Detroit Zoo photo exhibit shows nature's horror — and beauty

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Nature is beautiful — but it's not always pretty.

It's beautiful when a Bengal tiger stares into the lens of a camera in the Himalayas of central Bhutan, or when molten rock still glows red in Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula five years after the eruption of a volcano.

Those photos are among 100 stunning winners in the 2018 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition, mounted on large-format light panels in the Ford Education Center at the Detroit Zoo.

Also in the exhibit, which is free with a regular admission: a sun bear, kept caged behind the scenes at a grubby Indonesian zoo, with its front paws resting on the iron bars. And a huntsman spider, a species that grows as large as 11 inches in diameter, dangling from its silk line as it feeds on a desert tree frog in remote Australia.

Riveting, both — but the furthest thing from flowery.

"The Catch" by Robert Irwin of Australia shows a huntsman spider dangling in mid-air, clutching a dead frog.

The winning pictures, chosen from nearly 45,000 submissions by photographers from 95 countries, will hang through May 12. It's the 54th year of the contest, produced by the Natural History Museum of London, and the 13th year in a row the Detroit Zoo has been the first U.S. stop for the show.

The reason for that, said zoo CEO Ron Kagan, is not complicated. He saw the exhibit in London 14 years ago, and he asked.

The zoo he oversees has more than 140 artworks on permanent display and employs a curator for fine and performing arts.

"Obviously," Kagan says, "we believe art is a very important way for people to express their thoughts, ideas and feelings about nature."

It can also be a way to help spur thoughts, ideas and feelings about core issues like human encroachment and climate change.

"A couple of years ago," he says, the wildlife photos included a picture of a polar bear, "standing on a tiny piece of floating ice in the Arctic. You don't need words."

The photos are mounted on the walls of a second-floor gallery and on square black pillars in the middle of the room. Docent Roberta Russ says it's a particularly popular destination during the zoo's after-hours Wild Lights LED holiday display, running through Dec. 31; as a change of pace and a refuge from the cold, the exhibit might see 700 visitors a night.

Russ, a retired attorney from West Bloomfield Township, has ventured from the Arctic to South Africa to take her own nature photos. She's been a docent since 2010 and is particularly fond of the time she's spent with the winning pictures.

"Every year, it's brand new," she says, but with a few dependable truths. First, visitors will learn from both the pictures and the brief descriptions of what went into getting them — weeks in a blind, sometimes, or a long trek to set up remote-control cameras.

Also, she says, parents will try to shield their children from images that "actually, parents have more problem with than kids."

A few years ago, one image from northern Canada was so graphic that Kagan had it sequestered behind a partition: a red fox dining on a smaller white Arctic fox.

The most jarring in 2018 is probably a pair of young African wild dogs, toying with the head of a baboon the pack killed for breakfast.

It's a reminder of the element of chance that can be as much a part of great photography as skill and preparation. If the pups turn left, holding the baboon's face toward the camera, it's astonishing. Turn right, it's nothing.

"Cool Cat" by Isak Pretorius of South Africa shows a lioness that wandered off from the pride to get a drink at a waterhole.

Equally improbable and far more adorable is a photo of three bobcat cubs — the breed is notoriously wary of people — drinking from a bowl on the deck of a Texas ranch house.

In the Bavarian forest of Germany, lynx kittens wrestle. In Australia, after a three-year search, a photographer finally turns his lens on a sharp-toothed marsupial called a quoll. What appears to be a fern is actually the delta of a Kenyan river, photographed from the sky.

"Some of the pictures can be uplifting," Kagan says. "Some can be very troubling."

Sometimes you can't stop looking, sometimes you have to look away.

It's the nature of the beast.

Twitter: @nealrubin_dn