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Posts from the ‘Photography’ Category


Inspired by the work of Dutch designer Pieke Bergmans, filmmaker David Parker set out to make a film about the ways we waste energy, but somewhere along the way it grew into Light, a haunting, poetic meditation not just on human wastefulness, but on the eerie, even spectral textures of the urban landscape.

There’s a short interview with Parker at The Atlantic.

The Alien Within

Somewhere in my second novel, The Deep Field, there’s a description of an alien fossil found on Mars, and the instinctual revulsion it provokes from humans. When I wrote it I was interested in evoking something of the feeling of visceral wrongness we tend to feel confronted by images of insect life enlarged.

The winners of this year’s Olympus Bioscapes Award, which celebrates the best of microscopic photography, are things of beauty, not horror, but that sense of alienness is still there, shot through this time with both wonder and something like the unnatural vividity and fleshiness of orchids. The image above, which took sixth place, is by Haris Antonopoulos, and shows stink bug eggs, but you can check out a gallery of the winners and honourable mentions, together with videos and more information on the competition website.

Water, Southern Skies and Electronica

I’m in the throes of finally finishing my edits (more on that soon), but in the meantime, here are two amazing pieces of time lapse photography. The first comes via NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day, and is by amateur astronomer and photographer Alex Cherney, who compiled twelve months of footage of the movement of stars and clouds across the southern coast of Australia into one very beautiful, and very haunting video. I have a personal affection for this video because I’ve actually been using one of Cherney’s images as the background on my computer for the last six months, but in a way what’s most striking is the way the video serves as a reminder of how different southern skies and landscapes are to those in the Northern Hemisphere. Be sure to embiggen for the full effect.

The second comes via io9, and features images of water in slow motion (set to music by electronica act, Team Ghost). It’s a thing of strange, almost alien beauty.

I’ll be back online properly next week. Catch you all then.


Some more Wayne Levin (and Manta Rays!)

After I published my post about Wayne Levin’s new book, Akule, the other day I came across this rather terrific little video featuring Wayne talking about his experience photographing Manta Rays and his work more generally. Having dived with Mantas myself I’m keenly aware of the feelings of awe Wayne describes, and of the other-worldly presence of them in the water.

Anyway, if you’d like to see more of the shots discussed in the video they’re available on his website, otherwise enjoy!

A Murmuration of Fish: Wayne Levin’s Akule

Wayne Levin, ‘Circling Akule’, © Wayne Levin (click to embiggen)

Of the many editorial decisions I made while putting together The Penguin Book of the Ocean, the one I’m proudest of was to include a series of Wayne Levin’s photographs. Anybody who’s seen the book will know how much they add to it, not just because they offer a stunning visual counterpoint to the written selections, but because they so eloquently distill the sense of the ocean’s mystery and beauty I wanted the book to evoke as a whole. I think – I hope – that the book is put together in such a way that every piece adds something essential, but I think there’s little doubt that if there was one selection the removal of which would drastically impoverish the whole, it’s Wayne’s photographs.

I assume some readers will already be familiar with Wayne’s work. Although he’s less well-known in Australia than he is in the United States, his iconic images of swimmers and bodysurfers are both justly celebrated and immediately recognisable (and, I suspect, were at least partly responsible for inspiring Narelle Autio and Trent Parke’s equally iconic celebration of the Australian beach, The Seventh Wave).

For my part, I first encountered Wayne’s work in 2005. I was working on a book about the Pacific (a project which, sadly, I later shelved) and as part of my background research had been reading Thomas Farber’s brilliant essays about water and the ocean, On Water (one of which also appears in The Penguin Book of the Ocean). Keen to read more of Tom’s work I went searching online, and in so doing stumbled on Wayne’s breathtaking 1997 book, Through a Liquid Mirror, which features an introduction by Tom.

