Soiling the nest

John Ganis makes pictures that are at once beautiful and profoundly disturbing. They are photographs constructed to document the devastating results of American culture’s profit-motivated development and exploitation of its own painfully gorgeous body, of its own landscape. Sometimes the photographs act as witness to the insensitive, reckless manner of corporate work practice; other times the photographs signal the eternal conflict between economic and social survival and the inevitable loss of purity and innocence of the landscape. In celebration of the publication of Consuming the American Landscape, a collection of Ganis’ photographs that explores both the primal beauty and the torrid abuse of the rural landscape of America, Revolution Gallery and Center Galleries have mounted two extraordinary exhibits.

The book’s cover photograph of an American landscape icon is the perfect introduction to the conflicted complexity of Ganis’ photographic language. A color image of a panoramic view of Badlands National Park spreads out familiarly before the viewer. The size of the photos in general is ample enough to feel the scale of this inscrutable lunar-like landscape, and in every photograph Ganis seems to have found the right perch for his camera. In the Badlands shot, like the 19th century panoramas of William Henry Jackson (which were printed by the Detroit Publishing Company as postcards), we seem to hover above the land that seems lit like a Hollywood set.

The equation of Ganis’ approach to reading the landscape is set by a corrugated metal drainpipe that penetrates, almost like a physical violation, the nearby gully edge. Painfully we recognize with this bizarre intrusion that even this vast rock and clay wilderness is “owned” in the sense of domestication and development, and sadly the notion of a virgin landscape is a myth. Slowly we discover that perched out on a distant crag is an entire vacationing family consuming the view and, worse, that a well-worn path has led them there.

There is a kind of dark humor in this series of revelations about our loss of the primal wilderness — like the cynical tourist’s phrase “been there, done that” — but more poignantly there is an existential ennui, or profound human sadness at our loss of innocence. This seems to characterize the spiritual eye behind the camera throughout this stunning collection of photographs. So Ganis’ images are conflicted in that they revere the sacred beauty of the landscape while they recognize the chauvinistic 19th century principle of Manifest Destiny, which inspired pushing the boundaries of American democracy to every part of the continent (and still today inspires it to push it to every part of the globe).

In an interview, Ganis reveals how conscious he was of both aspects of abuse and economic necessity and he forthrightly asserts that he has no particular agenda or set of answers for solving the problem of abuse of the land. Yet he does say something truly revelatory about how his personal practice of meditation contributed to his realization of the significance of the irreparable damage that is being done to our planet. “I had just left a meditation retreat down in Texas. As I was driving through the town of Texarkana, I saw this great storm of red dust rising in the air. It was apocalyptic looking. As I drove, I continued thinking about the sight I had witnessed. After about 10 miles I turned around and went back to the site where an earthmover was leveling this field for development of some kind and causing this horrendous dust storm. It was then that I made the first picture of this body of work.” (“Earthmover,” Texarkana, Texas, 1984).

While most of us realize to some extent the disastrous condition of our natural resources, caused by land developers, mining and agriculture, most of us are overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem and are probably unable to respond like Ganis did — and has ever since. Ganis has been making pictures of our troubled earth for almost 20 years. They are not simply documentary but profound works of art that combine philosophical, personal and political issues into structures that only a mature vision can achieve. In his artist statement he later wrote that the Texarkana experience “had awakened in me a profound sense of empathy for the land that I had never experienced before.”

Ganis himself has somewhat of an ascetic bearing and is a practitioner of Wu-style tai chi, Eastern forms of the martial arts and meditation. He is the son of a mathematician and pianist and is himself a professor at the College for Creative Studies. He carries himself with a kindly but measured objectivity and even weary uncertainty. Significantly, he was a student of such photojournalists as Larry Fink and the socially conscious W. Eugene Smith. Ganis talks about his art as a “journey rather than as an artistic project,” and the singular accomplishment of his work is his engagement with the American landscape as a reality rather than a myth (in the sense of Ansel Adams’ Sierra Club phony naturalist’s vision). In his journeys all over North America to shoot our landscape, he says, he travels alone and that in a sense his spiritual disciplines aid him in finding the right spot from which to shoot.

Another incident brought the crisis of chemical pollution of the land close to home. Ganis and his wife live in a cozy neighborhood in the Detroit area. A few years ago it was discovered that a chemical company had essentially polluted the soil in part of his neighborhood. Instead of condemning the company, he says, “I am part of the problem too. I consume what corporate America produces. This experience only makes me more acutely aware about how important it is to manage our land responsibly.”

Consuming the American Landscape was begun in collaboration with the poet and cultural anthropologist Stanley Diamond, who has since passed away and sadly never saw its publication. However, Diamond’s fine poems punctuate the images and the beautiful publication by Dewi Lewis Publishing is dedicated to his memory. Also included are essays by Robert A. Sobieszek, chief curator of art at the Los Angeles Museum of Art, and George Thompson, director of the Center for American Places.


The exhibition at Revolution Gallery (23257 Woodward, Ferndale; call 248-541-3444) continues through Nov. 22. The exhibition at College for Creative Studies’ Center Gallery (201 E. Kirby, Detroit; call 313-872-3118) runs through Dec. 20.

Glenn Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]