The exhibited artists eschew documentary photography, developing new forms of picturing environmental decline
It is difficult to picture the climate crisis. Our faith in ‘seeing as believing’ is central to empiricism and a cause of the problematic nature/culture divide. Conventional documentary photography relies on this logic, producing sensational, spectacle-based imagery to tell stories of environmental catastrophe. And employing photographs as undeniable proof of our ailing planet: skeletal polar bears or raging forest fires figuring as symbols of destruction. Such imagery is shocking. However, does it help solve our manifold climate problems or just create new ones? Indeed, at odds with its mainstream portrayal, the reality of climate change is unfolding by degrees and often invisibly in what the author Rob Nixon calls a ‘slow violence’.
WHAT ON EARTH explores how we can account for the myriad environmental concerns that continue to exist beyond the photographic frame. Ellen Taylor of The Koppel Project Exchange and Hannah Fletcher, co-director of London Alternative Photography Collective (LAPC), conceived of the group show, which runs until 24 July at The Koppel Project Exchange, London, as a collaborative endeavour. The exhibition brings together nine artists — Victoria Ahrens, Katie Bret-Day, Alice Cazenave, Hannah Fletcher, Ramona Güntert, Melanie King, Liz K Miller, Diego Valente and Marina Vitaglione — united in their environmental focus through employing naturally derived materials. And it aims to “create a visually stimulating representation of the effects of climate change and broaden the conversation to sustainability and the use of organic matter in the photographic medium,” describes Taylor. “This will hopefully address the ever-growing conversation on how we are damaging the environment and how we could work more sustainably, not just in photography but in day-to-day life.”
Many of the featured works employ non-representational and medium-forward forms and, in doing so, look beyond a photograph’s ability to capture a surface representation of an event. Instead, the works delve into the processes behind such events as potential images.
Marina Vitaglione’s series Air, which explores the toxicity of London’s air, is responsive to this mode of image-making. Vitaglione collaborated with scientists from Imperial College London, who manage the London Air Quality Network (which provides information on air pollution in the capital), to collect samples from several monitoring sites in inner and outer London. These samples measure carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ozone and sulphur dioxide and were either imprinted on tape using a Beta Attenuation Monitoring device or enlarged digitally through Raman spectroscopy. The resulting photographs feature circular rounds of deep blue with thick white clotting or a patina of spray and reveal the contamination that we draw into our lungs.
The artist, researcher, and documentary filmmaker Susan Schuppli employs the phrase ‘dirty pictures’ to write about the polluted environments Vitaglione captures. Indeed, both Vitaglione and Schuppli understand their changing conditions as “vast photosensitive arrays that register and record the changes caused by modern industrialisation”. Air pollution absorbs and scatters sunlight, reducing the light reaching the Earth, changing the conditions in which we see. Vitaglione makes visible an invisible process that gives us cause to think in bodily terms.
Other featured projects are not immediate representations of the climate crisis, however, they do foreground a non-human perspective in addressing it — something overlooked throughout history. Liz K Miller, for instance, employs a spectrogram to capture the rich sounds of droplets falling against the forest floor – the forest’s breath is rendered visible on reams of blue cyanotype. Elsewhere, Victoria Ahrens’s By A Long Chalk (2021) similarly takes a non-human perspective, but via deep time. The Jurassic Coast’s natural erosion spans millennia. However, shifts resulting from human intervention have accelerated the process. Ahrens developed her works in-situ along the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, allowing the images’ surfaces to act as sensors, recording transformations and interactions. Traces of microscopic infra-thin water particles, marine algae and entropic handmade marks acting as material participation.
WHAT ON EARTH is a reminder that the Earth acts in significant ways. It considers how we can allow the environment agency and how humanity can better attend to its quiet modes of expression. One avenue is exploring the image as an active agent, which gives rise to new forms of embodied knowledge. In searching for alternative and more sustainable futures, the photographic works featured in the exhibition don’t just encourage us to look but, more importantly, pause to think.
WHAT ON EARTH is on show at The Koppel Project Exchange until 24 July.
Ellie Howard is a freelance arts and culture writer, based between Lisbon and London. A graduate of Manchester University and University College London, she writes about material and visual culture. Her chief interests are rooted in popular photography and the photographic boundaries between science and art. Alongside writing, she works as a picture researcher for Atelier Éditions, most recently on the forthcoming publications Beyond the Earth: An Anthology of Human Messages in Deep Space and Cosmic Time and Nudism in a Cold Climate. She has written for Magnum Photos, Photomonitor, BBC Travel, Wallpaper*, Elephant Magazine, Huck, Dazed, and Another.