Pursuing their passion is an ideal most people only dream about, but some people just make a decision and then go out and make it happen. American photographer and conservationist Bryant Austin is such a man.
Austin took a brave decision and set out to capture the soul of a whale by producing images so minutely detailed they would allow him to share the majesty of their form with the rest of the world.
He observes ‘the impetus behind his work is the thought of losing over five million years of evolving culture and communication in the largest brain ever to exist on Earth; to not only lose it, but to never understand what we’ve lost’
Australia had a vital role to play in the final outcome for Bryant Austin through one generous anonymous donor, who hearing of his project became entirely captivated, funding a pair of five-week expeditions to Dominica and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia to help him complete his work.
It was an encounter with an inquisitive Minke whale, near the Great Barrier Reef, which meant that Bryant Austin was able to spend up to six hours in the water with her for several days. Minke Whales are the most hunted in the world.
She is one of a great many varieties, including the Blue, the Humpback, the Sperm and Killer whales, to name but a few.
His nine year long project was in part inspired by Austin’s first job out of UC Santa Cruz, conducting sea otter research for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. While on location he had a stunning close up quiet underwater encounter of the natural kind with a ‘45 ton female humpback whale’, which generously allowed him to gaze right into her eyes.
This was Bryant Austin’s watershed moment, that moment of truth when he understood and knew clearly what he needed to do; to step outside his comfort zone, to let go of the limits and boundaries he had ‘imposed on himself in the past’ and begin to fashion his own future.
Shortly after this occurred in 2004 Bryant Austin quit his job, sold his car and the camper he lived in at the sea otter lab in Santa Cruz.
He cashed out his retirement savings, investing in and following his gut and vision, to document whales in their natural habitat in an all-new way, intimately. The project, which he nearly gave up on a number of occasions due to the vagaries of the weather, a lack of funds, many frustrations and other follies, finally culminated at the end of a decade in a stunning exhibition of his ‘whale’ photographic works held to great acclaim at the Museum of Monterey California in 2013.
Oceanographer Sylvia A. Earle, in her foreword to his book ‘Beautiful Whale’, produced in 2013 says, “As an ambassador from the ocean – and to the ocean. Bryant Austin is not only a source of inspiration. He is cause for hope.”
Humans have hunted whales since the 17th century, although we have known of their existence since the days of the Old Testament. They played their part in the creation myths and legends of many different cultures.
Those who live on the sea in the coastal regions of our world have always known about whales and held them in awe. Their sheer size is enough for any of us to do that; the biggest being the Blue whale, which can grow to 98 feet long, while the smallest is a pygmy sperm whale at only 11 feet.
Whales spend 90% of their time underwater, only coming to the surface to breathe and frolic in the sun at certain stages of the year.
Images of them doing that here in Australia always garner great media attention and cause many people to rush out of doors to see them.
They are mammals that breathe air, are warm blooded, nurse their young with milk on a teat and have body hair. They also store fat (blubber), which provides energy and insulates their giant bodies so that they can enjoy a long life of 100 years +
The genius of the whale is that they have the ability to teach, to learn, to cooperate, to scheme, and even to grieve. They benefit the ocean and despite what we know about them to this point in time, it’s only a pinhead on what we really need to know.
Bryant Austin and his wonderful photographic works are helping ocean scientists to hone in on different aspects of their being through observation.
His Studio: Cosmos is aiding the conservation of whales, raising awareness and inspiring others to enter the field.
Austin’s photographs have been exhibited in the United States, Norway, and Japan. He says he made a great many mistakes along the way in perfecting his photographic techniques, one that he would eventually use, which allowed him to take images from less than six feet away.
Austin tells how, by letting the whales make all the decisions about how close he could and should come, he also learned a great deal from them.
For instance he found they came closer if he laid flat on the surface of the water allowing them to peruse him first. He also learned to let go of his fear.
Having spent a great deal of time with whales Bryant Austin found that he also wanted to protect them and help efforts to save them from extinction by human forces.
Bryant Austin used a snorkel, an 80-mm telephoto portrait lens attached to a 50-megapixel Hasselblad H3DII-50 studio camera to capture his subjects and it would pick up even the microscopic hairs protruding from knobs (tubercles) on the whale’s underbelly.
By working with the whales Austin photographed along the whole length of their body. Back in his laboratory he joined the shots together digitally to produce a life size whale portrait. One portrait on show in his exhibition is 30 feet long and weights 6000 pounds.
Bryant Austin has produced these giant images that together with publication of his book ‘Beautiful Whale’ by Abrams out of New York, allow us all to understand these most gentle giants of our water world in an all-new way.
The journey is ongoing though, using all the technology now at his disposal, Bryant is planning an installation that represents his full vision, one which will allow the viewer through technology an interaction with whales that ‘cannot be distinguished from real life’.
Currently Austin is dividing his time between the Santa Lucia Preserve, where he and his fiancée are caretakers on an estate surrounded by deer, bobcat, wild turkeys and boar, and the frigid waters of Monterey Bay, where he is practicing free dives to prepare for his next expedition.
He is also planning to be in Australia to open his show.
“I want to photograph killer whales in the Arctic Circle,” he said. Let’s all hope that he succeeds.
For the time being Beautiful Whale is a show to be placed at the forefront of the diary.
Should be like the subject and this creative photographer’s stunning work, AWESOME.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
2 Murray Street
Carmel, CA 93921