From the Edge: "Images of the World"

by Peter Brown

Images of the World was a part of 1994 FotoFest’s The Global Environment, a three-part exhibition that also included The Hall of Globes and The Earth Forum.

One of the contributions that FotoFEst, that slightly schizophrenic mix of wineing and dining and egalitarian principle (a Nieman Marcus styled Walmart photographic endeavor), makes repeatedly to the City of Houston concerns the intersection of lives. People meet people, people talk and share work and then, in a more one-way relationship, viewers, through the seemingly simple process of looking at pictures, are introduced to disparate lives and ways of living. At a bedrock level, FotoFest represents an educational opportunity for anyone interested in photography and in photograph’s response to contemporary culture. It produces thought, growth, and quite often the motivation for work.
The approximately 200 photographs included in “The Images of the World” section of the “Global Environment” do all of this. As good as the work generally is, the overall show serves more as an environmental pointer, an index of hotspots that we are acquainted with but need to be reminded of, than as the definitive show on the environment. That exhibition would fill the convention center and spill out the doors.
But the work (twenty small and related shows on a host of environmental problems) still has the desired cumulative effect. One exits the center squinty-eyed, checking the Houston landscape even more so than usual for signs of toxicity, sniffing the air — immediately confronted with inner city issues (homelessness and decaying housing) on three sides of the convention center, while on the other, those skyscrapers, memorials to old demolished Houston, shine down like Prozac. Thoughts spin to refineries, to ground water, to burning San Jacinto River, to the embattled coastal prairie, to local issues that relate to the global problems represented by the show. And one tries unsuccessfully to keep them at some distance.
Each section of the exhibition is worthy of consideration and of searching out the book or larger show that would represent its expansion. Most of them, unsurprisingly, are quiet calls to arms. “Images of the World” as a whole is heartfelt, committed, shadowed, multi-dimensional, and finally unresolved, as it must be. Some of the problems presented have workable solutions. In some, the outcome is in doubt, others are tragedies out of which lessons must be learned, ruins simply to be built upon. The exhibition poses questions for which there are no easy answers and is also, finally, quite moving. One bounces back and forth, angry, sad, depressed, filled suddenly with a hope inherent in the simple resilience of people, land, and time.
And one is filled also with a profound admiration for the photographers who have done and continue to do this difficult, oftentimes dangerous, unsettling work; work that is not appreciated or rewarded in ways it should be. It can be said that most of these photographs are born of pain, outrage, and the need to show truths that otherwise would not be understood. They are considered and thoughtful cries to see, to think, and to act.
For the most part, the show consists of straight photographs. They are sequenced and sectioned in imaginatively narrative ways and as the show reads from crisis to crisis, we make the connections, we see the correspondences and check off the historical references. It should be noted that many of these photographs also act in a keyed fashion, tapping into our memories of similar imagery encountered in the past: still photographs, TV, films and the like, a fact which tends to give the show a depth that’s plumbed from cultural consciousness. This is generally a given, but one that I think comes through particularly strongly in a show with this amount of social content.
Familiar words resonate as well: Superfund, Chernobyl, endangered, rainforest, Hiroshima, toxic, cold war, nuclear, overcrowding, cancer, etc. And as they pop up, so do our everyday, shielded responses. The work, on the whole, confounds these responses, and it is the success of the confounding that I would like to examine here.
The question is always an important one, and one that has become almost a photographic cliché today: given that we are surrounded by horrendous problems that are certain to become worse, and being photographers with certain talents, predilections and work histories, if we choose to combine our ethics with our aesthetics, how are we best to use the abilities we have to make the world a more livable place? For some, this is dismissable, not the realm of art, or perhaps not a strength; for others it has been the unavoidable stuff of life since coming of age; for the majority though, captured by the simple magic of photographic imagery, and the beauty and mystery of everyday affairs, there is confusion, a feeling of wanting to remain true to a personal vision and to incorporate within it the political reality within which one functions.
