After over 20 years of traveling the jungles of South America, noted nature photographer Frans Lanting brings his photography to the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. Funded in part by the National Geographic Society, “Jungles: Photography by Frans Lanting” reads just like one of the society’s magazines: intensely deliberate close-ups of strange creatures and baby animals, elongated scenic pieces that could easily fill two-page article spreads and abstract representations of plants, flowers and leaf-resembling insects. Complete with short quotations from Charles Darwin, E.O. Wilson and Lanting himself, the exhibit is as much about the photography as it is about environmental protection and appreciation.
It cannot be denied that what Lanting has captured is beautiful. Upon entering the exhibit, a six-foot portrait of the Lowland Rainforest in Borneo perfectly captures the serenity of the rainforest. Sunlight blends with shade as it streams in from the top right corner, reflecting gently in the stream that gives such depth to the photo and such height to the surrounding trees. The image is so large it encompasses you, and it feels as though you have walked right into the scene. Another photo, this one taken in the Congo, offers a close-up of a Lowland Gorilla reflecting on something in the distance, the light just hitting his eyes so they sparkle red, almost as though with thought or meditation. Orchids in Madagascar take on bird-like qualities as they sit delicately on swinging vines, their petals perched as if caught in flight.
Forty-five photos are arranged into four groups: “Water and Light,” “Color and Camouflage,” “Anarchy and Order,” and “Form and Evolution.” Though there are signs on the walls, it is difficult to distinguish the groupings from one another. “Water and Light” only appears to have one contender at first — it isn’t until you reach the end of the gallery that you find the rest. “Anarchy and Order” is predictable enough: It contains the bulk of the movement photographs, including Scarlet Macaws from Peru in flight. Though predictable, one particular in-flight photo is worth noting: The “Fishing Bat,” which is really two photos, captures a bat against the night sailing smoothly over shimmering water.
Just by looking at some of these images, it is easy to see why Lanting is hailed as one of the great nature photographers of our time. Unfortunately, the rest of the exhibit does little to support this statement. Lanting’s precise and patient photography, often the result of 12-hour days 90-feet in the air struggling through intense humidity, is often lost as the images are enlarged. The prints themselves are of poor quality, and some, like the “Macaws over Brown River” are destroyed as enlargement smudges the fine lines that would have created the motion of the river, thus leaving the photograph looking more like an abstract painting on a muddy background.
Another more deadly victim of the enlargement process is the “Red-eyed Tree Frog,” which with its vibrant pinks and clashing oranges, yellows and greens is more reminiscent of an Andy Warhol than a photograph. The colors appear manipulated in their brightness, and the large size of the frog (roughly three feet) annoyingly demands attention. Yet another sad enlargement story involves arguably the most fascinating photos in the entire gallery: a set of three photos capturing the growth of an odd plant known as a Pitcher plant. The plant itself is superimposed on what appears to be a black background, and through each of the photos we see not only the evolution of the plant itself, but the evolution of color: Greens evolve to subtle yellows that cumulate with texture. But upon viewing the smaller normal-sized versions of these images found in the accompanying look book, enlargement and the harsh museum lighting seemed to have obliterated the slight glow around the plants, which had added another vibrant dimension to the photograph.
The worst enlargement by far is “Borneo Fern.” One of the largest in the gallery, the enlargement gives the plant plastic-like qualities and blurs the spikes that populate the stem. When we view this large monstrosity, we cannot see the juxtaposition of the spikes with the graceful curve and spiral of the fern that had made the photograph so beautiful. We miss out on Mother Nature’s little game of irony.
Luckily, Lanting’s book can be found at the end of the exhibit, and there you can view all the photos in the gallery the way they were meant to be viewed — as art. Suddenly, “Borneo Fern” is beautiful in its contradiction, and “Red-eyed Tree Frog” fascinating in its hue. As you leave the exhibit, a quotation from Lanting reads, “It’s about feeling the forest rather than the science of it.” But unfortunately for Lanting, the exhibit can’t seem to shake itself free of the National Geographic photo index.