Published: Nov. 9, 2020

Palle B. Petterson & Laurids Andersen Sonne 
(Translated from Danish)

Laurids: Hi Palle, thank you for taking time to talk to me.  

I have been a big fan of your book Cameras into the Wild [1], since I was working on a wave film of sorts myself from the idea that a wave crashing on a coast could provide more than enough “action” in a film, and was doing research on the history of wave films. So, it really resonated with me when you in Cameras in to the Wild described how films such as Rough sea at Dover and A Sea Cave Near Lisbon, made cinema goers go wild when seeing the images of these waves crashing in on the screen.  

Cameras into the Wild

Could you start by telling me a bit about what you are working on these days? 

Palle: Currently, I am working in a position, which I have been working in for the past 7 years, where I am in charge of the digital archiving of the Danish Defense Ministry’s media archive, which is approximately 110 years old, consisting of about one hundred thousand units which has never been digitized before. This is a big task. We have to go through it all, create metadata as to inventory the material properly, make selections of what is important to digitize, and some of it we put on the web. 

Going way back I have always been interested in archives, and all the possible things that are hidden and can be found in them, so that was probably why I was excited about taking this on.  

Laurids: Could you tell a bit about your research and how you got into the research that became Cameras into the Wild and how that fed into your subsequent book Dokumentarfilm og danskernes natursyn – perioden 1929-1973 (2016) [2]

Palle: Yes, it really goes all the way back to my childhood, and my interest for our nature. The film part entered when I was around 10 or 11 where in the village I grew up in, was a course in still photography where you had to shoot and process your own photos. The teacher had a special interest in feature film and especially silent films and showed us Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin and such. It was really there that I started making the connection between these two interests of film and nature, which sent me on the track of what I really wanted to study during university. So, when I get in to Film and Media studies in Copenhagen, I am already aware of what I wanted to work with, in the combination of nature and film. When I was preparing one of my major assignments, I decided to look at the TV medium and the development of the TV documentary in the 1970´s, primarily in Denmark but also abroad, looking at such figures as David Attenborough and others. When I had written that, I felt there was something in there, and went to the library, and asked one of the librarians if he had any material on the history of the nature documentary. He thought it was an exciting topic. After about a week of looking for materials for me, he told me that he had not been able to find much, only a few fragments and scattered articles here and there, but no major cohesive work focusing specifically on the early days of nature cinema. There are few books that came out since, but the lack of literature on the subject at the time was what gave me the impulse to start working on Cameras into the Wildwhich took me almost ten years to research and write. During the time other books appeared, Greg Mittman’s book Reel Nature: America’s Romance With Wildlife on Film, was published, and others, and I of course took this into account. But at the same time, I had my specific focus, which was to dig in to the earliest of the earliest, and to really dig into how nature documentary had emerged. I really wanted to get all the way back to the root of the genre. I actually started out building up a catalog of early nature films, before I started working in the manuscript. The manuscript becomes my MA thesis, which in turn becomes the basis for the English version of Cameras into the Wild. So it’s a major research project that I worked on for quite some time. I had been working on the catalog of early nature films, in my first year of Film and Media, so it had already been in progress for five years, before graduating and before thinking about the book project, and approaching the tedious process of translating it from Danish to English. 

seascape photo

Laurids: In Cameras in to the Wild, you write about the connection between the development of early cinema and shifting perceptions in the understanding of nature, could you talk about how to see this coming about?  

Palle: That whole topic is actually something that I focus quite a bit on in the subsequent book, (Dokumentarfilm og danskernes natursyn – perioden 1929-1973), where I talk about the connection between the creative development and its dependence on the technological development. Like the development of lighter tripods, where before the heavy setup prevented the cinematographers from really going out in the field. And where the film essentially was artificial wildlife like shooting in a zoo or some other form of limited area, it enables these to get closer to a real wildlife. The development away from hand cranked cameras to battery powered ones, is also crucial, as you no longer need to be on a tripod to run the camera and keep it steady. And with the perception and skill we have today in looking at moving images we are clearly able to see the difference when even looking at the old nature films that succeeded at documenting something that was not constructed. My subsequent book spent a great deal of time on the phenomenon of the “blue chip” nature documentary, which is a term that you use when making a large scale produced nature documentary, in per example, in a national park, where you are intentionally leaving out that you might be shooting from a road, and you are leaving out all the human structures that are around. Where you are essentially constructing an image of nature, as some form of pure and undisturbed, without human intervention in the scenery. There have been many of these kinds of films made, but it is only something that evolved late in the development of nature films, something that really starts developing after 1929, prompted by technological development.  