Wayne Levin, ‘Body Surfers’

When my copy arrived I sat staring at it for hours. I quickly realised I’d seen some of the images of surfers before, but as I read on I found the real marvels were not those strange, perspectiveless images of humans in flight underwater, but the images of marine creatures: sharks, dolphins, fish, turtles, gliding weightlessly through the deep.

In the weeks after that I bought and read Wayne’s similarly beautiful and deeply haunting collection of photographs of aquariums, Other Oceans, and found my way to his website, which collects many of the images from the books, both of which only added to my admiration for his work.

One of the things I found most striking about Wayne’s images was his decision to work not in colour but in black and white. There’s no doubt one of the great revelations of the last decade or so has been the rapid advances in the documentation of marine environments, in particular the work of the BBC’s Natural History unit, whose efforts have led to the creation of documentaries such as The Blue Planet and Planet Earth. While these works have done much to change the way we see the oceans and their inhabitants, perhaps one of the most profound is the way they’ve taught us to see the marine environment as a place filled with colour, not just the reds and oranges of coral and tropical fish, but the deep, saturated blues and greens of the water, and the dazzling silvers and metallic glints of fish and light.

By contrast, by working in black and white, Wayne’s photos cleave to a more denuded palette, one comprised only of silvery greys and blacks, a decision that serves not just to sever their connection to more documentary forms of photography, but to demand the viewer see the subjects again, not as fish or swimmers or sea spume, but as things in themselves, wrapped in their own mystery and moving outside the bounds of language. Breaking waves become thunder clouds, suggesting how close swimming is to flight, sharks become sculptural objects, whales and dolphins loom out of the dark towards the light.

Wayne Levin, ‘Blue Trevally surrounded by Akule’

At its most effective, in images such as  ‘Blue Trevally surrounded by Akule’, this transformation grants the subjects – and by extension the photographs themselves – a sacral quality, imbuing the scenes they depict with a mute power that conveys something essential about both the immensity and indifference of the ocean.

Yet in many ways the best of Wayne’s images are those focussing on schooling Bigeye Scad, or Akule, as they are known in Hawaii. In these images the schools of fish become not just schools but living things in their own right, drifting and swirling like patterns of smoke or the Aurora, many minds in one body.

Most of Wayne’s Akule photographs were taken across a three year period last decade, during which schools of Akule gathered in Kealakekua Bay on Hawaii’s Big Island (and the site of the fatal attack on Captain Cook), and Wayne took to swimming out in pursuit of them, oxygenating his lungs as he went in order to freedive ten, twelve, even eighteen metres down, to the edge of the light to capture the fish moving below.

The best of these images, together with a selection of other images such as ‘Body Surfers, Makapu’u O’ahu 1983’ are collected together in Wayne’s new book, Akule, which was published late last year.

Perhaps interestingly, it’s a smaller book than either Through a Liquid Mirror or Other Oceans, not just slimmer but more closely cropped. Yet somehow this reduction in size gives it an intimacy and simplicity many larger books lack.

But its size also belies the wonder of many of the images it contains. Here, again and again, schools of fish take on the wonder they possess in reality, becoming shifting things of light and silver, darting and turning, many minds in one body.

Wayne Levin, ‘Akule Tornado’

As Frank Stewart points out in his introduction to the book (the book also features a Foreword by Tom Farber), the seemingly purposeful of fish schools are relatively simple, and can, like many complex phenomena, be reproduced by the application of several simple rules, the same rules that create the unity of purpose exhibited by bird flocks (they also, suggestively, bear more than a passing resemblance to the Aboriginal artist, Gloria Petyarre’s Medicine Leaves paintings, which evoke the movement of grass and leaves in the wind).

Stewart is wary of reading too much into the capacity of simple rules to generate complex behaviour, cautioning against the desire of some to see in it something essential we have previously only associated with living things.

