Beautiful Whale

Bookshelf: Beautiful Whale

Beautiful Whale – Bryant Austin

Beautiful Whale
Beautiful Whale featured an article about Bryant Austin last year. He is a photographer who has spent years (and his life savings) photographing whales in the ocean. His aim is to capture the animal in sufficient detail that the image can be blown up to life size. This requires a camera with many megapixels, a massive computer to process the images, and – most importantly – the opportunity to be less than two metres away from the whale, for an extended period of time.

Austin travelled to the haunt of Tony Wu, Tonga (to see humpback whales), the West Indies (for sperm whales), and to the Great Barrier Reef (for minke whales). It is not easy to get close to a whale. Austin waited, motionless on the surface, for whales to approach him. When one did, and was sufficiently curious and relaxed to stay near him for twenty minutes or more, Austin was able to photograph it. Through a process of trial and error he figured out how best to angle the camera, and position himself relative to the sun, in order to get images of the whale’s entire body that he could stitch together in an enormous composite panorama. There is a chapter devoted to each location that he visited, and he describes the encounter with each whale in some detail.

The photographic results are breathtaking. This is a large format book, with several fold-out pages that allow study of every detail of the whales. Their eyes are particularly captivating. (I also loved seeing the barnacles and attendant pilot fish.) There is an explanation of how each set of photographs was taken, too, several of which are quite moving.

Austin has exhibited the images, printed out metres long, around the world, starting in whaling nations such as Norway and Japan. In the afterword he explains that he at first believed that the images would be sufficiently powerful standing alone, with no accompanying commentary or polemic about whaling. His experience in taking the exhibition around the world, however, was that people were fascinated with the detail of each encounter with a whale, and wanted to hear about the detail of how he took the photographs.

This, for me, is the most powerful kind of wildlife conservation photography. Austin is not the subject of the pictures (he does not even appear in them), and is at pains to focus attention on the whales rather than himself. As one views the images, however, one becomes curious about the subject of the whale’s gaze – the entity on which its obvious intelligence is focused. In describing how he and the whales co-operated to obtain the photographs, Austin stresses that it was not some special mojo that he has that led to the specialness of the encounter. It is simply that he was there, receptive and non-threatening, which allowed the whales to approach him and his camera.

I think we delude ourselves when we think that images of people interacting with wildlife and the natural environment are the best we can do to rouse concern and care for conservation in others. In most cases, these images are actually symptomatic of the damage that humans have done to the earth. As Thomas Peschak has repeatedly demonstrated, nature can hold its own, and doesn’t need a man in a speedo or someone pretending to be a mermaid to “change perceptions” or make people care about the environment. It is when we get out of the way, as Bryant Austin repeatedly demonstrates in this beautiful volume, that magic happens.

You can get a copy of the book here (if you’re in South Africa), otherwise here or here.

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Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.