Exercise 5.1

Eco-Criticism

Identify a contemporary photographer whose work takes a critical stance on an environmental theme/topic. Choose one image by way of example and consider the following: How does the image function as an environmental critique? Consider what visual strategies it employs to communicate a message to the audience. What is the overall position of the image within its wider body of work/context? Does the approach taken by the photographer fit within any of the positions outlined by G[a]rrard?
( Max 300 words ).
The medium of photography has in turn played a significant role in our understanding of the environment. The scientific application of lens-based technologies, ranging from satellite imagery of algal blooms and desertification, have in turn led to new understandings of the earth ecosphere. Artists, designers and other creative disciplines also are part of a wider and developing conversations. Across the globe, there are many thousands of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGO’s), charities, and many others where the Anthropocene as a term of reference is central to their activities. The chronology or roots of these kinds of organisations or their practice is likely to be diverse. It is worth considering and thinking about your own exposure to the term ‘Anthropocene’ in this part of the course.

LP&E, p.167

[5Jun22] An obvious possibility for this is John Messina’s Oil Drums (fig. A1) which heads this section of the course notes, but I prefer the artistry and subtlety of Richard Misrach. His recent book on Landscape and Meaning (2020) offers many candidate images.

Box A
1. John Messina, A Mountain Of Damaged Oil Drums Near The Exxon Refinery, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 1972
2. Richard Misrach, Bomb Crater and Destroyed Vehicle, Bravo 20 Bombing Range 1986
3. Richard Misrach, Holy Rosary Cemetery and Dow Chemical Corporation (Union Carbide Complex), Taft, Louisiana, 1998
© the artists, their agents or their estates
image sources: 1. LPE p. 164; 2-3 MoMA.

Misrach comments on Bomb Crater … , quoting Alexander Gardner from 1866,

Verbal representations of such places, or scenes, may or may not have the merit of accuracy; but photographic presentments of them will be accepted by posterity with an undoubting faith.

Alexander Gardner, 1866, cited in Misrach, 2020, p.80

and Misrach states, “[p]hotographs resonate; they provide information like no other medium.”

The particular image for examination in this exercise is Misrach’s Holy Rosary Cemetery and Dow Chemical Corporation …, 1998. Subtlety of approach is especially notable in this example: at first sight just a cemetery with grey clouds setting an ominous tone, but the viewer may then notice the forms in the background, initially mistaken for more distant gravestones but on closer examination it is a chemical factory overshadowing the graveyard and those clouds could be toxic rather than climatic.

This is part of a series commissioned by the High Museum of Art in Atlanta in 1998. Misrach set out with no specific subject in mind but a friend mentioned Cancer Alley, a 120 mile stretch of the Mississippi with 100 petrochemical plants. Misrach states, “I had mistakenly conceived of industrial zones … [but] rural communities sit side by side with industrial behemoths spewing pollution” (op. cit. p.100). The series shows many examples of this juxtaposition and its sometimes devastating effects.

Misrach’s book takes the reader through the various stages of his practice, during which his awareness of and concern about environmental issues gradually increased. He states that “[i]t is important to me that my pictures be formally beautiful” though he contrasts Ansel Adams’ work, where “you don’t see garbage cans, picnic tables and parking lots” and his own in which “pictures of the desert almost always include some sign of civilization” (p.54).
He acknowledges (with reference to his Dead Animals series) that he is criticized for “aestheticiz[ing] horror” but insists he “believes that beauty can be a very powerful conveyor of ideas” (p.86).
I seems clear from this book’s overview of his life’s work that Misrach cares deeply about the environment, but that his expression is tempered by attention to his art and this might place him in the robust environmentalist category rather than one of the radical ecological groups.

It is worth noting the precision of the titles in both Messina and Misrach’s work. Misrach has had a changing relationship with text accompanying his images over the years. He describes a desert project that used no text at all, “I decided to remove every single word in my book: book title, essay, captions, page numbers. The final book is driven solely by images, and the photographs speak for themselves, without any influence – directly or indirectly – of the written word” (p.34). The detailed titles in these cases help to reinforce the harm that has been done through evidential captions and naming the companies (Exxon, Union Carbide and USAF) responsible.


LPE Exc 5.1 References

Alexander, J, Conroy, A, Hughes, A, & Lundy, G (2019) Landscape, Place and Environment [LPE]. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts.

Misrach, R. (2020) On landscape and meaning. NY: Aperture.