Robert Polidori,
After the Flood, 2005

This week, I’ve been working on a conference paper about coffee table books that focus on natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy. I understand coffee table books about Glacier National Park or temples of Japan, but disasters? And there are dozens of them.

The ones that are particularly confounding are the ones that are beautiful. The photographs are beautiful, the layout is beautiful, the printing is beautiful. Take this photograph. It shows a bedroom of a house in New Orleans after the floodwaters have receded. The contents of the room have collapsed or shifted and there’s a layer of grime coating every surface. Even the walls above the waterline have blossomed with mold.

It’s a mess, but it’s a beautiful mess. A soft even light fills the room (thanks to Polidori’s exceptionally long exposure times) and the dirt dulls and harmonizes the colors. Polidori also sets up the composition to create balance (the books on the shelf counterweights the doorway and window) and rhythm (the vertical lines of bedposts and doorframe against the horizontals of the footboard, watermark, and ceiling. This is just one of hundreds of similar photographs collected in Polidori’s book, After the Flood.

Critics are quick to point out that this kind of aestheticization of disaster is exploitative. Here is a photographer who is using people’s ruined lives to make gorgeous images for a beautiful book. The counter-argument, of course, is that the beauty of his images is getting people to look at these ruined lives—people who might otherwise have turned away in disgust.

Aside from the ethics of it, I’m interested in the effects of aestheticization. It puts a filter on the content of image. As a viewer, you may feel like you are getting an unmediated view of the destruction wrought by the storm and flood, but you are really getting something you could not actually see if you were actually standing in the room. For starters, there would not be enough light to actually see everything you see here. Furthermore, because Polidori so subtly incorporates harmony and softness, the content is considerably less jarring—less off-putting—than it would be if you were there. Plus, you’re not wearing an air filtration mask, are you?

Robert Polidori, After the Flood, 2005

Robert Polidori,
After the Flood, 2005

I believe that the beauty of this coffee table book distances viewers from the actual places, instead of actually bringing them closer. (If you’re into theory, I’m borrowing from Guy Debord here.) If you think about it, any photograph removes us from direct experience, but when a photographer uses a particularly aesthetic approach, it further separates the viewer from the reality that is depicted. Reality is mediated. You’re looking at something through those proverbial rose-colored glasses.

The problem here …

When these disasters are thus mediated for viewers, they (we) don’t actually experience them, or experience their actuality. We are removed. Sure, we may feel sad or astounded or sympathetic (I certainly do!), but those responses are fleeting. Close the book, and we soon forget.

And that’s the irony, the books claim to have been produced so that people would not forget, but I think they may actually facilitate forgetfulness by supplying pages and pages of images that encourage and then satiate our curiosity. We eagerly consume and, by the end, we are emotionally tired. We’re spent. We close the book. And that is all.




Robert Adams, Outdoor Theater and Cheyenne Mountain, 1968 (Fraenkel Gallery)

Robert Adams, Outdoor Theater and Cheyenne Mountain, 1968 (Fraenkel Gallery)

I just finished teaching a unit on landscape photography. Like my students, I don’t find landscapes to be intrinsically interesting—it doesn’t matter how majestic the scene or how dynamic the photograph. Until, that is, we get to the 1970s. Then we get to landscapes like this.

Robert Adams is particularly compelling to me, and not just because he took lots of photos in Colorado Springs where I grew up (I swear, for example, that I went to a movie at THAT drive-in sometime in high school). No, I am really intrigued by the questions his photographs seem to ask.

Take this one.

The photograph has three parts: the dirt, the sky, and the band between them. He includes a LOT of sky, with tuffs of clouds that add texture but also pull that part of the photo forward. The dirt has texture too, of course, and poles that draw the viewer into the image (if not into the actual space in the photo).

Adams situates his camera so that the top edge of the screen intersects the contour of the mountain just as the range descends sharply, so the screen’s sharp edge becomes the horizon until it again intersects the gradual incline of the earth on the left. The continuity of the resulting band is enhanced by the similar gray values across the whole width. Only the dark vertical line on the right edge of the screen offers a firm break between nature’s spectacle and a human-made one.

Which I think is the point. The Colorado front range is a spectacle. From any window on the west side of my childhood home, I could watch the mountains change throughout the day. On almost every afternoon in the spring a little drama would unfold as a weather front moved through, bringing huge dark clouds, lightening, and sheets of rain. Even without weather, the movement of the sun would change the appearance and the feel of those mountains.

I did watch. But not often. Certainly not often enough.

I think too often I was caught up in other things to pay attention. Too busy watching human-made spectacles, perhaps.

In photos like this, Adams was documenting the new topography that humans had created. It is easy to read some criticism about how humans have ruined nature, but I think this photo could also point to the fact that it is often precisely because of human insertions into the landscape that we actually notice the beauty of the land. Just look at me right now. I’m not sure I would have given a photograph of Cheyenne Mountain a second look without the screen, the fence, and the speaker poles.

Looking at this photo, I’m feeling nostalgic and regretful. I don’t have a panoramic view of the Colorado Rockies anymore. Oh, to be able to tell my 16-year-old self sitting at that kitchen table to slow down, look out, and just watch.

I can’t do that, but I can try to pay attention now–in the not-quite-as-spectacular landscape where I live now. I can tell my 42-year-old self to slow down, look out, and watch.

