April 22, 2013
In 1971, about 70 photographers, commissioned by the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency, set out to document the American landscape on just 40 rolls of film each. They trudged through coal mines and landfills, traversed deserts and farms and discovered big cities’ small corridors. The end result was DOCUMERICA, a collection of more than 15,000 shots capturing the country’s environmental problems—from water and air pollution to industrial health hazards—over six years.
Decades later, a new generation of photographers is collecting ”after” pictures. In the past two years, the EPA has collected more than 2,000 photos, all of which loosely depict the environment. The State of the Environment Photography Project, as the effort is called, asks photographers to take shots that match scenes from DOCUMERICA, to show how the landscape has changed since the 1970s. It also asks photographers to capture new or different environmental issues, with the idea that these modern scenes could in turn be re-photographed in the distant future; the EPA has released several of these shots for this year’s Earth Day. The project will accept submissions through the end of 2013.
The EPA explains that DOCUMERICA became a baseline for America’s environmental history, and that tracking change is key for public eco-consciousness.
There’s more to capturing environmental issues on camera than shooting smoke stacks and nuclear plants. The most effective way to convey them is to photograph people, says Michael Philip Manheim. Manheim, one of DOCUMERICA’s photographers, documented noise pollution in East Boston in the ’70s, portraying the deterioration of a close-knit community as nearby Logan Airport expanded its runways. That’s what made DOCUMERICA strike a chord with the public years ago, providing closeups of miners suffering from black lung and kids playing basketball in cramped housing developments.
“Meet the affected people, let them know how you care, find out what impacts them the most,” advises Manheim about matching his photos today. He still has the cameras he used for his assignment, which he treats as “sculptures” that stay hidden in closets. “After that, it’s time to energize a camera, and not by posing pictures but by reacting candidly to what is going on in the lives of your subjects.”
Though some landscapes remain the same, Manheim says what’s changed since DOCUMERICA is the level of awareness of environmental issues. The photographer attributes this increase to the rapid spread of digital information, a visual online petition that he says Bostonians could have used to fight back in the 1970s.
The “now” and “then” photos show varying degrees of change when placed side-by-side, funky fashions and clunky cars aside. Clumps of unnatural foam continue to bob along polluted waters near industrial buildings, but considerably less smog hangs in the air of some urban cities. In an “after” shot of a section of John Day Dam between Oregon and Washington State, a set of wind turbines appear on the background terrain.
The ease of digital photography will help propel the current iteration of an environmental snapshot, Manheim says. When shooting on film, photographers can’t know right away whether they’ve taken “the shot.” Digital allows them to examine the first few shots of a scene, and then find better ways to convey its details.
“You don’t stand around, waiting for something to happen. You exert mental and physical energy,” Manheim says. For anyone wanting to participate in the State of the Environment project, the photographer has some advice: “Set the scene in your coverage, and then you go for the ‘good stuff.’ You get close, closer, closest. You move in to explore and find the epitomizing image, close and meaningful, that symbolizes the situation.”
In the 1970s, Manheim got to know the people who lived in the colorful triple-decker row houses lining Neptune Road in East Boston. Planes soared overhead nearly every three minutes, prompting the nearby residents to cover their ears from the deafening roar of the engines. He captured one of these low-flying planes in a photograph, shown above. In 2012, Manheim returned to the site to document it yet again. The “then” and “now” pairing tells a story that has played out over decades. Eventually, the adjacent airport built runways flush to the streets’ backyards and driveways, and today, only one home remains.
April 19, 2013
“The scientist does not study nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”
—Jules Henri Poincare, a French mathematician (1854-1912)
Earlier this month, the University of Wisconsin-Madison announced the winners of its 2013 Cool Science Image contest. From an MRI of a monkey’s brain to the larva of a tropical caterpillar, a micrograph of the nerves in a zebrafish’s tail to another of the hairs on a leaf, this year’s crop is impressive—and one that certainly supports what Collage of Arts and Sciences believes at its very core. That is, that the boundary between art and science is often imperceptible.
The Why Files, a weekly science news publication put out by the university, organizes the contest; it started three years ago as an offshoot of the Why Files’ popular “Cool Science Image” column. The competition rallies faculty, graduate and undergraduate students to submit the beautiful scientific imagery produced in their research.
“The motivation was to provide a venue and greater exposure for some of the artful scientific imagery we encounter,” says Terry Devitt, the coordinator of the contest. “We see a lot of pictures that don’t get much traction beyond their scientific context and thought that was a shame, as the pictures are both beautiful and serve as an effective way to communicate science.”
