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December 25 2011

2011 showed us new ways of seeing

The sense of new images hitting our eyes from everywhere is one of the most remarkable aspects of 2011

Reasons to be cheerful in 2011? Let's see.

It was a year when eyes opened a bit wider, when images from Earth and space and the enigmatic microverse of quantum physics expanded our field of vision – and the spread of new means of communication made those images more accessible and shareable than ever before.

David Attenborough showed us what life is like under the surface of the Arctic's frozen sea. In a different way, images from Egypt and Libya showed us the previously hidden and denied passions of entire peoples. Meanwhile from Cern came visualisations of the elusive and mighty Higgs boson.

The silly slurs on Frozen Planet for filming polar bear cubs in a zoo drew attention to how extreme our visual information now is. This detail simply could not have been filmed in the wild, but so many marvels were captured that people were actually surprised by the so-called "faking". That's what the BBC gets for raising expectations. Its polar documentary was full of images such as wolves hunting, seen from above, that were never possible in the past. Similarly, pictures from the frontier of science, showing such wonders as Earth-like planets, go beyond previous astronomy and make outer space seem close.

This sense of new images hitting our eyes from everywhere is one of the most remarkable aspects of 2011. I know it has nothing to do with art as such. Yet art created one or two remarkable images of its own. In particular, Urs Fischer's melting candle sculptures moved me deeply and are themselves images of science – instances of entropy.

Uh-oh, entropy – the universe running down. The news in 2011 was sometimes exhilarating but mostly terrifying. In the media that circulate such news faster than ever before, the content was often disturbing. But the images that showed us the ever-changing world, and the ways they reached us, were eye-popping. So a reason to be cheerful is that new ways of seeing are being born in our time. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 14 2011

Beauty and the beast: Frozen Planet does not deserve a tabloid mauling

The press has attacked the BBC documentary over its use of zoo footage. But the Beeb has shown us the beauty in the world in a way that puts the ugly side of tabloid journalism to shame

It seems like only yesterday that I was calling for positive images of journalists. But nothing has ever made me as angry with the press as recent attacks on the BBC documentary Frozen Planet.

I can see the horror of the hacking scandal and the revelations it is unleashing at the Leveson inquiry, of course. But I love to see beauty revealed in the world, and that is what Frozen Planet achieved. I find some newspapers' attempts to undermine this televisual masterpiece and its narrator David Attenborough more repulsive than I can say.

To recap: Frozen Planet showed television audiences this autumn a world that 99% of us will never visit. It sent cameras to the volcano Erebus that belches heat into the Antarctic ice, and under the frozen crust of the Arctic seas. It was rightly adored and acclaimed.

Then a completely standard and legitimate technique, openly explained on the BBC website, of filming in zoos, or the studio, images that cannot conceivably be recorded in the wild, was "discovered" (but it wasn't secret) and "exposed" (but it wasn't wrong). Now tabloid papers are full of self-righteous fury against the Beeb and its most legendary broadcaster.

No one who has admired these programmes can take the accusations seriously. They won't damage the programme in the long term, any more than similar claims damaged its predecessor The Blue Planet. The sheer abundance of rare and unprecedented images in these programmes dwarfs the supposed flaws their critics fixate on.

For me it raises a horrible question. Is newspaper journalism a destructive enterprise?

The BBC at its best is a creative force; it adds to people's lives. Some papers' urge to besmirch one of its greatest achievements begs the question – what do such newspapers add to anyone's life? Where is the beauty in their pages? Frozen Planet opens windows in the imagination. The tabloid attacks reveal that some sections of the British press are the enemies of imagination, education, beauty and – yes – truth. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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