Japanese Interior

I’m not in Japan, actually, but part of me is still there. That is, when I close my eyes I can still feel what it’s like to be in a traditional Japanese interior space. Quiet and calm.

The photo above feels a little staged, but it conveys some of the basics of these rooms. Wood frame, a few bare walls, lots of moveable screens, and tatami mat floors. There may be a low table, but all the other furniture and stuff is tucked away in storage closets, to bring out only when you need it. The only decoration may be a painting and/or a flower arrangement in an alcove.

The aesthetic is very simple and clean. Lines are straight. Materials are natural. Spaces are open. The light is diffuse and warm.

There is a serenity about these rooms that makes me breathe deeper, sit up straighter, move more slowly. I came to believe that there’s something about being so close to the floor. It’s as if my center of gravity is lower (which, I guess, it is), and thus I start to feel more rooted, more stable.

I hope to carry this with me for a while. Maybe even in the midst of a crazy American lifestyle, I can still retreat to one of these spaces in my imagination every once in a while. And there, I can breathe and sit and listen and be.

Hokusai, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, 1829-32 (Hokusai Museum, Obuse, Japan)

Hokusai, Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, 1829-32 (Hokusai Museum, Obuse, Japan)

It’s been awhile… But it’s Sunday, so it seems like a good day to do some reflecting again.

I recently had the good fortune to visit the Hokusai Museum in Obuse, Japan. It’s a wonderful little museum, principally because it has on display all Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji (actually 46 color prints) as well as the 100 Views of Mount Fuji he published in book form (actually 102, but who’s counting). It’s amazing to see them all together.

What struck me was the concept behind this project. Mount Fuji is clearly the focus, and we see it from scores of different angles and distances–from prefectures Hokusai36and villages to the north, south, east and west, from a few kilometers away to hundreds, and a few “views” as if we are standing on the mountain itself. Consequently, sometimes the mountain is huge and imposing, practically filling the frame, and other times it is tiny, tucked between other closer mountains, under the crest of a wave, or behind a cloud.

But … it’s always there. And that’s the point. Mount Fuji is always there.

Hokusai100To underscore this point, Hokusai included all sorts of activities in the prints. People fish, repair a roof, cultivate a field, make a barrel, walk against the wind, carry loads, celebrate, shop. Sometimes there are no people and we see more timeless glimpses of nature—a spider’s web, a group of cranes, a dramatic wave, mist rolling in.


As I moved from image to image, my first impulse (of course) was to find Fuji in each one. Even if it’s diminutive in the composition, viewers who are aware of the theme tend to focus on the mountain first and then peruse the rest of the scene. But what I noticed was my own response. With each print, I seemed to breathe a little deeper—even now, actually. There was something about the mountain’s presence on the landscape that centers me.

I suppose it makes sense that people have associated gods with mountains. If you live close to them, they dominate one’s view and even one’s life. They seem strong, untamed, lordly. God-like. This could (and has!) lead to fearing the mountain, but my own response is different. I take comfort in that omnipresent mass that serves as a backdrop for daily tasks and big events and even natural rhythms of life.

hokusai_katakura_tea_2500sI imagine the people in Hokusai’s prints glancing over to Fuji and giving a little bow as they go about their business, completely aware of its presence, its importance, its power. My own life is so full of duties and chores and tasks, but perhaps I can manage a little bow of my own to my Maker, Sustainer, and Lord.

Once a tree …

February 13, 2012

Guisepe Penone, Tree of 12 Metres, 1980-82 (London, Tate Modern)

When I visited the Tate Modern in London last month, I was drawn to this artwork from across the room. It was monumental, sexy, and wonderfully organic.

As I took a closer look at the place where the tree intersects the base, I actually said out load, “No way!” and dashed over to the label to confirm what I thought I was seeing. Sure enough … the tree was actually carved out of a huge beam, but it wasn’t an arbitrary tree from the artist’s imagination, it was the actual tree as it had looked decades before it was chopped down. In other words, Penone had painstakingly followed one ring of the tree to reveal both the trunk and stumps of branches from one specific year.

At first, I was delighted simply by the idea and the craftsmanship. What a great idea! And how wonderfully executed! The contrast between base and the emerging tree is tactile—rough against smooth, raw against polished. You can sense the massiveness of the saw that was used to cut the beam and also the fineness of the chisels Penone used.

The more I looked and reflected on the work, I was deeply impressed by the care that Penone showed this particular tree. Penone left traces of his process at the point of transition—where we see bold cuts becoming ever more delicate as he approached the ring he wanted to excavate. We can imagine how slowly and patiently he worked, how carefully he treated the tree that he wanted to uncover. It makes me wonder if he came to love this tree.

I know it has made me think a little differently about the wood that surrounds me. Rarely do I see the trim around my house, the lectern in my classroom, the exposed two-by-fours in my unfinished basement as trees. Wood, yes. Organic,maybe. But trees that lived in a forest, saw winters and summers, and grew from saplings to tall firs, oaks, pines, and cedars? Not until now. Seeing this tree revealed makes me wonder what all the trees looked like before they became my chair, desk, table, or floor.

To be honest, my perspective has already begun to shift back to the way I used to see (or not see) the wood in my life, but I am grateful for this insight. I hope that, every once in a while, I will see a beam and imagine the tree that used to be.