At the California Academy of Sciences’ BigPicture exhibition, photographer Mauro Tronto’s dazzling Icelandic landscape depicts undulating misty waterfalls, a rainbow and snow, crowned with a lime-green aurora trail swirling above. Unworldly, one might think, but this image, like all the others here, is actually very much part of our world.
Tronto’s title, “The Astonishing,” might well fit all 48 photographs in the magnificent show. On view through Oct. 29, the exhibit collects top images from the fourth annual BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition, culled from 6,000 submissions by photographers from 63 countries.
Subjects include, literally, everything under the sun: a “lava firehose” from Hawaii’s Kamokuna volcano; a towering Brazilian termite mound illuminated by iridescent click beetle larvae; an overhead dance of snow geese, hundreds, gliding in mesmerizing patterns above New Mexico; Japanese macaques huddling together to form a saru dango (“monkey dumpling”); engrossing views of algae, wetlands, a lone tree in a snowscape.
Shaped by each photographer’s unique aesthetic, these animals and ecosystems reveal our consummately astonishing planet. And while so many habitats are endangered, the images do not harangue, though they may motivate better ecological citizenship in order to sustain the diverse beauty depicted here.
One forthright exception is the competition’s winning entry, Britta Jaschinski’s starkly unsettling “Confiscated,” depicting two of the 1.3 million artifacts from the National Wildlife Property Repository’s warehouse of illegal products seized by the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
The image does harangue: Jaschinski describes it as “a very loud and clear no!”
With muted tones and surreal studio backdrop, the grand prize photograph seems less conventionally beautiful or “natural” than the others.
Two elephant feet sit on an industrial trolley (an ironic “habitat”), made into kitschy stools. It is bad, tacky furniture, but in a larger sense, the “big picture,” it is also a bad way to treat elephants.
This tableau represents everything that’s wrong about human interaction with other animals: instead of valuing them on their own terms, we desecrate them.
We fetishize them, surrounding ourselves with the trinkets we harvest (furs, feathers, ivory carvings, potions, leathers) and dispatching the rest as unusable or insignificant. Pretending that such exploitation celebrates our fascination with animals, we reveal a short-sighted selfishness, a failure to understand the ecological web we are supposed to share with snow geese and macaques, click beetles and elephants.
Jaschinski, a German wildlife photojournalist, shows how people “appreciate” nature by consuming and destroying it: transforming it into some product far removed from the living creature. In “Confiscated,” people’s appetite for elephants has resulted in the displacement, and indeed the “confiscation,” of these actual elephants.
“Documenting wildlife that suffers in the name of entertainment, status, greed and superstition,” Jaschinski says, “I can tell you that much pain has swept through my lens.”
Her image prompts viewers to imagine the elephant that is (mostly) not here, and “to give a voice to animals that cannot be heard otherwise, to hear the stomping of this poor elephant’s feet.”
IF YOU GO
BigPicture Natural World Photography Competition
Where: California Academy of Sciences, 55 Music Concourse Drive, Golden Gate Park, S.F.
When: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Mondays-Saturdays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 29
Tickets: $25.95 to $34.95
Contact: (415) 379-8000, www.calacademy.org