Unspoiled places sadden us because they are, in an important sense, no longer true.
Photographs of landscapes have the power to induce yearning. An image of a distant wooded mountain or a shot of a rugged coastline make us pause and wonder: how would it feel to be there? We frequently imagine that landscape images reflect an unspoiled world – they make us dream of places or remind us of where we’ve already been. Yet this perspective of longing clashes with society’s need for progress and growth.
The term “Anthropocene” (Greek for “The Age of Humans”), coined in 2002 by a group of researchers headed by the atmospheric chemist and geologist Paul J. Crutzen, aims to describe the idea of a new geological age, in which human activity is considered a major influence on the environment. With the expansion of cities and industrialized agriculture, advancing globalization and uncontrollable population growth, humankind is leaving ever-more indelible signs of its existence on the planet’s surface.
How do these factors, steered predominantly by politics and economic policies, influence our living environment and the climate? Is it appropriate to take on a reproachful, critical stance? Or should we accept that the history of the Earth and the history of mankind are so strongly intertwined that they can no longer be considered independently of each other?
Anthropocene as a “Connector”
Nature and its possible loss (in an all-too-foreseeable future) have entered the public consciousness and discourse. Whereas in the past nature, or the concept thereof, had often been related to the notion of wilderness,2 today it can be regarded an empty word. There is no place left untouched on the planet; we find only landscapes. With the concept of the Anthropocene we have to learn that the Earth has become vulnerable and must be urgently cared for.
However, this does not mean that the concept places humans on one side and nature on the other, making one responsible for the other’s decline. Quite the contrary, it redistributes agency and, for the first time in over a century, brings nature and culture closer together, recognizing that both have been, and still are, inextricably linked.3 As the sociologist Bruno Latour puts it in Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies: “we’ve become the engineers of the planet. I don’t think it’s a concept that’s going to last, but while it’s here we should use it because it is a connector, and it brings together artists, scientists, and philosophers.”4 Acting as a “connector” between disciplines and reinforcing awareness of the interdependency of all earthly processes, the Anthropocene has become a popular paradigm for artists to explore in their practice. In the recent past, many exhibitions have taken up this thematic focus.
One of the first institutions to give these current tendencies a public platform was the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, with an extensive research venture titled the Anthropocene Project in 2013/14. Through a series of exhibitions, lectures, and a newly founded Anthropocene Working Group composed of artists, scientists, and theorists from various fields, the project explored questions of material interconnections and processes, to get a new sense of the effects of human activity and its consequences for life on Earth. The questions posed by the two-year project were: “What can we do, how can we know – and to what extent are the two connected?” and “With what means, methods and senses can we encounter the world of our own creation?”5 It concluded with a comprehensive Report documenting the lectures and events; the four-volume publication Textures of the Anthropocene: Grain Vapor Ray, containing a selection of historic texts; an online encyclopedia on the Anthropocene; and the Anthropocene Curriculum, a transdisciplinary education program testing new methods of mediation.6
The most recent exhibition to explore our species’ relationship to Earth was probably Ecologies of Landscape, at the Barbara Edwards Contemporary in Toronto (November 10, 2018 – January 26, 2019). The exhibition gathered works by nine international artists, and invited each of them to ponder the perceptual, aesthetic, and ethical relationships of art and the representation of landscape. In this time “of widespread concern about climate change,”7 the works in the show aimed at reconceiving the visual representation of land and landscape – past and present, imagined and experienced. The artists of the Toronto show worked in diverse media, whereas the majority of exhibitions that focus on the Anthropocene concept feature the moving image and photography.
Photography in the Anthropocene
Our dependence on nature to provide the materials for our consumption and our concern for the health of our planet sets us into an uneasy contradiction. For me, these images function as reflecting pools of our times.
Since its invention, photography has been a means to record changes in landscapes. Motifs such as industrial plants, construction sites, and symptoms of environmental exploitation had already come into focus by 1975, when the exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape – featuring works by, among others, Robert Adams, Stephen Shore, and Bernd and Hilla Becher – signaled a radical shift from traditional depictions of landscape. With unromanticized views of raw industrial landscapes and suburban sprawl, the exhibition bid farewell to the idealized view of nature untouched by man.9 In what way has photographic expression changed since then? Which aspects of the Anthropocene idea find their way into the works of contemporary photographers?
