One of the great dangers faced by the naturalist and the animal-lover is the lure of anthropomorphism. We apprehend nature and are desperate to see ourselves in it. Irrepressible narcissists, we project human emotions onto other creatures, though our better wisdom knows they are apart and different from us. It can be difficult to resist attaching sentimentality to other beings, especially mammals. The ego has a hard time grappling with the thought that they may not have a sentience similar to ours.
Bryant Austin’s life-sized whale portraits skate the very edge of that pitfall and manage to avoid romanticizing animals through the grace – the maturity – of seeing the thing for itself. The result is gripping: intimate images of the faces of creatures most of us will never otherwise glimpse. It may be the method that makes the art. Austin avoids anthropomorphism by exhibiting a kind of humility. He waits for the whales to come to him.
Austin got the idea for his whale series in 2004, when, while floating with a snorkel, he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned around to see a 45-ton female humpback looking directly at him. The whale, he says, had used her 15-foot-long pectoral fin to alert him that she was there. Austin then spend four months free diving in the South Pacific waters inhabited by whales and hoping for similar experiences.
Eventually, eight individual whales from three different species chose to spend time with Austin at close distance, allowing him to take their portraits. In each case he waited for the whales to initiate contact with him. The relationships, Austin says, often demonstrated great sensitivity. The huge animals would carefully swim around him and would reposition their fins and flukes so as to not do him any harm.
This spirit of mutual curiosity is what gives Austin’s work its force. It allows the human viewer to imagine that – who knows? – maybe the whales are eager to approach the photographer because, in making that eye-to-eye contact, they sense that really it’s we who are like them.
Bryant Austin’s whale portraits have been shown at galleries and exhibitions across the United States, as well as in Spain, Norway, and Japan. You can view more of his photographs at the website of Marine Mammal Conservation through the Arts.
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