I share some of that wariness, though I’m perhaps less inclined than Stewart to dismiss the discoveries of those working in this area as simply the application of “our currently fashionable metaphor to explain the mystery of life”. Yet he’s right to point to the way many of the photographs in Akule ask us to reconsider our ideas about the boundaries of agency. It is impossible to look at photographs like ‘Column of Akule, Kealakekua Bay, Hawai’i 2000’ or ‘Flock of Akule, Keauhou Bay, Hawai’i 2006’ and not be aware of the way these twisting columns of bodies seem to have purpose and meaning of their own, or the manner in which their sense of order and movement seems to imply the presence of some kind of collective organism.

Wayne Levin, ‘Pattern of Akule’

This desire to expand the definition of life to include biological systems is central to much contemporary biological and environmental thinking. Yet it also demands we rethink our own relationship to the environment we inhabit, and the interconnected web of life that sustains it. Given the urgency of the environmental challenges we face, there is something both salutary and humbling in being confronted by work which, like Wayne’s photographs, demands we do precisely this. Because in the end that is what the photographs in Akule do. They ask us to look at the twisting, shifting, leaping columns of fish and see them as what they are: things pulsing with life, mysterious and Other, but living all the same. And, perhaps just as importantly, they demand we re-examine many of our assumptions about the creatures that surround us, by reminding us of how irrelevant we are to them, caught as they are in the business of their lives, and of how our knowledge of them will always be partial, fragmentary, constrained by the limitations of our imaginations and senses.

Akule, Through a Liquid Mirror and Other Oceans are all available from Amazon. If you’d like to see more of Wayne’s work you can visit his website or download a preview of Akule. The Penguin Book of the Ocean is available in Australian bookstores or you can check prices at Booko. At some point I may talk more about my unfinished book about the Pacific but that’s very definitely a story for another day.

Manhattan in motion

Because I’m deep in the land of edits it’s likely to be another slow week around here, but in the meantime you might want to take a minute or two to watch this amazing time-lapse video created by New York photographer Josh Owens: it really is a thing of beauty.

If you like what you see you can check out more of Josh’s videos on Vimeo, follow him on Twitter or visit his website. Thanks to The New Yorker for the original link. You might also want to take a moment to watch Tor Even Mathisen’s similarly breathtaking timelapse video of the Aurora Borealis.


Summer and the myths of Australiannness

Narelle Autio, 'The Climb', © Narelle Autio 2001

Some of you may have noticed my piece in The Weekend Australian about summer and the myths of Australianness a couple of weeks back. It was an interesting piece to write, not least because the process of putting it together was, in an odd way, very similar to the processes of remembering and reliving the past that seem to me to so essential to the experience of summer. Certainly while writing it I was reminded very powerfully of my childhood and adolescence in Adelaide, and of the silent, empty streets and wakeful nights.

As a writer you have next to no control over the illustrations that appear with your pieces(I think I’ve been asked for a suggestion once and offered them unsolicited twice in all the years I’ve been writing for newspapers). But in the case of this piece I’m not sure I could have chosen something more appropriate, because Review’s Editor, Deborah Jones, chose to use not just an image by Narelle Autio, but her photo ‘The Climb’, which was taken on Brighton Jetty, only a kilometre or so from where I grew up.

I’ve been an admirer of Autio’s photos for a long time, and my partner and I actually own several of them. While the early black and white images of swimmers and surfers bear a passing resemblance to Wayne Levin’s images of bodysurfers, they have an informality and sense of play that’s very much their own, a celebratory aspect that seems to capture something not just of the joy and spontaneity of their subject, but of the odd way that joy and spontaneity seems to exist suspended on the edge of memory.

But the series ‘The Climb’ is a part of has always been my favourite. Partly that’s because the images that comprise it are so vivid and immediate, in particular photos such as ‘Black Marlin’. But it’s also because they capture that oddly informal and shapeless communality that summer holidays often involve, the groups of people and sudden pleasures of caravan parks and camping grounds.

