Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘Photography’

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.

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.

Best Underwater Photography 2010

Alexander Safonov, 'Hitting sailfish'

I’m excited to say I’ve just received a copy of Wayne Levin’s new book, Akule, which I’m planning to write something about next week (Wayne’s photos appear in The Penguin Book of the Ocean and I’ve written about his work previously) but in the meantime you might like to take a look at this stunning collection of photographs chosen by the judges of Our World Under Water and Deep International Underwater Competition. The Safonov image above is probably my pick, but it’s only one of a pretty fabulous collection.

Photography in Australian Fiction

X-Ray image of hand, Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen

Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen, X-Ray image of hand

Last year I met an Italian student called Giorgia Tolfo from Bologna University, who was in Australia to research her thesis, The Photographic Act in Contemporary Australian Fiction. As part of her research she interviewed me and a number of other Australian writers (Delia Falconer and Gail Jones amongst others) who have used photographic motifs in their work.

She’s not the first person to write on this subject. Paul Genoni published a paper in Antipodes in 2002 exploring the use of photography in novels such as my second novel, The Deep Field, Gerald Murnane’s The Plains, Liam Davison’s Soundings, and Thea Astley’s Reaching Tin River (you can access the paper via the Curtin University Library site, though you’ll need to click the pdf symbol in the top right corner to actually read it). But it was interesting to find an Italian student struck by the same resonances between the various works she was writing about (she’s also incredibly bright and very charming, which never hurts either).

Anyway – I just received an email from Giorgia, telling me not only has she passed, but she’s received the highest mark, which is fantastic news. And, since I suspect her thesis isn’t likely to find its way into print in English in a hurry, I thought I might reproduce some extracts from the written interview I did for her after we spoke.

1. What is it that interests you about photography and what was it about photography you set out to investigate in your novel? Was there a particular influence or reference that urged you to write about photography?

I initially became interested in using photography as an element in the novel after looking at a book of photos of museum exhibits by Rosamund Purcell. The images were largely of objects from 18th century cabinets of curiosity, but there were images of fossilized ammonites amongst them, something about those images of ancient stone shells struck a chord with me..

Over time this idea of photographing fossils merged with the ideas I was also interested in exploring, about endings, and continuance, and deep time, and the idea that our own presence in the world might be part of a larger cycle, and a larger order. I remember reading Sontag, and Barthes, and being struck by their insistence that photography must be a representation of death. That seemed right to me, but also wrong – photos are also, necessarily, a form of connection to the past, a kind of persistence through time, in the same way a fossil is, and they connect us to the past, even as they remind us it is gone, and in so doing suggest something about the way loss is always with us, but part of us, and the capacity of things to go on, and endure.

2. In your novel, The Deep Field, Anna begins taking pictures of ammonites and fossils, but only after a scene in which the shells are explored by the blind character with his hands. Was this an attempt to link the idea of tactile memory to the idea of fossils as tactile memories of now vanished organic organisms? What do you see as the best form of memory – visual, tactile, emotional?

I was interested in different ways of being in the world, and particularly by the idea that the blind inhabit a non-spatial world made up of tactile and auditory experience connected in time, rather than spatially. Like virtual reality and cyberspace, that seemed ot me to suggest a very different way of being in the world, and one it might be useful to understand better as technology continues to alter the contours of our identity and the world we inhabit. But I also wanted to connect this idea of the new, and the futuristic to the very ancient, hence the shell on Mars, and the high tech photos of fossils. By doing that, and by playing on the way the blind inhabit their temporal and experiential world I thought it might be possible to suggest something of the way we exist within memory, and experience, rather than the other way around.

3. What do you think about the relationship between fiction and photography? Do you think that the former can help people to better understand the social, emotional and private value of the latter? Do you agree on the fact that fiction is more powerful than theory in exploring the possibilities of photography, being able to create new and not necessarily real situation?

Fiction and photography are necessarily very different. Fiction is narrative-based, and is therefore connected to change. Photography is something sliced free of time we must project a narrative, or meaning into. One explains us to ourselves, the other denies explanation (a process you can see at work in Sebald). But at the same time, both work by opening up imaginative possibility.

That said, I’m always a little wary of the use of photography in fiction. Photography is necessarily documentary and ambiguous, and there seems something dishonest, or sentimental about the impulse to invent stories which displace that ambiguity and fill it in with invented meaning.

As for the question of whether theory or fiction is more useful for exploring the possibilities of photography, I’m not sure either is particularly useful in that context – it’s photography that will explore its own possibilities most usefully. Theory may help us understand it better, criticism may help us understand particular works and practitioners, but I’m really not sure fiction has much of a role to play at all – its interest in photography is almost always for its own, imaginary ends.

