As executive director Felicia Van Stolk sorted through the hundreds of nature shots submitted to the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History in 2020, she reflected back on a difficult year.
“I teared up going through this process multiple times,” she says. “Even without looking at the captions, you can see that a lot has happened.”
Now, some of those pictures are on display in a new virtual exhibit hosted by the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History. 2020 Vision is a curated collection of nature photography taken by Santa Cruz photographers last year. The exhibit, available for free on the museum’s website, offers Santa Cruz residents the opportunity to reflect on how the natural world both soothed and scarred us during a year defined by stay-at-home orders and natural disasters.
“2020 was a remarkable year,” Van Stolk says. “Not only because of the pandemic and fires—a lot of natural phenomena really caught people’s attention.”
The idea to create a virtual photography exhibit was first proposed when the museum received dozens of nightmare images of Santa Cruz bathed in orange light, one of the side-effects of the CZU Lightning Complex fire and other wildfires in the area. For a museum that usually collects specimens, these pictures revealed the power of photography to capture natural events.
It also offered the museum an opportunity to see what natural moments really stood out to the community as a whole. All of the nearly 100 images on display are submissions by local amateur, professional, and youth photographers. The final collection includes a motley assortment of crabs, nebulas, lightning storms, bioluminescence, and wildfires.
What connects these pictures is the way these natural moments touched people during 2020. Many photographers saw their own experience of the pandemic in the behavior of animals. A picture of two birds in a nest is captioned “sheltering-in-place.” Another photographer is reminded of the panic that gripped shoppers in the early days of the pandemic in a shot of pelicans and seagulls fighting over a fish.
And center-stage are the devastating wildfires that destroyed homes and painted the world in shades of orange last summer. Visitors follow along as breathtaking pictures of the lightning storm that lit the CZU Lightning Complex fire morph into shots of the wildfires themselves.
“I hope we can take a moment and look back and see what we survived,” says Shmuel Thaler, the staff photographer at the Santa Cruz Sentinel who helped judge the best pictures in the collection. Of the four photographs selected to win, all but one are about wildfires.
But, as Van Stolk points out, nature also offered people in Santa Cruz an opportunity to escape from the darker moments of 2020. The exhibit is full of small, beautiful moments, a reminder that the cycles of nature kept moving even as the county shut down.
“This year makes it really clear that nature has value, not just as something to extract, but as something good for our emotional health,” Van Stolk says.
The museum is planning on creating a physical display as soon as the stay-at-home orders are lifted. They are also considering displaying some of the pictures in the location where they were photographed.
In the meantime, Van Stolk hopes that 2020 Vision will remind people how the beauty of the natural world helped them face a challenging year, and the importance of safeguarding nature for future generations.
View the exhibit at santacruzmuseum.org/2020-vision.