I met Anton Lyalin, a Russian photographer, a number of years ago while running a Phase One PODAS workshop. It was an immediate friendship.
I witnessed his growth as a photographer over many years and workshops together. Anton is a well-versed gentleman who owns and runs a number of steakhouses in Moscow. (How could a steak-loving guy be anything but fun?) He has a smile that stretches from ear to ear and is a very generous person. At a workshop in Scotland he negotiated a purchase for a large bushel of fresh live crab. He brought the crab back to the hotel and the chef prepared it that evening for an appetizer.
Anton gradually became more committed to his passion for photography. He attended every top workshop he could and his photographic style took off. Anton took many of the articles published on our site about photographic projects to heart and applied them on his trips to shoot the wildlife in Africa. Over the last few years, after numerous trips there, I saw his photographs and style get better and better. He locked himself into the Wildlife Of Africa and did it in BW and often with medium format cameras.
Recently I had a chat with Anton. You can enjoy our interview, and his photographs, below. If you choose to attend one of our workshops and get to meet Anton, I am sure you’ll make an instant friend, laugh a lot, perhaps drink a bit, but more than anything else, enjoy your mutual interests in photography.
How did you get into photography and what were your first steps?
It happened when I was 10 years old. My grandma gave me my first camera, a Kiev-4. That’s how my first shots came to life. I photographed mainly my family members, classmates and a little bit of nature. I was developing black and white film and prints in my home darkroom, while taking color film to the local lab. By age 12, I had plenty of comments and advice on how to improve my work. I realized that I was not too excited to rely on the people who printed pictures to get the look I wanted. I knew it should be me who controls the whole look. So it would be an underestimation to say I was psyched when whole photo world went digital. Now, the process is entirely under my strict supervision whether it’s the cameras or lenses, paper or printer that I use. I am a true believer that RAW is RAW and a great final product called fine art photography is much more than the capture itself.
Tell me about your learning process. What equipment did you use for your first serious experience?
My first ever digital DSLR was Nikon D-100 which was my companion on a trip to Africa. And, what a discovery it was. The possibility to see the result of my work right away was so inspiring and exciting. There is one shot of two rhinoceroses from this very first trip included in my “Portrait of Africa” series.
A Canon 1DS was the hero of the second trip, though now I prefer to go with medium format cameras, taking fewer pictures and enjoying a moment to observe animals in their habitat.
To be honest, I always had a 35-mm DSLR camera around. You can call it my insurance. There are tough days for medium-format cameras, you know, certain weaknesses such as poor weather sealing and dust-proofing not to mention terrible battery life. These don’t always make your medium format experience pleasant. On the other side however, you get unbelievable image quality.
I started off with a medium-format digital Hasselblad (and became a finalist in 2010 of the Hasselblad Masters in Wild Life category). When you are trying to capture moving objects, it is a labor-intensive shooting process, considering the camera is not a fan of handheld photography at all, even sand bagging isn’t helping much.
Why Africa? Why did you go there? How did the series come to life? Any cool stories of those first trips?
I started with the series in 2001, and my first trip was a pure accident, which, over the time, flourished into a full-scale passion. Now I can’t imagine my life without Africa. Over the past 14 years I managed to do multiple visits to eight African countries and most of the National Parks the continent has to offer: Serengeti, Ruaha, Volcanoes Park in Uganda, Nakuru Lake, Amboseli, Park Chobe to name few. I am mesmerized with wild African nature, and how locals do their best to protect it. Those places are the greatest for a photographer; there are very few people and no wires or electric poles or fences to harm the scene in a viewfinder.
Also, the endless and eternal silence is absolutely hypnotizing. Where else can you experience that now days?
Every National park boasts a strict policy; no one is going to let you walk without a guide and wander about. That’s how I came up with a technique of shooting animals from a car by adjusting the camera to a monopod, dropping it from car window and pressing a shutter release button with a long cable. Now it’s easier; I take pictures while I shoot tethered and see the result right away, on a computer.
But in general the result is absolutely unpredictable since there is no way to be certain of the focus. I can observe the picture but do not see it in a viewfinder, not all the time. My guide and I came up with couple of tricks.
We remove one of the car doors and drape it with a canvas; I stay on the car floor and shoot through a hole cut next to one of the tires. There are times when a 200 kg cat is just a meter away, separated by a flimsy piece of cloth. This technique, in addition to an unusual shooting angle, provides an unparalleled primal experience of facing a wild animal. With this method, you also see an animal at its height so that his head and body are above the horizon, highlighted by the skies.
When shooting from 3-15 meters you mostly need portrait lenses. Mine are 80mm, 110mm, and 240 mm, which converted into 35 mm language are from 50 to 170 mm.
When you have to spend some time near an animal without disturbing it, it gets used to you and ignores you and that’s where the real fun stuff starts.
The more I shoot, the more I learn about how to approach these incredible creatures. How do I portray their nature, beauty and wisdom? A picture of a water buck and then a Kadu were the first ones where I was really proud of myself.
