Saturday, April 25, 2009

after nature landscapes

When I hear the phrase "after nature" or post-nature, I instantly think of the phrase post-apocalyptic. I don't really intend this but I did do a project in my first year of grad school that was all about that. I never really connected what "after nature" might have to do with a post-apocalyptic world but this week's blog might be the place to do that.

I think I'm a little obsessed by landscapes with a certain "after nature" quality to them. It might come from my fascination with post-apocalyptic movies or sci-fi movies in general. One of the greatest films of this category is one that still haunts me, Planet of the Apes.

Planet of the Apes
illustrates the pyramid scheme of nature that humans have always been at the top of. What if it was inverted? What if apes passed us by? What if plants passed us by? I think that's the question that an image like William Christenberry's stirs...

William Christenberry, Kudzu with Storm Cloud, near Akron, Alabama, 1981.

Although I don't think Christenberry was thinking about this topic when he started taking the photos of kudzu in the 1970s, the image and the interview for the show After Nature seem to allude to a certain overwhelming power this plant possesses. "A vine that devours the American south," says Christenberry in an interview for the show. Which is interesting and partly the reason it is in the show. It takes over everything. It's as if humans possess no power to control it and unlike other plants, if you cut it back, it's not gone- it just comes back.

But this control over nature that we think we might possess is really just a false sense of security anyway. Example A - the events of the past week in Mexico and the spread of an A (H1N1) virus to the rest of the world (this virus is almost identical to the one that started the Spanish pandemic of 1918 that killed between 20 and 100 million people worldwide). This virus probably won't be as deadly as the Spanish plague but what it does is scarry. The virus originates in animals; first birds, then pigs, and it crosses back and forth for a while until it hits humans. When it hits humans, it strikes their immune system inciting what is called a cytokine storm where the body's immune system fights back so hard that it actually collapses. And it doesn't just strike kids and old people who are usually susceptible to illness; it strikes healthy, young and mature adults who's immune systems are actually tougher. Their systems try to fight the virus with all they can and that can turn into a fatal reaction. Pretty freaky.

So, I think this control over nature we think we possess isn't really control. I don't think after nature particularly exists in the ways it'd be neat to think that it exists (the Jetsons).

The Jetsons in Orbit City

It'd be neat to think about it this way. A fantastic sky city where the horrible part of nature (the earth) is completely obstructed by clouds. A similar utopic-post-nature vision is setup in WALL-E where the humans have abandoned earth and are living in a space-cruise boat. Both plots assume that humans get to a point where nature can simply be removed from the equation. A point where humans ascend to the highest point they can and don't have any reason to come back down.

I'm not gonna suppose that happens. I'm not gonna suppose that humans will ever get to a point or are already at the point where we are living post-naturally. We are in a full-contact sport with nature. It's ongoing and neither side could be considered winning. For every step of progress we make to combat the force of nature (levies, vaccinations, fire proofing, concrete, etc.) nature seems to always be one step ahead. I'd like to see art that assumes that we aren't winning this war with nature (maybe Eirik Johnson?). Like Christenberry's (even though he didn't really intend it to be in a post-apocalyptic show), work that has nature winning as the default.

What's really weird (I think the show kind of remarks on it) is to think about how Christenberry's images could actually be the backdrop for Cormac McCarthy's novel The Road. A story about a man and his son who have to walk across a deserted United States in search of civilization and on the run from cannibals.

Palmist Building, Havana Junction, Alabama, 1980

Palmist Building (Summer), Havana Junction, Alabama, 1980

High Kudzu, near Akron, Alabama, 1978

Fortunately for me, the post-apocalyptic enthusiast that I am, The Road is coming out as a feature film this October and is starring Viggo Mortenson. Oh, and here's a shameless link to my old project. I never really pondered that it was post-nature, just post-human, really post-man or men. Nature was still controlled (note the cut grass) but later on I did my best to try and minimize the look of our control. I'd photograph out in abandoned lots and overgrown parks on the west side of Chicago. I'd like to resume the project eventually, probably minus the cloned men.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Vision of Herzog

Reading this week about Werner Herzog in Alan Singer's article "The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History" really motivated me to look up and watch what I could of Herzog's films. I had only seen two of his films; Grizzly Man and Encounters at The End of World - two of his most recent films and arguably two of his most popular. Reading the article first by itself made little sense to me and watching clips from YouTube really provided me a better context to connect with the criticism and language of the article.

