Beauty in the most tragic sense
Conservation photographer Daniel Beltrá, who lives in West Seattle, describes himself as a "one-man band" who travels the world exposing endangered ecosystems and calling attention to the trade-offs we make in the name of progress.
SEATTLE CONSERVATION photographer Daniel Beltrá's work is so visually stunning that it always begs a second glance.
It is only then, once you're seduced by the sheer beauty of the pictures, the mesmerizing play on patterns both natural and man-made, the bird's-eye sense of scale, that you're struck with the outrage he's really trying to provoke.
That picturesque shipwreck in a patch of sand? Look again. It's a functioning boat mired in silt where the mighty Amazon River would be, were it not for drought attributed to climate change.
That psychedelic expanse of June-bug greens and midnight blues with perfect waves of rust-colored streaks running across it? Mother Nature had nothing to do with it. That's oil from the BP undersea pipeline rupture in the Gulf of Mexico.
Beltrá, 45, has made a career out of traveling to the world's precious ecosystems to document settings most of us conjure only in daydreams. From the thick rain forests of Indonesia to the icy reaches of the Arctic to the sweltering waterways of Brazil to the labyrinthine marshes of Louisiana, his subjects are the stuff of travel adventures.
But his images of those places are beautiful in the most tragic sense.
They are snapshots of raw nature hobbled by the folly of man, scenes of environmental devastation so artful in their composition that they take on a bizarre loveliness.
Beltrá's work isn't intended to make you visit these places. He wants you to help save them.
Beltrá himself is an unassuming man, not so much an agent provocateur as a humble craftsman who lets his work speak for itself.
The Spaniard possesses a feline calm that is broken only by an affable grin or a soft-spoken aside, his speech smoothed by the trilled r's and lullaby cadence of his Castilian accent.
He's on assignment six to nine months a year, an absence from home that happens with the blessing of his wife, Shoshana Beltrá, an ultrasound technician from Seattle.
In the field, Beltrá says he's a "single-man band," lacking a crew of assistants.
Actually, "in the field" isn't quite accurate. Some of his most famous images were taken high above the scene from an airplane or helicopter, which allows him to pan out and capture the scope of clear cuts, forest burns and melting ice. Aerial photos have been his signature since an assignment in Spain in the mid-'90s, not long after he stumbled into photojournalism by shooting amateur pictures of a Basque-separatist bombing scene in Madrid when he lived there.
"Something clicked in my brain — I was very comfortable up there, and I could see things differently, in a way that was really appealing to me," he says of that first aerial shoot. "I also figured out rapidly that people respond very well to those images." Literally on the fly, he has just moments to capture the nuance that is so evident in his best work.
His physical distance from the ground or water works in his favor, revealing to him illustrative patterns, textures and color variations that the photographer on foot can't possibly detect.
At ground level, a forest being burned down to make way for agriculture looks like a wilderness on fire. But seen from above, the deforested blackness menaces the landscape like a slow-moving monster.
With his work on the Amazon, the scale depicted in the aerial shots becomes a part of the story. "The images take on their own life," he says. "It's sometimes scary, really scary, how much power the images can have."
His images capture the world the way an angry god would see it, beautiful creation imperiled by the reckless hand of humanity.
The scenes that unfold in Beltrá's viewfinder do not make him sad about the trade-offs we accept for energy, food and economic development.
"I get more pissed than depressed," he says.
The possibility of making a difference serves as motivation.
He has the single-minded purpose of a street activist who just happens to wield the photographic mastery and distinctiveness of an auteur.
This summer, Beltrá and colleagues in the International League of Conservation Photographers (ILCP) traveled to Northern British Columbia to capture the landscapes, wildlife and people of a region threatened by a planned transcontinental oil pipeline that will bring millions of barrels of oil from the tar sands of Alberta through the Great Bear Rainforest for pickup by tankers plying the narrow passages along the coast. The Canadian company that wants to build the pipeline, Enbridge, is the same firm whose pipeline rupture near Battle Creek, Mich., this past summer sent up to a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.
