Thursday, May 8, 2008
In the aquamarine waters off the coast of the Kingdom of Tonga, a curious 3-week-old humpback calf passed his powerful fluke in front of Bryant Austin’s snorkel mask. Then the calf’s massive mother tapped the man’s shoulder with her fin, as if to remind him she was watching. The encounter left Austin shaking and speechless for hours.
Two years later, in the same warm waters, a calf wrapped a pectoral fin around Austin and held him for a few surreal moments, the marine mammal breathing through his blowhole, the land mammal through his snorkel.
“I’ve been touched, caressed and even embraced by the whales, particularly the calves,” the Santa Cruz-based photographer says, standing among his whale portraits at the Monterey Museum of Art at La Mirada.
In the seven months Austin spent floating with the Tonga humpback population, whales approached him only four times. During those precious windows, he snapped photos of their massive bodies from rostrum to fluke.
Later, he digitally stitched the images together to create full-body portraits – an experimental process he says has never been done before with whales. The 11 black-and-white photos on display at the Museum represent the artist’s most intimate encounters with humpbacks.
Austin focuses on the animals’ grapefruit-sized eyes to capture their emotions. “Sometimes it’s heavy-lidded and calm,” he says. “Other times it’s wide and strained.”
Two installations add movement to the exhibition: a slideshow of whale eyes and a 7-by-20-foot projection of Austin’s 12-minute video presentation, which features sobering facts about the disappearing marine giants.
Whales have been around for 9 million to 30 million years, the white letters state, while the human fossil record only goes back 200,000 years. Yet most large whale populations have been reduced to 2 percent of their historic population in two human generations.
As the words flash on the screen, a sub-woofer rattles the museum’s walls, emitting the crooning love songs of male humpbacks. Austin says the effect is even more dramatic when experienced through the hull of a boat. “It just envelopes you,” he says.
Austin – a tall, gentle redhead whose posture is more ursine than cetacean – has spent almost a decade seeking close encounters with whales. After roughly 400 hours scouting Monterey Bay in a slow-moving Zodiac, his first photo opportunity presented itself when a blue whale approached the inflatable boat. Austin snapped away at his medium-format camera as the creature spouted mist through its blowhole. A rainbow reflected off the droplets.
The film came back unexposed. At a friend’s suggestion, the self-taught photographer went to Tonga to swim with the humpbacks, linking up with Australian whale biologist Libby Eyre so his photos could serve a scientific as well as artistic purpose. “That’s where my vision came into sharp focus.”
In 2005 – the year Japan tried to end the international moratorium on commercial whale hunting – Austin founded Marine Mammal Conservation Through the Arts, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing soul-shaking photographs of cetaceans to a public that might not otherwise care. A year later, he quit his job managing money at a UC Santa Cruz sea otter research lab, sold all his possessions and moved in with his mother.
Austin says his nonprofit is still relatively unknown, but his photos – particularly a close-up of a calm-looking humpback calf – impressed the staff at the museum. “Not only did we like the images; we also liked the whole idea around it,” says Curatorial Assistant Helaine Glick. “He was trying to get people to look at whales in ways they hadn’t before.”
But a financial squeeze is limiting Austin’s prospects. He says his past four years of work, including $70,000 for the Tonga project, have been almost entirely self-funded. To pay for the exhibition at MMA Mirada, he says, he sold his camera equipment.
At the end of May, he plans to take his exhibition to the International Whaling Commission meeting in Santiago, Chile. He’s trying to raise funds for the trip and other projects by selling limited-edition prints of his whale portraits. But he says sales have been sluggish.
If he can raise enough money, Austin plans to spend 40 months with five endangered whale species. His Holy Grail is to create a life-sized 100-by-25-foot photo of the world’s biggest animal, the disappearing blue whale, using the same video composite technology that NASA uses to image Mars.
His mission: to capture the elusive giant’s soul and shine it on the world leaders who will decide its fate. “I don’t want to tell them how to think; I just want to bring these animals to them,” he says. “Many will not be moved. But many will.”
INTO THE DEEP shows at the Monterey Museum of Art, 720 Via Mirada in Monterey, through May 18. Austin will speak about his work at the Monterey Bay chapter of the American Cetacean Society 7:30pm, Thursday, May 29, at the Hopkins Marine Station Boatworks building off Oceanview Boulevard in Pacific Grove. Free and open to the public. 646-8743. To view Austin’s work online, visit www.studiocosmos.com or www.mmcta.org.