A scene from Heart of Glass, 1976

The plot for Heart of Glass is set in an 18th century German town that contains a factory which produces a brilliantly colored "ruby glass." When the master glass blower dies, the secret for producing the ruby glass is lost, and the townspeople go crazy. The main character is Hias, a "seer" from the hills, who speaks prophecy to the townspeople. The clip I posted is the "vision sequence" that Hiar has while watching a waterfall. I think this clip incorporates a lot about what Singer is writing about and what Herzog is trying to achieve.

Singer states of Herzog's vision: "Herzog seems to presume a need for making desire itself the definitive limit of the human. This crisis of representation is faced by Herzog in his often cited statement that "we live in a society that has no adequate images" (p. 189).

The quote seems to back up what I believe is a Kantian and Romantic notion of the Sublime by Herzog. The article defines Kantian as "an object (of nature) the representation of which determines the consciousness to think the unattainability of nature as a sensory representation of ideas." Meaning: "the sublime is the mind's limit, a threshold of transcendent knowledge"(p. 185). Singer goes on to explain further that in the Kantian sublime, Nature will inspire the imagination to image its own failure and by that, the imagination can't really come up with anything else to explain what it is seeing.

I'm still a little lost by this but it is starting to make sense. This idea of the sublime is very related to the ideas that I understand about Romanticism which are at their core, part of the German national identity. An identity that is eternally searching for that inner-longing that can be satisfied by a sublime landscape. A landscape such that when one encounters it, one will have an experience that can't really be described using language. I think, photography is the language though that can describe it. And I think Herzog mastered it at an early age.

The most recent film by Herzog, Encounters at The End of The World, looks curiously at the continent of Antarctica through a lens that engages science through an understanding of Art. In the article by William Fox, Terra Antarctica, the occurrence of Fata Morgana is explained and I only wish Herzog could have captured this in his film. I can only imagine what it must look like, but by Fox's description alone, I think it could be an essential part of what Herzog wants to examine. What is in the film though is quite spectacular. The volcano stuff is the best!

After looking up some artists that work in Antarctica, Xavier Cortada was the one that caught me as the most interesting. Using painting and sculpture, Cortada examines how we come in contact with and describe the desert continent. Here's an article about Cortada working within the intersection of Art and Science in Antarctica.

Markers, Xavier Cortada (is that a bucky dome I see in the background?!)

Monday, April 13, 2009

new(er) topographics

The most intriguing thing that I read about this week that kept on popping up in several of the articles was the idea of memory and how photographers - specifically landscape photographers are obsessed with remembering - a certain time and a certain place. The article that made me jump on this idea first is the one that always does something to me every time I read it; "Truth and Landscape" from Beauty In Photography by Robert Adams.

On page 15 of the article in the second paragraph, Adams writes about the act of photographing landscapes...

"Most photographers are people of intense enthusiasms whose work involves many choices - to brake the car, grab the yellow instead of the green filter, wait out the cloud, and, at the second everything looks inexplicably right, to release the shutter. Behind these decisions stands the photographer's individual framework of recollections and meditations about the way he perceived that place or places like it before."

Every time I read this paragraph I am immediately transported to a place where I photographed, to a moment where I made a decision. Adams is writing a lot about power and control and beauty but what concerns me most when I'm wherever I am photographing is the loss of control of all of these things. It's a strange feeling.

Timber salvage on ridge at eastern limit of blast zone. Clearwater Creek Valley, ten miles northeast of Mount St. Helens, Washington, 1983, Frank Gohlke

In the article "A Figure and a Landscape" by Ben Lifson about Frank Gohlke, Lifson writes about how Gohlke, unlike almost all photographers of his time, can still see the sublime in landscape. I think this is kind of true. Gohlke's images definitely carry an element of the sublime (see above image). But I don't think Lifson is giving the other New Topographers as much credit as they deserve for still tweaking out a little sublime.

Outdoor Theater, Colorado Springs, 1968, Robert Adams

What is always brought up with Adams is his critique of the advancing suburbs of Denver and his disappointment for the behavior of people toward nature. I won't deny that critique. But what I think is important today about taking landscape photos is vastly different from why it was important to take landscape photos in Denver in the late 60s and early 70s.

