Human Nature: Our Relationship With Earth
When I was in my mid-twenties, I lived on an organic farm in Tuscany. Taking a hiatus from my photographic interests and delaying graduate school, I spent two years living amidst olive groves, vineyards, honey bees, chestnuts, wheat fields, and animals. The farm was operated by a U.S.-based foundation whose mission was to promote cultural and environmental sustainability. I led an internship program for foreigners; youths would spend three months with us learning Italian, studying Sienese traditions, and farming.
The interns’ rotational duties included making lunch for the whole group, using food grown onsite and meat from our animals. I will never forget the day in January when a new intern came back from the vegetable garden dismayed because she couldn’t find tomatoes for her salad. A bright, well educated American from D.C., Nina assumed, like many of us, that the vegetable was harvested year round – if they are available in the supermarket in January, why aren’t they available on the farm? It struck me more than ever before that what we were practicing was critical – beyond the simple understanding of which crops grow seasonally, it is important to appreciate where our sustenance comes from and how stewardship of natural resources is fundamental to species’ survival and the earth’s relative equilibrium.
It has been several years since I left farm life in Tuscany. However, the topics of sustainability and stewardship seem more relevant than ever before in contemporary life. Not surprisingly, a current trend in fine art and documentary photography explores our association to the natural world. Human Nature, an exhibition this past spring at HCP, touched upon the subject from variety of contemporary perspectives.
Such a topic is nothing new to the medium; in its early beginnings, photography revealed our complex relationship with the environment. From Anna Atkins’ cyanotype glossary of plant specimens to Timothy O’Sullivan’s landscapes depicting undocumented territory claimed for the North American Transcontinental Railroad, photography has served a purpose in merging art with science to illustrate nature and our command of it. In the ‘30s and early ‘40s, the Resettlement Administration (later named the Farm Security Administration or FSA) headed by Roy Stryker used photography as a weapon for legislative change; under Stryker’s direction, photographers including Ben Shahn, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Marion Post Wolcott, and Arthur Rothstein created thousands of images propagated during the Roosevelt administration to champion the plight of the farmer and document the impacts of farm mechanization, drought, and the Great Depression. Likewise, Ansel Adams’ majestic scenes of the northwestern wilderness promoted the Sierra Club’s mission to preserve and protect the natural world. Another form of landscape photography is Land Art, which evolved in the late 1960s as a branch of Conceptual Art. Land Art forerunners including Gerry Schum and Richard Long staked their claim on Earth by manipulating the land and photographed the evidence.
Photographic projects which compare changes in the landscape over time include the Rephotographic Survey Project, where in 1977 Mark Klett and others returned to sites photographed by O’Sullivan and his contemporaries William Henry Jackson and Carleton Watkins to create images from the same vantage point.[ii] Fast forward to today where numerous exhibitions like International Center for Photography’s Ecotopia in 2007 (reviewed by David Crossley in the fall 2007 issue of SPOT) reveal a world in environmental flux, where varying stewardship practices clash.
The Human Nature exhibition at HCP approached the subject of stewardship and our relationship with other species from varying perspectives. The counterculture movement of "rewilding" as explored by photographer Lucas Foglia served as the initial cornerstone for the exhibition concept. In the southeastern United States, individuals raised in mainstream urban and suburban environments seek a more harmonious relationship with nature. These individuals reside in intentional communities that live off the grid and from the land. Some adopt Mennonite dress, others construct clothing from hunted animals. All share similar environmental concerns and aim to live more self-sufficiently. Foglia, who was raised on a farm in New York, observes and photographs his subjects from a protective perspective, depicting individuals who strive to live in harmony with their surroundings.
On the flipside, Greater Mexico City, one of the largest cities in the world, serves as a complex metaphor for the human desire to live for both success and excess. The region has a unique and tumultuous history of urban planning. Situated in a closed volcanic basin more than 7,000 feet above sea level, the area once included seven lakes. By the 1500s, the Aztecs had built an advanced, sustainable city with a waterway channel system, square plots, and waste management systems. Four main avenues from the city’s mainland center directed traffic and trade with outlying areas. Following the Spanish siege in 1521, new settlers drained the lakes and filled them with dirt mined from nearby areas. Today, water continues to be pumped out of the city’s shallow aquifer, and parts of the city have sunk by depths greater than twenty feet. Repeating earlier history, the city's population explosion in the 20th century led to disputes in land management. Since 1950, the population has grown from 1.5 million to more than 22 million. Political, economic, and environmental controversies have hindered efforts to form and implement a cohesive long-term plan for the region's urban development.[iii]
Mexico City-based photographer Pablo Lopez Luz captures the complexities of sprawl from aerial and vista perspectives. An image of a road leading south to Cuernacava depicts green zones where vegetables, fruit, flowers, and livestock are cultivated to support the demands of the city’s increasing population. Undulating hills of middle to low-income housing built since the 1950s demonstrate the city's tremendous overpopulation and housing crises. Further east, the photographer reveals areas where clear cutting has created room for development in a region where lake beds and green areas have made way for dumpsites and mines.
