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.