Most of the time, these images are studied in a clinical context, Devitt explains. But, increasingly, museums, universities and photography contests are sharing them with the public. “There is an ongoing revolution in science imaging and there is the potential to see things that could never before be seen, let alone imaged in great detail,” says Devitt. “It is important that people have access to these pictures to learn more about science.”
This year, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s scientific community entered 104 photographs, micrographs, illustrations and videos to the Cool Science Image contest—a number that trumps last year’s participation by about 25 percent. The submissions are judged, quite fittingly, by a cross-disciplinary panel of eight scientists and artists. The ten winners receive small prizes (a $100 gift certificate to participating businesses in downtown Madison) and large format prints of their images.
“When I see an image I love, I know the second I see it. I know it because it is beautiful,” says Ahna Skop, a judge and geneticist at the university. She admits she has a bias for images capturing nematode embryos and mitosis, her areas of expertise, but like many people, she also gravitates to images that remind her of something familiar. The scanning electron micrograph, shown at the top of this post, for example, depicts nanoflowers of zinc oxide. As the name “nanoflower” suggests, these chemical compounds form petals and flowers. Audrey Forticaux, a chemistry graduate student at UW-Madison, added artificial color to this black and white micrograph to highlight the rose-like shapes.
Steve Ackerman, an atmospheric scientist at the university and a fellow judge, describes his approach: “I try to note my first response to the work—am I shocked, awed, baffled or annoyed?” He is bothered when he sees meteorological radar images that use the colors red and green to depict data, since they can be difficult for color blind people to read. “I jot down those first impressions and then try to figure out why I reacted that way,” he says.
After considering artistic qualities, and the gut reactions they trigger, the panel considers the technical elements of the entries, along with the science they convey. Skop looks for a certain crispness and clarity in winning images. The science at play within the frame also has to be unique, she says. If it is something that she has seen before, the image probably won’t pass muster.
Skop hails from a family of artists. “My father was a sculptor and my mother a ceramicist and art teacher. All of my brothers and sisters are artists, yet I ended up a scientist,” she says. “I always tell people that genetically I’m an artist. But, there is no difference between the two.”
If anything, Skop adds, the winning entries in the Cool Science Image contest show that “nature is our art museum.”
April 17, 2013
Artist Fujiko Nakaya believes in the transformative power of fog.
The first time she realized that her fog sculptures could change a person’s memory was in 1976 during the run of Earth Talk, a fog sculpture made for the Biennale of Sydney, Australia. After seeing her sculpture, an electrician told her how he had taken his family to see the Blue Mountains in New South Wales. The mountain was fogged in at first and he couldn’t see it, but the fog cleared and the view of the mountain was the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“The instant he saw the fog it changed his experience, and I liked that very much,” explained Nakaya. It was then she understood that her sculptures could feed back to personal experience and improve a person’s feeling about fog. After the electrician’s story, she was determined to reach more people, and not just those in the art world.
For forty years, Nakaya has been creating public fog sculptures all over the world. Currently, she has seven projects going in five countries. Fog Bridge is her first in San Francisco, and is one of three inaugural outdoor artworks created for the new waterfront home of the Exploratorium.
The museum, which mixes science and art in its exhibits, was previously housed at the Palace of Fine Arts, but its new site—three times as big as the last, and at Pier 15—opens its doors to the public today. The 150-foot long Fog Bridge enshrouds pedestrians with fog for ten minutes every half hour; it will be lit at night, and so promises to be a spectacular sight. The bridge is located within the free, 1.5-acre outdoor area that encircles the Exploratorium and features artwork that honors the environment of the bay.
Nine days before the grand opening, Nakaya leaned against a railing to watch test runs of Fog Bridge. The 79-year-old artist was dressed comfortably in layers of black, though the day was warm enough for shorts. Coit Tower rose out of Telegraph Hill against a clear blue sky behind the bridge. Nakaya didn’t have to pull any wizard-like levers to release bursts of fog; the system is pre-programmed and designed to interact with real-time weather data. Each side of the bridge is divided into three sections and controlled by programmed valves in the pump room. For example, an eastern wind will prompt the valves to make fog on the east side of the bridge only.
