New Photo Exhibit Coming to Grover Gallery
Fifteen years ago, Bill Curtsinger drove a rental car into Port Townsend, hoping to reconnect with an old friend and market his latest book of photographs. Instead, he found a new life 3000 miles and a cultural light year from coastal Maine where he had lived most of his adult life.
Over the previous three decades, Curtsinger had travelled the globe, shooting stunning photos for National Geographic and other magazines, carving a reputation as one of the world’s finest underwater photographers. His resume included six books, 33 articles and six cover stories for NG Magazine and a lucrative stock photo business.
But Curtsinger was ready for a change. His first wife had died in 2003 after a long illness. Magazines like National Geographic were struggling with Internet economics and the stock photo business was disappearing.
“And I was tired of being on the road,” he recalls.
So he quit the road here at the end of the road. His old friend from Maine, Caroline Gibson, organized a dinner party that include her friend, Sue Ohlson. Curtsinger and Ohlson partnered up personally and professionally at Sunrise Coffee. He’s never looked back.
Instead of exploring arctic seas in pursuit of whales, sea turtles and rare nudibranchs, he lugs 150-pound sacks of coffee beans, loads them into the Sunrise roaster, then lingers with the shipwrights, fishermen, sailors and other visitors that stop by for a latte and boatyard gossip.
“I love this place,” he says. “The wooden boats, those amazing schooners, the salt air. And it’s a small town, which is what I loved about coastal Maine.”
At age 75, Curtsinger retains the keen artistic eye and the softspoken intensity that took him to the farthest corners of the earth – qualities that come across in the images that will be on display beginning Sept. 2 at the Northwind Arts Grover Gallery on Taylor Street.
Grover Gallery September Preview
The five images shown below are part of a limited edition portfolio that Bill donated to Northwind Art. It is available online for a minimum donation of $1,500. The portfolio comes with a 40-page book, written by Kenneth Brower and the accompanying captions are excerpted from the book.
“Spending time in a penguin rookery will get you,” Bill says of Antarctica. “I’ve seen it happen again and again. You watch the whole social structure of the rookery, some chicks developing, some not. The skuas predatory on the chicks, the leopard seals predatory on the adults. You see the chicks going into the water. Not many are going to come back.” These two emperor penguins did come back. They prospered and grew to adulthood, standing four feet tall above the ice and jetting so fast underwater that Bill had trouble following with eye or camera. To accelerate, penguins dump some of their insulation, releasing air trapped by their contour feathers, a sleeve and slipstream of tiny bubbles that lubricate the penguin/ocean interface, reducing drag. The bubble contrails plunge, veer, corkscrew, and undulate, marking the path of each bird. The effervescence lingers for a while after the penguins are gone, like the smoky trails of rockets after the fireworks
In fieldwork for a National Geographic story on sea turtles, Bill traveled to the Bahamas, the Cayman Islands, Guyana, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Mexico, Florida, and Texas, in which places he photographed green turtles, hawksbills, leatherbacks, loggerheads, olive ridleys, and Kemp’s ridleys—all six species that nest in the New World. This ancient homecoming is one of the great dramas of nature. Each female turtle laboriously rows the ponderous steamer trunk of herself up the beach slope, digs a pit above tideline, lays her fifty eggs, and covers them with sand. Spent by the effort, she rests as if dead. Reviving, she drags back down to the sea. After two months of incubation, the hatchlings dig out and follow. The dash down the beach is the most perilous moment in what, for those that succeed in reaching the ocean, will be very long lives. For anyone who has watched hatchlings run their gauntlet of gulls, herons, frigate birds, and ghost crabs down to the sea, this photograph is full of emotion. This hatchling has made it. On the instant of splashing in, its scuttle down the sand became flight, and it is now winging its way out into a deep mystery. No one knows where these hatchlings go, or how they live, out on the open ocean. We won’t see this turtle again until, grown huge, it somehow navigates back to this natal beach to begin the cycle all over again.
