When you’re providing all post processing, printing and finishing for a 118 piece Smithsonian photography exhibit, it’s easy to lose sight of the story. The images appear and reappear in so many ways; on screen, coming off the printer, traveling through the laminator. The process is never as smooth as we’d like. We spend countless hours adjusting and proofing each capture ensuring all the color, clarity and detail the photographer intended. But even then one may slip through the cracks. There are problems to work out, vendors to deal with and that ever looming deadline when we must pack up the truck and deliver our “baby”. Throughout the process, we see bits and pieces like a cubist painting, all fragmented and many times, just as intriguing as seeing the final product on display. After twelve years of producing the Nature’s Best Photography Windland Smith Rice Annual Awards Exhibition, we continue to marvel at the skill, patience and determination it took to capture these images.
When it’s finally finished, hung and open to the public, it is only then that the real story begins to emerge. The experience of viewing a printed photography exhibit is very different from viewing photography on a computer or mobile device. For me viewing something on screen suggests it is something fleeting that can be turned off with a switch or moved with the touch of a finger, not something more permanent to be framed. As I move through the three-dimensional space, I am surrounded by visual objects that become pieces of a puzzle.
The subjects of these visual objects are mostly animals with some landscapes and ocean shots captured mostly in parks around the world. They appear larger than life and brightly lit like gems. I’ve noticed over the years many of the animals are looking at the viewer, some actually seem to be posing. Others appear more regal like a portrait of an ancestor over a mantel. It is clear the photographers have found a way to capture the character of these animals. Many of the images focus on patterns that begin to repeat themselves regardless of subject. Some show up in the markings and textures of feathers, skin, fur, landscapes and plants. Other patterns emerge in the form of emotions such as love, curiosity, excitement, fear, humor and anger. Subjects such as sea life and insects are just plain weird looking and seem like creatures from another planet reminding us that our planet is as mysterious and undiscovered as it is small and developed.
In one of my favorite images, a lion cub sits staring out at the viewer. It’s puppy dog eyes seem to invite me to play but as I look closer something emerges from behind that sends chills up my spine. I realize it must be the mother lion. Her large face is blurry but there is enough detail to register she is looking right at me and suddenly I know, instinctively that if I venture closer she will most likely tear me apart. To me, this is the essence of good photography. The image is static but the story is running like a movie as we decipher a code that breaks all language barriers. It is a story that works best when it stands before us in the form of a large, crisp print.
I ask myself, what is the real story here? For reasons unknown, I feel some sort of bond with these subjects. Maybe it’s because we’ve seen these images so many times throughout the production process or maybe its because technology has made the planet seem smaller and less exotic. Or maybe there’s a deeper, more primal and important thread that connects us, the real reason we, as humans work so hard to capture and reproduce these images in the first place.
Whatever the reason, with so much trouble in the world its a wonder there’s anything to be thankful for. This exhibit reveals just how much we do have and the continued importance of telling these stories.