Robert Adams, in his new book Why People Photograph writes, “If the state of our geography appears to be newly chaotic because of our heedlessness, the problem that this presents to the spirit is, it seems to me, an old one that art has long addressed. AS defined by hundreds of years of practice — I think this history is vitally important—art is a discovery of harmony, a vision of disparities reconciled, of shape beneath confusion. Art does not deny that evil is real, but it places evil in a context that implies an affirmation; the structure of the Creation, suggests that evil is not final.”1 An imposing thought to bear with each depression of the shutter perhaps, but one that I think most of these photographers despite the biblical terminology, would take on.
And this show, perhaps unconsciously, but certainly quite effectively, outlines a variety of strategies that seem to work. Most seem to revolve around making the unpalatable truth, the thing we would rather avoid, into something challenging. Those represented here generally accomplish this within the traditions they have chosen and in which they have been trained, and these are various: photojournalism, anthropology, f/64 landscape, studio portraiture, street photography, image and text combinations, and large scale imagery meant to be thought of as “art.”
Many approaches are at work — dead-on truth, seduction, placing unfamiliar subjects in familiar territory, using familiar styles in unfamiliar places, moments of delicacy that transcend the ugliness of a scene, words used to explain, baits and switches, a flowing narrative that suddenly takes a nasty turn, surface beauty with very turmoiled depths, and more. All seem fair play to me, given the stakes. And all are used.
Marcos Santilli’s photojournalistic work in the Southern Amazon is best considered in sequence — and the sequence is seductive: the viewer moves from graceful unpeopled riverscapes and National Geographic style portraits to an environment being stripped — jungle finally wiped out of all except earth. Trucks and mud predominate. In a slide presentation that Santilli gave (a before-and-after set of images that bridged a decade,) he showed what had occurred and he was curiously resolved about it. There was nothing to be done finally but to accept the destruction and literally build on it. Parallels to the American West resound.
Claudia Andujar, who has worked in the Northern Amazon with the Yanomami people for twenty years, showed wistful, fleeting glimpses of them, the images as evanescent as their fate seems to be. My first reading of these was anthropological and I thought in these terms until confounded by the beauty of the photographs themselves. They are wonderful, filled with strange out-of-focus areas that softly buttress their “almost not there” presence. The Yanomami live in an area in which gold mining has taken hold and are threatened by miners, development and disease. One has the feeling that if one blinked, the people in the photographs would be gone. And this seems to be the point.
Marc Riboud’s photographs of Angkor Wat are concerned with the forces of nature, and with war. War in this presentation serves to undermine archaeological restoration, while nature takes a few whacks at ancient civilization — points less pressing than others in the show, but certainly worth making nonetheless. Python-like roots wrap around the old stone, skulls pop up, the dramatic shadow of a soldier with a gun looks from a wall. In a way, this is a high point in the show — nature’s revenge, and it’s unfortunate that Angkor Wat of all places is the recipient of those forces. Scale is important here, in terms of our response: some of the photographs are huge, and we are pulled into the texture and stone right along with the roots.
The endangered species photographed in the studio by Susan Middleton and David Littschwager are anthropomorphized and formailized—a rolly poley Grizzly bear, a riveting cougar, a comically mustached sturgeon, a disinterested Wood Bison, snails that have arranged themselves into slow whorls, and Westony Aloes. Middleton and Littshwager make these creatures and plants almost too accessible to us, and in this, notes are struck. The animals are brought into our world, photographed with Avedonesque white backdrops and are posed in very human ways. We connect with them or are put off, and they become at once art objects, cautionary tales, and quasinatural history museum pieces last survivors, remnants, although they’re not. In their transposition, like rain forest natives coming to plead their case before Congress, they make a strong point.
The EPA Superfund Sites examined by Masumi Hayashi are deceptive in similar ways. They are striking: lush, gridded, almost quilt-like color landscapes that at first appear perfectly normal. Hayashi, in her wall statement talks about a first visit to one of the sites and how taken in she was by its beauty. Then immediately wondered what he had missed seeing elsewhere. The question became, how does one photograph the invisible, and her response was to grid the surface of the picture into smaller photos (an art world convention) to make the scene a whole naturalistically attractive (full sun, autumn skies) and hen to append informative and very disturbing wall texts describing the poisons that exist beneath the mound or the water or the dirt. We are invited into what seems to be a nice little neighborhood, only to have some sense slapped into our heads.
