From high enough above the ground, even the grimly denuded landscape of the Alberta tarsands holds an unexpected visual aesthetic.
Victoria photographer Garth Lenz saw this in his effort to document the scale of devestation from bitumen mining in northern Alberta. At 2,000 feet, vast tailings ponds shimmer in rainbow colours, or hold the soupy swirl of an abstract painting.
"Some have said I've made the tar sands look too beautiful," said Lenz, half joking.
"What I saw was fascinating from an environmental narrative. From the visual standpoint, it was remarkable to see the incredible scope of the landscape."
Lenz is one of three B.C. photographers among the 100 winners of this year's Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, a worldwide contest organized by the Natural History Museum in London, U.K., and BBC Worldwide, which attracted 43,000 entries from 96 countries.
"The quality is so high that choosing a winner in 19 categories seems an impossible task," said Jack Lohman, CEO of the Royal B.C. Museum. "Being awarded a top honour is a true accomplishment."
Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit opened today at the RBCM, the third time in Victoria, and features the 100 winning nature photographs, backlit and in large-format. It also opened simultaneously in Toronto, Ont., and London, U.K.
"The exhibition taps into the world's most interesting ecosystems," Lohman said. "And it adds a touch of light and colour during our winter weather in Victoria."
Lenz's winning image depicts a bird's eye view of a muddy clay landscape of a bitumen mine bisected by wide dirt roads and pockmarked with tailings ponds. It's a photo he captured in September 2010 on his fourth trip to photograph landscapes of the tarsands.
"You are always at the mercy of light and air quality. The air was quite clear that day," Lenz said. "I was able to fly higher and get more of a sense of an overview."
Shooting from aircraft provides scope, but it also avoids trouble. Lenz said private security employees have challenged him a number of times from taking photos of bitumen mines from shoulders of public roadways.
"You can't get a lot from the ground. (Operations) tend to be far away from the road and blocked by berms," he said. "The only way to photograph the extent of it is by air."
For Lenz, the mine roadways look like "tentacles reaching out from the tarsands" into the greater world. "(The image) is emblematic of the impacts the tarsands has on our fragile home of planet Earth. It's a cautionary tale of our continual over dependence of fossil fuels, and the very high cost of greenhouse gasses and climate change."
Trained as a classical pianist and a former teacher at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, Lenz transitioned to professional photography 20 years ago, without any formal training. His work on the tarsands emerged from a broader project to photograph boreal forests across Canada.
Lenz said his work isn't about vilifying oil companies, but is about documenting the toxic byproducts of this industrial process, the damage to the land, and trying to get people to think about their own choices around using fossil fuels.
"I'm not producing enviro-propaganda. My driving force is to make powerful, evocative images," he said. "It's about my relationship to the subject and trying to tell a story."
The Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit at the RBCM runs until April 6.
Other Wildlife Photographer of the Year B.C. winners
Connor Stefanison, a 22-year-old from Burnaby, won the Wildlife Photographer of the Year portfolio award for a series of six wildlife shots. All are striking on their own, but his shot of a barred owl, wings spread in a hunting dive, is the highlight of the collection.
Stefanison, a largely self-taught nature photographer who started shooting at age 17, spent 10 days trying to capture a image of a barred owl in full flight in a wood near his home. The only way to do that was to plant a dead mouse as bait above his camera.
It took trial and error to get angles right on three flashes, and split-second timing to open the shutter just before the owl hit its target. Stefanison had one chance per mouse, but his patience and perseverance paid off.
"Where I shot this is a few hundred years behind a strip mall. It shows you can get interesting shots in your back yard."
Adam Gibbs of New Westminster earned commendation in the wildscapes category for a photo of an Alpine Lakes Wilderness area in Washington State. It's his second year in a row as a winner for Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
Gibbs hiked about 20 kilometres and gained 6,000 feet of elevation to get off the beaten track into a rough wilderness area dotted with pristine lakes and rocky crags.
"There's lots of ponds and lakes and majestic mountains," Gibbs said. "You can't go wrong. You just point your camera anywhere and you can get a descent shot."
Future projects at the RBCM
The RBCM is one of three museums in the world debuting the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibit, thanks to its growing relationship with the Natural History Museum in London.
"This is a terrific coup to have this here," Lohman said. "We're delighted to do it next year and hopefully there will be more Canadian entries."
He said the director of the NHM is a great supporter of the museum in Victoria, and will be assisting the RBCM on a project next year to "rescript" its displays. "The museum was designed 50 years ago. The texts are somewhat out of date," Lohman said. "There is new research, and new approaches. It's not the same as it was 50 years ago."
Lohman said the RBCM is also developing a relationship with the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago for a display on woolly mammoths in 2016.