In this way, an invisible wind is made visible with brush strokes of fog. The process starts with four pumps that force high-pressure water into pipes studded with 800 petite nozzles. At the tip of each nozzle is a hole six thousandths of an inch wide where the pressurized water is forced and meets a pin that explodes the water into droplets 15 to 20 microns wide. Nakaya developed the technology in 1970 with physicist Thomas Mee, and Mee Industries continues to use the patented technology for industrial and agricultural applications.
Nakaya’s fog is, of course, a simulation of the misty blankets that spread over the “cool gray city of love” each summer when cold oceanic surface water interacts with warm moist air offshore. As warm air rises over the inland valleys, the fog is pulled through the Golden Gate, providing needed summer moisture to coastal redwoods, the tallest trees in the world.
“I hope I’m doing homage to San Francisco fog,” said Nakaya adding, “that the bay fog will devour this fog sometimes.”
The Exploratorium sees itself as a place for tourists to learn about the Bay Area’s land and seascapes, and so some of its displays and artwork educate visitors about things like the tide cycle and fog. San Francisco’s fog, however, has declined 33 percent in the last 60 years, according to a study published in 2010 by UC Berkeley biology professor Todd E. Dawson and climate analyst Jim Johnstone, and the trend is expected to continue as climate changes. Dawson says they aren’t sure of the reason behind the decline, but that it may be due to warmer sea surface temperatures. “Fog formation is really about the contrast between temperatures,” he says. “If you warm the water up, the temperature difference goes down and the fog formation goes down with it.”
That said, Nakaya adds that fog always exists as water vapor even when we don’t see it. Only when conditions change is it visual.
In the first week that the museum is open, tens of thousands of people will walk across the bridge and be enveloped by fog. The sensation, I imagine, might feel like walking on clouds. Nakaya, reportedly, is particularly intrigued by the way that fog obscures one’s sight and heightens the other senses as a result. Perhaps this is why the artist believes that fog can improve memories and change thinking. “If you have even one little experience with fog, you start to see things differently,” said Nakaya.
The artist watched the artificial fog pour out of the northeast quadrant of the bridge where it hovered for a windless moment. “Nature is so complex. We can’t understand its complexity,” said Nakaya. “If you just tap one spot it will open up so many things and enlarge imaginations.”
Fog Bridge can be experienced at the Exploratorium through September 16, 2013.
March 21, 2013
What happens when you lose your grip on the horizon? How much does it warp your sense of scale? One trek on the 97-square-mile Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia and Caleb Cain Marcus was hooked by these questions of perspective. With that experience, in January 2010, the New York City-based photographer launched a two-year odyssey, documenting, in his own minimalist style, glaciers all around the world—in Iceland, Alaska, New Zealand and Norway.
Marcus shares 3o photographs taken in his travels in his latest book, A Portrait of Ice. The images—three of which were recently acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art—are “eerily gorgeous and unusual,” writes Marvin Heiferman, a known critic and curator, in an essay featured in the book. “Instead of picturing monumental walls of ice that advance over and disrupt what lies beneath, or icebergs that break away from glaciers to float majestically, if threateningly, at sea, these photographs suggest that glaciers cover the earth’s surface lightly, like a sheet, rather than bearing down upon it,” he adds. The comparison that Heiferman makes later in the essay is compelling: “The jagged rocks, ridges and pinnacles that poke through the frigid surfaces don’t register as being particularly dangerous, but more like the eccentrically rendered landforms you might soar over in a dream or in the elegant flight-simulation of a video game.”
Intrigued, I recently had the opportunity to interview Marcus by phone. We discussed some of the thoughts driving the project and his process:
When you exhibit the series, you like the photographs to measure 43 inches by 54 inches. Why do you like to work in this large-scale format?
Obviously, the glaciers themselves are quite large. I think it is easier to get immersed in something when it is large. I think small makes things potentially more intimate. If it is small, you are required to go up close to it and inspect it. If it is large, you can sort of be overwhelmed by it.
What inspired your initial trip to Perito Moreno glacier in Patagonia?
I was visiting someone in Buenos Aires, and then we took a side trip and flew outside of El Calafate, which is a small town in Patagonia. Near El Calafate was Perito Moreno. It seemed like a good opportunity to go and visit a glacier. I grew up in Colorado, and I have a love for the mountains and open space, which I don’t get much of in New York.
How did you explore the glacier? What did you get to do?
I just hiked around on it. Many glaciers are covered with snow, so you don’t really see them as glaciers as much, at least I don’t, because you are not seeing the ice. You are seeing the snow, which is layering on top of the ice. This was probably the first hard-ice glacier I was on.
