Conservation-photo award winners at the Burke: beautiful, brutal, complex
The 2012 International Conservation Photography Awards exhibit at Seattle's Burke Museum mixes an environmental-activism message with some utterly transportive camera work. Through Nov. 25, 2012.
Seattle Times arts writer
2012 International Conservation Photography Awards10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily through Nov. 25 (closed Thanksgiving Day), Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, University of Washington, Seattle; $7.50-$10 (206-543-5590 or www.burkemuseum.org).
The photographs are never less than accomplished, and they're often ravishingly beautiful.
Yet in the Burke Museum's 2012 International Conservation Photography Awards exhibit, beauty can be a tricky business.
A beguiling image of rolling Palouse farmland in Eastern Washington may carry a hidden environmental warning. An eye-catching psychedelic shot of water ripples mirroring a fishing-boat reflection is actually vivid evidence of oil pollution. A panoramic view of Madrid looks inviting until you notice the yellow-brown band of smog, as distinct as sediment, on the horizon.
Then there are the images that, no matter how handsomely framed or crafted they are, immediately sound alarm bells. On catching a glimpse of Siberian permafrost in thawing upheaval, or seeing a Panamanian phosphate tanker smashing against a quay on Christmas Island, you can only think: Wow, this looks bad.
And that's the point.
The juried biennial awards, founded in 1997 by Seattle photographer Art Wolfe, serve several purposes. One is simply to encourage young photographers in developing their craft. Another is to give recognition to specific achievements in conservation photography. The overarching purpose of the awards is "to educate, inspire, and motivate the public through a photographic exhibition that will create a sense of urgency and move people to take action."
This year's show, divided into nine categories that include "Flora," "Underwater" and "Natural Environment at Risk," is impressive. Each photograph is accompanied by a short commentary by the photographer. Sometimes, as with Susanne Weissenberger's Palouse shot, the comments undercut the apparent serenity of what you're seeing.
"The monoculture agriculture there," Weissenberger writes, "requires more and more fertilizer and pesticide use. The seemingly beautiful landscape is irrevocably altered with soil erosion problems among the worst in the U.S."
At other times — nature photography being the patience-trying business it sometimes is — the comments can be humorous. Seattle cameraman Jon Cornforth prefaces his "Kuliak Pink Salmon" (shot in Alaska's Katmai National Park) with the wry remark, "I spent three days attempting to photograph brown bears. I did not succeed."
Never mind. His 3rd Place winner in the "Underwater" category is a treat, especially with the horizontal-hall-of-mirrors way its swimming salmon are reflected in the water surface above them.
The "Underwater" category also features breakout work by Spanish photographer Cristobal Serrano. His 1st Place winner, "Shoal of Life," shot 20 meters below the surface of the Sea of Cortez, shows a cormorant diving into a cosmic swirl of fish — the bird's prey. Serrano also won 1st Place in the "Wildlife" category with "Acrobatic Feeding," an amazing photographic "catch" of a hovering tern feeding a dragonfly to its chicks. His "Landscape" entry, "Isolated," though not ranked in the top three of its category, is just as fine in its depiction of a lone and rugged tree-crowned sea-stack off the coast of Costa Rica.
From an aesthetic point of view, the works that tease an abstract verve out of something figurative are among the most captivating in the show. Douglas H. Orton's "Reflective Sheen" (of oil-slicked waters in Seattle's Fishermen's Terminal) is in that category. So, more benignly, are Kelli Breeton-Fairall's "Kelp on Sitka Shore" and Andre Szekely's "Unfolding Fern."
In the student category (newly restricted, this year, to high-school students and college undergraduates), Bellingham photographer Jackson Lee has a similar keen eye for the energy created by fanning sea-spray crashing off the underside of cliffs at Cape Kiwanda on the Oregon Coast, in the aptly titled "Collision at the Cape."
The show is peppered with elegant wildlife portraits. Canadian photographer Peter Mather's "Arctic Loon" brings a dignified gravitas to the creature it depicts, its smooth-feathered head adorned by beaded raindrops. The Canon Award winner, selected by Wolfe himself, goes to Seattle photographer Paul Bannick's "Arctic Emissary" — a shot of a snowy owl in sidelong flight but with its eyes turned directly at the viewer. The fierce focus of its gaze couldn't be more eloquent.
Some photographers zero in on unvarnished environmental destruction, yet they still find some redeeming qualities in the scenes they capture.
Phillip Colla's "Injured Sea Lion" is, simultaneously, magical and horrifying. The young creature, full of a curiosity that can't help captivating the viewer, peers directly at you. But its neck is encircled by what Colla calls "a necklace of death," a fishing line it got snarled in when it was younger that is cutting deeper and deeper into its skin as it grows.
Tom Reese, a former Seattle Times photographer, shares wistful commentary on "Consume," his shot of a grocery cart abandoned in the murky waters of the Duwamish.
"The Duwamish River can be hard to love in its current state," he writes, "but it flows powerfully through the hearts of those who know it well." ("Consume" won second place recognition in the "Puget Sound at Risk" category.)
Reese also contributes one of the more offbeat "Flora" entries, titled "Walled Off, but Still Connected." In it, a city pedestrian strolls obliviously past the serendipitous alignment of a tree's shadow on a red construction fence with a winter tree's bare-branches tracery on the far side of the fence. Visible branches magically seem a direct continuation of the fence silhouette.
While Puget Sound sights and local photographers are prominent in the show, this isn't just a regional exhibit. ICP Awards director Chris Gorley notes that this year's 1,500 submissions from 300 photographers expanded the international scope of the show, with entries from Iceland, India, Kenya, Russia and a dozen other foreign countries featured in the exhibit.
The 70-odd final picks give you a strong and often startling sense of both the natural world and the locales where nature is under siege. Photographers bear witness to environmental blight. But they're just as strong on pristine natural wonders — as though to say, as Gorley puts it, "Look what would be lost if we can't get our conservation practices in control."
The Seattle-based ICP Awards, which were under Art Wolfe's auspices until this year, are now an independent enterprise sponsored by Washington Environmental Council, a nonprofit advocacy organization.
The awards' partnership with the Burke began in 2010, and plans are in place for another Burke exhibit in 2014. Erin Younger, Burke associate director of exhibits, notes that the 2010 show boosted museum attendance, and adds that the museum will be taking the top 25 photographs in the show on the road. One booking, at Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure museum and zoo in Kansas, was confirmed even before the exhibit opened here.
"The combination of the images and the personal stories as to how they were made and what they mean," Younger says, "is spot-on with the Burke's mission and vision, which is to show the interconnectedness of all life, the place of people in the natural world."
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org