In a small, interrelated room of photographs, Antonin Kratochvil, David H. Wells, and Arturo Garcia Campos look at the effects of pollution and pesticide in photo-essay fashion. Their images range from the central valley of California, to the rain forests of Brazil, to industrially polluted Eastern Europe, to child victims of Chernobyl who were photographed in Cuba. The correspondences among the toxic wastes, the oil lakes, the planes spraying towns, and the kids from all over being born with birth defects, makes the jolting global point. Stylistically the work moves well from image to image, all of the photographers using a Eugene Smith sort of committed journalism.
Peter Goin and Bob Dawson, cofounders of the Water in the West Project, deal with water—its se, its scarcity, and its politics. They use large format cameras and work within a landscape tradition that passes from O’Sullivan and Muybridge to Adams and Weston to Caponigro and Clift, I guess. And they use it, as do a variety of their generation, to new effect. The photographs are still beautiful. They are baanced and lushly printed, but the content has switched from the untouched West to the embattled west abut to go under. Their work functions well in sequence (as presented in the show), as individual image, (or diptych—Goin has two stunning multi-image pieces describing quite different political geographies that look similar, one a game refuge, the other an enormous toxic waste dump) — but perhaps the work is most effective, in terms of change, as a book. We simply have more information, and much that they are trying to convey is done well through words. The collective aspects of the Water in the West Project can be educational. At least a dozen photographers work in this loosely conjoined group of people who are sprinkled about the west, dealing in different ways with environmental issues that crop up in their home areas.
Toshio Shibata produces beautiful large format work on Japanese anti-erosion project. These are photographs of gridded Ferro-cement casts, reconstructive surgeries of a sort that are laid out over mountainsides to save the highways below. One thinks of the immensity of financial commitment that each of these represent, the thought and the time. They’re like nightmare Christos from which there is no waking up — wrapped mountains. And again, the photographs, themselves are beautiful. Rich tonal scales, elegantly composed: subversive soldiers stealing onto the walls of the well to do, one assumes. There they will refine and chip away — planting doubts and raising questions like so many of the “art” pieces in the show, all clearly destined to be sold for their mixed message of surface beauty and ecological carnage.
Much of the inner city work is photo reportage — telling the story quickly in an image or two and shocking out a response if possible. David Shames’ photographs of children in a variety of cities do this. One, a boy jumping from one building to another, eight stories up, stands out in this respect. The seemingly staged photograph records an everyday even and raises difficult questions as far as I’m concerned, fifth-grade friend of mine, Kenneth Bellinger having died doing this. Do you ask a kid to jump? Do you say you’ll take his picture if he volunteers? It’s an apt metaphor — for those kids, like all of us are teetering on the brink. There’s Crack smoking, kids sleeping on the streets, and guns. Things we know and try to ignore daily.
The shock value of Ryuji Miyamoto’s photographs of the beehive-like walled city in Kowloon is somewhat comparable. The homes are so crammed together that they appear unreal, a bit like Sebastio Salgado’s photographs in the gold mines in Brazil. They have achieved something irreducible in their architectural compression.
The photographs of Caracas represent, in a way, the terminus of earlier Amazon shows. This is the total pavingover of South American. Old Caracas, according to these photos (and their text), no longer exists. It has been torn down, and in the work of Ricardo Gomez-Perez is to be photographed most succinctly from a car. These are like early black-and-white Meyerowitzes, or compressed Friedlanders, grabbed bits of order, sidelong glances that fall together — as much surreal takes on urban existence as they are political documents.
In the aesthetic that Barbara Norfleet (known recently for her photographs of forest animals that have blundered into human environments) brings to the Nevada desert, the work appears as dry as the sage country represented. The work is minimal, concerned with the lay of rocky land and with the inclusion of a sparse variety of bombs, weapons areas and test materials left over from the Cold War. One is pulled in by the aridity, scratching at the photographs for meaning.
