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photo-eye Book Reviews: Earth Now

Earth Now, Edited by Katherine Ware
Published by Museum of New Mexico Press, 2011.
Earth Now
Reviewed by David Ondrik
Katherine Ware, ed. Earth Now
Edited by Katherine Ware.
Museum of New Mexico Press, Santa Fe, 2011. Hardcover. 188 pp., 25 duotone and 66 color illustrations, 10x11".

Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment, is the companion book to the New Mexico Museum of Art's upcoming exhibition of the same name. At 188 pages, it has 25 duotone and 66 color plates, with a two-part essay by museum curator Katherine Ware. The essay is the heart of the book, as it provides context for the exhibition and the included images. It's informative and easy to read, two qualities that don't always go together in museum publications. Earth Now opens with a passage from a letter Beaumont Newhall wrote to Ansel Adams in 1955, outlining Newhall's belief that "eloquent statements are needed" about the condition of the world. It's a great way to set the mood, as all the following images are concerned with the same task; making eloquent statements about this world we live in.

The book surveys the broad spectrum of landscape photography and what it tells us about our relationship with the natural world. Hope and pessimism are given nearly equal weight, and the photographers range from international icons to small-town New Mexico artists. There's an egalitarian approach to media as well; black and white, color, film, digital, view cameras, cell phones, f64 and image-constructions are all represented. The desire to represent our environment is what unites these disparate ways of making images, and I'm impressed with how tightly knit and well integrated the selection of images is.

Earth Now, edited by Katherine Ware. Published by Museum Of New Mexico Press, 2011.
The first part of the book starts with Ansel Adams and the emergence of activism within landscape photography. The many artists profiled here made pictures to engage the larger world and call attention to environmental issues ranging from the establishment of national parks in California to the dumping of toxic waste in Nevada. Ware's essay weaves an engaging story, linking 30 years of images with a wide spectrum of artists, each somewhat different in how they communicate through photography.

Earth Now, edited by Katherine Ware. Published by Museum Of New Mexico Press, 2011.
Part Two is longer, covering the motives and inspiration for the photographers who, I believe, make up the heart of the exhibition. With few exceptions, the photographs in this section were made during the first decade of the 21st century. As in Part One, Ware writes in a conversational style that is engaging and informative. While I think the entire book indicates a sympathy with "liberal" environmentalism, there is not a didactic tone; Ware does a great job of presenting the artists' work and synthesizing what they're after, rather than proselytizing.

It is in this section that I ran into some of the limitations of photography that have been troubling me lately, especially the apparent need for a written statement explaining each body of work. It's as if photography as a medium is too ambiguous to tell a complete story on its own. Subhankar Banerjee's photographs of cholla cactus are particularly opaque without Ware's essay. There's nothing in the images that says "suburban housing development," so if you don't actually read the essay, I'm not sure how you'd divine what he's trying to tell us. Is this a limitation of the medium, or of this body of work? With Phil Underdown's work about beaver trapping, the essay told me that I'd interpreted his photographs completely wrong. I went from really liking the images to being exasperated by city folk moving into the countryside to "get back to nature."

Earth Now, edited by Katherine Ware. Published by Museum Of New Mexico Press, 2011.
This brings me back to Newhall's letter. In the face of all the world's turmoil, eloquent statements are indeed needed today, possibly more than in 1955. However, after absorbing the Earth Now book, I'm left with the gnawing suspicion that photography isn't actually capable of making those statements, that taking pictures is not the most effective way to influence people to care for the world they inhabit. It is unsettling that so many of the concerns of the '60s and '70s are front and center in the photographs of the 2000s. What sort of change did past generations' photography truly affect if we're still grappling with the same issues today? I'm not certain. But despite my ultimately gloomy response, I found the book very absorbing and I'm eager to see the exhibition when it opens on April 8th.—David Ondrik

David Ondrik has lived in Albuquerque since the late 1970s. He was introduced to photography in high school and quickly appropriated his father’s Canon A-1 so that he could pursue this exciting artistic medium. In 1998 he received his BFA, with an emphasis in photography, from the University of New Mexico. His imagery explores the New Mexico landscape, and his process comfortably transitions between digital and analog, mixed media and traditional darkroom as needed. Ondrik’s photography is part of the permanent collection at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe and the city of Albuquerque’s Public Art Program. He is the youngest of twenty-five photographers included in “Photography: New Mexico,” published in 2008 by Fresco Fine Art Publications. In 2009 he was nominated for Center’s Santa Fe Prize for Photography. In 2009 he helped found Flash Flood, an online magazine seeking to promote photographers in New Mexico. Ondrik is also a National Teaching Board Certified high school art teacher.