Thursday, 17 June 2010

normalising the tragic

On Tuesday's blog, we noted a new exhibition of photography in New York which argues that there's an environmental aesthetic developing. In this guest post, Wallace Heim asks if these photos "are creating a ‘new environmental aesthetic’ or normalising the tragic?"

The photographs alarm and fascinate. The vast scales of mining, the rubble, the lurid insanity of pollution evoke different emotions to those of photographs of war or sudden disasters. The distance between these images and expectations of what is normal, healthy or right is arresting. There is an uncanny stillness. And in the landscapes where there is no human or animal in the photograph with which to imaginatively connect, looking at it can turn towards self-reflection; that ravaged landscape is a human endeavour, and it feels tragic.

As long as they shock, these photographs generate troubling questions about beauty in art, about the aesthetic appreciation of the environment, about the necessities driving human industry. There is a lot to witness and to photograph. This field of photography could evolve into a genre with predictable similarities in composition, subject matter and technique. That could normalise the ‘content’ of them, strip them of that special quality, in some, which provokes an unresolved disturbance. They may lose their motivating outrage, and render the landscapes themselves, in our aesthetic imagination, mundane.

It may be that these photographs are not only changing our senses of beauty and aesthetics, but changing our sense of the tragic, too.

A co-editor of the Ashden Directory, Wallace Heim also co-edited Nature Performed: Environment, Culture and Performance and discusses theatre and climate change here.

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