Bryant Austin is an acclaimed portrait photographer – of whales. His full-body composite photos, often life-sized, capture a view of whales most humans never see. Visiting their ocean habitat, perhaps in Australia or the Caribbean, Austin enters the whales’ world and waits to be received. Snorkeling by himself and working alone, he waits weeks or months for an encounter, when a curious or sociable whale swims within four to six feet. With this invitation, the intimate portrait session begins, focusing on the whales’ true colors, tonal range and intricate detail. Using a 50-megapixel Hasselblad, Austin takes up to 300 images of the whale in five-foot, vertical sections. From these, he selects 15-20 photos to create a composite, life-sized studio portrait.
Austin’s quest is an adventure that calls for patience, mutual trust, a willingness not to intrude, and a certain fearlessness. Knowing he is a privileged visitor in an alternate realm, Austin feels a responsibility to share the unfamiliar; to capture the magnitude and magnificence of these sentient creatures for those unlikely to make their acquaintance; and to express his personal connections with whales through his art.
For Austin, the most troubling element in this entire process is the distance to his subject. The water column visually washes everything out. So to capture a whale's true colors, subtle tones, with all of the fine details intact, his camera can be no further than six feet away from his subject. For this practice to be safe and sustainable, he must wait for a whale to come to him.
When they come to inspect him, his attention turns to the view finder, leaving him completely exposed and blind to what is unfolding around him. Every time, he must surrender and put his entire trust in his whale subjects. With humpback whales in particular, their massive pectoral fins will at times pass just beneath his body. And even though their fluke may be thirty feet away from their eye, as long as he is still, they line him up and move by with great precision.
To arrive at these moments, he will invest up to three months with small groups of whales and come to know many of them as individuals. The real goal however, is for him to explore the possibility of a whale coming to know him as an individual and the potential to gain a deeper level of acceptance and curiosity from his subject.
Yet this is merely a modest beginning to a much larger process. The scale of Austin’s work is equally matched by the level of detail, sharpness, and color fidelity that can be appreciated from inches away. This requires specialized computers purpose built to handle the 100GB image file sizes of his largest works that will use up to 700GB of memory . Up to 600 hours are invested to complete a seamless composite photograph in the digital state. Once completed it may take several years before his largest photographs are printed, mounted, and framed to archival standards, serving as unrivaled, enduring legacies that have no equivalent in the world.