NEWPORT BEACH — Some people in the audience gasped as the aerial photo flashed on the screen at the front of the room.
They were reacting in wonderment as a color shot came up of the so-called "Loop," a section of the Green River that snakes through Canyonlands National Park in Utah. Two sets of bends in the river, a tributary of the Colorado River, seemed so close to each other in the frame that they almost touched — but isthmuses separated them.
Photographer Peter McBride took the picture from his father's Cessna 180 as part of a project to document the length of the nearly 1,500-mile Colorado River in photos. McBride was curious to tell a story with his camera about the Colorado River, which had irrigated his family's cattle ranch in the Centennial State. He said he wanted to capture through his lens how mankind has altered the great river's natural flow and environment in harnessing its waters.
"It's not just pretty pictures," Yana Bridle, a Newport beach resident and fellow photographer, commented after attending a slideshow presentation and book signing by McBride at the Newport Beach Public Library on Jan. 26.
"Everybody can take pretty pictures," she said. "He made it meaningful and significant."
The appearance by McBride — an award-winning photographer who has traveled the globe on assignment for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Newsweek, the Washington Post and other publications — formally kicked off the library's 2012 lecture season.
It will run through the spring and build on the library's regional reputation for attracting speakers who are household names and movers and shakers, as well as lesser-knowns who are rising in their respective fields.
Divided into the Library Live! and Martin W. Witte Distinguished Speakers series, the two programs promise to bring a roster of noted writers and speakers to Newport Beach, who represent a range of fields.
They will talk about contemporary topics as diverse as water and the environment, geopolitics in a multipolar world, the power and reach of Google, and a Hollywood studio veteran's insights into the Oscars — just in time for the Academy Awards on Feb. 26.
Since the mid-1990s, the library, through the Newport Beach Public Library Foundation and private and corporate donations, has presented some big names under both programs. Among them, writers Sebastian Junger, Dave Eggers, Michael Pollan, Lisa See and Michael Lewis — before "Moneyball" made him famous — have headlined speaking engagements in the library's Friends Room auditorium.
"We're really proud of it," said Tracy Keys, the foundation's executive director. "As far as I know, I don't know of any other [program] like it in Orange County that's doing anything quite like it."
It does help that many of the foundation's 2,500 members live in affluent towns — like Newport Beach, Laguna Beach and Irvine — Gordon McAlpine, the president of the Foundation's board of directors, acknowledged.
"There's no sense denying that this is a fortunate community," McAlpine said, noting that not a penny of taxpayer money goes into underwriting the two speakers' series. "But it would be a mistake also to discount just how much this represents a real hunger in this community, because I've had a lot of people tell me that, in their view, this is the kind of cultural high life of Newport Beach."
The Witte and Library Live! series are essentially different in that the Distinguished Speakers generally attracts speakers who are known enough that they can charge the foundation an average of $20,000 each to speak, officials said.
Lately, the foundation has flirted with the idea of inviting Jon Stewart, host of "The Daily Show," to Newport. Though even with its deep pockets, the foundation cannot afford to pay the fee that he charges, which is well above $100,000, said Jason Sherr, who chairs the foundation's Distinguished Speakers subcommittee.
Yet compared with the speakers in the Library Live! lineup who usually speak only once, each of the Distinguished Speakers — such as George Friedman, the chief executive of STRATFOR, the global political risk firm whose corporate website recently was infiltrated by hackers — is expected to speak three times at the library over the course of a Friday night and Saturday.
The foundation charges $55 for tickets to the Friday night lecture and $35 for the Saturday afternoon lecture. In between, the speaker will also give a lecture on Saturday morning that is free and reserved for Orange County-area high school students.
In contrast, the foundation tries to make its Library Live! speakers, including McBride, accessible to a wider audience by generally not charging for admission but suggesting a $10 donation.
However, in the case of Steven Levy, the author of "In the Plex: How Google Thinks, Works, and Shapes Our Lives," he will be speaking under the Library Live! banner, although tickets to his one-time talk on March 2 will cost $55.
Out of an annual operating budget of about $650,000, about $155,000 goes into paying for the speaking programs, Keys said.