Bryant Austin creates the world’s only high-resolution, life-size photographs of whales. A photographer and marine mammal conservationist, Austin is passionate about exploring and creating connections between humanity and whales – what he calls “the greatest minds in the water.”
Austin’s just-released book, Beautiful Whale, catalogs his quest to “recreate the transcendent sensation one experiences floating an arm’s length away from the eye of an inquisitive whale.” This 124 page, 12 x 15 inch coffee table book published by Abrams features exquisite life-size (or “whale-scale”) photos of whales’ eyes, numerous full-body photo mosaics reproduced as 1:6 scale fold-out pages, and a foreword from Dr. Sylvia Earle.
Austin first became inspired to create full-body images of whales at sea during a dive in 2004 when, floating motionless in the water, he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder from a 45-ton female humpback whale. This encounter brought Austin eye-to-eye with his muse, and inspired him to develop new ways to visualize and help the public appreciate whales:
Her eye was fully illuminated from the late afternoon sun scintillating over his shoulder. Looking into her eye, he saw for the first time the calm mindful expression of a whale peering into his own eyes. In that instant he saw clearly what had been missing in the four-decade effort to visually communicate the reality of whales – moments like these documented on their terms, at their scale.
That initial experience led Austin to quit his job, sell his home and possessions, and pioneer a technique to create photo mosaic images of whales at sea. Inspired by NASA’s approach to creating images of large celestial bodies through a mosaic of photographs, Austin began experimenting and by 2009 had composed the world’s largest and most detailed whale images.
These photographic compositions require a great deal of patience and ingenuity. Since the water column visually obscures parts of a whale’s body from view, Austin must keep his camera no further than six feet from his subject to capture its true colors and fine details. Austin waits for the whales to come to him as he hovers on the surface with a snorkel:
With his eye to the view finder he is completely exposed and blind to what is unfolding around him. Every time, he must surrender and put his entire trust in them. With humpback whales in particular, their massive pectoral fins will at times pass just beneath his body. And even though their fluke may be thirty feet away from their eye, as long as he is still, they line him up and move by with great precision.
When the whale approaches to inspect him at the surface, Austin creates a series of five-foot wide photos along its body with his 50 megapixel camera and telephoto portrait lens. He sometimes has to spend up to three months with a small pod of whales to allow them to become comfortable with his presence.
Beautiful Whale features these photographic compositions while recounting Austin’s efforts to build mutual trust with his subjects and to inspire viewers to “take the future of whales—endangered throughout the oceans—into their hearts.” Austin believes that with “sufficient time and intention, it is possible to promote changes in attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs.”
As Dr. Earle puts it, “As an ambassador from the ocean—and to the ocean—Bryant Austin is not only a source of inspiration. He is cause for hope.”
For more on Beautiful Whale via Austin’s website, click HERE.
A brief video preview of the book can be viewed on Vimeo.com.
Austin’s life-size photo mosaics of whales are currently on view in Monterey, CA at the Museum of Monterey until September 2, 2013. His work is also in a permanent installation at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
* (All unattributed quotes are from studiocosmos.com).