Giraffe bouquet. Masai MaraNational Reserve, Kenya, 2007.
Two young marauding males flehmen responding
(the action of testing females’ estrus cycles using the Jacobson’s Organ).
Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, 2002.
Dead wood, Laikipia, Kenya, 2003.
Captive crocodile. Langata, Kenya, 2005.
Mother leopard takes a late-morning nap.
Itong Hills, Masai Mara National Reserve, Kenya, 2006.
The Centre Cannot Hold (Glitterati Incorporated) is a compilation of fifteen years of work by photographer David Gulden, who studied alongside Peter Beard. Working primarily in Kenya’s Aberdare National Park, his photographs reveal African wildlife as a living and breathing diaspora. By documenting the declining landscape, themes of macro conservation are subtly nuanced. He visualizes the concept of global change so famously described in William Butler Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming”, from which the book gets its name.
Gulden’s unconventional photographic methods allow him to create new images of wildlife. Utilizing innovative tactics such as mounting cameras into eagle nests and setting up cameras with infra-red beam, Gulden was able to capture the elusive mountain bongo, a large antelope that had thought to have been extinct in the wild. With over two decades invested in his work, Gulden displays a unique understanding of Kenya and its wildlife. Endeavoring not to portray one animal as representative of its species, Gulden’s photographs are portraits of a specific creature with a depth of character. In the words of photographer Bruce Weber, “To discover David Gulden’s photographs is like reading all the adventure stories you loved as child.”
Gulden speaks about his life in photography with The Click. He recalls, “I’ve always been a big believer in art and adventure, and I’ve always admired photography as a tool for creative expression. At university I took a couple of black-and-white darkroom courses. But it was really about choosing the wrong role models. [Laughs]. My father introduced me to Peter Beard when I was 18. I had already traveled to and fallen for Africa. And I had already discovered the secret surf spot in Montauk that happens to be directly below Peter’s house. It turned out that my parents had met at Peter’s first wedding. I had never met anyone who lives life the way Peter does, I thought: this all makes sense, sign me up.”
Of his early years as a professional photographer, Gulden remembers, “I traveled a lot. I saw a lot. It started with the art of the snapshot. It became more serious when I figured out that I needed an excuse to spend all that time in Africa chasing animals. It then became obsessive. It took many years of mediocre results to get past the cliches and corniness that is too often wildlife photography.”
With an innovative approach, Gulden was able to adapt his practice of photography to the environment. In The Centre Cannot Hold he observed, “There is always magic happening somewhere in the wilderness. And for the last fifteen years, I have worked to place myself and my camera in the right spot at the right time for the story that nature wants to reveal.
“For one of my projects, a few game trackers and I hiked deep into the forest to check my camera traps. I had set the cameras up along animal trails, and for weeks at a time, they were ready to shoot the moment an animal walked in front and broke the infrared beam. I was trying to capture the elusive mountain bongo, a massive antelope that had once been thought to be extinct in the wild.
“Getting to the trail was an adventure. It wasn’t long before my skin felt the electric tingle of the ubiquitous stinging nettles that littered the forest. The nettles could have been avoided, but all senses were on hyperalert for more consequential dangers.
“The game trackers and I hiked through a buffalo maze, an expanse of short bamboo where we were constantly crouching and slipping in the mud. The visibility was so limited I could barely see the person in front of me.
“This was the Aberdare National Park in Kenya, and it is my most productive stomping ground. Unlike the grassy savannah, it is nature in three dimensions. The tall trees and steep terrain allow up-and-down movement as well as side-to-side. Savannah animals act within a circle, while the animals of the Aberdares act within a sphere.
“Familiar animals can appear so differently here. Many of its resident species have a melanistic doppelganger, a dark counterpart to match the dim forest floor. The slender mongoose, the genet cat, the augur buzzard, the white-tailed mongoose, the serval, and the leopard typically have a wide variety of colorations and patterns. But here they can be found in pure black. There are giant, twisted, gnarled trees that resemble wrinkled sages. Marbleized tree stumps, worn smooth from years and years of elephant tummy scratching, are totems to the itch, sculpted from scratch.