If we then have to look at your question in relation to the changes in perception of nature, you can see that when we come to the late 20´s, 30´s and 40´s, then there is clearly a certain way one is treating nature through film. You can see that in the work of Martin and Osa Johnson and how they aesthetically come to define a whole period with their perception of nature, which is a bit complicated to decipher today. When you look at their work and legacy today it seems like they were maybe not environmentalist, but in their time they were maybe some of the people who were, along with Carl Akeley and others, were part of creating an attention to the natural environment and through that also part of development of more national parks, and more preservation which led to space where animals could live without our intervention.     

Laurids: How do historical nature documents represent and construct a specific way of looking at the natural world, how do you see this manifested?  

Palle: It is very clear that even in many of the early films that there is an awareness of the need for drama, and if the film footage does not have that they will create some form of tension to help it along. You see that in constructions where you set up a scenario where a lion would fight a tiger, where it would be much more natural to see a lion fighting one of its pray. These construction of narrative and drama happened quite early in the history of nature films, even in some of the early Danish films, like Lion hunting (1908), which is a total construction on a tiny Danish island, which is made to create some excitement. But there is at the time also a difference between the poetic and the dramatic nature films. And you also see that some nature films of 1910 that have a scientific angle, so early on there are different approaches to how to depict nature, and what angle is being used and there are even films that are presenting an environmental agenda.  

The need for creating tension and drama, which we still see in plenty of nature films today, is something that can be traced to the very beginning of the medium, and here we are talking 1906- and the idea of nature as something wild, dangerous and uncontrollable is being perpetuated on a parallel track in nature film. In the 1970´s it was completely out of control, many of the films in that period portray animals as some form of killer machines, and to this day there are many production companies that only focus on the highly dramatized, to create excitement in something that in reality is totally peaceful. One of the key examples is the portrayal of the mountain gorilla, which in reality is a very peaceful animal, being depicted as a constantly war faring animal, even if only a miniscule part of its life that it has confrontations with other tribes of gorillas. There were films in the 1980´s, where it was said explicitly that the mountain gorilla was known to kill human beings, and another where it was stated that they were known to rape women, which is completely out there and untrue. There are some outrageous examples on how we have portrayed the big predators. It is only within the last thirty to twenty-five years, we the regular people have been starting to get a more realistic understanding of how it really is with these big predators. That typically has been helped by the fact that either Biologist or Zoologist have been involved in the making of the films, which really makes the difference, as opposed to the lone cinematographer who was looking for drama. 

There are of course many different approaches, but I see the whole idea of nature as something to be conquered and controlled being represented though the history of nature films,  which is part of the tensions and divisions between different ideas of making nature films, which becomes more and more obvious as we advance in the history of nature films. Like when making nature film no longer is only a thing for filmmakers but also something that environmentalists are doing.    

Martin and Osa Johnson   

Laurids: Is there a way to see these representations manifested in contemporary nature film and media, and in the broader perception of nature today? 

Palle: Aside from the construction of drama, I don’t think the early nature films has an effect on how we look at nature today, but back then when these early nature films were presented in the theaters, there is no question that they have an immense importance in what it was that people saw of nature, and how it was perceived. And some of the things I think that is very explanatory in this, is that when in the films of the Lumiere brothers, Kolb brothers and others, was that when there was a natural scenery, it had a very strong effect on the audience, and they got to see places they had never experienced before and they started having a relationship to these places that were entirely unfamiliar to them, places they would never have a chance to go to themselves, like Alaska or Africa. 

