Earth’s wounds

Meadow Brook Art Gallery’s current exhibition, Imaging a Shattering Earth, is a beautiful, must-see photographic exposé of the catastrophic results of human engineering on earth. And therein lies the problem.

From the heartbreaking pictures of abandoned schoolrooms in Chernobyl, Ukraine, to breathtaking aerial views of a dried-up lakebed in southeastern California, the accidental and not-so-accidental results of modern industry are visually spectacular. Yet once we’ve explored these masterful works, we’re more aware of our impotence — our inability to respond to this global ecological crisis — than we are empowered or moved to action.

Curated by Claude Baillargeon, the show is a collaboration between Oakland University and the Contact Toronto Photography Festival, “conceived as a rallying cry against the ecological degradation of our world.” The 12 selected photographers are masters of the contemporary idioms of photography and, with a disciplined strategy, each has committed years to documenting the crisis of industrial environmental carnage.

The show’s centerpiece is famed environmental photographer Edward Burtynsky’s panoramic image of the Three Gorges Dam on China’s Yangtze River. Photographed in the style of classic 19th-century landscape painting, it is a sweeping narrative meditation on the enormous problem of producing energy for millions of people, as well as the nightmarish consequences, both local and global, of the dam itself.

With the misty mountains of China in the background, with derricks and cranes heroically poised over the growing walls of the dam and surrounded by the languid blue water of the Yangtze, an isthmus in the foreground reveals hundreds of microscopic-sized workers wreaking havoc upon the land. A catalogue essay explains that, because of the dam, 1 million people will be displaced, towns and cities will be removed brick by brick, and 5,000 years of Chinese civilization in the fertile valley of the Yangtze will be flooded and with catastrophic ecological ramifications. Three other Burtynsky photos are “beautiful” choreographed images of the Chinese steel industry’s enormous use of “dirty” (low-grade) coal, and they’re monumentally frightening.

Most of the photographs in the exhibition are executed in a way that favors aesthetics over the simple act of documentation. John Pfahl’s four images have a conceptual edge to them. Large chromogenic prints from his “Smoke” series are minimalist depictions of the tops of smokestacks with gorgeous plumes of toxic vapors filling the air. Jonathan Long’s 10-inch-by-8-foot, piquant panoramas of abandoned mine site pollution are the result of 360-degree rotations of his camera. “Broken Trees,” the gorgeous, saturated orange of a sulfurous swamp containing thousands of tree stumps, is highly reminiscent of German painter Anselm Keifer’s landscapes.

Many of the photographers here have historical artistic models, and while they make for wonderful photographs, the results are uncertain as environmental documentation. For example, Mark Ruwedel’s black-and-white panoramas of the Columbia River’s radiation pollution evoke 19th century explorations by William Henry Jackson or even Edward Curtis, photographers who documented the West.

Perhaps the most “painterly” photographer featured in Imaging a Shattering Earth is David Maisel, whose aerial photos of the Owen Lake Region in southeastern California resemble the stain paintings of Helen Frankenthaler. Virtually unrecognizable as landscapes, “The Lake Project” aerial photos, however they were accomplished, document the color pigmentation of various minerals and carcinogenic particulate that settled in the dry lakebed and, during dust storms, are the heaviest source of particulate pollution in the United States.

All the photographers in Imaging try to impress upon us the beauty of our planet by putting our destruction of it in high relief. But two of them stand out as great picture-makers who also support the ostensible curatorial effort in expressing the immediacy of our environmental crisis. David T. Hanson’s classic triptych exploring America’s industrial and military land abuse is as engaging as it is enlightening. The central panel presents an aerial image of land abuse; the left-hand panel provides a map with the site’s location; and the right panel offers text from the Environmental Protection Agency, describing its efforts. While sober and perhaps didactic in comparison to Burtynsky’s or Maisel’s spectacular images, or Peter Goin’s aerial views of mines and quarries reminiscent of the Hudson River School artwork, Hanson’s work stands out as the most utilitarian, with a modernist sensibility, stripped of art history references.

John Gannis’s work from his recent book Consuming the American Landscape, while remarkably handsome, is an unromanticized treatment of ecological crisis in terms of composition and style. The simple yet elegant representation of his carefully chosen subjects suggests these photos were made by a scholar and a patient poet probing for the truth.

In viewing Imaging a Shattering Earth, we’re left with some fundamental questions: Are we as helpless against manmade environmental disasters as we are against such natural disasters as Hurricane Katrina? Is it the right artistic strategy to transform our ecological nightmare into beautiful imagery and pretend that by making it ironically palatable, we have new inroads into our thinking and consciousness?

Perhaps it has the exact opposite effect, like watching daily news reports on the war, somehow making it seem inevitable.


Imaging a Shattering Earth: Contemporary Photography and the Environmental Debate runs through Dec. 18. Meadow Brook Art Gallery, 208 Wilson Hall, on the campus of Oakland University, Rochester; 248-370-3005.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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