HOW do we see wildlife? Really see it?
Occasionally with our own eyes. Glimpses of animals in the wild - the sight of an elk in a mountain meadow, a soaring eagle, or even a goldfinch at a backyard feeder - thrill us, but they usually are fleeting, more tantalizing than satisfying.
One can get up-close-and-personal with animals via one of those TV documentaries that seem ubiquitous on Sunday afternoons. The best of them are very informative, and the photography can be remarkable. (Indeed, it's easy to be distracted from the content by the persistent question, "How did they film that scene?")
But the emphasis is generally on animals' behavior, and the filmmaker, not the viewer, decides when to shift the gaze.
As for painting, sculpture, and their artistic cousins, these have never developed (allowing for the work of a few notable exceptions of Audubonesque stature, and of course the black-velvet school) into truly useful media for seeing and understanding wildlife, at least fauna. Something about wildlife makes us want to see the real thing, not an artist's interpretation.
For all these reasons, there probably is no better way to view wildlife - unaltered by cages or taxidermy - than through a camera in the hands of a skillful and inspired shooter. With patience, sixth sense, and a telephoto lens, the nature photographer slips into the worlds of fish, fowl, and mammal and returns with trophies that can be mounted on a wall with moral equanimity.
Some of the best current wildlife photographs are mounted on walls at the Arthur Griffin Center for Photographic Art in Winchester, Mass., less than 10 miles north of Boston. The touring exhibition is comprised of 81 prize-winning color photographs from the 1992 Wildlife Photographer of the Year Competition, sponsored by BBC Wildlife Magazine and the Natural History Museum of London.
The images were chosen by a panel of judges from more than 10,000 entries from 40 countries submitted last year for the annual competition, which began in 1965. Prizes are awarded in various categories, and an overall prize is given to the "Wildlife Photographer of the Year." A selection of the top entries has toured each year in the United Kingdom and Commonwealth countries, but this is the first year the tour has included the United States.
The exhibit includes some stunning photos of plants, such as a picture taken in Michigan of purple and white round-lobed hepatica, so tiny that a cluster of 15 blossoms is dwarfed by several underlying oak leaves (two of the flowers are seen through the diaphanous veil of a decaying leaf). And a photo from northern Finland of snow-encrusted trees against a dim winter sun offers a frozen landscape as desolate yet hauntingly beautiful as the surface of the moon.
But most of the photographs on display peer into the animal kingdom, focusing both on some of its largest denizens (two rhinos charge across an African plain) and on some of the smallest (hornets, magnified to the size of wrens, arrange mud in their nest).
In some of the pictures, the subjects are as motionless as in still lifes. A red deer stag stands on a ridge in Scotland at night, the curve of its magnificent antlers echoed by a crescent moon. In an underwater, strobe-lit shot from the California coast, two jeweled-top snails, gaudy as party hats, cling to the stem of a golden giant kelp.
Many of the photos, however, catch animals in action, some even telling a story. In East Africa a lioness, her pale eyes seemingly just inches from the photographer's shutter, prowls for food; hot and tired, she seems in her manifest frustration even more menacing than usual. Two elephant-seal bulls clash in the thundering California surf (over a nearby herd of females, a caption explains). And in a remarkable close-up revealing every joint and hair of its intricately engineered body, a dragonfly on a Sw iss pond punctures the water to lay her eggs.
According to Damon Reed, the director of the Griffin Center, one of the purposes of the contest and the touring exhibit is to quicken viewers' interest in conservation. In most cases, the photographs contribute to this goal indirectly, simply by opening our eyes to animals' natural wonder. But two sections of the exhibit direct our attention more squarely to the need to protect animals from human encroachment.
"Primates in Peril," a contest category created for one year to highlight the work of the International Primate Protection League, elicited several poignant shots of caged monkeys and apes. And "The World in Our Hands" category further reminds us of the consequences of human cruelty or indifference - as through the photograph, taken in the Bratislava (Slovakia) Zoo, of a corsac fox curled forlornly in a dark and barren cage reminiscent of a gulag cell.
"This is a wonderful exhibit for families," Ms. Reed says. "For one thing, they enjoy looking at the photographs together. But also, the photos provide an opportunity for family members to educate each other. Parents can teach their kids, but also kids can teach their parents. Thanks to school programs about the environment, a lot of that is happening these days."
Reed, who has a background in photographic display, arranged for the center to host the wildlife exhibition as one of her first acts after she was named director of the new gallery, which opened last September.
The Arthur Griffin Center, housed in a charming stone-and-frame building with a turning water wheel on a pond near the center of Winchester, is named for a longtime resident renowned as a photojournalist and recorder of New England scenes. A major exhibition of Mr. Griffin's work is scheduled to open in September.
* The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit remains at the Arthur Griffin Center through Aug. 29. Its four-city US tour included earlier stops in Houston and Washington. From Massachusetts it will travel to the Chicago Academy of Sciences.