Review: Fragile beauty on display at Burke Museum nature-photo show
Seattle photographer Art Wolfe's International Conservation Photography Awards focus on both message and medium. Winners are on view at the Burke Museum.
Seattle Times arts writer
International Conservation Photography AwardsThrough Sept. 6, Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Washington, 17th Avenue N.E. and N.E. 45th Street, Seattle; $6-$9.50 (206-543-7907 or www.washington.edu/burkemuseum).
Photographic beauty and eco-minded photojournalism overlap powerfully in the International Conservation Photography Awards (ICPA) exhibit, on display at the Burke Museum.
The competition, established by Seattle photographer Art Wolfe in 1997, invites photographers around the world to submit work for awards in nine categories. A total of $14,000 in cash awards is distributed to the winners.
The more people out there with cameras documenting the natural world in all its greatness and ills, says Wolfe, the better. "There's a power there and a value to everybody."
This year more than 1,500 images were submitted by about 300 photographers. Some of the 75-plus winners, runners-up and honorable mentions would sit well in any fine-arts exhibit; others use sharp-focused means to push the viewer toward action.
In other words, as you walk the exhibit you find yourself veering between two reactions: awe at the gorgeousness of many sights depicted, and extreme distress at the man-made blights destroying them.
Local photographers and local sights figure prominently among the awe-inspiring visions.
In the student category, first-place winner Ethan Welty's "Winter Morning" is a stunner. Shot on Mount Baring in Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, it has an icy, gleaming radiance that makes its woodland landscape ethereal.
As Welty writes, "Even in winter, sleeping forests also have their moments."
Seattle photographer Yoshiki Nakamura, in the wildlife category, brings another local sight — the migration of snow geese through the Skagit Valley — to animated life with "Blurry birds in a flurry," shot in December near Mount Vernon. Sharp details of birds' wings emerge from a haze of action as the flock takes off.
Nakamura, like many of the photographers in the show, shares his secret on how he got the shot: "I used a very slow shutter speed to capture this moment of dynamic, energetic, yet elegant movement."
Local photographers Jon Cornforth and Amy Gulick likewise impress in the underwater category. Cornforth's "Steller sea lion underwater," shot off Hornby Island in British Columbia, is a classic that some smart publicist has made the calling card of the show.
And Cornforth is clearly engaged with his subject: "This curious sea lion," he writes, "enjoyed looking at its reflection on my wide-angle dome port."
In Gulick's "Dall's porpoise," shot from overhead in Frederick Sound, Alaska, the speed at which the cetacean travels bends both water and animal into a near abstraction.
The landscape and flora categories also offer sublime and striking work. In Belgian cameraman Philippe Moes' "Struggle for Life" (first place in flora), the sharp contrast between sunlit dunes and shadow make the shifting sands of the Namib Desert seem an especially tenuous place for the "flora" in question — Astenatherum grasses — to gain a toehold.
"Moody Moeraki," shot by Australian photographer Kah Kit Yoong on New Zealand's South Island (second place in landscape), two strangely marked, surf-enswathed boulders look, in the photographer's words, "like alien objects flung from outer space to land on the shores of an obscure beach."
Much of the work here is quite specific in message. California photographer Susanne Weissenberger's "Can he read?" (first place in natural environment at risk) is a case in point.
In the foreground, a male fur seal sitting on a discarded ship's propeller on the shores of Stromness Bay, South Georgia (off the coast of Antarctica), is oblivious to a sign right next to him reading, "Asbestos hazard: Keep out." A whole colony of the creatures is in the background behind him, equally unconcerned about their surroundings.
Michael deLeon's "Hidden life" (community at risk: honorable mention) is, if anything, more hard-hitting. A pristine waterfall arcing from a crevice in a sandstone cliff face sits next to lurid graffiti-covered pillars of a highway bridge, "a place," deLeon writes, "used mostly by those involved in drugs, drinking, litter, and graffiti."
Sometimes a sight that should be troubling is so eye-ravishing that the photographer's intentions may be undermined by his talents. That's true of Seattleite Chris Linder's "Ice sheet near Ilulissat, Greenland" (natural environment at risk: honorable mention).
It depicts a cavernous hole in the ice where there had been a freshwater lake the day before: an evermore frequent phenomenon as climate change shrinks the Greenland ice sheet.
Local photographers, including former Seattle Times photographer Tom Reese, dominate the Puget Sound at risk category sponsored by the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance. Along with the groups of photographs in the documenting a conservation project category, these shots have a photo-essay feel to them. Their purpose is to instruct, not amaze.
This year's Art Wolfe Award winner, Seattle photographer Stuart Westmorland's "Sailfish Troica," taken off the Yucatan coast, highlights some risks the men and women behind the lens take when they venture out of their comfort zone.
Westmorland's own account sums it up neatly: "At first it seemed suicidal to be near up to 30 sailfish swimming at high speed with slashing bills — but their vision is amazing. This particular image caught a brief moment where the sardine was stuck on the sailfish bill and then with lightning speed, it was shaken off and consumed."
Skillful predators though they are, Westmorland points out, sailfish are "endangered in much of the world."
"To me," Wolfe says of photographers like Westmorland who put themselves in harm's way, "they're heroes. They're out there trudging in those oil-slicked marshes, recording what's out there. And without seeing it, it's easy not to care about a place."
Michael Upchurch: email@example.com
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