“I started taking pictures at the age of nine-it was just a hobby,” recalls Nic. Living in New Zealand and being a member of a hiking club meant that there was plenty of fodder for an amateur photographer. An annual photography competition gave him a target to shoot for and he started winning “quite a lot.” He notes that “Until then, no one had ever told me I was good at photography-once you’ve realize you are good at something and you love it, you spend more and more time with it and take it more and more seriously.”
Fast forward 21 years and you have Nic Bishop, trained as a biologist, considering that he might be able to make a living at the photography hobby he had pursued for so many years. Initially he was discouraged but he realized that photography was an ideal combination for him-his biology training gave him the scientific understanding to appreciate his subjects while his aesthetic sensibility gave him the ability to present the subjects in interesting and beautiful ways.
A Nic Bishop book is a celebration of its subject in all its fascinating wonder. In the new Butterflies and Moths, one picture leads the reader to acknowledge the intricate detail in the scales on a butterfly’s wing while another shows the marvelous ability of a caterpillar to present a totally misleading image of a snake preparing to strike. Indeed, that photograph had the longest incubation of any in the book. It was two years from the time he first learned of the Costa Rican marvel from a scientist friend to the moment when he was able to photograph it. The photographer asked his friend to let him know immediately if he ever saw another one and an email two years later sent Nic literally flying back to Costa Rica, “I’d prefer to see that caterpillar than the Grand Canyon,” exclaims Bishop. “As soon as I knew it was there waiting, I had to go and if I didn’t go then, I knew I would regret it for the rest of my life.”
The dedication that sent Nic to Costa Rica extends beyond the stunning photography in Nic Bishop’s books. The text is carefully crafted to present information in an engaging and effective way. “I never thought I could write a book,” says the author. “When I was thirty and started doing books, I was still young and naïve enough to tell myself I better figure out how to do it.” Taking a scientific approach, Nic borrowed books from the library and analyzed them, making notes on how they were structured. When his own work evolved to creating books for children, he set himself to write at a certain level by reading other books for that age group.
“I want these books to be factual and interesting,” notes Nic. “The word count is small and there’s always a conflict because I want to include so much information.” First, he researches all the facts he wants to include. Then, Nic sorts the facts and puts them under larger topics. “I spend an awful lot of time getting the structure right and planning how each idea is going to be presented in the book,” he explains. Nic goes through this process six or seven times and by the time he’s ready to write the text, “all the facts spill out over a waterfall in a perfect sequence-it might only take a day.” That may seem quick but he notes that “I’ve spent time in the wild or in the studio having long visual conversations with the animals I’m photographing.”
Speaking of long conversations with the animals, one photograph in Frogs took months of training. It would be unthinkable to do a frog book without showing one of their most important abilities-the faster-than-the-eye-can-see flick of the tongue that captures the frog’s meal. “This was not a shot I could do in the wild,” confirms the master photographer. “The laser beams and flash buns have a lethal amount of volts-this would not be good around water.” So how did he manage the photograph in the book? “I set up a pond indoors,” states the author matter-of-factly. He then had to train a frog to jump in front of the camera. And for those of you who think it just took one flick, the initial shot didn’t meet the author’s exacting standards. “I couldn’t see the texture on the frog’s back.” So, he set up the entire process again just so that the marvelous texture of the frog’s back was represented to his satisfaction.
So what do you get with a Nic Bishop book? A perfect union of a scientist’s deep knowledge and the artist’s demanding eye, revealing a natural world that will enthrall readers of any age.
– Interviewed by Ellen Myrick, February 2009