“Once we arrived at a camera, I checked the results. The frame was static, yet the camera caught more than twenty species. There were times I was not so fortunate and the cameras would be facing upside down and covered with mud. The camera’s LCD screen showing the red-handed culprit moments before lights out—the extended trunk of an elephant or the inquisitive face of a monkey peering into the lens. Once we arrived to find nothing at all: the camera, strobes, and sensors removed by thieves. The region is remote and the terrain is treacherous, yet in these mountains, poachers are present and act with impunity.
“It took more than three years to capture a photo of a bongo, and never once have I seen one in the wild. The image will last, but the future of the animal is less certain.
“I have always wanted to take photographs that no one else had taken before. Of course, accomplishing this has not been simple. For instance, in order to capture unique eagle photographs, I like to place my camera mere inches from a nest. In my first attempt, I built a camera mount out of a car jack that I hoped would clamp onto a branch inside the nest. When this invention proved too bulky, I had to improvise, I used nylon cord to dangle the camera high in the canopy. Like a pendulum on a grandfather clock, the camera swung back and forth in the wind, photographing the birds with rhythmic infrequency.
“Not deterred, I searched for more nests and designed a new mount. The improvised version held the camera rock steady, and a pulley system enabled the camera to be hoisted up and down with minimal disturbance. A ball-head tripod mount clasped the camera upside down. The ball-head was attached to a male three-sided pyramid, which, when pulled up by a string, would enter its female counterpart, locking into place above the nest.
“I spent years driving hundreds of miles in my search for prospective nests. I scanned the trees for anomalies. A dark patch in the crotch of a tree, which on closer inspection might reveal not a plant, not a termite nest, not a gnarl, but a bundle of sticks.
“A large bundle of sticks more than one hundred feet in the sky—but was it active? Did the sticks appear fluffed and fresh, or were they sagged down from the exposure to the wind, rain, and sun? I navigated to the base of the tree and searched the ground for telltale signs. The bones of prey animals lay scattered about, but I had to determine how fresh the cartilage and sinew were. I could never be entirely sure until, after hours of observation, the unmistakable little white head of a baby eagle peaked out.
“I used a crossbow to shoot an iron rod attached to a fishing line over a high branch, and then with ropes, harnesses, and permits in place, I climbed the tree and installed the camera mount.
“Each subsequent morning, I hoisted the camera into place, and like a channel-surfing couch potato, I then lay on the forest floor, my hand on the wireless remote control. I had hours of waiting and only seconds when it came time to react.
“A couple of years after one successful shoot, I returned to visit the nest. It was missing. I walked to where the base of the tree had been. Fallen and splintered, the tree lay on the forest floor. There was a big pile of sticks but no longer any signs of life.”
Speaking of the language parallels between hunting and photography (eg. shooting, capturing, set ups, etc.), Gulden notes, “In Kenya hunting is taboo these days, and I find it tasteless and archaic. But hunting brings in a lot of revenue so I strongly believe it should be legal. Wildlife needs to pay its way if it is going to last. In Africa there is no saving nature for nature’s sake. A visiting hunter to Africa is always under the watchful eye of a hired professional hunter, in other words needs to use very little judgment. The trigger usually gets pulled from one hundred meters away.
“I call my own shots and I need to be up close, about two or three meters. I create something with value; a hunter kills something with value. Whether you are a hunter or a photographer the dangers involved are real and a real thrill. Being in nature is its own reward.”
Separation of church and state (animals in and poachers out):
The “hard edge” of Aberdare National Park, Kenya, 2008.
Leopard tortoise. Mara Conservancy, Kenya, 2005.
Captive crocodile close-up. Mombasa, Kenya, 2004.
Rhinos. Solio Game Ranch, Mweiga, Kenya, 2008.