A distinctive characteristic of contemporary landscape photography is a research-focused approach. Here, the photographer appears as a researcher, whose photographs contribute to a body of knowledge that is made accessible through photographic evidence and has a documentary-like character. The artist depicts the changes to our habitats over a longer period of time, often returning to the same place months or years later. This is a practice that art historian and photography scholar Inga Remmers has termed “Environmental Photography” (“Umweltfotografie”) – a form of political photography that “draws public attention to anthropogenic environmental change.”10
A forerunner of this type of landscape photography is Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky. In his various photographic series, the most recent one titled Anthropocene,11 Burtynsky documents systems of urban expansion on a global scale. By scaling out to the point at which the collective impact of consumption – rather than the individual act – becomes visible, the artist highlights human dependence on natural resources to provide the materials for consumption.12
Burtynsky’s image Carrara Marble Quarries, Cava di Canalgrande #2 (2016) shows a red power shovel in front of looming white walls of marble. The vehicle, looking like a toy, appears as a trivial object and stands in contrast to the sublime, complex beauty of the surrounding stone walls. But its harmless appearance is a trade-off, as the shovel is constantly removing precious substances from the surface of land that have formed over 30 million years ago. Burtynsky’s image shows how deep and intense the exploitation of resources is practiced until today. Around 200 BC, humans had already discovered this valuable site in Northern Italy – it seems that the Anthropocene began a very long time ago.
Longing for Landscape
Considering this radical shift of the photographic approach within landscape photography, the exhibition Longing for Landscape – Photography in the Anthropocene, curated by CUCO – curatorial concepts berlin, a collective consisting of the three authors of this text, centered on the notion of the photographer as a researcher of anthropogenic structures. The group show was presented at the Tieranatomisches Theater Berlin, a former teaching salon of the university’s veterinary department, and encouraged a dialogue between the works of ten international artists. The respective working processes of the photographers played a crucial role in this dialogue, as did the absence of human figures and faces, which would have evoked strong interactions with the viewer.
An important foundation for the curatorial concept of the show was the publication The Anthropocene: On the State of Things [Das Anthropozän. Zum Stand der Dinge] (2015), an eclectic and inspiring collection of articles about ongoing debates, edited by Jürgen Renn and Bernd Scherer. In their introduction the authors state: “The Anthropocene is confronting us with a […] radical revision of our mindset: the Earth isn’t a stable environment, not the scenery and mere resource of our acting – it is part of an all-embracing drama, in which humans and objects are equally involved.”13 The entanglement of different players mentioned here is reflected in the photographs of the Berlin show. The following passages introduce a selection of its artistic positions, which unfold important aspects of the Anthropocene debate.
Yawning highway bridges, gigantic pillars of concrete, never-ending rail tracks – inanimate and yet seemingly vital parts of their surroundings. In his series Traffic Projects / Verkehrsprojekte, Hans-Christian Schink focuses on Germany’s hasty expansion of its automotive infrastructure after reunification, and its vision of transforming the new states into “blossoming landscapes.”
The image A71 – Brücke Schwarzbachtal (1997) shows massive concrete bridge-support pillars assimilated into a hilly, wooded landscape. The photograph illustrates the narrow, formal intersection of man-made and artificial landscape interventions, such as reforestation and the construction of roads. Taken mostly from a pedestrian’s perspective, the images play with scale and relate the “larger than life” architecture to the human body. Viewers can not only spot the formal relatedness of the built structures and the planted trees, but also similarities between the two-part concrete buttresses and their own legs – except the human-built bridge widely surmounts them. Schink’s images map the “monsters of infrastructure” dividing the land.
In her series Troubled Water, Berlin-based artist Constanze Flamme depicts the consequences of the catastrophic explosion of the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig. Taken from a boat on North America’s most important waterway, the Mississippi River, Flamme’s photograph New Orleans, Mississippi (2011) shows the fatal relationship between water and industrial pollution. The orange evening light on the river’s surface sets off associations with oily water, imbuing the image with a metaphorical element. Although the oil that was spilled during the Deepwater Horizon accident is no longer visible on the water’s surface, the residues still affect the ecosystems on the banks. The land recovers only slowly from the repercussions underlying the visible landscape. Although the real damage cannot be captured in a photograph of an evening scene, the image evokes a subtle, uncanny feeling.14 As landscape photographer Robert Adams puts it:
Landscape pictures can offer us, I think, three verities – geography, autobiography, and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together […] the three kinds of information strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact – an affection for life.15
The human alteration of the Earth’s surface is particularly visible in the area of mass tourism. In his series Alpen-Baustellen, Lois Hechenblaikner records how ski lifts, ploughed fields, and avalanche protection barriers bring about visible landscape damage. It becomes clear that this form of tourism is not possible without massive intervention in nature and often the destruction of landscape, leaving it resembling a patchwork rug.
