Four exhibitions

We recently gorged ourselves on four international photographic exhibitions in Sydney in less than 24 hours…luckily I’m both omnivorous and ravenous in this respect, and they were all worth seeing.

First up was the
Wildlife Photographer of the Year (2012) at the Australian Museum

This long-established and prestigious show is always a feast for a nature-lover’s eyes, and for a landscape photographer such as myself, a chance to marvel again at the persistence and pain that animal-chasers go through to get those once-in-a-career shots…although some folks seem able to produce amazing images more often than that.

A case in point is the Canadian Paul Nicklen who has several pictures in the exhibition and took out the grand prize for best overall photo – Emperor Penguins streaking for the surface on the edge of an ice floe, taken from beneath the frigid waters with exceptional natural lighting.
Speaking of which, what do you think of the current trend for making images of nature with dramatic mixed light sources, like foreground flash against a starry sky? I reckon they’re certainly impressive, but getting a bit tedious and miles away from what anyone can actually see out there. There were only a handful of images exhibited in each of my two favourite categories: ‘Wildscapes’ and ‘Botanical Realms’ and each had one of these ‘surreal’ pictures…but they didn’t win.
There were a lot of lions and polar bears, and as expected the ‘World in Our Hands’ section was depressing, while the young photographers were inspirational. The 11-14 age winner is an image of a Red Kite (that’s the British bird, not a Chinese movie) in a pale sky with a blurred passenger jet in the background. Lucky maybe, but luck rewards the persistent and prepared, and the well-balanced composition was no coincidence.

Other images that impressed were a beautifully bedraggled raven, and a Texan hunter-lawyer in his trophy room crammed with the heads and hides of 230 different species. I can understand hunting, but hunting just for heads on sticks leaves me stone cold. Interestingly, amongst a dominance of Canon digital equipment, I think this was the only analogue photo in the whole exhibition, made on medium format negative film.

There was only one Australian image in the show, by Ofer Levy – a flying fox drinking in flight from a dam…in Parramatta Park!

Then we went to see the
World Press Photo 2013 at the State Library of NSW

That was an eye-watering change of pace, with images mostly of war, mayhem, destruction and other types of sadness. A change of style too, with the ‘grab-shot’ form of reportage photography, complete with all the technical flaws, contrasting with the artful perfection of the best nature photography. You’ve got to respect the ability and guts of these news photographers to get anything at all in some of the situations they’re in. Interestingly, first prize in the Stories section of the Nature category went to…Paul Nicklen for the same image(s) of Emperor Penguins!

Ansel Adams: Photography from the Mountains to the Sea at the National Maritime Museum
was of course a must-see for me, but a little disappointing. Based around the somewhat artificial theme of ‘water’, it was my first chance to see images printed by Adams himself, even if most were quite small. He was certainly a superb printer, but it was pleasing to see that not all of his images are world-beaters, and some contain flaws. Of course the Great Man was a human being, and as they say, an artist should be judged on their best work – of which there were a number in this collection, including Mount McKinley and Wonder Lake, The Tetons and Snake River, Teklanika River and Early Morning, Merced River, Autumn.

As with exhibiting any great artist, it’s never possible to bring together all their best work. Some of Adams’ finest ‘water’ photographs were not represented, such as Thundercloud, Ellery Lake, Afternoon Sun, Crater Lake National Park and Oaktree, Snowstorm, Yosemite National Park. But what this show lacked in oomph it made up for in depth. The collection and curatorial notes (blessedly short on artspeak) elucidated some of Adams’ themes and motivations, and how he experimented and progressed as an artist.

While at the Maritime Museum, we also took in the
Elysium Antarctic Visual Epic exhibition

This show arose from a joint scientific and artistic expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula and South Georgia under the auspices of Ocean Geographic, a US magazine. A team of photographers under director Michael AW gathered pictures of the landscape, wildlife, scientific activity and each other.

Some of the images are stunning, and all are beautifully presented (mounted in aluminium/acrylic sandwiches) but unfortunately many are both overdone and underdone. I can do without sensor dust spots and over-saturated icebergs, and the larger images (up to two metres wide) shout ‘noise’ all over the room – you need to stand at least four metres back, squint and cover your ears to get away from it. I kept thinking of the perfectionism displayed in the previous exhibition.

Some of the noise was associated with ISOs as high as 4000, a necessary evil in many situations I’m sure but lets not blow up the results beyond their capacity. It was also interesting to see that these wildlife photographers are not afraid of small apertures: f/22 or even f/32. I’ve often thought that except for some critical purposes the admonition to stay below f/11 or even f/8 to avoid loss of sharpness through diffraction can be rather precious. Sometimes depth of field is more valuable than an imperceptible loss of sharpness.

The smaller images are great (my favourites were the seals) and the exhibition conveys a powerful impression of this magnificent and threatened wilderness. But old-school Ansel would be twitching in his grave.

Copyright Ian Brown Photography