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Art Exhibit Review: "Portraits of Planet Ocean" at the Natural History Museum

October 23, 2014 | 11:02pm EST

To quote a well-loved movie about a clownfish searching for his son, Portraits of Planet Ocean at the Natural History Museum was both “big and blue.” But despite the small children screaming “Nemo!” every few minutes, Brian Skerry’s photography was far more profound than an animated film. Skerry is an established photographer for National Geographic who has used the digital medium to forward issues regarding wildlife protection. Portraits of Planet Ocean followed this agenda. Scattered beneath the undulating blue lights and cerulean background were statements concerning the degradation of marine communities. I may have only glimpsed over the descriptions, but I was innately drawn to the vibrant sea-life spread across the hall.

These works typically featured single subjects in the midst of aquatic life – a Harper seal staring pitifully into the camera, a whale lounging in bright blue water with a diver nearby, a sea turtle lying exhausted on a sunset-lit beach. The stunning isolation Skerry captures only serves to emphasize the growing vulnerability of the sea. While his photography shows a fraction of marine wildlife, Skerry makes human negligence a major part of the exhibit. Perhaps that is why anthropogenic life is missing from these photos. By eliminating humanity’s ugliness, Skerry elevates the beauty and mystery of his subjects.

On one occasion Skerry depicts a shark entangled within a fishing net, a prime example of how human interference within nature is often negative. Stunning, innocent creatures often suffer as a result of human activity. Pollution and other anthropogenic additives have taken a toll on the oceans, slowly destroying the irreplaceable ecosystem. The exhibit subtly condemns humans’ disrespect for the environment by focusing on a range of magnificent creatures, and by exposing oceanic world, Skerry shocks audiences with both splendor and horror.

Another exceptionally poignant photograph shows a lone yellow fish hiding in a soda can being slowly overcome by the ocean – a brilliant juxtaposition of human wastefulness and aquatic innocence. As the exhibit points out, humans stubbornly refuse to alter their lifestyles to accommodate the rapidly degrading environment; we ignore the signs of global warming and continue to exploit the Earth for our short-term benefit. But as Brian Skerry reminds us, we are a part of a larger community. We are responsible for protecting creatures subjected to our outrageous behavior, and we cannot hope to have a future without establishing environmental security. While the back room in which the exhibit was held occupied but a small section of the Natural History Museum, Portraits of Planet Ocean overpowered even the giant whale hanging nearby. Its wealth of visual stimulation and didactic text educate hordes of curious individuals, promoting a more environmentally conscious community. The lessons may appear overwhelming, but as Skerry notes, it is essential for audiences to witness the tragedy of our wastefulness. Despite that solemn note, the exhibit is an absolute treat to behold (if the children screaming “Nemo!” are any indication).

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