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Witness Nature’s Grandeur and Fragility in National Wildlife Photography Exhibit

The chick of an American flamingo
The chick of an American flamingo peeks out from its parent’s wing at the Ría Lagartos Biosphere Reserve on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula. | Claudio Contreras-Koob/National Wildlife Photo Contest

Photographs of stomping elephants, a baby sea turtle approaching the sea, a wet bobcat fleeing with its prey and many other powerful moments from nature will be showcased at the National Wildlife Federation photography exhibit hosted by and at the American Association of Advancement of Science from Nov. 1 through the end of April. The exhibit is also available online through an interactive webpage.

The “Nature’s Witness” exhibit is NWF’s inaugural public display of 50 selections from the National Wildlife photo contest, which National Wildlife magazine has hosted for 48 years. Each year the magazine receives more than 22,000 images from photographers around the world. All photos are selected through blind judging. Winners are chosen based on composition, technical skill, originality, photographic style, ethics and the photograph’s emotional power.

“For many years we have celebrated the winners of the annual photo contest in National Wildlife magazine, both in print and online,” said Lisa Moore, editorial director of National Wildlife. “But we wanted to mount an exhibit of prints that could be visible to the public in a different format and venue, giving viewers a more ‘tangible’ experience.”

Pieces chosen for the AAAS exhibit include contest winners and other entries that reflect specific themes. The exhibit is divided into subsections representing themes like “Nature’s Challenge,” a grouping of North American species that have benefitted from conservation or that are facing emerging threats. Images in “Life’s Essentials” demonstrate how people can help species by gardening for wildlife. Other photographs reflect the diversity of life and vast range of animals on Earth, from ocean depths to Alpine heights. 

Looking at the photos, an average viewer may wonder just how each photographer, whether professional or avid amateur, could obtain such intimate images of wildlife in nature.

“I guess, like many nature photographers, we’re keen to be where the action is – out in the field; the dawns and the dusks,” said Claudio Contreras-Koob, a lover of biology who first took up photography at 19 and never looked back.

His photograph of a baby flamingo beak peeking out from under its mother’s pink, feathery wing is the result of three painstaking, trust-building trips conducted over three consecutive years. Camouflaged and crawling through the muddy banks of the Yucatán’s coast, his father’s home state, Contreras-Koob carefully approached the birds one scoot at a time. A single, panicked flamingo can trigger a frenzied flock response able to break many fragile legs. With each trip, he slowly learned to recognize signs of discomfort or panic among the flamingoes and eventually gained their trust.

Like Contreras-Koob, underwater photographer Laura Storm, who is based in Esher, England, does not mind what it takes to capture photos of an environment that might otherwise go unseen. Tethered to a wooden boat jostled by strong currents of the Philippines’s Tañon Strait, she waited for the right pose from a mauve stinger jellyfish.

“Diving in the thick of it all is like being in the middle of a bioluminescent fireworks display,” said Storm, who started her journey in photography as a deep-water safety diver, when she was first handed a camera to shoot video at free-diving competitions.

“I wanted to capture a portrait with a space-age feel about it, something cosmic to depict life in inner space,” said Storm. “Waiting for the jellyfish to curl into itself depended on split-second timing, instinct, a slightly raised heartbeat and a kiss from lady luck.”

Patience, intuition and a keen eye are essential qualities of photographers, instincts also shared by avid amateurs in the field, like Anne Grimes, a retired food-business owner from Ayden, North Carolina. Now 77, Grimes joined a photography club around 10 years ago, after the death of her husband, and her passion quickly grew. Having developed a natural penchant for observation from childhood, Grimes was walking in her garden one day when she noticed a curious, pale-white creature resting on a zinnia.

“I thought, ‘oh my gosh, I’ve never seen this before,’” remarked Grimes. She grabbed her camera and took the photograph, a young flower crab spider nestled against a neon pink backdrop. “I don’t want to just take a picture of a flower or a bird; I want to get the very essence of it, so that when you see it, you have a feeling or experience,” added Grimes.

The photographers have generously offered their individual exhibit prints for sale after the exhibit, with the proceeds going to the conservation work of the National Wildlife Federation.

Moore hopes that the exhibition will entice visitors to take time with the photos, make emotional connections with the creatures pictured and feel inspired to help save them.

“From the smallest insects to the most charismatic mammals, wildlife species enrich our lives and make life on Earth possible,” said Moore. “I bet anyone who sees our photograph of a baby opossum peeking out from a rhododendron bloom — and learns that these little guys eat tons of ticks — will feel a bit more tender toward these common backyard visitors.”

[Associated image: A flower crab spider rests on a magenta zinnia. | Anne Grimes/National Wildlife Photo Contest.]

The story has been updated to reflect the online virtual exhibit and an extension of the exhibit’s duration through April 30.



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