Since we already have this critique, when I make a picture like this, it is not to simply mimic Robert Adams.

The Front Range and Boulder, 2008, Me

To deny the part of this picture about the houses creeping through the plains might be naive of me but I think landscape photographers of late have had something else on their mind; It's history, memory, form, and something more enigmatic.

Buffalo County, SD, Justin Newhall

I'm really attracted to form. Man-made landscapes that use form to their advantage and that are built suitable to their surroundings are ok by me. I don't feel like they are intrusive or rape the land somehow of it's pristine nature. I believe there is a point where development can only go so far and that over development is totally problematic and systemic to America, especially the West. However, I think new photographers (me and Newhall at least) want to tweak something else out from the landscapes.

Interstate 84, Hood County, OR, Justin Newhall

I think what's important to me when I'm photographing - is remembering the sublime. Remembering those moments in those places where I didn't exactly know if I wanted to photograph but then I decided to make a picture about being in that place. If it's a good picture, the formal elements will be right, but there will also be some other element, an element of chance or risk that I took that ultimately pays off.

I keep thinking about that; how memories deeply effect photographers. How experiences like driving, back and forth between St. Louis and Janesville, WI four times a year for the first 20 years of my life or having a digging hole in my backyard that mimicked the topography of Missouri in miniature scale - these things are still in my photographs even though most of the time the reason I'm inclined to take a photo at a certain place has to do with the subject of the project I'm working on, I still seem to take some element from my past and put it in the picture. This is what I think Robert Adams meant when he said "Making photographs has to be, then, a personal matter; when it is not, the results are not persuasive. "

Monday, April 6, 2009


The articles from this week were really enlightening. I really didn't know the whole story about Subhankar Banerjee and ANWR and it's great that we will have him in class and will be able to discuss issues of the environment with an artist who has actually positioned his work within the firing lines of politics and controversy.

While reading both articles, I thought about how my own subject is closely related to Banerjee's and how although his project wasn't politically didactic from the images alone, it became that way because of how subversive the text and images were together . It amazes me how controversial these photos became because of the political nature of the text that accompanied them in the Smithsonian exhibition and the accompanying catalog. What happened wreaks of censorship and is unsurprising given the records and clout of the Bush administration and Senator Ted Stevens (R) of Alaska.

But still, I have a few updated questions for Subhankar given that Alaska is still such a hot topic in today's political world and environmental movement. Such as what was your reaction when Sarah Palin used "drill baby drill!" as a political whip? Did it spur something in you to push harder or push back? I would have severe doubts about the effectiveness of a project I was taking on given that the GOP was on the other side ready to pounce on me the moment it threatened them. Fortunately for Subhankar, he has firmly established a base to exhibit work and has already been in the midst of political debate for the past six years. Making and exhibiting work probably isn't a question of motivation for Subhankar. He did up and out quit a job at Boeing that he had worked his life for. But the problem that still seems to persist is how to position the work to be most effective given that the issues of ANWR are still being debated.

While reading the article, I started to think about a cyclical relationship between the land and Banerjee and Washington D.C. and the government. It basically goes like this...

The article by Finis Dunaway gave me this idea. Dunaway writes about how even though the land and animals of Alaska are far removed from the land of the "lower 48" that they are directly affected by the decisions made by corporations and government and that the results can actually be measured through the close observation of the land. That is exactly what Subhankar is doing. He is the relay, the conduit by which the affects of the decisions that have been made can be measured. It blows my mind a little. It's just like the icebergs melting, just like the polar bears that have to swim further and further to find land. The responsibility then becomes ours, the viewers and the citizens of the U.S. to act on and make sure that our government is being held accountable.

I searched ANWR on Google images and the top results were maps conveying the physical size of ANWR in Alaska to the size of the lower 48.

I don't think this is a coincidence. The right wing has taken two positions that favor using the least amount of intellect to determine the right course of action. One, that the physical size of ANWR means that it's ok to destroy it because generally speaking, it's only the size of Wisconsin. And two, the landscape is so bleak and white that it's aesthetic value is equivalent to that of copy paper.

Fortunately, in the Google results alongside these maps are Subhankar's photographs.