Art and Politics

John Ganis: Ruptures and Reclamations

Witnessing can be a significant act.  Witnessing through art opens deliberate consideration, as is revealed in this post by DC regular, Vince Carducci. -Jeff


For more than 25 years, photographer John Ganis has been documenting the American landscape in lush panoramic color images that use the tools of photographic convention subversively in order to investigate the intersection of nature and culture, especially in places where the former is losing ground to the latter. In his book Consuming the American Landscape, he collected more than eighty images in which toxic waste dumps, strip mine tailings, and other scenes of environmental degradation are rendered with all of the grandeur characteristic of the work of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter. This past summer Ganis turned his lens toward two of the most infamous examples in recent memory, the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and a much-smaller yet still devastating pipeline leak into the Kalamazoo River in southwestern Michigan.Recently, his latest work was exhibited at the Swords Into Plowshares Peace Gallery in downtown Detroit.

In classic landscape photography, the wide-angle lens and high-resolution detail are devices that serve to convey the majesty of the environment and elicit awe for those parts of the world still seemingly untouched by humankind. In Ganis’ hands, these techniques suggest instead cognitive dissonance, a disparity between form and content: on the one hand the allure of the refined aesthetic with which the images are rendered and on other hand the revulsion at the recognition of what they are about.

In BP Oil Spill Containment Booms, Louisiana (all images 2010, courtesy of the artist), floating orange tubes meander back from the foreground to a horizon that bisects the picture plane. Watercraft of various configurations can be seen in the distance. The ocean in the bottom half of the picture reflects dappled light under the bright blue sky of the upper half, punctuated here and there with puffs of cumulus clouds. On the surface, it’s a beautiful image. The only signs that anything is amiss are the splotches of crude oil visible on the sides of the containment booms and the title of the photograph.

Ganis describes himself as a “witness” rather than an activist. And yet his subject matter and its treatment clearly indicate where the artist’s loyalties lie.

Another prime example is Oil Spill Clean-Up Workers, Gulf Shore, Alabama. At first glance it seems to be a souvenir postcard. On the left is a row of beach houses on stilts stretching back to the horizon. On the white sandy beach, someone raises a canvas canopy to provide protective shade from the sun as others in the group gather underneath. More canopies and people can be seen off into the distance. To the right in the near middle ground is a figure wearing a wide-brimmed straw hat festooned with pink and turquoise flowers, standing near the water line and looking out into the ocean. The whole scene is brightly lit under a crystal-clear azure blue sky. But a closer look shows that all of the figures are dressed in white hazmat suits and protective rubber boots. The shore is littered with globs of crude oil that have washed up on shore, having been carried by the Gulf currents from the gushing well deep in the waters off the coast of Louisiana some 150 miles to the west.

Other images record ancillary effects of the disaster. Another photo that stands out is the one of a seafood stand that is closed for business, a makeshift sign in the photo’s lower left notes,“Thanx 2 BP!”

The photographs of the Michigan disaster are rendered in similar fashion. Ganis’ eye-opening work forces us to witness a clash between the beauty of form and the dreadfulness of content, provoking critical and deliberate reflection.

  • http://fmpait.blogspot Felipe Pait

    BP oil spill doesn’t look so bad after Daiichi, does it?

  • Michael Corey

    Photography is a fascinating medium. It actually stops time and displays the world, as we don’t see it. Everything we see has an element of time and motion involved in it. A photograph stops time and motion, yet what we see in photographs helps us reflect on things that might otherwise go ignored. Some photographic images become iconic and become powerful political statements. It seems to be that photographic images are often better remembered and are frequently more powerful than video images. I can think of numerous examples drawn from the Vietnam War.

    It is amazing to me how awful and yet compelling many environmental disaster images can be. I’ve spent a number of hours flying over forestlands at low altitudes. Few people can imagine how frightening and threatening the images of mine tailings can be (I’m thinking of copper mine tailings in the upper Midwest). The colors and shapes they form are visually arresting, and the potential harm they can cause is frightening.

    Let us not forget, it takes a photographer eye’s to freeze these images for others to share; and their replication and dissemination by other mechanical means. Walter Benjamin had some interesting reflections on this.

  • http://motownreviewofart.blogspot.com Vince Carducci

    Felipe, Surely you aren’t suggesting that the BP disaster is trivial compared to Japan because the images are less visceral. We don’t know what the long-term effects of either may be. One might argue that the environmental effects of the tsunami, outside the nuclear meltdown, might be more easily remediated than than oil spill. The loss of human life is of course more palpable in the short term in Japan. But even that is to prioritize human life over other elements of the biosphere. These days that’s called “speciesism.” In John Ganis’s book, mentioned in the post, there are several poems by late New School anthropologist Stanley Diamond to the effect that in the long run Gaia doesn’t care if it’s humans or cockroaches ruling the earth. It’s really our problem not hers.

  • http://motownreviewofart.blogspot.com Vince Carducci

    Michael, One of my favorite quotes from Benjamin comes from the Epilogue of “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”: “Its self-alienation has reached such a degree that it can experience its own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order.” In John’s book, there are several stunning images of mine tailings.