Can photography impact the way that we view our environment? Part art and part document, does this medium have the capacity to really change our minds? This question, which has a semi-permanent place in the back of my mind, rose to the surface most recently at Landmark: the Fields of Photography, an exhibition that brings together a diverse range of photographers to show the brazen, and sometimes beautiful, reality of our impact on the environment.
To some, landscape photography is encapsulated by the work of American photographer Ansel Adams who introduced the world to the dramatic landscapes of the American West. A passionate conservationist, Adams sought to inspire the preservation of the landscapes he captured on film. Significantly, these are photographs that sought to emphasise the value of a protected, pristine space at a time when many still seemed to think that the land was limitless.
But just as the landscapes Adams photographed have become ever more endangered, landscape photography too has changed. Contemporary landscape photographers, such as Edward Burtysnsky and David Maisel, are much more likely to explore the scars inflicted by human activities than pristine wilderness. There is, it seems, no longer any virgin forest or unpolluted water to be found. But as prodigiously talented photographers interested in both the documentary and the aesthetic aspects of photography, these two are nonetheless able to capture something beautiful in the most ruined of landscapes.
What is particularly interesting to me, however, is that while Burtynsky’s image of a river stained a lurid crimson by nickel mining in Sudbury would in most photographers’ hands become a direct call to environmental action, in his hands the call does not come from him but calls it forth – viscerally – from us. We respond differently to the formal qualities of these works than we do to photographs that are more readily classifiable as ‘activist’. In other words, the coolly formal beauty of the composition and exposure allows something to slide past our jaded sensibility.
In climate change circles, it is now reasonably well accepted that photographs of polar bears on icebergs are not particularly effective as mechanisms for changing consumer behaviour in meaningful ways. O’Neil and Nicholson suggest that this type of dramatic representation of climate change is not enough and can actually be disempowering and alienating. More affective (and effective) are images that allow us to establish a more personal connection with the consequences of climate change. For effective climate change communication, Kate Manzo argues, visuals should positively engage the viewer without resigning them to fatalism and disengagement.
So do the photographs of Burtynski and Maisel allow us to connect the causes and consequences of human abuse and misuse of our planet? Reading the captions enlightens you as to the sources of these beautiful images and will likely leave you both mesmerised and sickened. The contradictions embedded in the origins of the photograph reflect the contradictions embedded in modern existence. So whilst the images bring us to a deeper understanding of particular issues and might compel more thoughtful individuals to action, I don’t know whether this is universally the case. Looking at Burtynski’s both grand and horrible images, some might also feel more helpless than ever.
As a contrast, the image of oiled-covered pelicans by Daniel Beltrá, winner of the 2011 Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award, is far more affecting. Paired with the above image of an oil spill, it packs a powerful punch, creating a far more direct link between the oil spill and its consequences for wildlife. Beltrá’s photography, while maintaining a strong aesthetic sensibility, also makes that critical link between ou actions and their consequences upon the environment.
Landmark does not pretend to be making a statement about the environment. Nor should it. Rather, it is a wonderful and broad-ranging exhibition providing an overview of the wide variety of the ways in which photographers are engaging with our changing environment. Some photographers, such as Maisel and Burtynsky, are careful not to make overt statements with their art, but rather seek to prompt the viewer to think deeply about these complex issues. Others, such as Beltrá, seem comfortable being a bit more direct. It strikes me that both approaches are important; there is no right or wrong way for photographers to engage with the environment. However, if we are relying on an image to communicate something very specific or call people to action, things become very complicated indeed.
The engagement of photographers and other artists with environmental issues is clearly an area for further exploration. I’d be curious to know what you think.