"The Centre Cannot Hold," the title of David Gulden's first book of wildlife photographs, is borrowed from William Butler Yeats' poem "The Second Coming," an ominous vision of a society headed toward self-destruction. The allusion here is to the future of East Africa's wilderness and its diminishing habitat, where Gulden has spent the last two decades painstakingly photographing endangered and familiar species.
"The Centre Cannot Hold," (Glitterati, $75) is a culmination of his journey presented in a collection of 95 black-and-white photographs along with essays by Gulden and a foreward by author Susan Minot.
"I knew if I wanted to bring something new and unique I would have to invest a lot of time to take it to the next level," said Gulden on a phone call from Uganda where he was waiting to catch a flight back to his home base in Nairobi.
A mix of masterful portraits, action shots and tranquil moments in the intimacy of their habitat, Gulden's work aims to capture the individual personality of the animals. One example: a mother leopard napping in a bed of leaves and brush with a seemingly satisfactory smirk.
The photographs were taken mainly in Kenya, from Masai Mara to Lake Turkana. Gulden's favorite stamping ground is Aberdare National Park, noted for its diverse terrain. "It has an amazing forest, beautiful animals, and it's not well traveled," he said.
Danger is a constant, as evident in a close-up a crocodile in all of his toothsome glory. Gulden has been charged by an agitated rhinoceros, which punctured her horn through the roof of his jeep. Stakeouts require heightened senses to detect aggressive buffalo lurking in the thickets.
The majority of his time is devoted to waiting, observing and scouting, which requires an absurd amount of patience. It was three years before he laid eyes on the elusive and endangered mountain bongo, the largest of the African forest antelope, of which there are fewer than 100 known left in the wild. "It hangs out in the thickest forest, but we were able to photograph it because of the camera traps," recalled Gulden, referring to infrared beams that triggered the shot.
For the close-up of an African crown eagle, he climbed 100 feet to a nest where a baby chick was waiting for its mother. He attached an improvised camera mount inches away and wired it with an infrared beam. A pulley system hoisted the camera up and down. A wireless remote snapped photos over the course of a few days.
The native New Yorker first discovered Africa with his father when he was 15. He returned a few years later with the National Outdoor Leadership School and was hooked. His father introduced him to a childhood friend, Peter Beard, a writer and photographer who has been a huge influence on Gulden's work.
Back in Kenya, Gulden is on the prowl for a rare melanistic black leopard.