Fire is admittedly a captivating subject for photographers, whether it be the subject of disaster or controlled land management. Two photographers in Human Nature approach the subject from opposing perspectives. For the past eighteen years, Kansas-born photographer Larry Schwarm has photographed the dramatic tall grass prairie fires that sweep across the Flint Hills of his state each spring. In an effort to maintain the original ecosystem, the mesmerizing fires represented in Schwarm’s images are set by humans. Historically, these fires occurred naturally in the North American prairie, an area that once contained over 150 million acres from Canada to Texas. Today, less than one percent of the original tallgrass prairie exists as a result of suburban development and changing land management practices. Without the burns, the prairie grasses would grow up to eight feet tall, converting much of the land to scrub forest. Destruction leads to rebirth; the fires regulate the growth of deep rooted perennial grasses, warm the soil that allows cattle to graze earlier in the season, and keep evasive weed species and new trees at bay.[iv]
Despite human efforts to control the landscape, the perseverance of nature is evident in the work of Travis Roozee who photographed Centralia, Pennsylvania, an active anthracite coal mining town from the mid 1800s until 1962 when an underground coal fire erupted at the local dump. Continuing to burn today, oxygenating itself via undiscovered vent pathways, it is believed that the fire underlies several hundred acres and has enough energy to continue burning for over 1,000 years. The colorful moss and lichen growing year-round in Roozee’s images give evidence of a general warming of the ground. In the mid 1980s, after a boy fell into a 150-foot sinkhole and after the land was deemed unstable, the government intervened with new efforts to extinguish the fire. Because of impeding costs, the government forced the dwindling population to relocate by purchasing and demolishing the majority of Centralia’s buildings. Many citizens who refused to leave erected external support structures to bolster their homes’ stability. Roozee also photographed a section of Route 61, the town’s main thoroughfare, which in 1993 was permanently closed due to coal fissures.[v]
Also on the topic of energy – and the commodification of it – is the work of two artists whose photographic visions and subjects vary in scope and presentation. Finding beauty in the elegant geometry of modern wind turbine blades, Jay Tyrrell photographs these structures, measuring between 60-140 feet, as they rest on the ground before installation or hover atop 200-300-foot steel towers. His panoramic abstract forms in black and white were shot in Palm Springs, Altamont Pass in the Bay Area of San Francisco, the Sacramento River Delta, and areas of New Mexico. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. has had the fastest growing wind power capacity in the world since 2006, and Texas contains the most wind power turbines in the country. While many wind analysts state that wind power is the most environmentally friendly energy resource second to solar, wind farms pose a risk to migratory birds. The Texas coast is an important migratory corridor for bird migration, and a 2009 report from the U.S. Department of the Interior cites that a decline in bird populations that migrate through the corridor are a result of wind turbines, among other factors.
An exhibition in Houston that broaches the subject of energy would not be complete without discussing the local oil and gas industry. Arguably at present the busiest port in the United States, the Port of Houston sees approximately 25-30 ship arrivals each day, of which two thirds contain oil, gas, and petrochemicals, with the remainder carrying containers, steel, and cement. Houston Ship Channel pilot Louis Vest photographs and creates stop motion animation video from the bridges of ships he navigates through the channel. Photographing his journey past refineries, terminals, and storage facilities utilized by Dynegy Incorporated, Crown Energy Company, Kinder Morgan, Stolt-Nielsen, and Lyondell Chemical Company, to name a few, Vest captures the pulse of energy and resources contained and emitted. At night, the flares on these refineries take on an eerie, otherworldly appearance in Vest’s video work. [vi]
While Vest’s images depict Houston local scenes that are relatively inaccessible to the general public, artists and social activists Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele take their viewers to other parts of the world to tell the story of global change through the activities of people. Thanks to support from the Blue Earth Alliance and other sources, they have photographed volunteer glacier monitors in Iceland, fishermen of the North Atlantic, and the tinder people of North America, among other subjects. Featured in Human Nature were the Sámi reindeer herders in Norway as they confront and adapt to the complex issues surrounding global warming. The reindeer habitats and migration routes are increasingly diminished as secondary homes, oil mining, and wind farms progressively dominate the landscape. Supported by the government, the Sámi herd the reindeer using snowmobiles and transport them on ships from summer to winter environments. Despite such movements, there is a significant reduction in lichen moss due to birch tree encroachment, making survival more difficult for the reindeer and other species which depend on lichen moss for sustenance. Drummond photographs these groups, and Steele provides a narrative to accompany the images. The resultant storyboards are elegant and tactile.
