Fynbos photographer James Nowicki grew up in Johannesburg and first encounted the Cape flora at the age of 12 on a holiday to Betty’s Bay. He felt an immediate affinity. ‘I wanted to be a pixie and disappear into it all.’ James holds a post-graduate degree in environmental studies at the University of Cape Town, and works, amongst others, as a contractor for SANParks and CapeNature.
James Nowicki’s photographs are mostly close-ups of fynbos, often with insects. His images don’t have the perfect crispness of Anton Pauw’s or Steven Johnson’s, nor are they identifiable species like John Manning’s and Colin Paterson-Jones’s photographs. James works without a tripod and hardly ever uses a flash. Instead he looks for the unusual angle and the ideal natural light effect. Showing us only parts of a flower and the blurriness in some parts of the picture create an emotive effect. ‘I try to capture the essence of a flower and a scene’, he says. ‘I try not to think about it too much and I often work fast because with a long set-up, I would miss some of the images I am looking for’. Two of those ‘decisive moment’ images sold on the opening night of his recent exhibition: a praying mantis devouring a fly, and a spider having caught a bee. These images, however, are not the norm for his work. Usually calmness prevails, and complexity. James’s photographs are fascinating and make you step closer for another look: at light reflected off pollen or an insect which at first glance seems to be part of the flower.
Yet James is a botanist first and an artist second. Mike Kamstra, an expert on aloes, taught him about plants and, maybe more importantly, passed on his passion for flora and fauna, james’s visual inspirations are John Manning’s fynbos photographs and Mary Maytham Kidd’s botanical drawings of Table Mountain wildflowers. Although his images are often quite abstract and focused on shape and colour, his photographs are neither conceptual art nor pure interior decoration. They are labelled and organized taxonomically.
James mainly photographs on Table Mountain, but his visual hunting ground extends further afield where the diversity of the plant and insectlife never ceases to amaze him. ‘In the 2004 spring, we saw a lot of red blister beetle’ he says, ‘but I haven’t encountered any since’.
Has he missed any photographs? James chuckles. ‘When I came eye-to-eye with a puff adder in full strike. It had the most mesmerizing stripes disappearing down its throat. I took a six foot leap backwards. By the time I had recovered enough to press the shutter, the snake had disappeared into the shrubs’. He also hopes he’ll have another chance to witness a cicada morphing from pupa to adult. ‘They take 18 years to get to this point and I watched it happen right in front of me without a tool to record it’.
James’s advice for other nature-loving photographers is to get to know where rare plants are growing and to keep an eye out for rains and fire. After a fire, there are good opportunities to see flowers you never see otherwise. Morning precipitation and the moisture level in the air influence the quality of light.’I think we owe our very special light on Table Mountain to the reflection off the sandstone, which is mainly silica’.
His images are beautiful, but not merely. He is planning to make them available to create awareness of the threats to the fynbos and the impact of humans on indigenous biodiversity.’I want people who don’t have the opportunity to walk on the mountain to experience the beauty of the fynbos and its insects and to be able to connect with it’.
Nowicki photographs with a Canon 350D and a Canon 60mm macro lens. He recently held an exhibition of his Table Mountain fynbos plants and insects called Songlines at These Four Walls art gallery in Observatory, Cape Town. Visit his website at www.songlines.co.za.