It was an uncannily balmy day in late November when I visited Ecotopia, a lively survey of work by some 40 artists from 14 countries who address, at times obliquely or through local case studies, the current environmental crisis. Take Shishmaref, for example, a small village on an Alaskan island, home to 491 Inupiat Eskimos whose way of life is threatened by global warming. In Gilles Mingasson’s photographs (included here in a deeply affecting slide show of work by photojournalists on the front lines of ecological catastrophes) they hunt for seal on ever thinning ice, beside a coastline that is rapidly eroding.
The Inupiat are not alone. The ice is thinning for us all: We face a near future of destabilized ecosystems and deforestation, a battle-scarred world where human dominance over a rapidly decreasing number of species seems at best a Pyrrhic victory, and nature appears at once more remote than ever and more threatening. These are grim realities, but the art they inspire shares a measure of both wonder and levity, effective weapons against despair and disengagement.
Ecotopia opens with austere black-and-white photographs from “Turning Back,” Robert Adams’s magisterial series, partially retracing the steps of explorers Lewis and Clark through the Pacific Northwest. This was the landscape that inspired 19th-century photographers like Carleton Watkins, using a newborn technology to create images of a virginal paradise. Adams’s laconic images show immense, uprooted stumps and seemingly endless stretches of felled trees where there once were towering forests.
In fact, for decades, landscape photography as a genre has seemed thoroughly exhausted. Have we rootless cosmopolitans lost all feeling for the beauty of nature? Or do we distrust the camera as a tool of implicit control? Clifford Ross’s 5 x 10 foot photograph of a Colorado mountain (created with a six-foot-tall, 60-pound, homemade camera capable of breathtaking detail) leaves me strangely cold; it seems no more than a version of “mine is bigger,” an exercise in optical domination.
The images of nature that move me most suggest our fragile negotiations with a deeply impersonal force—a source of ambient fear, both menacing and in need of protection. Mitch Epstein’s large-scale color print taken along the coast of Biloxi, Mississippi, post-Katrina—ripped mattresses and sheets dripping from trees like Spanish moss—finds human fate literally tangled up in its surroundings. In a print from his project “American Power,” the cooling tower of a nuclear plant in West Virginia looms ominously over the clipped lawns of suburban backyards like the ghost in the first act of Hamlet, a harbinger of potential tragedies. You can lose yourself in Yannick Demmerle’s mural-sized shots of the silvery trunks of trees at night, as sinister as the forests in fairy tales. (An obsession with trees, it seems, is a leitmotif among ecologically conscious artists working on paper.) And you can hold your breath, along with the (temporarily) flightless birds grasped in the hands of trained ornithologists, in Victor Schrager’s intimate close-ups of North American species, a series which has as much to do with photography’s complicity in the Victorian tradition of the natural specimen as with any latter-day reality.
Our furry, feathered, and hard-shelled friends are the subject of Sam Easterson’s short videos, made by attaching tiny cameras to the heads or shoulders of free-roaming animals. The prospect of seeing the world as a turkey, a pig, or an armadillo is inherently comic, and not only because it is doomed to failure (most of the videos end with the camera falling off); the shift in perspective is also startlingly sensory.
And Tennyson’s “Nature, red in tooth and claw” returns with a vengeance in Catherine Chalmers’s riotously beautiful film of cockroaches navigating a lush, tropical terrain that the artist constructed in her Soho studio. Despised by humans because they have so thoroughly infiltrated our habitations, the roaches (once released in “nature”) find themselves no match for the host of insect, amphibian, and reptilian competitors that the artist has raised and set loose to do battle under her camera’s watchful eye. And yet, of course, these roaches are just like us, scurrying blindly into the unknown.