Another artist who intertwines writing with photographs is Californian Mary Daniel Hobson. Interested in the conflation of art and science, Hobson immerses photographs of the natural world in mineral oil to create specimen-like objects. The contained photographs represent her nearby environs and incorporate inscriptions and maps on verso that reference the artist’s dreams and memories of nature, serving as “messages in a bottle.” Hobson’s work describes the paradoxical relationship between humanity’s desire to harness and control the environment via scientific means and nature’s ability to hold mysteries greater than what can be contained.
Frustrated by her inability to capture the perfect image of songbirds in situ, Paula McCartney creates her own idealized version of the species in nature. Populating her environs with craft store replicas, McCartney presents her fictitious documents in taxonomic form, modeling the presentation after John James Audubon’s Birds of America and Victorian botany journals.
Similar to McCartney’s index yet using found objects, Dusseldorf school-trained Robert Voit created his own pictorial inventory of mobile phone masts that simulate nature, appearing as deciduous trees, conifers, pines, palms and cacti. Employing photography as a means of gathering information, Voit’s “typology” – which defines the genre inspired by Bernd and Hilla Becher – is a sequenced arrangement of like-objects arranged in grid formation. The topic points to the proliferation of communication technology, serving as a reminder of our increased desire to stay connected. Mobile phone technology was born in 1946, and as advances in electronics were made, cellular technology became available to the general public. Today, an estimated 60% of the world’s population has access to mobile technology, and there are an estimated 4.1 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide.[vii] What is fascinating about the project is that despite the desire for these objects resemble the natural forms they emulate, the mobile phone masts are anomalistic forms of vegetation.
Today, I am several thousand miles away from the life I had in Italy, writing from my new home in Dubai, an area of heightened geographic development. I’m sitting in a house built upon reclaimed land – over 100 million cubic yards of sand was dredged from the sea to create the Palm Jumeirah. This young island in the shape of a palm tree is a miraculous environment, conceived of and constructed using some of the most advanced technology in the world today. While a contemporary triumph, the Palm has problems; namely water circulation, water contamination, endangerment of marine ecosystems and land instability. Yet, it is a successful tribute to human adaptability. Looking out the window, there is lots to see. An 80-foot tall cell phone tower resembling a palm tree is in the foreground (I invited Robert Voit to photograph it!).The hazy desert horizon is dotted with shiny new skyscrapers, and cranes sleepily perch atop dozens of others under arrested construction. [viii]
Dubai is a new city with a new soul, mostly built within the last 10 years. Comprised of more than 85% expatriates, local society is in a brand new stage of development; ethnicities have yet to settle into patterns of interrelation. The affluence here is palpable, it is a place where excessive wealth is readily measured by the rapid speed of progress. Yet as the global economy falters, the region – its wealth, its population, its growth – is destabilized. This precarious mechanical organism is perhaps an example of what Hannah Arendt phrased as “progress and catastrophe are the opposite faces of the same coin.”[ix]
The Ruler of Dubai’s poetic fantasy to transform the virgin landscape into an artificial, yet somehow perceived “perfectly natural” man-made playground is disconcerting. On the other hand, I am choosing to live in Dubai and am therefore sustaining the region’s development. The humanly-driven machine here is changing nature, yet this situation is not site-specific, nor is it time specific. And all over the world photography is bearing witness to this; revealing our good intentions, our conscience, and our decidedly human follies.
Spot. 27 (2)(2009), pp. 16-23.
 Fogle, Douglas. The Last Picture Show: Artists Using Photography 1960-1982 (Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 2003), p. 26.
[ii] Of note: Abelardo Morell () is conducting a re-photographic project in Texas with his camera obscura tent in January, 2010.
[iii] History of Mexico City based on information provided in interviews conducted in February and March, 2009 between the curator and Fernando Sepulveda, Architect and Urban Planner, Head of the Metropolitan Development Commission in Mexico City, 1967-1982.
[iv] Schwarm, Larry. On Fire: Photographs by Larry Schwarm, introduction by Robert Adams (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003)
[v] Quigley, Joan. The Day the Earth Caved in: An American Mining Tragedy (Baltimore: Random House, 2007)
[vi] For more of Vest’s work, please visit Shortly after Human Nature opened, Vest launched a new video made while navigating Houston’s ship channel that attracted over 32,000 viewers in the first 24 hours.
[vii] Telecommunications statistics available via the International Telecommunication Union and Cellular News March 15, 2009.
[viii] For more information on the Palm Jumeirah, visit designbuild-network.com:
[ix] Hannah Arendt (1968), quoted in Virilio, Paul. Unknown Quantity (London: Verso, 2002), p. 40.