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Human Nature

This exhibition and its related programming raise questions about the current state of our relationship to the natural environment. Are we living for success, or excess? What kinds of stewardship methodologies are being practiced? How are we managing our and other species’ relationships with Earth? What types of energy are we using to subsist? What does population growth and urban sprawl look like on the landscape? What activities are taking place on a local level to support local farmers and growers and promote community? What is human nature?


Pablo Lopez Luz: Mexico City


Greater Mexico City is one of the largest cities in the world and serves as a complex metaphor for the human desire to live for success, or the human condition to live for excess.


Spawned by widespread industrialization in the early part of the 20th century, the region’s population has recently exploded. What once contained 1.5 million inhabitants in 1950 has grown to more than 22 million. Within the last century, political, economic, and environmental controversies have led to few resolutions as to how to plan and manage the city’s urban development.


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 channels, square plots, and waste management systems. Four main avenues from the city’s mainland center directed traffic and trading to 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 to depths greater than twenty feet.


Mexico City-based photographer Pablo Lopez Luz photographs his city from aerial and vista perspectives. The image of the road south to Cuernavaca depicts green zones where vegetables, fruit, flowers, and livestock are cultivated and raised to support the growing demands of the city’s population. Undulating hills of middle to low-income housing built since the 1950s demonstrate immense sprawl. Further east, the photographer reveals areas where clear cutting has taken place to create room for development, a region where the invasion of the lake beds and green areas have made way for dumpsites and mines.


Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele: Facing Climate Change

Embarking on an ambitious goal to investigate climate change around the globe, Benjamin Drummond and Sara Joy Steele highlight the work of volunteer glacier monitors in Iceland, fishermen of the North Atlantic, and the tinder people of North America, among other subjects.


This section of the project explores the Sámi reindeer herders in Norway as they confront and adapt to the complex issues surrounding global warming. The reindeers’ 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 mass due to birch encroachment, which makes survival more difficult for the reindeer and other species who depend on it for sustenance.



Larry Schwarm: On Fire

For the last eighteen years, Kansas-born photographer Larry Schwarm has photographed the dramatic tallgrass prairie fires that sweep across the Flint Hills of his state each spring. Historically, these fires occurred naturally in the North American prairieland, 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 urban development and changes in land management practices. The mesmerizing fires in Schwarm’s images are set by humans in an effort to maintain the original prairie ecosystem. The fires’ destruction leads to rebirth; they regulate the growth of deep rooted perennial grasses, warm the soil which allows cattle to graze earlier in the season, and keep evasive weed species and new trees at bay. Without the burns, the prairie grasses would grow to heights as great as eight feet and much of the land would convert to scrub forest.



Travis Roozée: Centralia    

Documentarian Travis Roozée photographed Centralia, Pennsylvania, a unique municipality rich with anthracite coal showing the perseverance of nature despite human intervention. Centralia was an active mining town from the mid 1850s until 1962, when an underground coal fire erupted at the local dump. The fire continues to burn today, oxygenating itself via undiscovered vent pathways. It is believed that the fire underlies several hundred acres, creating unstable ground, a confluence of hazardous gases, and warming the earth, as evidenced by the colorful moss and lichen growing year round. It is estimated that there is enough coal to burn for another 1,000 years.


The government intervened in the mid 1980s after a boy fell into a 150-foot mine sinkhole in Centralia. New efforts were made to extinguish the fire, yet the estimated cost was prohibitive. Instead, the government forced the dwindling population to relocate by purchasing and demolishing the majority of Centralia’s buildings. Many of those who refused to move erected external support structures to bolster their homes’ stability. In 1993 a section of Route 61, the town’s main thoroughfare, was permanently closed due to coal fissures. Despite safety warnings, nine people live in Centralia today, making it the most unpopulated municipality in Pennsylvania.


Lou Vest: Houston Ship Channel

Vest is one of 9 pilots currently working in the Houston Ship Channel. These pilots take over the steering of vessels from ship captains outside of Galveston and navigate the ships through 52 miles of the channel to their respective destinations. The channel begins at 800 feet wide from the sea to the Texas City dyke and narrows to between 300 and 530 feet wide. There are four basins for these large ships to turn around. The channel is 40 feet deep.


Made from the bridges of these ships, Mr. Vest´s photographs document the quantity of commerce in the United States´ busiest port. Since 2004, Houston’s Ship Channel receives between 25-30 ship arrivals each day. Approximately two thirds of these ships contain oil, gas, and petrochemicals, with the remainder carrying containers, steel, and cement.


Vest’s stop motion animation video depicts numerous sites along the channel including refineries, terminals, and storage facilities utilized by Dynegy Incorporated, Crown Energy Company, Kinder Morgan, Stolt-Nielsen, and Lyondell Chemical Company, to name a few.



Jay Tyrrell: Wind Turbines

Jay Tyrrell captures the elegant geometry of modern wind turbine blades, measuring between 60-140 feet, as they rest on the ground before installation or hover atop 200-300-foot steel towers. Photographing these machines in Palm Springs, Altamont Pass in the Bay Area of San Francisco, the Sacramento River Delta, and areas of New Mexico, Tyrrell depicts the ever-growing industry of renewable energy.


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 who migrate through the corridor are a result of wind turbines among other factors.



Robert Voit: New Trees

Dusseldorf School-trained photographer Robert Voit created a pictorial inventory of mobile phone masts worldwide which simulate nature. These camouflage structures, existing since 2000, appear in the landscape as idealized forms of vegetation, including deciduous trees, conifers, pines, palms and cacti. Voit’s typology of these towers worldwide 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.


Source: International Telecommunication Union Press release, Geneva, March 2, 2009.


Paula McCartney: Bird Watching

Frustrated by her inability to capture the perfect image of songbirds in situ, Paula McCartney created 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.


Mary Daniel Hobson: Sanctuary

Interested in the conflation of art and science, Mary Daniel 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 that reference the artist’s dreams and memories of nature. 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.


Lucas Foglia: A Natural Order

Rewilding, which can refer to the process individuals undertake in order to survive independent of contemporary mainstream civilization, is the subject of Lucas Foglia’s series A Natural Order. Photographing in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia, Foglia explored a comprehensive network of individuals who left society to adopt wilderness or homesteading lifestyles, often in response to environmental concerns and predictions of societal collapse.


“For the past few years I have been photographing a network of people in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and  Georgia. The adults in the homes and communities where I photograph are former engineers, factory workers, professors, projects managers, Hells Angels, caterers, carpenters, etc… They vary in their backgrounds and motivations, but all of my subjects have responded to environmental concerns or predictions of societal collapse by adopting wilderness or homesteading lifestyles.


“Most of my subjects live off-the-grid, build their own homes from local materials, obtain their water from nearby streams and hunt, gather, or grow their own food. Some start fires with friction, tan animal hides for clothing and collect herbs for medicine. Some of my subjects are religious and wear plain clothes, in the fashion of the Mennonites, to avoid government interference in social security, education, insurance, vaccinations, etc… There are no universal beliefs or rules to the way my subjects live. I am interested in the tension between my subjects’ idealism and the hard work that is required to maintain their lifestyle. This ongoing series is about the complexity of their relationship to nature and self-sufficiency.” – Lucas Foglia


3 April – 10 May, 2009


Houston Center for Photography

Artist / Photographer

Benjamin Drummond / Sara Joy Steele

Lucas Foglia

Mary Daniel Hobson

Pablo Lopéz Luz

Paula McCartney

Travis Roozée

Larry Schwarm

Jay Tyrell

Lou Vest

Robert Voit


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