Human Existence and the Natural World

by Sara-Jayne Parsons

Philosophical questions posed by inquiry into the complex relationship between human existence and the natural worldproliferate concurrent exhibitions of work by photographer Dornith Doherty.1Bringing to light an area of investigation that has occupied the photographer since the mid-1990s, the photographs exhibited in Commerce and Denton explore fantas­tic peculiarities that occur as a result of human presence in nature. This scrutiny of idiosyncrasies also highlights the roles that myth and science have played in humankind's attempts to understand and control nature.

With iconography encompassing portraiture, still-life and constructed landscapes, Doherty's combined works intriguingly weave together signifiers of surreal human narrative influenced by Latin American Magical Realism and also attempt to assess more empirically inclined investigation of the human species in the tradition of Charles Dar­win. This enigmatic duality is grounded through Doherty's beguiling method of straight photography involving the layer­ing of iconic objects such as live plant specimens and dead insects with manipu­lative projections. The result is a series of challenging visual metaphors that feature the delicious metamorphosis of mundane objects that enable the spiritual and the tangible to coalesce.

The foundation for Doherty's recent work dates back to 1994. Upon receiving a William J. Fulbright Lecture/Research Fellowship, Doherty was able to spend time teaching and photographing in Mexico for several months. With an academic background in Spanish and French literature coupled with time spent working and studying in Brazil, Guatemala, Peru and Spain, it seems natural that Doherty would expand her literary investigation of Magical Realism through photography. Indeed she be­came particularly interested in aspects of Magical Realism that she perceived in everyday Mexican life, most notably in the use of animal and insect masks in agricultural festivals.2
Inspired by this notion of the transfor­mation of human identity into totemic animal form, Doherty expounds the alle­gorical power of masks in Ramphastidae (1995) which in simple terms is a symbiot­ic portrait of man and a toucan. Through the combination of a frontal pose (man) and the profile (toucan), the two share identity through an eye that produces adelectably sinister appearance that is unfa­miliar and larger than life. This exoticism in juxtaposition, achieved through a pro­jection of images, is uniquely characteris­tic in the paradigm of Magical Realism where small facets of objects are converted into symbols that achieve mythic proportion. Indeed myth subverts pragmatism as a vehicle of communica­tion. Consider the implied symbolism of the "eye" as a portal of knowledge with reference to the use of masks. The wearer of the mask can "see" but can not be "seen." In Ramphastidae, the human form takes on a discomforting ghost­like presence when infused with the identity of the tou­can. Although essentially masked, the man ironically can still be seen in a new form. For the viewer, classi­fication of the man-bird is not easily attained. The title, Ramphastidae, the Latin name of the toucan, is a puzzling dichotomy. It unravels only the material part of the mystery.3 The man-bird as signifier points to spiritual kinship between beings that can only be un­derstood in the sphere of legends; a realm where the real and the fantastic are united/

In contrast to Ram­phastidae, where man and toucan appear to physically merge and share vision, in the still-lifeRoentgenogram (i995' Doherty assembles objects to compare decaying flower blooms with an old X-ray of a hand. The metonymic power of this image revolves around the subtle use of backlighting to highlight the simi­larity of the hidden structure of flower petals and a human hand.5 This indexical illumination of patterns of order found in nature hints towards the value of scientific scrutiny. Doherty exposes an epiphany of investigation of the seen and unseen in the natural world, an area of exploration that unfolds in later works.

Roentgenogram also reinforces the tenet that human experience of consciousness is bathed in knowledge of the past and the present. The delicate transparency of the petals and the X-ray can therefore be understood as icons of transformation,metaphors of the transitory nature of organic forms. The color and appearance of the wilting flower petals suggests wrin­kled or mummified human skin. Small, dark, round blemishes on areas of the hand on the X-ray indicate the alarming presence of buckshot and underline the historic role of scientific machinery in the effort to control human physical traumaand indeed sustain life.'1 Indeed the overall tone of Roentgenogram is a refined com­bination of fragile self-realization andpoetic sadness.

Doherty's continued inquiry into the relationship between humans, science and the natural world takes on new meaning in her most recent series of photographs.7These constructed landscapes present fresh challenges in seeing due to their sheer size (4' x 5') a new venture for Doherty. Direct presentation of simple forms on a magnified scale invites viewers to consider unseen details. Again Doherty’s carefully chosen fragments of plants, insects and other natural detri­tus point soberly toward knowledge of the spiraling process of evolution and the ephemeral nature of all life. This series of photographs indicates Doherty's move away from the iconographic influence of Magical Realism and reflects perhaps a less mythical inquiry of the natural world, a focus on the human desire to document, classify and com­prehend through scientific endeavor. This slight shift in Doherty's approach is maybe best ex­emplified in two photographs she created in 1998:Forbidden Land­scapes and Wipe Out.

Akin to the style of presentation found in herbari­ums or journals of a Victorian botanist, Forbidden Land­scapes is a micro­scopic view of a selection of laven­der-colored lupines placed on a surreal, vibrant green plane of parrot feathers. Ataxonomist's dream, this photograph compliments the notion that botani­cal work requires observation and accurate description.

The aesthetic appeal of the lupines masks their toxicity. Identification and classifi­cation of a species demands persistentvision and experimentation. But here the vision is skewed. The familiar is made unfamiliar again by Doherty through thescale of objects. Viewers must reconsider how humans envision harmony in the environment and recognize their place in the larger scheme of the natural world. The astute onlooker may also construe Forbidden Landscapes as somewhat of an homage to the history of photography in the employ of science. Certainly it is worth recalling that William Henry FoxTalbot's photogenic drawing experiments, in which he used simple plant forms like lupines, were probably as much about his consuming passion for botany as they were about his desire to develop paper photography.8
In Wipe Out, scientific classification of a species appears in a literal sense as fragments of butterflies and other insects are superimposed on a grid. Beneath this layer there exists an image of a flat, Texas landscape, punctuated only by a pick-up truck and electricity poles. Like Doherty's previous use of plant specimens, the but­terflies point to the fragility of balance in nature. Here this equation is exaggerated all the more so by the blurred shadows created by the insects surfing on a breeze, suggestive not only of the flux of meta­morphosis but also of momentary exis­tence. The very title of the photograph, Wipe Out, begs the question of whether a species can be recognized, categorized and an effort made to avert extinction at all. It is also no accident that Wipe Out playfully intimates the sport of surfing, as the art of wave riding is based on a surfer's athleti­cism and sensitivity to the environment at a given moment. Human presence, or survival in nature, in this instance, is literally a relationship based on balance and synchronicity.

In a period when human's compre­hension and control of nature have led to the creation of a new species of tomato, animal cloning and experiments in culti­vating human tissue, Dornith Doherty's photographs emerge as Utopian visions —testaments to the belief that harmony and respect for the natural world is key to the survival of the fittest. Do not be fooled. These are not romantic visions. They are suggestions that scientific study can accommodate poetic thought. As meta­phors of human presence in nature and the connection between myth and science, Doherty's photographs serve as sober reminders of how the "seen" and "hidden" must merge in the investigation of the natural world. Science alone can not perhaps provide all the answers we seek.

Sara-Jayne Parsons is an adjunct lecturer in Art History at the University of North Texas in Denton, Texas.