Circuitous as I’m sure it might seem, accounts of the havoc that Hurricane Harvey is currently wreaking in Texas have got me reflecting on a visit which I made to the Philadelphia Museum of Art a few weeks ago. I found myself alone in Philly for a couple of days, and it was scorching hot. With a handful of hours to spare and an acute desire to get somewhere cool, fast, I decided to trudge my way towards the hallowed, climate-controlled halls of the city’s eponymous art museum. Never having been before, I was struck first by the building’s stateliness, then by its enormity and finally by the impossibility of the task looming before me: which infinitesimal fraction of what’s on view should I try to consume in the short time I have. So, naturally, I allowed myself to be herded — by flowing banners and eager docents — towards the PMA’s then-hung blockbuster exhibition: Wild: Michael Nichols.
“Nick” Nichols is a nature photographer. Born in 1952, in Alabama, and having cut his teeth in a photographic unit for the US army in the early 1970s, he began building a successful career as a photojournalist soon thereafter. He was a member of the Capa- and Cartier-Bresson-founded cooperative Magnum Photos throughout the 80s and into the 90s. Starting in 1989 and lasting through 2016, he worked as photographer, writer and eventually editor for National Geographic. Much of Wild is populated by the photos which Nichols took over the years for NatGeo, or else by shots from related book projects undertaken with such luminous collaborators as Jane Goodall.
Each of Wild‘s successive prints — all staggering images of roaring geysers and vast expanses and animal encounters and breathtaking sojourns, hung in a row and blown up to impressive sizes well beyond the bounds of what any little magazine page could ever dream to hold — troubled me more and more. As I moved through the gallery, absorbing perfect shot after painstaking, pored-over composition, I grew progressively more skeptical, less convinced that this way of capturing the world around us, this way of telling a story about the “wild” (whatever that word may mean) is the right way. What are the implications, in a word, of looking at nature, and what might be the best way to go about doing it?
The question is an important one, and growing more important every day. In an article of June 7 from Current Affairs, Amber A’Lee Frost tackled the topic from a slightly different — though crucially similar — angle: the nature documentary, in the style of Wild America, White Wilderness and Planet Earth. Though she starts off by highlighting the most flagrant lies that nature documentarians have been known to tell — namely, that they’re showing the “objective truth” about the world while in fact their craft is founded on deliberately running imported lemmings and deer off of cliffs, into rivers and to their deaths — her main point develops into something even more nuanced: that the way we’ve all come to look at nature, especially through “the lens,” is as something objective, unscathed, pure, perfect and, most importantly, entirely separate from us humans. And while Frost sticks to documentarians and doesn’t concern herself with photojournalists of Nichols’s ilk, bringing up her critique in a discussion about Wild seems like a natural, perhaps necessary, step to take.
The PMA’s website promises any exhibition-goer immediate “transportation” upon immersing oneself in Nichols’s photographs. His shots, so the exhibition overview says, “offer intense confrontations with the power and fragility of the wild and a reflection on our own humanity.” These works were made just for us, so it seems, for whom “Nichols has ventured to the farthest reaches of the world to document nature’s wildest creatures and landscapes”: the Congo Basin, the Serengeti, even America’s own internal outdoors, Yellowstone National Park, have all been condensed into a series of images “captured” by Nichols in, lest we forget, “some of the most remote areas of the world.”
Such a general outlook on the way art might help us engage with the world is bad enough at first glance, especially when you consider how the act of bringing us pictures of impossible, far-off places, importing neverland and labelling it definitively “nature,” inarguably “wild,” might make us feel like the world beyond our own — beyond the thousands of tons of cast concrete and laid brick making up the galleries we’re walking through — is somehow made up of different stuff than the one we inhabit every day.
But there is a slightly more insidious effect of this kind of thinking, the idea that pictures like Nichols’s can maybe offer us, to repeat the exhibition’s description, “a reflection on our own humanity.” It’s most salient in the show’s banner image, a blurry, close-up shot of a silverback gorilla from the mountains of Rwanda, whose name is Mrithi. The great ape looks sidelong and straight-mouthed back at the viewer, pursing its lips and pouting its eyes in an expression that evokes immediately not only empathy, understanding and raw, unrestrained emotion, but also, most importantly, recognition. But this recognition is of a conditioned variety. A gorilla, so it seems, can manage to be like a person; other people — those who live in far-away places near “the end of the world” — can be closer to nature, more “at one with” it and, transitively, more similar to that gorilla who looks back plaintively at the camera. This is something like what Frost in her article calls the “ambiguous racism” of looking at nature, whereby tricks of the lens and sleights of hand from behind the editing desk make it seem as though “the animals are people and the people are animals.” In Nichols’s case, the elision is a bit less fundamental; but still, the fetish of “far-ness” that the very idea of nature photography (and not just his) operates on is one that necessitates a viewer to compartmentalize their world into here’s and there’s, us’s and them’s. For the patrons of the PMA, “Nature,” as nature photography reminds us, is something that happens somewhere else, over there, to other people, concerning us only if and when we let it.
So with Hurricane Harvey at the forefront of the national consciousness, the way we talk and think about what we as a society have come to call “nature” — and especially its effects on human beings — is a topic of immediate importance, especially considering the United States’ track record with leaving its very own communities entirely in the lurch after they’ve been struck by natural disasters. As Nichols’s photos of Yellowstone National Park prove in one sense, the great, “wild” outdoors still exist as we’ve come to think about them within our own continental bounds. And if that can be the case (that there’s still some “wild” to be enjoyed and photographed — that is, captured — on our home soil) then the people whom we’ve resultingly come to consider, even if only unconsciously, to be closer to that nature and to the “wild” earth — and therefore far away, much different from us and in significantly less need of and with less of a claim on “civilization” to come to the rescue — exist within these continental bounds, too. No wonder, then, that people of color in New Orleans bore the of its all-too-sickeningly-human cops when they started getting scared and power hungry in the aftermath of Katrina, or that undocumented people living in Texas have been among the hardest hit by Harvey over the past few days.
The big phrase I’ve avoided up until now, of course, is climate change: that (literally) existential crisis that we’re still trying to figure out how to handle (or not). The big picture of all of this is that tackling climate change — and therefore all of its devastating tendrils, of which Harvey is just one — is an issue which necessitates not merely technological solutions and political stratagems, but a rethinking and reordering of the ways we interact with that “nature” that Nichols has made a career of photographing. But, such a massive restructuring of the way we think of our world and our relationship to it doesn’t just need to happen on the political, economic and technological fronts, but more fundamentally on the cultural and social. This problem doesn’t just require a vote cast towards a particular party or some gadget that turns farts into fuel. We need an entirely new vocabulary for talking and thinking about us and the environment, because inventors tend not to trouble themselves with niceties like the disproportionate effects of a changing climate on poor and disenfranchised people, and politicians tend not to trouble themselves with the topic much at all. And while song and dance won’t stop the sea levels from rising, literature isn’t going to patch up the ozone and painters aren’t going to save the world in any immediate sense, it’s the questions raised first in such disciplines that can at least push us in the direction of a paradigm shift.
And I guess all I’m saying is that maybe taking pictures of gorillas isn’t the best way to go about doing it.
Troy Sherman is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org His column Troy to The World runs alternate Thursdays this semester.