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Bryant Austin: Solar Transit – New Portfolio & Interview

photo-eye Gallery Bryant Austin: Solar Transit
New Portfolio & Interview
Anne Kelly Included in our current exhibition, Cosmos, are six photographs by Bryant Austin, and today we are pleased to share a new portfolio with a larger selection of Solar Transit, Austin’s current work.

Cathedral Spires Solar Entrance I - Yosemite, 2016, Archival Pigment Print, 22x15" Image, 
Edition of 10, $3400 – Bryant Austin
Included in our current exhibition, Cosmos, are six photographs by Bryant Austin, and today we are pleased to share a new portfolio with a larger selection of Solar Transit, Austin’s current work.

I met Bryant Austin at photoAlliance’s Our World Portfolio review and was immediately taken with the work. Bryant's images are silent poems, revealing the natural environment as peaceful, contemplative, and transformative. The silhouetted image of a lone tree along a cliffside against the setting sun evokes something primal in us — a profound and deep connection with nature. Perhaps paradoxically, the process of making the images is incredibly technical involving three telescopes equipped with both infrared and monochrome video cameras with specialized scientific filters.  Prior to Austin’s current body of work he spent 12 years making high definition life-size photographs of whales, and amazing mammal that has been on earth for over 5 million years, with a 50 megapixel underwater camera, to now photographing the sun as seen on this earth, a subject that has been in existence for 4.603 billion years.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Bryant about his artistic philosophy, his unique introduction to the medium, his technical process, and the transition from underwater to solar photography.

Impermanence II - Dual Canopy Oak - Carmel CA, Archival Pigment Print, 15x22" Image, 
Edition of 10, $3400 – Bryant Austin

Anne Kelly:     How long have you been making photographs, and how were you introduced to the medium? 

Bryant Austin:     I first learned photography and darkroom techniques in the early 90s and have been working full-time with this medium for the past twelve years. My interest in photography began when I was introduced to the sport of BASE jumping. BASE is an acronym for Building Antennae, Span (bridges), and Earth (cliffs), and involves leaping from these objects and going into free fall for a period of time before deploying a parachute.

When jumping, all fear goes away when your feet leave the edge. In free fall, I was completely in the moment, feeling a profound peace as I looked at the world in wonder. This feeling was most evident on big walls such as El Capitan and Half Dome. This state of mind was new to me, yet I was drawn to it subconsciously my whole life. Ever since I was young, I had unsuccessfully tried to explore and convey subject matter that would evoke this state of mind through the medium of painting. After my first year of jumping, I felt that photography would be a better medium to explore. I eventually purchased my first camera, a Nikon N2000 with a custom helmet mount and tongue switch.

Sadly, during this time I witnessed my dear friend and mentor die on a BASE jump. After his death, much of the magic of the sport was gone. Over the following years, I slowly turned my attention to free diving and photographing whales.

AK:     Who are your influences?

BA:     Alberto Giacometti is most influential. His paintings, in particular, reflect a state of mind that I strive to hold on to. He was able to see beyond the realities that we collectively construct. He effectively conveyed a reality of existence that lives slightly beyond our awareness. Bob Talbot, a photographer of cetaceans from the 1980s and 90s, revealed what is possible with a whale or dolphin if you are truly willing to invest the time and care with them. No other photographer has ever since come close to the compelling nature of his work with these creatures.

The BASE jumping photographs of freefall photographers Carl Boenish and Tom Sanders were a big influence for me when I first started photography.

Nick Brandt is a photographer who inspires and keeps me going to this day. He’s the only photographer I know to have taken the medium this far with wildlife. His work challenges the divisions we create between nature and the art world. The fact that he was able to leverage his work to create a foundation to protect the wildlife he photographs is something that gives me hope for humanity.

From Safety to Where - Cathedral Spires Solar Transit - Yosemite, 2016, Archival Pigment Print, 22x15" Image, 
Edition of 10, $3400 – Bryant Austin
AK:     Prior to making your new work, you spent 12 years photographing whales and making high definition life-size portraits — an extremely ambitious project. What inspired that project, and what were you working on prior to that?