So, I am certain that the films played a role, and made people start thinking in a much broader scale, which had an impact on the way people started thinking about the need for nature preservation. There were very few preservation areas and the one´s that existed before these films and films in general, were very small. So, I think that these preservation initiatives were something that really only picked up when people could see with their own eyes that there was an amount of natural habitat that needed to be preserved, so that it could also be experienced by future generations.  

Laurids: In talking about the connection between early nature films and conservation and nature protection effort, I wonder if these were used as political tools? 

Palle: Yes, the early nature films were definitely used as political tools, but it’s hard to say how much sway they had. But as the field developed, after 1928, it is possible to prove that there are situations where it’s the images that have done the work and made the difference. In those situations it has primarily been work that deals with environmental pollution, when it becomes concrete, like seeing fish dying, and I recall there was a case of an early film about the American Elk that made a difference in relation to preservation, but I can presently not recall the title.       

Laurids: Traveling and making recordings of nature was clearly a costly endeavor and appears to be for the most part and at least in the early 20th century, a thing for the elite. 

Love jagte

Do you, in the history of nature documentaries, see a relation to western expansion / extraction / colonialism and the idea of nature as a commodity both as a natural resource and as an experiential resource? 

Palle: If we are talking broadly about film, then I think it is very clear that film had been a contributing factor to globalization, as we saw more and more of the world, the smaller it became. The more you saw an Australian aborigine or an animal from far away, the more it become something that was part of the collective consciousness and got an understanding for them, so on some level nature film has probably played a role in colonialism, but I can’t definitively claim that it has, as I would not be able to substantiate that.      

Even if Dokumentarfilm og danskernes natursyn – perioden 1929-1973, is focused on Denmark, I also argue that the Danish perception of nature cannot be seen in a vacuum, where the Danes are equally shaped by Europe and the rest of the world and the ideas and films that come from there. Denmark was really just the scope I had to limit myself to, even if the tendencies and perceptions were very much the same in the rest of the world. The publisher, McFarland, was also interested in publishing a translated version of this book, but I did not have the time or bandwidth to work on it at the time.      

Laurids: I am thinking of the dichotomy between nature – culture in relation to preservation… 

Palle: Yes, even if Denmark was on the forefront of many environmental aspects, and heavily inspired by Germany, there was a clear division between those associations that wanted to preserve wildlife for the sake of wildlife and those who wanted to preserve it for the sake of humans, and that is of course a concern that continues today. There are not that many environmental laws in Denmark that have been drafted for the sole purpose of the wildlife outside the human. This has changed in the last ten to fifteen years, but anything before then was really drafted for us, like the idea of a preservations area, not as preservation for the wildlife but rather to ensure good hunting grounds. You can argue that historically it has been more about creating regulations around giving humans access to natural areas, as opposed to giving wildlife space and peace without our intervention.       

Laurids: This seminar is titled Environmental Futures, so with that in mind, do you think that there, in early nature cinema, is anything that can tell us about how we got to where we are today and how we are going into an uncertain future?  

Palle: I think you can derive a lot of conclusions from the history of nature documentaries, but I think the most crucial thing to focus on is looking at them historically and seeing what it was we were paying attention to at the time, even if they surely also had an effect on perceptions of the natural world. This just becomes harder to decipher, then showing through what has been recorded, what it was we were interested in at a given moment. Even if you can trace the environmental concern all the way back to the beginning, and scattered throughout the history, I find it hard to see how nature film has been part of creating change in the public discourse that can be attributed to film alone. Rather, it’s a question of creating different catalysts for social movement, where a film can lead to someone writing a book, and that book maybe makes a politician react to the specific issue and so forth, but it’s hard tracing these interconnected factors. Whether the film, the book, the politician and so on is the most important part is difficult to say. They are all intermingled but spread views as rings in the water.

A Sea Cave

[1] Petterson, Palle B. 2011. Cameras into the Wild: A History of Early Wildlife and Expedition Filmmaking, 1895-1928. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland.

[2] The book, Dokumentarfilm og danskernes natursyn – perioden 1929-1973, has yet to be translated into English, the title roughly translates to “Documentary film and the Danes nature perception, ­– the period 1929-1973.