Off Antarctica, 120 feet beneath the ocean surface, in murky water with ten-foot visibility, Bill followed a scientist who was collecting benthic specimens along a transect. Photography was difficult already in the dimness, and his camera strobe had been leaking. Then the strobe began acting up, shorting out and flashing randomly. He held it above his head, trying to keep the thing level. Feeling a bump, he looked up to see a leopard seal biting at the strobe. Leopard seals grow more than thirteen feet long. They are the only seal species that eats warm-blooded prey, sometimes killing crabeater seals three times bigger than Bill Curtsinger. This leopard, lithe and sinuous despite its great size, gathered itself like a cobra to strike again and again at the strobe. This image captures the kind of feeling Bill is after in his art. It is not explicit. Most people will not immediately recognize its subject as a seal. This could be some sea creature from Norse myth, or from Tolkien or Hieronymus Bosch. It’s an archetype, but archetypical of what? It’s a self-portrait, in the sense that the seal presented itself to the strobe. The flash illuminates a face caught somewhere between menace and innocence, which is the truth about any predator, no matter how fierce. The photograph does not elucidate or clarify the seal; it leaves all the creature’s mystery intact. Our response to it comes, like the seal itself, from someplace deep.
“The wind goeth toward the south and turneth about unto the north,” says Ecclesiastes. “It whirleth about continually, and the wind returneth again according to his circuits.” Yes, but not always. Nowhere doth the wind whirleth faster and more tempestuously than in the Southern Ocean, but down there it goeth not south or north. Ignoring its biblical instructions, it howls relentlessly east. In its endless uninterrupted circuit around Antarctica, in the empty latitudes and mountainous seas of the Furious Fifties and Shrieking Sixties, it encounters no land to slow it. Nowhere on Earth is more surface water displaced by wind, to be replaced from below. About two-thirds of the deep upwelling on the planet occurs in the Southern Ocean. In spring and summer, nutrients welling to the surface feed vast blooms of phytoplankton, which are grazed by exploding populations of krill, which feed almost everything else, from the chick of the little rockhopper penguin to the colossus of the blue whale, which eats eight tons of krill daily. “It’s almost impossible to describe,” Bill says of Antarctica. “It’s beautiful and productive, but very hostile.” Hostility is relative, of course. For the south polar skua in this photograph, life in the heat of the equator would be a living hell. This skua hurtles downwind in ecological equipoise, riding the gale that drives the current that generates the upwelling that brings up the nutrients that fertilizes the phytoplankton that fuels the krill that feed it.
Humpback Whale Eclipse
Subtidal mangrove forest is very nice—a prolific sea-life nursery—and so are the sunlit pastures of eelgrass shallows. Curtsinger and I have worked happily in those two environments, both together and apart. But as a general thing, give this photographer the cold and the dark, as that is ninety-five percent of the ocean. Give him depth, and a dose of enigma, as those are the oceanic realities. This portrait of a humpback whale, in frigid water off Newfoundland, is short in detail but long on mood and mystery. It’s elusive. The whale looms cruciform, its fourteen-foot pectoral fins outspread like wings. It hovers numinous, with the sun’s rays radiating about its head, a nimbus, as in paintings of angels, avatars, bodhisattvas, and saints. These associations are there, subliminal or not, but only as subjective overlay, for here mainly is the humpback itself, unallegorical, the most elegant and acrobatic of the great whales. The bubbles might seem extraneous to the composition, but not to me. The three rising bubble clusters provide depth, a third dimension. And then, almost immediately, they suggest a fourth dimension—time—as these clusters mark successive exhalations through the mouthpiece of Bill’s regulator. If the bubbles make a time signature of ascending notes, then they are also a personal signature, written in breath. His respiration a more vital sign of the photographer than anything he might have scrawled in the corner with a pen.
Find out more about the exhibit at Curtsinger Statement — Northwind Art
For information on the limited edition portfolio: Curtsinger Portfolio — Northwind Art
Feature photo top: Leopard Seal © Bill Curtsinger