Where the wild things are: Abell shoots the Amazon

Sam Abell, "Sloth Crossing Playa."
Sam Abell, "Sloth Crossing Playa."

The opening of "Sam Abell: Amazonia" at Les Yeux du Monde last Friday recalled those "Sensurround" movies of the 1970s. Just as Earthquake gave its audience a you-are-there experience via rumbling seats, the gallery had a distinctly jungle-like feel as throngs of Abell fans crowded into the small space on a sultry evening. Sweat trickled down the backs of my legs; only biting bugs and birdcalls were missing.

But the sensation was appropriate since Abell strives to create an intimate encounter between viewers and the tropical wildlife showcased in the exhibition. The 33 large color images result from the National Geographic photographer's several trips into the Amazon's headwaters, often accompanied by Danish photographer Torben Ulrick Nissen, to capture the unique ecosystem threatened by encroaching industrialization and environmental hazards. Instead of using scare tactics, Abell presents photos that compel a relationship with the beauty of the Amazonian landscape and animals.

He achieves this personal involvement by foregoing long-range lenses and remote-controlled cameras in favor of getting up close with his subjects, which include anacondas, monkeys, and brilliant butterflies. His point of view becomes our point of view. Fortunately, Abell is a skilled observer, taking note of color and spatial relationships most of us would otherwise miss. In many cases, he frames the scene and patiently waits for us to notice what's happening.

For example, "Praying Mantis" appears to be an almost abstract composition of green grasses crossing the frame diagonally against a rich blue background. A closer look, however, reveals one of the central blades is not like the others; it is a praying mantis clinging upside down to a shoot of the same color. Similarly, a scaly head with a gleaming eye goes almost undetected beneath a carpet of fallen leaves inĀ  "Hidden Anaconda."

Other images are more obvious in their spectacle, such as Abell's "Sloth Crossing Playa," in which a mottled-gray, primate-like animal, baby beneath her belly, crawls across a sandy expanse toward a coppery stretch of river, while in the background the jungle canopy looms against the sky. Highlighting the exotic energy of the Amazon, Abell even makes a visual pun on his iconic Stay this Moment photograph of a canoe's prow in calm blue waters by creating a nearly identical composition, "Guide at Dusk," with an olive-green blur of river rushing by.

With Abell as our guide, "Amazonia" is an immersion experience that leaves viewers wide-eyed with wonder.

The exhibition "Sam Abell:Amazonia" is on view through July 18 and then again August 4-31 at Les Yeux du Monde. 841 Wolf Trap Road. 973-5566.

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