BA:     The inspiration was given to me by two whales in 2004. A young calf approached to within three feet of me where I could see his body in vivid detail. I remember lowering my camera to look
Darkness Follows  
Whale Blow and Sun, 2017
Archival Pigment Print
28x15" Image
Edition of 10, $3400
– Bryant Austin
more closely and seeing his fluke pass inches away from my dive mask. His mom gently grazed by back with her fifteen foot long, two-ton pectoral fin to let me know she was behind me watching. I was completely unprepared for what I would feel when turning to meet her gaze.

I felt the only way I could even attempt to convey the emotions experienced during that moment, was to make life-size portraits. The portraits would be composed when a whale decided to make a very close inspection of me on their terms. In doing so, they would often present a calm, inquisitive, and penetrating gaze into the lens.

The inspiration was powerful and, in the beginning, I tried to ignore it because I knew that it would be nearly impossible to do, and could potentially ruin my life. But deep down, I knew it would be an important contribution to humanity.

During that time, I worked at a sea otter research facility in Santa Cruz, California. I also photographed whales and dolphins from my own six meter Zodiac on a weekly basis, but after two years of effort, I had no photographs that reflected my creative intention.

Over time, I became deeply depressed and was on the brink of suicide. My therapist helped me realize that ignoring the inspiration the two whales gave me, is what was tearing me apart. I was not only resisting this inspiration, I was ignoring my truth. Once I accepted this and began a full-time creative practice, a weight was forever lifted off of me.

Substance and the Void - Dual Canopy Oak and Sun - Carmel CA, 2017, Archival Pigment Print, 15x22" Image, 
Edition of 10, $3400 – Bryant Austin

AK:     Talk about the transition from photographing whales to the sun /photons on our planet.   

BA:     Just prior to my work with the sun, I had spent the previous four years working full-time to promote my whale portraits with shows in the US, Japan, and Australia, as well as the release of my first book with Abrams. All the while working to raise sufficient funds to resume my work with whales after a long absence.

At the end of this four-year phase, I watched my father pass away in his hospital bed from a head injury. A month later, I too was in the emergency room having a close call with an erroneously prescribed medication. After these events, I realized how far away I was from my truth. In trying to get back to the whales, the creative part of my mind had atrophied.

In the beginning,  I would have said that the transition from whale to sun was all about staying empowered as a creative. And to never allow a subject to disempower you as a creative, as had happened with the whales. It is true, I now create every day as opposed to a few moments a year with whales. What I wasn’t prepared for, is how creating every day with the sun would change my state of mind. At times, I feel so much presence from the sun and everything around me, its as though the cosmos is taking a self-portrait through me.

Precession - Jeffrey Pine and Half Dome - Yosemite, 2017, Archival Pigment Print, 15x22", Image,
 Edition of 10, $3400 – Bryant Austin
AK:     When working with whales you experienced some humbling moments; have you experienced this when photographing the sun?

BA:     The humbling moments with whales were episodic events that often left me stunned to silence hours after, as I tried to process everything. But eventually, those sensations would fade into the background.

Practicing almost daily with the sun had a more profound and humbling influence. The solar events themselves are amazing to witness. Both observing the sunrise, as well as its horizontal transit behind features on Earth reminds us of our place, and of a reality that operates on a much larger timescale.

The collective experiences from the past two years came to a head last May while driving to
Austin H-Alpha Imaging at Tenaya Lake Yosemite
Yosemite in the middle of the night to meet the sun. I was on my way to continue a solar illumination study of a six foot Jeffrey pine on Half Dome. As I entered the Valley and neared the trailhead, a song came on that I never heard before. In a strange way, the song had triggered something from within. I remember pulling over and looking up at Glacier Point through the windshield. I could see the shadow cast of Half Dome moving down the rock face of Glacier Point as Earth turned to face the sun. At that moment, with the song still playing, I felt my ego dissolve. For the rest of the day in the Valley, I felt as though I were grieving the loss of my identity, all the while feeling a profound peace and connectedness.

AK:     The process of making your work is highly technical, in terms of process, yet you make work that is quiet and meditative and packed with emotion. Can you please address that difference?   