Why do you prefer black and white photos?
I started in black in white for two reasons. First of all, imagine the African landscape with all the colors bursting: bright green grass, fire-red earth, sapphire skies, and blinding white clouds. Then there are the animals with all those varying skin patterns. For me African colors are more of a distraction factor for my portraits rather than a harmonious part of the picture.
I want to highlight the subjects of my shot rather than dissolve it in a sea of color. Imagine showing your friends a flock of sheep in New Zealand. What they will admire about the picture are blue skies and emerald grass. I wanted to distance myself from color to express and emphasize the character of my subjects.
The second reason for my black and white photography passion – I wanted to follow in the footsteps of old masters, exceptional portraitists. I insist on calling my images of animals portraits. I was lucky enough to learn portraiture from Greg Gorman, the teacher I endlessly admire, and a friend of mine. When shooting wild creatures I use knowledge obtained from Greg to build a composition.
While studying photography and the history of the arts, I was mostly impressed with classicism ascetic forms and its logical and precise devotion to simple lines. In my humble opinion, the French really nailed it. Just look at Versailles. So I decided to go with it, at least trying to implement this classicism’s straight-forwardness in building my compositions. I think portrait # 9 is my homage to classicism and its masters. This lion is a brother of another one, from diptyque portrait # 1, opening the series. This guy is quicker and quirkier. It is impossible to survive pride life on your own. So those two supported each other in their savanna adventures. I wanted to show the intimate brotherhood between them.
You use toning on you photographs. Why do you do that? What are you aiming for? Which colors do you prefer and why?
Through toning I deliver palpable impressions of Africa. Dust on the equipment (and my teeth) stops me from using glossy paper and a color palette. Through my eyes this country is matte, not shiny. My cameras get covered in dust in Africa. When I first touched Hahnemuhle Photo Rag and William Terner Photo Rag papers, I had exactly the same feeling. So it was a natural choice for me. I rarely keep black and white actually black and white and cold, except maybe in some infrareds or when I want to under score some special mood. Most of the time I go with warm shades. For me, Africa is warm and sensual, and those warm colors enhance the emotions of my wild animal friends. That’s what I am aiming for.
On top of this I always reach to combine my freedom of expression, the animal’s privacy and a delicate respect to my viewer.
Tell us more about your exhibitions and the book? What is the connection between your personal evolution and that of the series?
By 2010 I was acquainted with Lumiere Brothers Gallery owners. It was a pleasant surprise when I got an offer to display my work in an exhibition. While handpicking the prints to display, the ones with the most character got the most attention. For example, the lionesses boasting unusual behavior, the one resting on a tree, all by herself, with no pride around, and the hyenas, quite ugly creatures that are challenging to capture in a interesting and cool way, were noticed the most.
I got my good shots by looking for the unusual. The animals’ body shapes are quite something, reminding me of a boomerang. Another one that comes to my mind is a portrait of two rhinoceroses. I happened to be a witness to a family drama, when a black rhino male chased away his mate’s grown up son to go and start his own family.
There were 30 portraits in total. That’s how Moscow learned I existed. In my opinion, the exhibit was a success. The same year I was honored with the Hasselblad Masters award, I made it to the finals. It’s funny that the winner that year in the “Wild Life” category was a picture of a domestic horse. Anyway, it was an educational experience.
The year 2012 was very fruitful for me. I pushed myself past my limits to new horizons. I wanted to achieve really sharp graphical images.
Earlier, I was playing with the background as merely a part of a composition. Now I wanted to change that and make it an important element of the story I was telling.
Believe me, the clouds in African skies are very dramatic; they are thick, heavy, hypnotizing, and in their prime during middle of the day. As photographers we were taught that light is at its best at dawn and sunset. It is different in Africa. The most picturesque clouds there happen at noon. So I took a risk. And that is how portrait # 61 came to life. With a giraffe under endless powerful clouds, my first picture with landscape rather than animal being the main player on the scene.
Upon my return I wasted no time discussing my results with the gallery. Then came my second exhibition at Lumiere Brothers Gallery, this time with 64 images to display. It was a success. It was very flattering to learn that many visitors from the first exhibit returned to see my new work, and there are art collectors who now own some of my African Wildlife portraits. The same year I was honored to run an exhibition at Stroganov Palace of Russian Museum in St. Petersburg. They also helped a lot with publishing my first book, “Portrait of Africa.”
Do you plan to go on with this series and how?
Yes, I will keep going. The 2014 collection was shot using a black and white digital back and infrared filters. This way I can achieve maximum contrast while portraying animals as a part of landscape. Endless white seas of grass and trees, dramatic almost black sky. Here is where my beloved Phase One IQ 260 achromatic comes in real handy. I would say my new works feature a lot of different angles and techniques. I am shifting from portraits toward landscapes. Also, new pieces will have a smaller print run.
Thank you for allowing me to share my story. As a Russian I feel very privileged to be featured on Luminous-Landscape and I look forward to sharing my story and images again.