EIGHT WAYS TO
Edited by Giada De Agostinis
The impact of fossil fuels on the environment made front page news at least 30 years ago. Though there are those who still deny the existence of climate change, many photographers, critics, and curators have engaged with this pressing issue over the years, urging us to confront the ramifications of the environmental crisis. We have asked eight professionals in the field of photography to each select a single photograph that resonated with them in the last year and that relates to this theme. Their selections suggest a variety of ways to contemplate the threat to our planet.
Curator, Department of Photography, The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Dorothea Lange, Migratory Cotton Picker, Eloy, Arizona, November 1940. Courtesy The Museum of Modern Art
To continue his explorations of the landscapes of the natural world, Chinese artist Shao Wenhuan was invited to Switzerland for a three-month residency. By assembling numerous focal points into a single image that seems to conform to perspective, Shao hides hundreds of moments in one image. He always intervenes in his images using multiple artistic methods such as paint strokes, cuts, abrasions, and stains, forming rich layers of natural and man-made details. In this work, Peaks, he drew a handmade white line. The scars of mechanical violence constitute a poetic satire, highlighting the direct and indirect damage to landscapes caused by interventions of human life and the resulting acceleration in natural-resource extraction.
©Shao Wenhuan, Peaks. Courtesy the artist
Touria El Glaoui
I first saw this print at the 2019 London edition of the 1-54 Contemporary African Art Fair. Louisa Marajo is an artist from Martinique, and her work responds to the sargassum (algae) blooms that have swamped the island. Its unprecedented growth is attributed to human activity. As sargassum dies and decomposes, it releases hydrogen sulfide and blocks the sunlight, causing other organisms to suffocate, devastating the ecosystem. Marajo takes an image of her seemingly anarchic installations, made by cut wood, construction pallets, and photographs of sargassum that she cuts and sticks onto these materials, adds bits of color from a “warning-tape” palette, and then lays on top of it a single photograph of sargassum.
Louisa Marajo, Dismantling Sargasses SEE8, 2019. Courtesy the artist
Some of the most evocative images in Monumental Journey, the exhibition of daguerreotypes by Girault de Prangey that I organized at the Met in 2019, depicted trees. His view of the cedars of Lebanon, in which the trees seem to stretch on forever, is particularly haunting. Although they once covered large expanses of the mountains of the Near East, human depredation had confined the cedars to the western slopes of the Lebanon Mountains by the time Girault made this photograph. Today, the forests face their most perilous human-induced threat: global warming, which experts believe could wipe them out by this century’s end.
Joseph-Philibert Girault de Prangey, Les cèdres, Liban, 1844. Courtesy Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Département des estampes et de la photographie
I’ve always admired the simple genius of Charles Darwin working in his garden with just a magnifying glass. I’ve read that he even put his kids to work recording the details of the natural world outside their home. All of this intense looking added to making radical discoveries in his groundbreaking work, Origin of the Species.
Stephen Gill’s monograph The Pillar (Nobody Books) is a series of photographs looking at birds (and one fox) in a field near the artist’s new home in Sweden. Gill employs an inexpensive digital camera with a sensor that reacts to the birds landing on a wooden pole he installed. The result is a wonderous, intimate, and immediate sense of seeing nature, one that often feels distant in our lives among people.
Stephen Gill, from The Pillar (Nobody Books), 2015-19
In 2017 I presented Katrin Koenning’s The Crossing as part of a group show for Triennale der Photographie in Hamburg. As with her decade-long, site-specific work at Lake Mountain, Koenning’s work captures ecological fragility and charts the destructive impact of climate change on the environment and community. I see this ongoing project as a love letter to Mother Earth, Koenning returning again and again to bear witness, drawing us into the narrative, reminding us of her vulnerability but also her strength. The land is part of us – our souls, our flesh, our hearts. We are obliged to respect it.
Katrin Koenning, Three, 2018, from the series Lake Mountain. Courtesy the artist and Reading Room (Melbourne)
Michelle Dunn Marsh
The tenets of Minor Matters were partially informed by my awareness that trees often die so books can live. Through a lifetime of seeking the elusive visage of Tahoma (Mt. Rainier), and seeing Louwala-Clough (Mt. St. Helens) emitting its ash cloud in 1980, I have experienced nature as fragile and as fierce. How best to live, respecting both qualities? Joe Freeman’s photograph holds those elements, and many others, in an uneasy scale. It reminds me to continue to minimize the detritus of my life, to balance the fact that I have consciously chosen a vocation that leaves behind many books where trees once stood.
©Joe Freeman, Jr., Rimrock Lake and reservoir, southeast of Tahoma, November 10, 2018. Courtesy the artist
At the center of Allan Sekula’s modest survey at Marian Goodman Gallery last summer, regrettably the artist’s first solo exhibition in New York, was Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black] (1999-2000), a slideshow of 81 photographs that he took during the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. The tens of thousands of anti-globalization demonstrators, who gathered to peacefully condemn the support of corporate interests over environmental and social concerns, were met with police violence and media ridicule. Sekula’s images, however, reject the style and tools of photojournalism, which tend to sensationalize and universalize events, in favor of the banal and often boring realities of activism and politics. And like political action, his images are slow and demand our time – if only we had more of it now.
Allan Sekula, Waiting for Tear Gas [white globe to black], 1999-2000. Courtesy Allan Sekula Studio and Marian Goodman Gallery