While Jim Lawrence was developing his photographic aesthetic, he spent some time studying the work of Canadian portrait artist Yousuf Karsh. The famed Armenian-Canadian is best known for his portraits of celebrities such as Albert Einstein and Ernest Hemingway. And though Lawrence’s subjects are animals, not humans, many of the same composition and lighting rules apply.
“He focused on the eyes. You can apply that to all of wildlife, because animals will look at you. They’ll look you right in the eye and you just have to be patient and be ready for that,” he said. “You see it with your eye. You feel it with your heart and then you push the shutter.”
That’s exactly how he captured the startling portrait of a great horned owl featured on the cover of short film Eyes in the Forest: The Portraiture of Jim Lawrence, which celebrates his life’s work. Peeking out from behind a tree, its amber-hued eye almost glowing in the darkness, the image captures the essence of the animal in much the same way as Karsh captured the personality of his subjects.
Lawrence said he lives for the moments when he connects with an animal, and for the images he brings home from those encounters. But though he would do it for pleasure, he has a greater purpose in mind.
“It’s become more important to make people aware of the strife our other species our going through. A recent report from the London Zoological Society shows that we’ve lost 52 per cent of our wildlife species in 40 years. It’s sobering. That’s a big number. And it’s even worse for fresh water fish and reptiles, frogs,” he said.
He hopes that his photos will encourage people to respect both wildlife and their habitats. The effects of human habitation on animal populations is readily available even here in the Kootenays, he said. When he was growing up he would routinely see porcupines everywhere, and how he said they’re extremely difficult to find.
“There’s a few in the alpine but I haven’t seen one on the road in 10 years. They’re gone. We’re losing species. We’ve spent too much time thinking we’re kind of the kingdom, but it’s killing us and we’re the next species dropping off,” he said.
Lawrence will be taking the film to elementary schools during the winter, to educate them about animals and the wild.
“There are kids in Nelson who haven’t been in the forest. There’s little things you can do to encourage them to get excited about it, show them tracks, get them involved. The ultimate goal is to have them gain awareness and respect for the habitat,” he said.
Miriam Neeboda, who created the film, had a similar mandate.
“I wanted to provide an experience, an intimate view of this world that is often hidden from sight but is deeply impacted by human action,” said Needoba. “I hoped that representing their world, and Jim’s experience of it, would inspire greater empathy and understanding for the wildlife we so admire.”
There will be a special screening of Lawrence’s film at the Nelson Public Library at 7 p.m on October 7. Both the photographer and the filmmaker will be on hand to talk about their experiences.