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Is Nature Photography Too Beautiful?

A move toward “truth in labeling” would bring photographic arts more in line with ecological science.

Robert Louis Chianese

I am enthralled by stunning photos of nature. You probably are, too. Gorgeous images of landscapes, animals, plants, and exotic, undisturbed places adorn our walls as well as our advertisements, calendars, screen savers, and museum galleries. We all seem hooked.

2014-01ArtsLabF1.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageDramatic images of nature help shape our consciousness about the physical world, and classic landscape photos by C. E. Watkins, Ansel Adams, Eliot Porter, and Robert Glenn Ketchum play a key part in modern cultural literacy about the environment and our evolving relationship to it. For this very reason, contemplating nature within the frame of photography also invites us to consider what sort of environmental understanding of our changing world nature photography does provide.

Conservation-minded photographers, such as the renowned Eliot Porter, often put photography to the political task of helping save the subjects they photograph. Even if you do not recognize his name, you surely know his work. His Glen Canyon series, The Place No One Knew (1963), composed for the Sierra Club, featured haunting, quasi-abstract images of rock formations and watercourses that evoked the canyon’s unappreciated, almost otherworldly majesty. By mastering Kodak’s new dye-transfer color process, Porter was able to craft tonally subtle images with the clarity and detail of black and white—the only respected medium of nature photography up to that point, made famous by his mentor, Ansel Adams. Sadly, even these new kinds of images could not stop the 1966 construction of the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River, which put those spectacular locations permanently underwater.

Today, the digital revolution in photography results in natural scenery that never looked so alive, so vibrant and luminous, even transcendent, though many famous subjects we know are ecologically compromised, environmentally degraded, or simply destroyed. Nature photography today, with the added benefits of Adobe’s Photoshop, seems to revel in a hyper “grandeurism.” An essential of most nature photography as a genre is to move us to love and revere it; it further assumes that only through such a response will we feel the urge to preserve or restore it.

Contrariwise, pictures of environmental degradation may incite us, but they may just as likely turn off donors and drive activists away. Beauty sells, ugliness might repel. So we buy the dazzling calendar and join the organization.

The acclaimed novelist Lydia Millet has a starkly different reaction. She blasts the lush photos in the promotional calendars of most nature organizations as “eco-porn”:

This is picture-book nature. . . . Tarted up into perfectly circumscribed simulations of the wild, these props of mainstream environmentalism serve as surrogates for real engagement with wilderness, the way porn models serve as surrogates for real women. They are placebos substituting for triage…. They offer comfort to the viewer: They will always be there, ideal, unblemished, available. They offer gratification without social cost; they satiate by providing objects for fantasy without making uncomfortable demands on the subject.

Millet’s excoriating remarks force us to re-think what we are looking at in those glowing shots of nature, but even the most “seductive” scenery does not excite lascivious emotion nor the potential sexual release of pornography. I would argue we likely become even more static in our contemplative, aesthetic responses to them. Millet implies as much.

There are other, creative approaches to involve us. The 2014 World Wildlife Fund calendar features individual photo-portraits of iconic animals—a tiger, rhino, ape, and polar bear. However, as headshots in blank backgrounds, removed from natural settings, they appear less than alluring and may even hint of stress. It’s as if their physical surroundings would portray them as too colorful, secure, settled in place. These solitary, starkly depicted animals seem to look out at us—from jail? or limbo?—for some answers to questions we must pose for them; how can we stop threatening their survival?

The photos from last year’s WWF calendar may have seemed less troubling because we could glimpse their surroundings, though the “December” close-up photo of a mother polar bear with its cub on its back, looking directly out at us, did make me worry about the cub’s future. That photo also included a conscientious truth-in-labeling caption: a short, unobtrusive, gentle comment at the bottom of the calendar section saying, “Polar bears are an indicator of conditions throughout the Arctic, and at-risk populations could signal threats in the marine ecosystem.” Here we are invited to contemplate the fate of an environment closely threatened by global warming by seeing one of its most beloved animals not just as a familiarly iconic one, but also as an indicator species of the environment’s overall health, which is rapidly declining. Actual science enhances—“colors,” we might say—our response to the photograph.

Photographers might go further. They might try to make uncomfortable demands on viewers, with portraits of environmental ruin. There’s even a new movement called “ruins photography” declaring itself a purveyor of “ruin porn” (that term again), mainly focused on urban decay and post-industrial blight. It tends, however, to aestheticize damaged urbanscapes like Detroit and Rust Belt cities, provoking critics to attack it as insensitive to the impoverished places and destitute people who inhabit them. Blight, even beautified, is a hard sell.

2014-01ArtsLabF2.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageSome nature photographers specialize in bizarre alien landscapes, ones we have tarnished and trashed. Richard Misrach, whose subjects have ranged from seascapes to nuclear test sites, creates eerie scenes of desolation in photographing our desert intrusions. His scenes are at once grotesque and hypnotizing, surreal, but not without a kind of apocalyptic beauty. In a radical section of his Desert Cantos series, he trains his camera on a bomb crater and destroyed convoy in the Nevada weapons testing range. Could there be anything less alluring and more unnatural than this?

Misrach himself denies he’s invested in ugliness, nor does he see himself as an environmental activist. He does, however, criticize some foundational nature photographers, such as Ansel Adams, for deflecting us from reality with their commitment to beauty:

My main problem with Adams’ perfect unsullied pearls of wilderness, and with the Sierra Club and the Ansel Adams clones, is that they are perpetuating a myth that keeps people from looking at the truth about what we have done to the wilderness.

Does Misrach protest too much? Perhaps he believes that he alone serves up objective reality, cold truth, while famous others peddle the hot, alluring beauty-myth. Still, his photos have a formal artistry, deliberately limited tonality, and studied grotesqueness that make them appear anything but unfiltered reportage. He may be stuck in the beauty box too.

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