4. Do you think there is a peculiarly Australian way of thinking about photography evident in Australian fiction, or do you think the use of photography in fiction is more universal?

I do wonder whether there is a a peculiarly Australian way of thinking about photography you see coming through in writers as diverse as Gail Jones, Delia Falconer, Liam Davison and myself. All of us are interested in exploring a photography as a way of making sense of loss, and transience, rather than as a simplistic memento mori. If this differs from its use in fiction from overseas (and I’m a bit short on ideas for examples to be sure it does) I wonder whether it has something to do with the fact that if you’re in Europe, particularly, or connected by the Jewish diaspora to that European experience, photography might well offer rather starker reminders of the past. Australians are, at some level, interested in finding a way to make sense of their past, and to find reconciliation with it in the present; it’s possible that for Europeans and others the past is something that needs to be put behind them.

Break text


Sony World Photography Awards

'Bait Ball Symphony #1', Alexander Safanov

'Bait Ball Symphony #1', Alexander Safanov

If you’ve got a few moments you might want to check out the images shortlisted for this year’s Sony World Photography awards. There are shortlists for Professionals and Amateurs, as well as a separate selection of images chosen as part of the Prince’s Rainforest Project.

While many of the shortlisted images are striking, the Natural History images are particularly impressive, and include a remarkable pair of baitball images by Alexander Safanov in the Amateur category and sequences by two Australian photographers, Steve Merenos and Lisa Marie Williams in the Professional category.

Break text


Winners of the International Wildbird Photographer Awards

Mike Frakes, 'Great Egret'

Mike Frakes, 'Great Egret' (click to enlarge)

Since I’m on a bit of a nature roll, let me recommend checking out the winners of the International Wildbird Photographer Awards. The winning image, by 17 year-old Mark Smit of the Netherlands, is a stunner, but I think my personal favourite is this one, by Australian Mike Frakes. Taken on the Swan River, in Perth, it’s a wonderful image, full of a sense of the strange, secret life that emerges under cover of dark, and of the way the wild is always present close at hand, even in the most urban environment.

And if you’ve got a bit more time to spend, I highly recommend a visit to the Wildlife Photographer of the Year online gallery.
brek text


The Hunt


Photo by Paul Nicklen

This is an amazing and beautiful thing. Photos and video of sailfish cooperating to herd schools of sardine.

“The hunt seems almost mammalian. Sailfish—which often travel in loose groups—clearly join forces. Males and females alike circle the prey, pushing the school into tighter formation, and taking a few bites in turn. Each forward rush is punctuated by a startling flare of the dorsal fin, which more than doubles the hunter’s profile . . . The sardines, too, work in concert. Detecting each other’s proximity and movement, they shift in synchrony, each fish both leader and follower. The fish mass slides like a drop of mercury, mesmerizing, with a shimmer that may help to confuse predators . . .”

Read more at National Geographic.

Break text


Wayne Levin

'Baluga Whale, Hakejima Sea Paradise' from Other Oceans

'Baluga Whale, Hakejima Sea Paradise' from Other Oceans

Flicking through some books the other night, I came across my copy of Wayne Levin’s Other Oceans. It’s a remarkable book, showcasing a series of black and white photos taken by Levin in aquariums around the world, and juxtaposing an almost sacred sense of the mysteriousness and wonder of the ocean and its inhabitants with the hushed, oddly utilitarian surfaces of the aquariums themselves. It is a juxtaposition that is haunting because it speaks so directly to our yearning for communion with the otherness we see embodied in the ocean and its inhabitants. But it is also, as Thomas Farber points out in his introduction, unsettling for the way it reminds us that if we do not change the path we are on, and quickly, it will not be long before the only way we will know the ocean’s inhabitants will be as creatures in submarine zoos of the sort featured in Levin’s photographs.

Levin’s photography probably isn’t familiar to many outside of the United States, and the broader community of those who are fascinated by the ocean, but he’s a Hawaii-based photographer who, working largely in black and white, has spent the best part of the last three decades documenting a very personal portrait of the ocean and its inhabitants. Although he has explored seas further afield, most of his photographs have been taken in the waters around his home, capturing surfers and divers and, most remarkably, what he describes as the resident spirits of the seas – the whales, dolphins, turtles and fish that move beneath the surface, largely unseen.

441The best of his photographs capture something of the immensity and mysteriousness of the ocean, its elusive and constantly-changing beauty. Some are collected together in Other Oceans and Through a Liquid Mirror, both of which feature introductions by Thomas Farber, author of the remarkable The Face of the Deep and On Water. But he also operates a beautiful website, Wayne Levin Images, which draws together a terrific selection of his work, and is well worth a visit.

Break text


Break text

All images © Wayne Levin.