Contemporary Photography and the Environment is a talk by the curator Kim Knoppers in Self Publish, Be Happy’s Contemporary Photography series on Vimeo (Knoppers 2021). I found the talk useful because it is something of a survey of contemporary practice in this subject – and it offered several useful ideas.
The first point is that it is important for the photographer to overcome public image fatigue. This affects almost all subjects today but especially those covering global warming and the environment. The days when an image of a polar bear on a melting ice floe could capture attention are long gone.
A second point is that we need to think carefully about what we mean by ‘nature’. This is largely a culturally determined and, today, a contested term. In some ways we live in a nostalgic version of what nature is, evidenced by 1001 wildlife documentaries that show the spectacle but often not the reality. We tend to see nature and culture as opposites, but this is a false binary, and we tend to under-appreciate the relationships involved. These are not only the sometimes very complex relationships between things in the natural world itself but the relationships involved in depicting it and changing our perceptions of it. So the photographer today needs to consider the role of activism and environmental law, for example, and the role of video and sound in producing a work of art.
This is a really helpful message to encourage the photographer to move beyond the static single image. It suggests that compelling works today are likely to be stories based on collaboration between many different interests and artistic techniques.
Knoppers cited several photographers whose work it might pay to study, not least since some of them used mixed media. These include Robert Adams and Joel Sternfeld, with whom I am already familiar, but also Melanie Bonajo, Mark Dorf, Douglas Mandry, Almudena Romero, Lucas Foglia and Fabio Barile. I have already looked at the work of Foglia and Barile and it resonates very strongly with me, particularly Foglia whose career began as a student of Gregory Crewdson.
The overall message of this talk is that essentially we and the planet are all one organism. This is the Gaia hypothesis (Lovelock 1979) and the emphasis is therefore on wholeness. In a world awash with competing theories and a surfeit of images, the challenge for the photographer is that ‘imagination and the camera give us the opportunity to re-enchant a disenchanted world’ (Knoppers 2021).
Many of these ideas bear directly on my current project, particularly the emphasis on moving beyond the static image and into the realm of story-telling and collaboration. The emphasis on examining the culturally determined aspects of what we call ‘nature’ is important too. However, throughout her talk Knoppers emphasized the importance of intimacy. Intimacy builds relationships. Something that is overly conceptual can seem cold and aloof. What the artist needs to aim for is, in her words, ‘clear, detailed and visually seductive’ (Knoppers 2021).
KNOPPERS, Kim. 2021. ‘Contemporary Photography and the Environment’. Self Publish, Be Happy [online]. Available at: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/photographyenvironment?autoplay=1 [accessed 20 Mar 2021].
LOVELOCK, James. 1979. Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth. Oxford: Oxford University Press.