BA:     The technical side of my current work comes from the need to effectively capture a wide dynamic range. This begins with the surface of the solar disk, to Earth’s varied atmospheric states, and finally to how foreground subjects are either illuminated or cast in shadow. There is an aesthetic to my new body of work that doesn’t feel solely created by my own hand. I feel as though I’m being guided along the way; touching upon something infinite and universal.

Precession Study - Panel II - Cathedral Spires - Yosemite, 2017 Archival Pigment Print 22x15" Image, 
Edition of 10, $3400 – Bryant Austin

AK:     Tell us about your Mantra … "I don’t know” ... and how this is tied to your work.  

BA:     “I don’t know” creates a space for something undiscovered to enter our awareness. This often means leaving the camera behind. It is a way to be humbled and recognize that the world is far beyond any of our individual imaginations and experiences. In practicing “I don’t know,” I’ve been able to occasionally access what feels like the infinite, where I tap into endless creative possibilities. It’s a feeling that is both calming and yet overwhelming.

AK:     Your new work employs the use of multiple solar telescopes, can you describe this process for me?

Austin's telescopes on location capturing a winter solstice. 
BA:     The technical aspects are a way to convey a reality that is here with us. However, the human eye is unable to witness this reality and would go blind in the process of trying. I’ve adopted methods and techniques widely used to image the surface of the sun. But I had to create a new set of techniques for simultaneously capturing the illuminated atmosphere and conveying a much wider dynamic range than a single camera can achieve.

If the sky is clear and blue, I generally use one telescope and camera. If the sky has high thin but defined clouds, I will use a second telescope and camera to capture them as well. This is especially key to capture thin and wispy clouds that pass in front of the solar disk. The sun moves quickly through the telescope’s field of view, so bracketing isn’t an ideal option. Traditional DLSR cameras are not an option either as the shutter will shake the telescope.

I normally use white light photographic solar filters, but if I want to feature the sun’s surface in rich detail, I will use a third telescope to image the solar surface with a Hydrogen-Alpha filter along with a monochrome video camera. This process alone takes up to an hour to capture and then another two hours to post process.

Most of the solar imaging sessions in Hydrogen-Alpha occur at Tenaya Lake, Yosemite. Imaging
Telescope Setup for Cathedral Spires 
over an alpine-like at an 8,000-foot elevation offers incredible viewing conditions of the sun. When the roads are closed to Tenaya Lake in the winter, all of my solar imaging is done at my studio in Carmel, California. At the same time, I also study the fall of photons on Earth. Photographs of the sun itself only represent ten percent of my new work.

AK:     Had you worked with solar telescopes in the past?

BA:     I never worked with solar telescopes prior to this new body of work. It was a steep learning curve. I had to master the basics before I was able to use it as a tool to create art. There was also the physical challenges of backpacking this equipment in Yosemite as well as long carries in Carmel and Big Sur. Over time, I learned how to make the telescope setup as light and compact as possible (but still heavy, unfortunately).

AK:     How did you go about getting your book published with Abrams?

Beautiful Whale by Bryant Austin, 
Abrams Books, New York, 2013. 
124 pp., 80 color illustrations, 15x12"
$55.00 Hardcover 
BA:     I had a wonderful opportunity to connect with a literary agent based in San Francisco. She presented my work to ten publishers in New York, and we received numerous offers. I ultimately decided to go with Abrams because of their amazing work with Nick Brandt. Nick is also one of my heroes and a constant source of inspiration into what is possible with this medium.

AK:     What is next?

BA:     My current body of work is comprised of nearly a hundred photographs. Many of them will be featured in my next book to be released in 2020. For now, the most exciting prospect of what’s next is “I don’t know.”

Select works from Bryant Austin's Solar Transit series can be seen in Cosmos, on view at photo-eye Gallery through July 20th, 2018. For additional information on Solar Transit, and to purchase prints, please contact Gallery Staff at 505-988-5152 x202 or

All prices listed were current at the time this post was published; prices are subject to change.

photo-eye Gallery
541 South Guadalupe Street 
Santa Fe, NM 87501
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