It was near the very end of my stay in Africa that I took the photograph that would become, The Matriarch and interestingly, it was the image that would become the genesis for my series, Portraits of Africa. The end of my trip in effect, sparked the beginning of new journey in the editing process when I returned home. Unlike most of the photos that formed the series, I had almost no inkling at the time that I took the shot that it was in any way significant or special. The shot was taken on the last day of my Botswana safari in September. We were on the move and frankly, I was bone tired and ready to return home. It was a hot, scorchingly hot, day and the sun was already high overhead. The light was terrible, flat and bright, with sharp, harsh shadows. It was just before Noon and the elephants were huddled under the tree seeking shade. I longed to find some shade. I longed even more for a bite to eat and a long, cool drink to wash it down with.
To be honest, I wasn’t even that interested in elephants. I was smitten with the big cats and all during my safaris I was constantly on the look out for lions and leopards and cheetahs. The elephants, eh, sure they were part of the storied “Big Five”, but I wasn’t that enamoured with them. I’d even take rhinos and Cape Buffalo ahead of the elephants if I had to draw up a list. But these elephants were nicely gathered under a tree and something attracted me to the composition. I loved the umbrella shape of the tree. And it was the only large tree in the vicinity. And the alpha female was front and centre, positioning herself between the Land Cruiser and her large extended family. There were lovely shapes in front of me. The first two shots were a waste, because there was a bush in the foreground in the centre of the frame. I asked the driver to creep forward. I took nineteen shots in all, but the sixth shot was the one. I don’t know why, but for some reason she reminded me of Meryl Streep. She had gravitas and obvious intelligence and a certain elegance about her. I liked her. I wanted to take her picture.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, but I had shot the Cape Buffalo that would become “Dagga Boy” two hours earlier when I was already beginning to become worried about the light. And three hours later I would shoot the swimming elephant that would become, “The Crossing”. In other words, I shot fully one quarter of my series in the span of five hours on a two month safari when I considered the light to be “bad”. By this time in the trip my MacBook Pro laptop was pretty much fried, the motherboard having given up the ghost. So at the end of the day I tucked my card into my luggage and promptly forgot about it. A few weeks later I was pretty sure I had lost it, but I wasn’t that concerned because, hey, the light was so bad. Although it was 670 shots and an entire day on safari.
I found the card when I finally got around to unpacking all my luggage from the trip. The card was tucked into a side pocket in my backpack. It was the last of the pictures I edited from the trip and it brought the total number of images taken to just under fifteen thousand. I winced when the images came up on my computer monitor because the colour was so flat and de-saturated. I almost immediately made the decision to try them as black and white images. And just as quickly I found myself falling in love with elephants. With the elephants I saw personality in the pictures, felt there were stories being told. I loved the photos in black and white and all of a sudden colour became a distraction.
By this time I had posted several hundred images on Facebook and shown many other images to friends. The elephants were the last pictures to be added. Different people responded to different photographs, and there were several dozen that got mentioned specifically when the albums were viewed. But the picture of the elephant herd under the tree was one that almost all people responded to, and when gender was taken into account, it was no contest. Women would look at all of the three hundred photos I had edited from the trip, turn to me and say, “I love the elephants under the tree”. I had no idea that so many people were fascinated by elephants.
As I mentioned in my last post, The Stories Behind the Pictures, I had enormous difficulty editing fifteen thousand photos into a dozen images that would work as a series. The Matriarch, in her own way, solved the problem for me. Four friends, all of them women, put me on notice that they wanted prints. Had been saying so for several months in fact. So I paid a visit to Hieu at The Lab with my file tucked into my pocket and said, “Print it as big as it will go, ” which turned out to be 30 x 40. I am of the school of thought that says a picture really isn’t a photograph until its been printed and you can hold it in your hand and hang it on a wall. Its concrete then, a real, tangible thing. You’ve created something. The Matriarch, well, at 30 x 40, she kicked my ass. The Matriarch spurred me to go back to my Africa edits and ask the question, which eleven other images would work in black and white and work as body.
So, in true safari tradition, I raise my glass and offer a toast, “To the Matriarch. Long may she reign!”
“Elephants live in a structured social order. The social lives of male and female elephants are very different. The females spend their entire lives in tightly knit family groups made up of mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts. These groups are led by the eldest female, or matriarch. Adult males, on the other hand, live mostly solitary lives.
The social circle of the female elephant does not end with the small family unit. In addition to encountering the local males that live on the fringes of one or more groups, the female’s life also involves interaction with other families, clans, and subpopulations. Most immediate family groups range from five to fifteen adults, as well as a number of immature males and females. When a group gets too big, a few of the elder daughters will break off and form their own small group. They remain very aware of which local herds are relatives and which are not.”