In the battle for protection of our seas, Brian Skerry’s camera is his weapon of choice

Brian Skerry/Courtesy

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In his 40-plus years of work as a photojournalist, National Geographic reporter Brian Skerry has captured some of the most magnificent images of the marine biosphere in existence. Skerry has photographed spotted dolphins pirouetting in the Bahamas, 70-ton right whales kissing the sea floor of the Auckland Islands, 10-foot long bluefin tuna swimming alongside divers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and many other extravagant scenes.

Though Skerry’s portfolio is full of records of dozens of classes of marine animals, the latest National Geographic-organized exhibition features just one — cartilaginous fishes, or more specifically, per the name of the exhibition which opened at the Downtown Berkeley David Brower Center on Saturday, sharks.

Organized by National Geographic, “Art/Act: Brian Skerry — SHARKS” features some of Skerry’s most striking, intimate shots of these oceanic predators. The works displayed are the result of 14 trips he has taken across the world in the name of photographing sharks, including great whites, oceanic whitetips, shortfin makes and tiger sharks.

In turning his camera toward such animals, Skerry hopes to raise awareness of their beauty and grace, an image in stark opposition to the chilling, sharp-toothed fiend depicted in popular media. As apex predators, sharks play a key role in ecosystems worldwide, yet they are still slain in vast swaths for their fins or, inadvertently, as bycatch.

The Brower Center Art/Act exhibition is more than a display – with it comes the granting of Skerry the Center’s Art/Act award. Each year, the Center selects an outstanding artist whose work revolves around environmental advocacy. Skerry indeed fits the bill. For him, artistic expression is key to raising awareness and bringing about change. “What I’m really trying to do is capture the poetry that lives in the sea,” the photojournalist stated in his acceptance speech.

This doesn’t mean that all of the subject matter of Skerry’s work has been pretty. The photographer recalls approaching some of the grittier projects, such as war photography. It might not have been pleasant, but Skerry felt that exposure of the ugly underbelly of unsustainable fishing practices was, and continues to be, necessary for raising awareness and spurring change.

Both the poetry and battleground in Skerry’s work speaks throughout the exhibit. Some inspire wonder for the sheer beauty of the creatures, shown gliding through pristine blue water, their white bellies smooth. Others are deeply disturbing. One photo, shot in the Sea of Cortez in Mexico, shows a bigeye thresher shark tangled in a fishing net. The shark is dead but only recently so — one open glassy eye gazes hauntingly at the viewer. With its wide pectoral fins spread outward, the shark’s position appears almost Christ-like, another life sacrificed to the ruthless forces of commercial fishing.

To gain a deeper appreciation for Skerry’s work, one must remain aware of the medium. Shooting underwater is no easy feat, as Kenneth Brower (son of David Brower, the first executive director of the Sierra Club) said at the reception ceremony for the exhibition. Shoots may require fourteen or more hours at sea, hoping for the subjects to come by. Even in the interims between these arduous stretches, Skerry rarely takes time off the job. The photographer “hasn’t had a vacation since 1993,” Brower said.

What truly sets Skerry’s work apart, though, is the dynamic quality of his photographs. Viewing the works in “SHARKS” is engaging. It creates a push-and-pull of dialogue between artwork and viewer, urging the latter to confront ugly truths and inviting them consider magnificent realities. The presence of Skerry’s works, the space they take up beyond the dimensions of the photo proper, has driven his success in advocating for marine environmental protection. For him, art is neither static nor confined to a dimension beyond our everyday lives — it’s deeply personal.

Skerry concluded his acceptance speech with a short, witty poem. He had penned the poem as a plea for marine conservation from the Isorax – the photographer’s counterpart to Dr. Seuss’ Lorax. “Healthy oceans are not just for fishes,” he said in the short, pithy rhyme-scheme of his character. Skerry may be a photographer, but before that he is an artist, one who believes in the power of art, even in its most seemingly juvenile of forms. With good art comes power and, as in Skerry’s case, that power can be put toward not only conservation for animals but for humanity itself.

Ryan Tuozzolo covers visual art. Contact her at rt[email protected].