What was it about the experience and the photographs that you shot that really inspired you to spend the next two years photographing glaciers around the world?
The ice landscape was certainly one that I hadn’t visited before. I think that many people never really get a chance to visit it or never choose to visit it. Most of us have seen some form of a desert and a forest and an ocean, but we haven’t really just seen ice. It is quite a different ecosystem, and one that fascinates me quite a bit. Everything is so open and so expansive. I think it was that feeling of expanse and emptiness and solitude, on a personal level, that made me want to be there.
When I took the pictures, I had this idea to try to see what would happen if the horizon disappeared. Living in New York City, unless you live very high up, you never see the horizon, which is really kind of odd and something that took me a few years to realize. You are missing that. It is such a grounding presence for people to be able to see the horizon. I’m not sure we are really aware of the effects of not being able to see it. I thought, okay, if I get rid of the horizon or I try to, how is that going to affect the feeling of the picture? You lose a sense of scale.
Many of the images are vertical, with mostly sky and then the surface of the glacier occupying just a small portion at the bottom. Why did you choose to compose them this way?
I think there are three general options. One would be that you would have about half glacier and half sky. I think that would be too balanced. Then, you could have much more glacier than sky, which would work, but it would produce something that is much denser. I didn’t really feel like the glaciers were so dense or so heavy, even though they are so massive. I wanted to create a feeling of more openness; I think if you have more sky than glacier that helps to do it. It helps to make it float a little more. Having just this small amount of density of color at the bottom, contrasted by that wide open space, also creates a balance in a way. Because the sky is more empty, they still sort of take up equal weight on the image.
Do you want the viewer to lose perspective?
I would say probably most people looking at it wouldn’t realize that there is no horizon—at least, not consciously. But I think that one of the things it does is it makes it feel less familiar. When something is less familiar, then we look at it more closely, instead of just glancing at it and saying, “Oh, I know what that is. It is a glacier, or that’s a tree or a person or an apartment building.” If it has a little bit of a twist, then I think people spend a little more time or there is a little more examining. Maybe there is more potential that there is some effect on them, which would be ideal.
How did you think about color?
In terms of the colors of the glaciers, whether they are blue or gray or more cyan, I didn’t have too much choice. I was looking for the glaciers with more color. There are a few that are almost black and white, which are in Iceland. That was after the volcano erupted a couple of years ago, so those have the mist and the ash from the volcano. It doesn’t give it an intense color, it is giving it a very subtle color.
Did you have certain criteria for the glaciers and locations that you picked?
That was one of the challenging aspects. You never really knew what you would get. I would look at topographic images and satellite images. I would talk to other climbers and get a general sense of what a glacier I was going to might look like. But whenever I got there, it was all a surprise.
I was looking for texture and color, so that they had some kind of resonance, some personality. In the book, there are nine different glaciers. I probably went to more than 20 glaciers, so only a small number of them are represented. The other ones, either I wasn’t on the ball or else the glacier wasn’t on the ball. Somehow the communication between the two of us didn’t work out.
I imagine there were a bunch of logistics that went into these trips.
In terms of getting to the glaciers, pretty much all of them required a hike. I kayaked into some of them and took a helicopter once or twice. Most of the time I had a guide. Of course, the guides are there to find access to the glacier and then also as a safety measure or policy. In that regard, they want to make sure that you come back in one piece, which is a good thing, but it also means that they always try to keep reins on you. I don’t like having someone holding me back. I am always running around, and they are always yelling at me. It would usually take a few days for our relationship to sort of coalesce into something smoother. There would be some friction in the beginning. Then, after a few days, we would have a better understanding of each other.
The guides were quite resourceful in terms of their information. I actually met with a few scientists on various glaciers. In Norway, I met with a couple of them measuring the speed of the flow of the glacier. So, I would always take the opportunity to talk to them.
In your own essay in A Portrait of Ice, you write, “The Inuit elders say the melting of the ice is the land crying out in pain. Now we must listen.” The statement implies an activism on your part. Is that one of your intentions? Do you want viewers to care more about the environment and about the melting of glaciers?
I think photographing glaciers I was pretty aware that even if there wasn’t too much of that sentiment that it would be there in the background. I feel very close to the earth or however one wants to term it. I think that we have more than half of the people living in cities now in the U.S. With that, we are losing an awareness for the natural environment. Whether these [photographs] bring people closer to the environment or not, I don’t really know. I certainly think that if people were more connected to it, that they would act differently in their lives. A lot of the people who make decisions on a high level are, I think, even more detached because they are so immersed in running corporations or in making more money. I think that the planet suffers because of that, and so do we.
