Looking Back at Earth: Contemporary Environmental Photography in the Hood Museum of Art's Collection

Posted on June 01, 2012 by Kristin Swan

Hood Quarterly, summer 2012
Katherine Hart, Associate Director and Barbara C. and Harvey P. Hood 1918 Curator of Academic Programming, with Chanon (Kenji) Praepipatmongkol '13

Chanon (Kenji) Praepipatmongkol '13, a Dartmouth undergraduate who took the Hood's Museum Collecting 101 seminar, is a curatorial intern for 2011–12 and served as co-curator, along with Katherine Hart, Associate Director and Barbara C. and Harvey P. Hood 1918 Curator of Academic Programming, of Looking Back at Earth. Kenji was instrumental in shaping the exhibition and also wrote most of its wall labels. What follows is an interview with Kenji about aspects of environmental photographic practice and the ways in which they are reflected in Looking Back at Earth.

The subject of environmental photography is not as straightforward as it initially seems to be. What are some of the major issues that accompany it?

I think the subject is not straightforward because we are no longer sure what the idea of the environment means. We have outlived the image of sublime nature given to us by Ansel Adams and his generation. Their call for a return to "pristine nature" and a restoration of the "natural balance" is a far cry from the sobering present-day reality of pollution, global warming, and climate change. Rather, the open questions are how can we live in a world of volatile disequilibrium, and how can we manage our impact on the environment? Contemporary environmental photography helps us to imagine new ways that we might relate to the Earth that go beyond either romantic awe or lament.

You were part of the Museum Collecting 101 class that chose to acquire Arsenic and Water by J Henry Fair. Why do you think students picked that photograph for the collection?

Perhaps it was because the photograph overturned so many of our expectations. What initially appeared to the class to be a beautiful abstract photograph of lava turned out to be a shocking scene of toxic coal slurry. We thought that if the image had this same effect on other students and members of the public, it might be able to generate discussion around an important environmental issue of which few people are aware.

When researching this exhibition, did you get a sense of the various motivations of the photographers to do this kind of work? Did any particular photographer's statement of purpose strike a chord with you? Why?

While all of the photographers display an unwavering ethical commitment to presenting scenes that will galvanize thought and action, Subhankar Banerjee's writings struck a personal chord. His philosophy of "land-as-home" and meditations on the Arctic reflect not only a desire to create political change on a large scale but also an intimate engagement with questions of human meaning. He shows how issues about the environment can have an impact on a real and existential level.

You chose to organize the photographs in certain categories. Can you discuss one of those categories and describe how the photographers represented in it were making their points?

The section "Consumption and Waste" speaks most directly to how we as individuals contribute to the destruction of the environment, but it also empowers us to think about the roles we can play in creating change. The photographs by Chris Jordan are especially effective, because they draw attention to the often inconsequential things that we use as excuses for evading responsibility. Just one more plastic bottle, we say, but Jordan forces us to be accountable by confronting us with a defiled monument of our collective action.

If you had to pick one photograph in the show to discuss in terms of its subject and its reference to an important environmental issue, which one would it be?

An image of a high-density cattle ranch in Brazil, Daniel Beltrá's Agua Boa, Mato Grosso (Brasil) (2008) stands out as a sharp reminder of the complex dimensions of environmental issues. We usually think of logging as the main cause of deforestation, but in fact some 70 percent of illegal deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is caused by the clearing of land for cattle ranching. This is in turn related to the Brazilian government's devaluation of its currency in 1999, which greatly increased the competitiveness of Brazilian beef in the world market. Such cattle farms are also notorious for human rights violations, including the use of slave and child labor.

Some of these photographs are both disquieting and beautiful. In which photograph does that balance between the aesthetic and the disturbing seem to be most effective?

Emmet Gowin's Sedan Crater (1996) is perhaps the most haunting image in the exhibition. It is as if we're looking at a scene from a post-apocalyptic science-fiction movie, yet we are reminded that the kind of destruction that we never want to see has already happened. The scars and wounds that nuclear explosions leave on the land emblematize the devastating effects of human power—a power that, while giving us electricity, for example, has also taken the lives of millions.

This exhibition was organized by the Hood Museum of Art and generously supported by the Bernard R. Siskind 1955 Fund and the William Chase Grant 1919 Memorial Fund.

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Written June 01, 2012 by Kristin Swan