Part of what makes them so beautiful is the sheer saturation of colour, not just the blues of the water but its greenness, the yellow of the sand, even the brooding, impossible purple of late afternoon cloud. I suspect to many it’s a saturation that will seem immediately tropical, but oddly enough I remember standing in front of these pictures in the gallery and being immediately, unshakeably certain that Autio was from South Australia like me. It wasn’t the subjects of the photos – indeed I’m reasonably certain the photo that made me so sure she and I grew up near each other, ‘Orange Car’, is actually of somewhere in New South Wales – rather it was something about the quality of the light and its intensity, the degraded nature of the yellows.

As it turned out I was right: Autio grew up two beaches away from me in Adelaide. But that certainty was a reminder of somethign I’ve long thought about the nature of the Australian experience fo the beach. I keenly remember reading Robert Drewe’s brilliant memoir, The Shark Net, for the first time and being struck by the way it spoke to the summer landscape I knew as a child. Partly that was about it being set amidst the emptiness of sandhills and marram grass of the west coast rather than the cliffs and broken bays one finds on Australia’s east coast, but it was also about the way it made the landscape so palpable, not just the heat and the wind, but the denuded palette of sand and sea and sky, the intense, almost unbearable light.

One of my enduring regrets about The Penguin Book of the Ocean is the fact I couldn’t find a way to include something of Rob’s, not just because he was one of the first two or three writers I thought of when I was planning the book, but because he’s a writer I’ve admired enormously for many years, and whose writing played an important part in inspiring me to become a writer in the first place. I’ve been meaning for some time to write something about the process of putting the anthology together, and the way my desire for it to work as a whole, rather than as a collection of pieces made a lot the decisions for me. But in the end I just couldn’t find a piece by him that spoke to the ocean in the way I needed it to (for a writer whose public image is so indelibly associated with the beach Drewe’s books are usually only interested in landscape in a fairly passing sense, and tend to focus much more on the illusions and betrayals of middle class life).

But I do wonder whether that sense of the differences between the bays and beaches of the east coast and the more denuded landscapes of the south and west coast isn’t one of the reasons Penguin decided to use Autio’s photos to illustrate their recent rerelease of Tim Winton’s coastal memoir, Land’s Edge.

Originally published in 1993, with photographs by Trish Ainslie and Roger Garwood, Land’s Edge is at one level an account of Winton’s enduring love of the ocean, and of the part it played in shaping him. But it’s also a sort of manifesto, a mapping out of the emotional and philosophical territory Winton’s fiction has explored over the years.

To my mind it’s an interesting, if slightly unsatisfying book. I’ve read it twice now, and both times I kept wanting Winton to go further, push harder, dig deeper. But that’s not to say it’s without its pleasures. Certainly it’s fascinating to see the way Winton’s experiences have been woven into the larger fabric of the work, and to be made aware of echoes and allusions between the books and the life which would not otherwise be apparent. It’s also interesting to be reminded how much deeper and darker Winton’s work has grown in the last two decades, and of the manner in which his command of language has kept pace with that deepening: word by word, sentence by sentence I’m not sure there’s any writer working in Australia  at the moment (except maybe Delia Falconer) who can match the raw power of Winton’s prose. Even its rough-hewn textures are deceptive, intimations of the steel beneath (in this context you might want to check out my review of Breath from a couple of years back) .

But in a way the real pleasure of this new edition is the book itself, and the use it makes of Autio’s photographs. Penguin have clearly gone to considerable expense to use excellent paper, and it shows, lending both the text and the images a richness and a clarity they might otherwise lack. It’s also convinced Winton to speak publicly, something he doesn’t often do (if you’re interested there’s a long interview with him by Stephen Romei in yesterday’s Australian, complemented by an audio recording of Winton reading from Land’s Edge). If you’d like a taste of the book I’ve reproduced several of the images in it below, and there’s an extract available on Penguin’s website. Likewise if you’d like to see more of Autio’s images you should visit Stills Gallery. Otherwise you can read my piece on summer at The Australian.

Narelle Autio, 'Black Marlin', © Narelle Autio 2001

Narelle Autio, 'Before School', © Narelle Autio 2001

Narelle Autio, 'Orange Car', © Narelle Autio 2001