Today I dropped in to McGuffey Art Center to check out the portion of LOOK3 that’s housed there–mainly, that’s an exhibit called World Press Photo 11, which showcases the winners of a worldwide photojournalism contest. It was kind of a terrible experience; the work’s very high-quality, of course, but the exhibit reads like a catalogue of current human misery. From unrest in Thailand to the Haitian earthquake, dark events dominate the imagery.
Humans occupied most of the photos, with a notable exception: photos by Benjamin Lowy of the Gulf of Mexico after last year’s oil spill. These images, in their abstract beauty, sum up many of the deep contradictions in the human relationship to the environment.
The oil spill was a disaster, but at least through Lowy’s lens, it was a disaster that produced mermerizing colors and patterns. Is a spill ultimately uglier than our normal, everyday use of fossil fuels? Would you rather look at Lowy’s photos or gaze at your average gas station? Why are the pervasive and ongoing effects of climate change more acceptable than the Gulf spill–a terrible, yet singular, event?
The questions are legion, and they multiply when you walk out of McGuffey, down to the Mall, and gaze at George Steinmetz’s aerial shots that hang from the trees. Mostly, these show nature as a pristine, perfect state: dunes, birds, elephant trails making lovely patterns upon the surface of the earth. The occasional humans (and human constructions) decorate, rather than disturb, an apparently serene planet.
It’s always fascinating to me to see how we imagine and represent nature. What would happen if the Gulf spill images were the ones hanging above Downtown Mall diners’ heads? What if the images of war were labeled "nature photography?"
Do check out the exhibits if you haven’t yet; they’re up until June 26.