Bryant Austin finds himself – and a way to help whales – in the eyes of the world’s biggest animals
February 1, 2013
Not too long after Carmel Valley resident Bryant Austin looked into the opalescent eye of a humpback whale, Austin’s psychologist looked into his.
Then she offered some bad news.
“She told me the last thing you want to hear,” he says. “She said, ‘I don’t know how to help you anymore.’”
He knew he was a mess mentally, but didn’t think she’d give up too. He had lost faith in the efficacy of his nonprofit activism. “I worked for countless NGOs for 30 years,” he says, “and they’re still killing whales and not changing anything.” He drifted between dismay and distraction distilled from his point-blank encounter with the 90,000-pound humpback while snorkeling in the south Pacific.
“I had to do something,” Bryant says. “I was miserable living with my day job and that inspiration, and not doing anything with it. I was very depressed.”
In that whale’s eye, a massive glassy globe alit with late afternoon sun, Austin glimpsed something world-spinning – something he says “had been missing in the four-decade effort to communicate the reality of whales.”
Sitting in his shrink’s office after her confession, it took him half a minute to realize what he had to do: quit his job at a UC Santa Cruz-affiliated sea otter research lab and sell pretty much all of his possessions, including his truck.
The small wad of money would finance a return to the waters off the Kingdom of Tonga for 120 days of, mostly, waiting. People understandably think his charge is a lot like the lucid dreaming he used to practice – purely sequences like the one where he watched a humpback float vertically, upside down, slowly spinning and listening for whale songs for 15 minutes. Reality is more like nonstop double-shift days followed by restless nights on remote tiny islands infested with bugs and farm-animal noises.
“Think of an old beat-up boat in the South Pacific, a two-mile swim from a distant kay, and the engine goes out,” he says. “Thankfully it started… eventually.”
Waits between whales can last weeks. When he finally finds some, Austin’s approach is to let whales approach him. (He and his 50-meg Hasselblad camera need to be within about 6 feet to get the detail he needs for large-format composites.) He’s fond of saying his photos happen “on their terms, at their scale.”
“I don’t swim after them,” he says. “I float and watch, have faith in that and give them space, let their curiosity come out. I open myself up to what they can present me beyond my imagination.”
That first trip – and the sale of everything he owned – furnished one lonely, albeit big, photo. Fortunately that giant shot of a humpback calf’s head and the heart-melting story behind it, which he toted to an International Whaling Commission meeting in Chile, earned him a commission to expand his shows. Now his portraits, some as long as 30 feet, have been shown across Norway and Tokyo, places with whaling history and polarized politics around the issue. Along the way he set at least one official museum attendance record, and several informal ones for tears of OMG.
“I took no agenda, no messaging,” he says. “I try to talk as little as possible. I want to give visual, profound visceral reality of what we’re talking about. I merely want to share.”
That represents a departure from an activist past. “The activism approach is in your face,” he says, “trying to force something. My audiences can come to their own conclusions, which is more profound and lasting.”
He shares gentle giants he knows by name, personality and profile. Playful young minke whale Ella, for instance, likes to inch as close as possible – while vertical – for the investigative angle. A sperm whale named Enigma likes chewing on fins. His cousin Scar displays dramatic memories from giant squid battles past in violent white calligraphy written around his good eye, and is uncomfortable being photographed on his blind side (though the milky marble of an eye makes for a riveting pic).
Austin’s work has helped inspire a suitably whale-scale film focused on sperm whales. Tentatively called The Pod, it’s being shot in 3-D for IMAX-size screens in cahoots with National Geographic and Gorillas in the Mist Producer Bob Nixon.
After talking underwater photography at last week’s Whalefest, Austin’s Beautiful Whale photo exhibition surfaces for its U.S. debut at Museum of Monterey this Saturday, Feb. 2, with a free reception. Austin reached out to collectors and donors to mount individual pieces, which weigh as much as 600 pounds and are composed of 15 to 20 images drawn from a stash of 300 per whale. Each image captures a 5-foot section of the whale’s body, and is precisely and painstakingly woven together digitally in a process that can take as many as 300 hours per piece, and demands 50 gigabytes, more memory than it takes to store all 210 episodes of Family Guy.
“People are going to start with, ‘Wow,’” says MoM consultant-exhibition designer Thomas Hood. “The space will be clean, all white, and all eyes will be looking at photographs they’re never seen. Like Bryant says, only one-millionth of 1 percent of the population has seen a whale up close up like this. It’s a completely unique opportunity.”
Pre-orders are already accumulating for Austin’s triumphant, 124-page, large-format coffee table tome, which enjoys the same name as the show – and, with a 5-foot fold out, some of its girth – plus a foreword from oceans conservation pioneer and aquanaut Sylvia Earle. The book is out in April.
The soft-spoken Austin likes to remind listeners how much bigger whales’ brains are than ours (as much as seven times), how much longer they’ve been evolving (at least 9 million years) and how much their numbers are evaporating (some populations are as low as 2 percent of historic levels).
“My biggest worry is losing them before we understand them,” he says.
You can sense that would be the ultimate mad-making moment for the self-taught, reflective photographer, a place from where no terrestrial psychotherapies could rescue him.
Hence he is willing to sell all he owns, to lurch for weeks in a rickety boat and to stitch together digital photos endlessly, all to avoid having to look into the big beautiful eye of a big beautiful whale and say the last thing you want to hear: “I don’t know how to help you anymore.”
By Mark C. Anderson
Originally posted in The Monterey County Weekly, photos supplemented by Mission Blue
BEAUTIFUL WHALE free opening reception on 5pm Saturday, Feb. 2, at Museum of Monterey, 5 Custom House Plaza, Monterey, 372-2608. View more Bryant Austin work at www.studiocosmos.com