Hechenblaikner’s photography undresses winter wonderlands and draws attention to the underlying processes of the sport tourism industry. While the pristine slopes that the skier or snowboarder experiences in winter might produce a “natural” effect, this pictorial winter landscape is in fact the outcome of industrial-scale human intervention into the landscape, producing it as image and as experience. The scope of the intervention can only be appreciated in the summer, when the infrastructural work is being done, before the rough, open soil becomes visually unified once again by a coat of snow.
Making a picture is an attempt to understand something. To realize reality that presents itself in the form of landscape.
Olaf Otto Becker16
Starting from Ilulissat, one of the oldest settlements in West Greenland, Olaf Otto Becker traveled the ice sea by boat to photograph icebergs from 2003 to 2012. As gigantic floating structures, they rise from the water and constantly change their physical appearance. In his photo book Ilulissat: Sculptures of Change (2017) the artist states: “For me, icebergs are wonderful, transient sculptures created out of themselves, but at the same time natural monuments and memorials that stand for the ongoing process of change in the climate which – for the first time in the history of our planet – is significantly influenced by humans.”17 Moved into the center of the picture, Becker stages the complex natural shapes and emphasizes the sculptural qualities of his photographs.
To gain a better understanding of his motifs, he frequently photographs the same spot twice. Sometimes it takes ten years until he returns to a certain place with his large-format camera to record changes on the planet’s surface that only register over time. Becker sees his landscape images as attempts to gain a better understanding of his surroundings. For him, reality presents itself in the form of landscape.18
Landscape photography is not the only type suitable for addressing topics of the Anthropocene debate. Sanna Kannisto’s photographs can be seen as modern interpretations of typological illustrations in books that categorize Earth’s species. Her photograph Aristolochia gorgona (2003) appears as a distillation of the natural forest landscape, showing a rare and recently discovered species of flower native to the rainforests of Costa Rica and Panama in a narrow, sterile room. This arrangement, including dark curtains to both sides of the object and bright display lightning, serves as a contrast to the chaotic structures of the rainforest.
By isolating her subjects (from exotic migratory birds to deadly snakes and extravagant plants) and placing them against a visibly constructed white background, Kannisto refers to the long history of scientific photographs and drawings from expeditions, such as Alexander von Humboldt’s botanical sketches. But in spite of a formal dependence on the scientific exhibition of flora and fauna, Kannisto’s photographs are rich with visual magic, and capture the palpable fascination of the photographer. They show the visual language of an artist-as-researcher that acknowledges the impossibility of imitating, controlling, or even fully understanding nature’s boundless diversity – and humankind’s insatiable quest to at least try.
Kannisto is an artist particularly interested in the complicated relationship between art and science, and between humans and nature. In the late 1990s she began to undertake expeditions to the rainforests of South America, traveling with a group of biologists, always carrying a portable field studio with her. Since then Kannisto has developed her own characteristic style of photography that investigates the diversity of the species sharing the planet with us.19
A New Landscape Photography
Today especially, landscape photography seems to be one of the most suitable artistic mediums not only for portraying the state of the planet, but also for triggering associations with relevant environmental phenomena. Many photographs dwell upon aspects of human influence on natural systems but confront the viewer with a deserted landscape. While, at first sight, images of uninhabited planes and mountains appear breathtakingly beautiful, only at second glance do hints emerge that reveal human activity formed or damaged the respective environments.
This aspect appears most impressively in Olaf Otto Becker’s large-scale photograph of Canyon of Jökuslá á Brú (2010). Seen from a height, it depicts a deep ravine in Iceland into which only a few rivulets now flow. The former glacial river, which was embedded into volcanic stone over millennia, has been turned into a dry riverbed following the creation of a dam. The facility, situated on one of Europe’s protected natural reserves, is responsible for producing energy for a single aluminum plant nearby. The photograph, which was chosen as the title image for the exhibition Longing for Landscape, brings together the different aspects of photography in the Anthropocene as outlined in this essay.
Via a changed approach to representing landscapes, from the prosaic depictions of the New Topographics to the socio-political take of contemporary practices, the artists in the Berlin show not only document environmental issues such as climate change, but act as researchers presenting the viewer with a distinctive and profound view on anthropogenic coherences. As in the image of the Icelandic canyon, the planet’s surface is often seen from a distant perspective, but always with the purpose of emphatically confronting the viewer with the scope of our influence on the environment. A photography not about but deeply rooted in the Anthropocene.