The night sky is glowing with floating candles. A crowd of people along the water have released sky lanterns, khom loi. They are light forms of cloth or rice paper over wire or bamboo, and the heat of a small flame inside lifts them like kites. As hands free them to drift upward, people stand in the dark with their arms raised — taking pictures on their iPhones.
Photographer Nanut Bovorn caught this moment at the Festival of Lights, Loy Krathong, in Thailand. It comes at the end of the rainy season on the full moon of the twelfth month in the Thai calendar — Nov. 21 to 23 (in 2018). And his image has traveled cross the country and around the world, from Chile to Slovenia, to light down here at the Berkshire Museum.
Rarely Seen: Photographs of the Extraordinary, a National Geographic exhibition, comes to the museum through Jan. 6, 2019, bringing the wider world to Berkshire County, said Craig Langlois, chief experience officer at the museum.
“I have not been lucky enough to go to the light festival,” he said, walking through the galleries, “and these images make connections to beautiful and often vanishing places, people and phenomena happening all over the planet.
“That is our mission, our goal and the inspiration for bringing this show” — to spark a moment of curiosity.
A visitor can walk around the museum and connect back from Joshua Simpson’s planets made of glass to Mark Adamus’ globes of Yukon ice under the Northern Lights.
Adamus backpacked in for two weeks and waited three days by the edge of the lake, hoping the ice would last. Sometimes an image has taken weeks or months for the photographer to capture, to reach this place at exactly this time.
And sometimes it has taken an instant, a reflex. In Martin Amm’s lens, a dragonfly wet with dew gleams like a prism as drops of water magnify the honey-comb web of hexagons in its eyes. The light will last only until the dragonfly wakes and wipes the water away.
These images show what human eyes rarely see, said Seth de Matties, manager of traveling exhibitions with the National Geographic Museum, speaking by phone. The camera sees what people cannot see — because it rarely happens, or because it happens too quickly; because it is too small, too faint or too dark; because it’s too dangerous, dry, hot, cold or remote.
When photographer Stephen Alvarez organized a caving exploration in Papua (New Guinea) and hiked up canyon to swim for an hour up an underground river to the subterranean Myo Lake, he thought more people have walked on the moon than will ever walk into this cave.
Standing there in the dark, he could not see the four acres of jade green water around him, the ceilings 120 feet over his head, the golden stone, the waterfall. He saw the whole scene only later, through his own photographs.
He describes this trek in the show and in the book Rarely Seen, edited by Susan Tyler Hitchcock, where the show began. She gathered some 400 photographs from seven continents, and at least three by Berkshire photographer John Stanmeyer of Otis, though his work does not appear in this show.
From the book, de Matties and his team distilled this show of 50 images. Some are images come from places where few people come, he said, and some hold a moment in time that will not come again.
“It’s the moment of pause photography gives us,” Langlois said.
The pause can hold beauty, surprise and delight. A woman walks across the 183,000-square-foot courtyard of the Sheikh Zayed Mosque, across mammoth flowers inlaid in marble from all over the world.
Some hold vulnerability. This moment may not come again if it can no longer exist. The California lake is drying up. The Decken’s Sifaka lemurs Alvarez saw in a limestone forest are endangered and live only in Madagascar.
Photography tells stories, Langlois said, and it brings people close to the physical world, even in this digital age.
He grew up in an analog time.
“When you only have 36 images on a roll, the timing has to be precise,” he said, especially in field photography, in remote places with limited film. Now a camera can take 10,000 images in a moment, and his phone can store 40,000. Does that speed and volume and automation affect a photographer’s eye and timing, and ways of creating and curating images?
Maybe not, Langlois said. The underlying skills have not changed. He has a background in ceramics, and now he can program a computer to make ceramics for him, but the old ways are no less relevant. He believes they matter as much or more. Knowing the nature of clay, its strengths and weaknesses, the chemistry of glazes, he knows how and what he can make.
And so a photographer will still wait hours in the rain to see a young orangutan hold a banana leaf to keep off the water. He marvels that simple movement — how hard it would be to find, and how natural it seems.
“You feel for this orangutan in a way it’s hard to describe,” he said.
“Don’t take it for granted,” de Matties said. “Magical moments happen all around us, every moment.”
He chose these images to reach around the globe and remind anyone who sees them of connectivity. Nazroo, a mahmout, rests on an elephant’s trunk as they float in clear salt water in the Andaman Islands. Within reach of him, fireflies make light trails in the night woods, and light refracts from the crystal structure of a Vermont snowflake that will never fall again.
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle in October 2018. My thanks to Arts and Entertainment editor Jeffrey Borak.