These images are excerpted from the book, A Portrait of Ice, published by Damiani.
March 12, 2013
The aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights, is a spectacle to behold—so much so, that it is hard to put into words. I think Smithsonian‘s former senior science editor, Laura Helmuth, did it justice a few years back. “Try to imagine the most colorful, textured sunset you’ve ever seen, then send it swirling and pulsing across an otherwise clear and starry sky,” she wrote.
Helmuth also handily described the physics behind the natural phenomenon:
“Your planet is being buffeted by solar wind—particles of protons and electrons that the sun spews into space. Some of the charged particles get sucked into the earth’s magnetic field and flow toward the pole until they collide with our atmosphere. Then, voilà: the aurora borealis (or aurora australis, if you happen to be at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere.)”
Of course, the experience of viewing the Northern Lights, particularly for residents of the contiguous United States, is a rare but privileged one. (Smithsonian actually includes the aurora borealis on its “Life List” of places to go and things to do and see before you die.) Places above 60 degrees latitude—Alaska, Canada’s Yukon, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, for instance—are prime spots for seeing the lights show, usually around the fall and spring equinoxes. But, occasionally, it can be seen farther south. I witnessed it once in Vermont. The sight was intoxicating.
It is really no wonder, then, that artists find inspiration in the Northern Lights.
Danish lighting designer Jesper Kongshaug saw the aurora borealis several times in 2012, while he was working on stage lighting for a run of “Hamlet” at the Halogaland Theatre in Tromsø, Norway. He also talked with locals there about their encounters with it. So, when the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. commissioned an installation from him mimicking the Northern Lights, Kongshaug had these experiences and conversations to inform him. He planned for about 11 months, collaborating with the Baltimore-based company Image Engineering, and his “Northern Lights” debuted on February 20, 2012, in conjunction with Nordic Cool 2013, a month-long festival celebrating the cultures of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and Greenland. Each night from 5:30 to 11 p.m., until the festival’s end on March 17, a total of 10 lasers positioned around the Kennedy Center project the green and blue streamers of the aurora borealis onto all four sides of the building’s white marble facade.
Inspired by Kongshaug’s installation, I did some exploring and found some other fascinating Northern Lights-inspired projects:
Paul Moravec, a composer and Pulitzer Prize winner in music, released a new album this past December, “Northern Lights Electric,” with four songs performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. “My own music often seems to involve some physical, tangible catalyst,” says Moravec on the liner notes. The album’s title song is his attempt to capture, in music, the Northern Lights, which the composer witnessed once in New Hampshire. “The 12-minute piece begins with tinkling percussion, billowing strings and a searching motive in the woodwinds. Then brass suddenly shoots up like a spray of multi-colored lights. Spacious, Coplandesque chords depict the immense night sky,” wrote Tom Huizenga on NPR’s classical music blog, Deceptive Cadence. Listen to part of the composition, here.
Johan Lans prefers to be called “food creator” or “designer for new dishes” as opposed to head chef at Camp Ripan, a hotel, conference center and restaurant, in Kiruna, Sweden. A native of the northernmost city in Sweden, Lans is very familiar with the Northern Lights. In fact, he has designed an entire dinner menu with tastes, smells, sounds, colors and shapes that he believes conjure up the phenomenon. Bright vegetables and local fish ornately plated, an entree of hare and concoctions like “cucumber snow”—skip to 4:25 in this TEDxTalk, to watch Lans describe these and other the dishes.
Completed just this year, the Cathedral of the Northern Lights in Alta, Norway, is a landmark built to honor—and complement—the aurora borealis, commonly seen in the town located 310 miles north of the Arctic Circle. “The contours of the church rise as a spiralling shape to the tip of the belfry 47 metres [154 feet] above the ground,” the architectural firm Schmidt Hammer Lassen explains on its Web site. “The facade, clad in titanium, reflects the northern lights during the long periods of Arctic winter darkness and emphasizes the experience of the phenomenon.” Check out these images.
At this year’s London Fashion Week, from February 15-19, English designer Matthew Williamson unveiled his Autumn/Winter 2013 collection of knit sweaters, pleated skirts and sequin dresses. “It was inspired by the idea of an English Rose, that kind of quintessentially British girl, and I wanted her to take a journey to the Northern Lights, where I saw these toxic colors and amazing neon skies,” Williamson told Reuters. See some of his designs in this video.