Perhaps the most intensely moving part of “images of the Earth” for me were the remarkable photo/text combinations by Hiromi Tsuchida. Tsuchida went to a memorial archive in Hiroshima and there found a variety of personal artifacts-shoes, clothing, melted bottles, a pocket watch — that had been unearthed close to the blast. Most had been brought to the museum by relatives. They are simple things, and the text, in both Japanese and English, recounts where the objects were found, who had been wearing them, what had happened to the people during the blast, and what had happened to them afterward. The objects are so immediate, so worn and so vulnerable that a breathing person suddenly seems to take shape, warm, innocent, and human. The experience is wrenching because these people are mostly children, women, and old people. There is tenderness throughout the enterprise from the thought, to the collection, to the pictures, to the writing. And the writing is simple: just facts- a bomb that the United States might have memorialized on a postage stamp tore these people to bits.
The final section of the show deals with large scale multi-media, collaged and/ or staged work, the art world’s response to environmental holocaust. Martha Madigan is represented by a single piece and it is quite a somber beauty: a gridded photogram of leaves and figures with small photos of what one learns (only) from the catalogue are Somali children, their faces peering from beneath the leaves. The colors and sense of light are lovely and there is a forest spirit quality that is somewhat reminiscent of Andujar’s work with the Yanomami. These children are here and then gone, and we have watched them go. There is grace, there is complicity, and there is memorialization that feels very real. It’s an eloquent companion piece to the Hiroshima work.
There is similarity of layering in Ellen Garven’s large and elegant wall pieces, which are composed of rock and scrap metals of varied origin. She uses photographic images of animals like fossils in sedimentary deposits. Looking like detritus pulled from an art-conscious twenty-first century dump, the work just hangs onto its animal imagery: a photographic zebra skin, skeletal outlines — layered found objects quite graceful in appearance. There is a compacting of material, the politics of which, compared to the rest of the show, seeming coolly understated.
Ron O’Donnell’s blackly humored, ironic work (unfortunately installed immediately following the Hiroshima imagery) laughs us sit-com style to apocalypse. It also is made up of garbage, this time carefully arranged and photographed in set-up interior spaces, sometimes with mannequin-like people, sometimes not. The work is purposefully flip but it somehow stayed with me in its bleak mourning — seeing nothing on the horizon but more garbage. He’s at one in a swirling moment, with a happy mask of cartoon humor firmly bolted into place.
Patrick Nagatani, with his rockets and nuclear powered irradiated bats, ends the show. His work too is concerned with the desert and what the U.S. government has done with it. Nudes float into the sky, cafes sprout rockets, Ayres Rock glows as an aboriginal Australian is vaporized, bats zing out of Carlsbad Cavern to poison us, a “relocation camp” is memorialized. It’s all subtly funny and subtly horrible and finally, given its bellicose subject, interestingly subtle. The scenes he creates must be dealt with over time. The best of his work seems true dreamscape of ominous order — which takes in a lot of ground and which, to each of us, if things proceed as usual, will be intensely subtle in the most personal ways.
This show spells out a lot and hints at much more. There are fifty photographers of comparable abilities whose work could have been included, and as noted, given space, the work shown might have been explained.
What does such a show do? Many things: for one, it can point indirectly to local issues. There is a curious dearth of environmental photographic work being done around Houston given the acknowledged toxic quality of much of our environment. There is work to do here for those who are interested.
Such a show can also enhance related educational programs such as FotoFest’s ecological weekend conference that brought a number of people together to discuss these issues. And like all exhibitions, it is a statement — in this case, a way to fight back, to gather people and problems together, and to present the problems systematically. It makes a difference for these issues involved, it gives the photographers a needed boost, and most important, it brings home these issues to a large group of viewers.
I hope it travels. It’s a compelling introduction for children (many of whom were wandering around google-eyed with their teachers and FotoFest guides), and as for the rest of us — it sets off a complex and interrelated set of alarms, the cumulative effect being an unavoidable response to the difficult questions that the photographs pose. In this exhibition we are opened up rather than closed off, and in a show of this sort, one that doesn’t pull many punches, that is a major triumph.

Footnotes:

  1. Robert Adams, Why People Photograph, New York, NY: Aperture, 1994, p. 181.

Peter Brown is a Houston photographer. His work focuses on his immediate family and the landscape of the Great Plains.

Top