A One-Trick Shiva
Photographer J. Henry Fair
The idea of the Anthropocene has led to some delusions of grandeur. Riffing on the opening epigram of the once-iconic Whole Earth Catalog (“We are as gods and might as well get good at it”), an erstwhile
British environmentalist, Mark Lynas, has gone so far as to write a book, The God Species, that makes humans into Olympians. But if we are any kind of deity at all, we are more like a one-trick Shiva, practiced mostly at devastation. Nearly all of our creations require destruction at some point; even the steel spade you use to craft your garden idyll relies on a mine and a smelter somewhere.
Photographer J. Henry Fair has dedicated himself to using his art to reveal what that destruction looks like. An accomplished New York commercial photographer, Fair says he was radicalized by Hurricane Katrina. He has spent much of his time since then on a long-running project called Industrial Scars. The series is like a Greatest Hits of environmental abuse. Fair has traveled to the Alberta tar sands, the mountaintop removal coal mines of Appalachia, the Gulf of Mexico during the worst of the BP blowout, and the fertilizer factories of Florida. Wherever he goes, Fair photographs from the air. It’s the only vantage point that allows him to capture the scale of our manmade landscapes.
Fair’s artistry works as a bait-and-switch. At first, his images’ superficial beauty attracts. The luminous color swirls in one photo look like the leftovers from an oil painter’s palette; the clear straight lines in another are reminiscent of sculpted metal. But when the captions bring the context into view and the facts behind the imagery are known, the photos become repulsive. Make no mistake, these are scenes of Earth being scalped.
Industrial Scars is often compared to the paintings of Abstract Expressionists. One prominent critic has complained that Fair’s photos are too abstract, and that by prettifying destruction they obscure more than they reveal. But Fair isn’t just an aesthete peddling disaster porn. He believes he’s a man on a mission. When NBC’s Today Show asked him if he was a “provocateur,” he told them he preferred the label “propagandist.” His goal, he said, is to stimulate the viewer’s curiosity to ask hard questions. Questions like: Where is this? What is this? Who, or what, does it harm? Is it even necessary?
The answers prove how far we remain from ever playing God.
J. Henry Fair’s Industrial Scars series has been shown at galleries around the world, including the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College and the Jimmy Carter Library in Atlanta. Photographs from the series have also been collected in a book, The Day After Tomorrow: Images of our Earth in Crisis. To see more, visit www.jhenryfair.com.