Images of Wildlife Invite Contemplation of Our Role in the Natural World

by Jean Schiffman

A new exhibition at the California Academy of Sciences presents, in visual form, the Academy’s credo: “to explore, explain and sustain life on Earth.”

The 45 images in the California Academy of Sciences’ first major photography exhibit, “BigPicture”—selected from among 6,300 contest entries from 61 countries—are likely to provoke every human response imaginable.

That would include laughter. For example, California photographer Andrew Peacock’s “Anyone Seen a Dentist?” depicts a bulbous-nosed, whiskery and toothlessly grinning southern elephant seal in Antarctica. It won honorable mention in the “Invertebrates, Fish, Amphibians, Reptiles and Marine Mammals” category. Or consider the close-up portrait “The Cassowary,” which won honorable mention in the “Birds” category. This photograph, by another Californian, Tony Trupp, bears an uncanny resemblance to Mr. Burns on “The Simpsons,” with its long, blue neck and pointy, wide-nostriled proboscis. Even the way it peers straight ahead—its large brown eyes almost, but not quite, crossed, its body tilted at a seemingly inquisitive angle—is amusing. “The cassowary is the most unique bird on the planet,” declares Suzi Eszterhas, the San Francisco-based, award-winning photographer and former Fellow of the International League of Conservation Photographers who chaired the panel of judges that selected the winning images. Like some of the other animals seen in this exhibit, the goofy-looking cassowary is considered “vulnerable”—one stop short of endangered.

The exhibit itself is an opportunity to present, in visual, artistic form, the Academy’s credo: “to explore, explain and sustain life on Earth.” Its creative director, Rhonda Rubinstein (cofounder/co-leader of the exhibit with Gary Sharlow), explains that the overall effect of these images—taken by photographers in 12 different countries and displayed in the Academy’s central “piazza” in sizes that vary from 40” x 60” (for the Grand Prize winner, “The Luckiest Penguin”) to 30” x 50” and 12” x 18”—may prompt viewers to “consider their role in the natural world.”

It would be hard not to consider, or reconsider, our place on the planet when observing the first-place winner in the Conservation category, “Beast in the Garden.” Colorado photographer Morgan Heim, one of the very few women whose work is seen here, took the image. (“Wildlife photography is male-dominated,” concedes Eszterhas, noting that including herself as designated tiebreaker, only three of the nine-person, international panel of judges, all acclaimed nature photographers with individual areas of expertise, are female. Partly that has to do with the travel requirements—Eszterhas has often traveled 10 months out of the year—that can force women to choose between parenting and nature photography. Still, she says, among younger photographers there are now more women than previously.) In Heim’s haunting image, a mountain lion emerges from out of the dark to gaze, alert and implacable, at the photographer. It is lurking in a backyard. “This photo symbolizes what big cats and other predators are facing throughout the world,” observes Eszterhas, “and it applies to so many different species”—shrinking habitats, the necessity for humans and wildlife to co-exist.”

The exhibit is divided into seven categories, including the “Youth” and “Kids” divisions. Altogether, the images capture “the great themes of art,” says Rubinstein, “not just the exquisite beauty of nature, but also tableaus of life and death and the unusual relationships that bind us together.” Some are stunningly beautiful. Italian environmental scientist Emanuele Biggi’s first-place winner in the “Land Mammals” category, “Curvy King,” in which an Alpine ibex is poised on the slope of an ice-covered cliff in Italy, his curved horns pointing backward toward the jagged rocks is a still life so elegantly composed that the ibex appears to be a lone survivor in a silent, stark-white world. “Animals in landscapes are not easy to get,” observes Eszterhas. “It’s easier to take a close-up portrait. This guy nailed it—it really symbolizes photography as art.”

Also consider the painterly “Snow Mountain” by Ray Collins, which could be a Japanese print of Mt. Fuji—except that it is a giant wave in the ocean near Collins’ Australian home. It won first place in the “Waterscapes, Landscapes and Plant Life” category. “That wave makes us see a wave in a different way than we’ve ever seen it,” remarks Eszterhas.

