Just being alive is plenty dangerousenough, thank you very much. You take your very life in your hands every time you drive on the 405, hurtling across the asphalt in a multiton metal box, surrounded by millions of other hurtling, multiton metal boxes, many of them apparently piloted by cross-eyed idiots with a death wish. If a tire blows out at the wrong moment, or if you happen to get distracted and zig when you should have zagged—whammo! That's it for you, chum, and half an hour later, a courageous EMT is pulling your headless body from a pile of flaming wreckage. Or you could be at home, eating a plain old tuna-fish sandwich, and you choke on a bone and end up dead on the floor with your face as purple as a bell pepper. As you read this, you're probably growing a tumor someplace, or something is going screwy with your heart or your brain. Isn't it about time you got that little cough of yours looked at? You could die at any moment is what we're saying. No one here gets out alive. So why go looking for trouble?
Still, for some folks, the innate perilousness of existence just isn't thrilling enough, and they get off on deliberately putting themselves in harm's way. They ski, they snowboard, they surf, they skateboard, while more sensible persons are quite content to observe their death-defying feats from a safe distance—preferably in video or photographic form, where we won't have to worry that one of these thrill seekers will take a nasty tumble, come flying our way and impale us with a ski pole.
The "Red Bull Illume Image Quest," currently taking place on Huntington Beach, celebrates the art of personal imperilment. Judges sifted through 72,000 photos from more than 90 countries, finally selecting a handful of winners in various hazily defined categories such as Lifestyle, Playground, Wings and New Creativity. Displayed right there on the beach, on 25 big, backlit monolith gizmos—each one 8 solid feet of glass and metal—all arranged in a big ring with the waves crashing in the distance and the seagulls keening overhead, it certainly makes for an impressive spectacle, like some kind of crazy, new-media Stonehenge, or the set for a glitzy music video that's waiting to happen. But, you may well ask, spectacle aside, are the photos themselves any good? Why, yes, they are. Some of them surprisingly so.
Australian photographer Tim McKenna's winning entry in the Experimental category is a beaut any way you look at it, capturing both the etherealness and the violence of the sea with rare effectiveness. A great, roaring beast of an ocean wave takes up most of the frame; we wouldn't even guess a surfer is in the middle of it, but for his hand bursting through and a glimpse of his board's fin. If not for the surfer's presence, you could almost take this for pure abstraction, but with him there, even as sketchily suggested as he is, the scene takes on the qualities of an epic narrative: It's like seeing a knight battle a big, sea-blue dragon.
Fred Mortagne's winning entry in the Wings category (seriously, who thought these categories up, anyhow?) likewise has a touch of the fairy tale about it, but this appears to be a tale in which our hero doesn't live happily ever after. We find ourselves looking down from atop some sort of immense wall to a gray street many feet below, while, somewhere in the vertiginous middle distance, a young man is flailing in the air with a skateboard just out of the reach of his gangly, outstretched legs. These photos don't seem to have titles, but this one cries out for the obvious: Icarus. Dawn Kish's Close Up winner zooms in to focus on the intimate details of an enormous rock—it fills nearly the entire frame with its surface—while the hands of a climber reach in from the left, grappling with this behemoth. The shot suggests a pair of wrestlers, man vs. nature and all that, but it also has the quality of a pair of lovers—man-on-rock action!
Even if the photos themselves were fairly predictable action-sports stuff—and let's not kid ourselves, a few of them are—the show would still be worth taking in just for the sheer spectacle of it. But there are some genuinely beautiful images here, scenes that will jolt your senses and perhaps give you some inkling as to why these strange people feel the need to risk death (or at the very least a lifetime of floating bone fragments) in pursuit of a few thrills. Besides, this is a sorely needed opportunity for you to get away from watching skiers, snowboarders, surfers and skateboarders grievously injuring themselves on YouTube, and step outside and get a little fresh air in your lungs. Just don't forget to bundle up nice and warm to protect yourself from those frigid winds blowing in off the Pacific. After all, you can never be too careful.