EYE-CATCHING Bryant Austin’s “Dwarf Minke Whale Portrait 1186” is a life-size work from the Great Barrier Reef.
By YUDHIJIT BHATTACHARJEE
On a warm summer afternoon in 2005, Bryant Austin was snorkeling in the blue waters of the South Pacific by the islands of Tonga, looking through his camera at a humpback whale and her calf swimming less than 50 yards away. As he waited for the right moment, the playful calf swam right up to him, so close that he had to lower his camera. That’s when he felt a gentle tap on his shoulder.
Turning around, Mr. Austin found himself looking straight into the eye of the mother whale, her body bigger than a school bus. The tap had come from her pectoral fin, weighing more than a ton. To Mr. Austin, her gesture was an unmistakable warning that he had gotten too close to the calf. And yet, the mother whale had extended her fin with such precision and grace — to touch the photographer without hurting him — that Mr. Austin was in awe of her “delicate restraint.”
Looking into the whale’s eye, lit by sunlight through the water, Austin felt he was getting a glimpse of calmness and intelligence, of the animal’s consciousness. The moment changed Mr. Austin’s life. It struck him that something was missing from four decades of whale photography: the beauty of true scale. Mr. Austin concluded that the only way to capture the magnificence of whales would be to create life-size pictures of them. “I wanted to recreate the feeling I had when I looked into the eye of the mother whale,” he said.
Mr. Austin has since pursued that dream, spending countless hours at sea in the company of whales. Working with five different whales from three species, he has created 25 true-scale pictures, including two full portraits — each composed from dozens of photographs of different sections of the whale’s body. The largest photo is a 6-by-30-foot portrait of a dwarf Minke whale from the Great Barrier Reef in Australia; the panels that make up the image weigh a total of 600 pounds. Some of Mr. Austin’s work went on display this month at the Electric Works gallery in San Francisco.
FLOATER “Studio cosmos, Kingdom of Tonga” by Bryant Austin, who doesn’t take his boat within 10 feet of a whale, preferring for them to swim closer.