Through a lens cynically

New coffee-table books offer stunning snapshots of our planet from space. Just ignore all the guff about humanity's impact being a ‘scar’.

Josie Appleton

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There is a new fashion for landscape photography, with a recent spate of coffee-table books picturing remote deserts, grasslands, mountains and canyons. Yet our enjoyment of these wonders of the natural world is somewhat spoiled by the accompanying morality tale.

There is little excitement in the encounter with wilderness, exploring its various angles and uncovering its secrets. Instead a feeling of angst underlies the project, with every marvel pictured as ‘under threat’ or ‘fragile’. The World’s Wild Places, by photographer Colin Prior, displays beautiful images of mountains yet warns that ‘even these massive edifices of nature are surrounded by the threat of change’. A book of aerial photography by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, The Earth from the Air, states that the images capture the Earth’s ‘natural beauty and precarious condition’ (2).

Photographers often portray signs of changes in nature in ominous light, including changing water levels, storms or flooding. Fragile Earth is full of before and after photos, showing here a lake dried up, there a forest that was flooded. An Arctic house is pictured erect, then toppled, after the permafrost underneath it started to melt. Who knows why that lake dried up? Perhaps because of global warming, or perhaps just because sometimes lakes dry up. Whatever the reason, photographers seem drawn to images of cracked lakebeds, fractured ice, and skeletal trees poking out of a lake or river.

Then there is a zeroing in on ‘human impact’, which is traced like scars on the land. Above the World, an extraordinary book of satellite photographs, uses these images to warn of the shrinkage of glaciers, deforestation, and ‘massive dam projects’ that are causing ‘huge environmental damage’ (3). The Earth from the Air shows the crisscross of fields, forest cleared for farming and vehicle tracks all as a kind of mutilation, with the accompanying text warning of ‘the unbearable pressure that the human race is exerting on the Earth’. Pictures of crowds of people are juxtaposed with warnings about the ‘population problem’.

All human impact is viewed as bad, even if – to my eye at least – it looks like an improvement. Fragile Earth shows the transformation of Hong Kong harbour from a few sailing boats and shacks to a sky-scraper-packed metropolis, under the heading ‘lost tranquillity’ (4). Well, that’s one way of looking at it. The growth of Las Vegas gets the heading ‘sprawling into the desert’. And there is no praise for ‘before and after’ aerial images of the Ataturk Dam, which turned brown parts of Turkey green; or Saudi Arabia’s irrigation efforts that made the desert bloom; or Dubai’s construction of islands in the shape of a palm tree.

Photographers now seem to seek a peculiar kind of comfort and insight in the encounter with wilderness. Of course, throughout history wild nature was seen as a place for Enlightenment, with Jerome translating the Bible in the wilderness or the Buddha getting ideas sitting under a tree. With the modern age, wilderness became a place for explorers to test themselves and further the bounds of human knowledge. George Mallory said that there was no ‘use’ in trying to climb Everest, but that ‘there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward….’

The insight gained in wilderness now is not about the surging of human life, but about its insignificance. The Lonely Planet Guide to the Middle of Nowhere contains accounts of people’s encounters with the outer reaches of the world (5). One man is shown 10 kilometres under the sea, at the lowest spot on Earth, encountering a bulbous fish with florescent pods. A human being, 10 kilometres down! Yet this man saw not the wonder of the situation, as he floated in his pressure-resistant suit, but instead thought about ‘how…insignificant every individual life is’. Another woman explored the tundra at 20 below zero, and reflected, ‘I’m a tiny blip on the landscape, thousands of miles from home’.

Wilderness also becomes a place for escaping other people. One man in the Lonely Planet book says that it was the ‘anti-social mood’ that sent him to walk for miles in the canyons. Hence, perhaps, the fashion for aerial photography: a kind of out-of-body take that represents the photographer’s feeling of detachment from life on the ground. Wild places are places to find an escape and rest.

Thank God then for The Earth, a Cube Book by the Italian publishers, White Star (6). These photographs express an exuberant enthusiasm at discovering the outer reaches of the planet, as photographers find that the encounter with nature generates ‘awe, admiration, lyricism and excitement’. A somewhat mystical accompanying text waxes lyrical about the ‘fabulous journey through the reaches of our planet’; and celebrates the modern age’s transformation of the Earth from a ‘mysterious and untouchable divinity’ to something to be traversed and examined: ‘The Earth, Our World, has acquired colour and taste, while at the same time shedding its mystery.’

These photographers remind us that it is possible to enjoy icebergs and grasslands without musing on their fragility and the sins of mankind. We see the same mountains as in the other books, but here there is no guilt, only joy. Which shows that the beauty of nature is only really revealed in delighting human eyes.

Josie Appleton is convenor of the Manifesto Club.

(1) The World’s Wild Places, by Colin Prior

(2) The Earth From the Air, by Lester Brown and Yann Arthus-Bertrand

(3) Above the World: Stunning Satellite Images from Above the Earth

(4) Fragile Earth: Views of a Changing World, various authors

(5) The Lonely Planet Guide to the Middle of Nowhere

(6) Earth (Big Cube Book), by Alberto Bertolazzi

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