As a birder, this 72 minute documentary film about the Duck Stamp Contest didn’t accomplish what I was hoping it might – get people excited about the Duck Stamp, or at least wildlife conservation. It did neither.
The film began with a very brief history of the stamp, which is probably not well know by most casual observers. An explanation is given about how market hunters and the draining of wetlands left no place for migrating waterfowl to land or feed and “the Great Plains soon became a mass graveyard for migratory birds, raising the question, how do we protect birds from man?” Cartoon images by Ding Darling.
In the early years of the newly created 1934 Duck Stamp Act, the stamps were designed by commissioned artists, but in the 1940’s the selection process was opened up to the public in the form of a nationwide contest – the Duck Stamp Contest.
The film follows several contestants on their journey to win what is described as the “Olympics of Wildlife Art.” Contradictory to the naming of the film, the winner of the prestigious contest is offered no outright monetary reward, however that artist may make hundreds of thousands of dollars selling prints and other depictions of his or her artwork.
One of the scenes in the film I found very disturbing as both a birder and wildlife photographer, depicted Adam Grimm and Tim Taylor out in the field attempting to capture images of ducks as reference images for their artwork. As Adam donned his ghillie suit (a camouflage outfit used for concealment), Tim intentionally runs toward the ducks from the opposite side of the pond, yelling and throwing his arms up, forcing the ducks to take flight to drive them toward the waiting photographer.
This is in direct conflict of the American Birding Association’s first Principal of Birding Ethics which is “to avoid stressing birds or exposing them to danger, exercise restraint and caution during observation, photography, sound recording, or filming.”
Their disregard for the welfare of the wildlife they purport to regard so highly also flies in the face of the North American Nature Photography Association’s Principles of Ethical Field Practices which states, “do not distress wildlife or their habitat. Respect the routine needs of animals.”
In my opinion, two of the artists that saved the film were Dee Dee Murry and Bob McBroom. Dee Dee and her dog Hallie are introduced as competing artists. Dee Dee is trying her best to come up with a winning Duck Stamp painting, while her talented blind dog Hallie outsells her own artwork!
Bob McBroom is a thirteen year Duck Stamp Contest entrant who has yet to create artwork that will make it through the initial day of judging. Some folks claim he is mocking the contest with his non-compliant artwork like this depiction of a diving Canvasback. Personally, I think it’s inspirational.
That being said, in preparation of opening day judging of the Duck Stamp Contest, the judges were informed of the contest rules. The entries are judged on three concepts:
- Anatomical accuracy
- Artistic composition
- Suitability to be published on a stamp
With these three ideas in mind, it is easy to see why his work never gets chosen. Oddly enough, my impression of Bob was not that he was mocking the contest but trying to get more people excited about it.
The final third of the movie depicts the arduous live-judged elimination rounds zeroing in on several of the contestants in the hall as they watch their paintings get shot down. One short clip features Ron Louque, the 2002 contest winner chuckling, “only a fool would go there expecting to win the contest!”
The last few minutes of the film were focused on the stamp program and concerns for its future. I thought this comment from Bob McBroom was especially poignant:
The stamp is in trouble I think the same way that a lot of national and state wildlife refuges are. People just don’t go out the way they used to. Hunters are not doing it as much any more. Hunters are slowly declining and generally, that’s the people that buy the stamp. The Duck Stamp program is kinda screwed unless they can get it into the cultural milieu as it were, because there is too many things competing for its attention.
The Migratory Bird Hunting and Conservation Stamp is obviously a successful wildlife conservation program. The problem is that not enough people buy the stamp. Although I applaud Brian Golden Davis for bringing this important issue into the spotlight, I’m not sure this film about the Duck Stamp Contest will help the decline in stamp sales.