An artful and expansive scene of zebras on the run, “The Chase,” an honorable mention photo taken by London photographer Rachel Wegh in a park in South Africa, is almost trompe l’oeil: a herd of zebra race across the landscape, but in the lower foreground, and so much smaller that they seem almost Photoshopped in, a herd of brown impala, antlers erect, are racing in the same direction. Apparently the photographer is perched on an elevation or cliff. “It’s the chase that has been depicted in art since the beginning of painting,” points out Rubinstein, “zebras and impalas, and wildebeest leaping into the waters.” The latter, an exquisite black and white honorable mention by Bay Area resident Scott Marmer, depicts a group of wildebeest heading down a cliff into the water in a reserve in Kenya, with the head wildebeest captured, strikingly, mid-air.

The comical (including a close-up “Eye of the Toad” by Montana’s Ronan Donovan), the heart-warming, the menacing, the violent, the sad, the serene (a camouflaged screech owl—which could be a “find the hidden owl in the painting” puzzle—taken by Graham McGeorge in a wildlife refuge in Georgia); the simple and the complex: all those elements are on view here. “That’s nature,” says Eszterhas. “Animals die. People die. There’s predation. That can give you conflicted feelings.” She points, though, to a conflict-free and particularly charming honorable mention, “Fox Pups at Play” by India’s Sandesh Kadur. The two tiny, almost hairless Indian foxes appear to be smooching, their noses and paws touching. “Behavior is such a part of wildlife photography,” says Eszterhas. “If you don’t have behavior, along with light and composition and other technical skills, it won’t be as compelling. In this one, you want the viewer to be aware of the foxes and their interaction—you don’t want to see the photographer. So this is a good example of [animal-only] interaction.”

The second-place winner in the “Conservation” category is a simple, eloquent image of a tiny baby canary held in the palm of a human hand, taken by Mauritius photographer Steffen Binke. “The way it’s backlit, [illuminating] the hair on the bird, says so much,” remarks Eszterhas, “about conservation and how vulnerable animals are when it comes to humans.” Its title: “The Future Lies in Our Hands.”

More haunting and ethereal is “The Ice Bear,” the first-place winner in the “Vertebrates, Fish, Amphibians, Reptiles and Marine Mammals” category. The ever-so-slightly distorted image of a polar bear peers up from beneath a transparent sheet of ice in Hudson Bay. The Seattle-based photographer, Paul Souders, writes (on the Academy’s exhibition website (, “I was sitting in a tiny boat….The winter’s sea ice was melting almost before my eyes as a heat wave had arrived all across northern Canada. As the bear looked up at me through the ice, the image encapsulated the intelligence, mystery and beauty of the polar bear, and the many threats they face in a changing world.”

Souders, whose work has appear in major U.S., French and German publications, and whose Arctic photography is highly acclaimed, also won the BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition’s $5,000 Grand Prize for “The Luckiest Penguin,” in which a gentoo penguin has apparently just barely escaped the jaws of a leopard seal along the shore of the Antarctic Peninsula. An Academy scientist’s commentary, one among many that accompany the various photographs in the exhibit, notes that the image beautifully represents Darwin’s observations on survival of the fittest. Both creatures need to survive, but looking at the photo, it’s hard not to root for the intrepid little penguin over the much bigger, sleeker, killer seal.

As for the Kids category—Stephen Joseph Brown, a nine-year-old in England, found a rare and threatened heath fritillary butterfly resting with open wings on a white flower one windy day in the woods in Kent, an unusual sight. “Most adults would be over the moon with that—the composition is brilliant,” says Eszterhas. Such examples by gifted young photographers surely bode well for the future of nature photography, just as this competition, which henceforth will be annual, encourages us to—as Rubinstein says—contemplate our own role in the perennially endangered natural world.

August 1-November 2


California Academy of Sciences

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