is a collection of work from the competition that, over the past half century, has become an international showcase for the very best wildlife photography – images that have the power to affect how we feel about the natural world and therefore how we treat it. It’s a collection that will make you think.”

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