Beltrá was assigned to document vulnerable B.C. waterways from the air.
"Daniel is one of those photojournalists who's not compromising about what he does; he's not out to make pretty pictures," ILCP President Cristina Mittermeir says. "He's a journalist in the real sense of the word, and he's defining how conservation photography should be done."
Mittermeir has worked with Beltrá on other projects in the past and describes him as a very funny man off the clock.
"He likes to sing and tell stories," she says. "But when the action starts, he becomes a journalist. He's like a machine."
On his first and second trips to the gulf, assignments sponsored by Greenpeace, Beltrá snapped about 27,000 images, mostly during four-hour stints in a low-flying airplane.
Through his oil-spill work and other projects funded by Greenpeace, Beltrá has a constant international platform to raise awareness about conservation. In fact, his pictures have been used in nearly every major Greenpeace campaign for the past 20 years, says Tim Aubry, visual communications director for Greenpeace's American division.
"One thing that stands out almost more than any other environmental photographer's work is his work brings an element of art — he brings another dimension to it," Aubry says. "It's striking, and that's what brings you in and makes you wonder what's going on."
Beltrá resists the suggestion that his work qualifies as art, or that he has art in mind when framing the next shot.
If his work is art, it crosses this threshold in the same way that Mary Ellen Mark's gritty but museum-worthy photos of Seattle street kids in the 1980s made viewers want to give a hand to people they'd probably ignored a thousand times.
Looking at either photographer's work, one is compelled to ponder the conditions that made the scenes possible in the first place, to see not only what's there but, more importantly, what caused it.
Recently, though, he's made some forays into the art world, agreeing this summer to include his work from the BP oil disaster in "Spill: Crude Response," an exhibit at the 212 Gallery in Aspen, Colo., that explored "the intellectual rapture found in organic forms," an apt description of the Beltrá effect.
The Depression-era documentary photographer Dorothea Lange once said "this benefit of seeing... can come only if you pause a while, extricate yourself from the maddening mob of quick impressions ceaselessly battering our lives, and look thoughtfully at a quiet image... the viewer must be willing to pause, to look again, to meditate."
"It's our job as photographers to make it immediate and real — sugarcoating is no longer an option," Mittermeir says, noting that some other conservation photographers fear being seen as too activist in their work because it might alienate people.
"When you listen to Daniel talk, he talks about the immediacy of the image," she says. He's trying to get the viewer to feel some of the passion and indignation he experiences in the field.
But unlike many of his peers, Beltrá has yet to produce a mass-market photo book to share his concern with a broader audience. The closest he's come is a book published in recognition of his 2009 Prince's Rainforests Award. As part of the award, given by Prince Charles, he was sent on a three-month trip to document endangered rain forests in the Congo, the Amazon region and Indonesia. He heard that Prince Charles gave the limited-edition book to world leaders at the Copenhagen climate conference, a huge honor.
"When you talk about being able to influence policy, I don't think I'm ever gonna have that opportunity again," Beltrá says in a characteristically modest tone.
"Some photographers take reality and... impose the domination of their own thought and spirit," the landscape photographer Ansel Adams once said. "Others come before reality more tenderly and a photograph to them is an instrument of love and revelation."
It's hard to tell whether Beltrá's approach falls between those two mindsets or encompasses them both.
In his own loving way, he reveals that we are all accomplices in the destruction he captures.
"Sometimes people ask me, 'How can it be beautiful if it's terrible?' " Beltrá says.
He doesn't have a good answer to that question. But if this approach gets people to pay attention to environmental issues, talk and act, that's justification enough.
"I am more and more interested in the dialogue than confrontation," Beltrá says of his work. "We are all together under this roof, and we better figure out a way to get along and solve these problems."
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff writer.