Examining the Man and Nature Divide Through Photography

by Lindsey Welch

One of the basic foundations of my thesis project is to look at how place is constructed both physically and through less tangible means, mentally. In my continued research for my project, I have been examining other photographer’s, looking for common threads among artists whose work inspires me. Something I have learned in creating a project about place, is that it is almost impossible to avoid narratives that speak to the line between man and nature. There is something elemental in our understanding of place, especially in recent times, that springs up when we speak of the concept of place. We cannot consider the created and built place where we spend our time without first looking at it in contrast the to the un-built world ‘out there’ that is nature. And this, brings our minds further to the over-built world that we fear that lives on the opposite end of that spectrum. We prefer to live, our place, somewhere in the middle. However, it is impossible to consider this place without considering the ends of the thin line most of us prefer to exist within.

This is an age-old topic, surely, as it is one the permeates the compassionate and often sensitive minds of artists. What harm have we inflicted in our modernizing and comfort seeking? How have we distanced ourselves from that which is natural? How can we express the divide, call out the other-ing categorizations and demonstrate how far reaching we are?

Artists whose work documents the terrible, and often almost sublime view of the massive changes to the land we have been capable of are the first that comes to mind. Edward Burtynsky’s famous carefully crafted large scale photographs of industry and industrial environments act as metaphors for this thin area between success and failurein which we live [1]. His work depicts breathtaking vistas of the terrible, made in a way that the vastness of these tainted locations or areas of mass development have a greatly memorable impact. When we think of man’s place in contrast to that of nature, our current concerns bring images of these to mind.

Edward Burtynsky, Oil. “Oxford Tire Pile #1”.Westley, CA 1999  [2]

Edward Burtynsky, Oil. “Oxford Tire Pile #1”.Westley, CA 1999 [2]

Following this though, photographer David Maisel’s work also comes to mind [3].  Maisel’s aerial based landscapes speak to a similar narrative as Burtynsky’s. He examines how man has changed nature to accommodate his place, what have we trampled to carve out our place in the world, and what are the ramifications.

David Maisel, The Lake Project. 62. 2015.  [4]

David Maisel, The Lake Project. 62. 2015. [4]

These images of the often-symptomatic destruction of industry, and carries under its umbrella the implications of the even most humble places that man lives. These ideas are huge and difficult to grasp at times, but are extremely relevant to discussions of man and nature. Yet, often its necessarily to come down in scale to something more relatable and digestible. Our detachment from what is ‘natural’ can be seen within the ways we furnish our museums, and even in the seemingly innocent use of the diorama to depict that what we consider ourselves apart from.

Traer Scott’s project, Natural History, is based in the juxtaposition possible through reflections that create “allegorical narratives of our troubled co-existence with nature[5]. Through using taxidermies of wild animals in natural history museums, she is able to catch these candid moments where humans and nature align for telling narratives about over hunting, habitat destruction and climate change. The prolific human population is superimposed over the figures of endangered life.

Traer Scott, Natural History. Bald Eagle.

Traer Scott, Natural History. Bald Eagle.

Diane Fox explores similar paths in her work, in UnNatrual History [6]. Her work similarly utilizes diroamas existing in natural history museums, however other than reflections she uses found circumstances and awkward contrasts to tell a story of the natural experienced at a calculated distance [7].

Diane Fox, Wrapped, Milwaukee Public Museum,Milwaukee, Wisconsin 2006.

Diane Fox, Wrapped, Milwaukee Public Museum,Milwaukee, Wisconsin 2006.

While these are not images of physical place, they speak to the figurative place that we have set worked to set humanity in. The growing theme seems to be that we humans most obviously distance or displace ourselves, as seen in the work above. However, alongside these exists work that demonstrates our encroachment into the natural, spreading ever further into that which we consider the foreign nature as different from our place.

Jeff Brouws’s work involves examining the franchised landscape and the found corporate artifacts within them [8]. This is readily seen in his project, Franchised Landscape, where familiar logos speckle the horizon line of American scenes. Here, instead of creating this dividing line through great disaster or through encasing safely behind glass, man’s place is overlaying the natural world [9].

Jeff Brouws, Franchised Landscape.

Jeff Brouws, Franchised Landscape.

Following this, the work of Terry Falke also looks at the landscape full of evidence of man. In his series, Observations of an Occupied Wilderness, he observes the presence of man in cherished and ideal landscapes and natural monuments [10]. His work shoes a classically American landscape with all the paraphernalia of tourism, guard rails, picnic benches, plastic statuary and billboards litter the traditionally pristine. 

Terry Falke, After Image Gallery.

Terry Falke, After Image Gallery.

From the wholly severe to the slightly quirky, this is a subject that still has more depth than there are photographs made of it. In these common threads certain major topics congeal into a larger narrative present in fine art and photography, the divide of man and nature. Its difficult to consider our place without considering what we have altered to be here, and how were confront or ignore that truth in our environment. Even though my project may not be directly correlated to climate change, species endangerment or environmental disruptions, it is important to keep in mind that these themes and motifs will always paly a huge role in an discussion of place. The dichotomy of man and nature is ever present in any photo made of a location in our world.

[1]. Edward Burtynsky. About, Homepage. < http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/site_contents/About/introAbout.html >

[2]. Edward Burtynsky, Gallery: Oil. < http://www.edwardburtynsky.com/site_contents/Photographs/Oil.html >

[3]. David Maisel, Homepage. < http://davidmaisel.com >

[4]. David Maisel, The Lake Project. < http://davidmaisel.com/works/the-lake-project/#3 >

[5]. Traer Scott Photography, Natural History. < http://www.traerscott.com/#/naturalhistory/ >

[6]. Diane Fox, UnNatural History, color. < http://dianefoxphotography.com/photography/unnatural-history/color/ >

[7]. Diane Fox, UnNatural History, Artist Statement. < http://dianefoxphotography.com/photography/unnatural-history/ >

[8]. Jeff Brouws, About. < http://www.jeffbrouws.com/about/main.html >

[9]. Jeff Brouws, Franchised Landscape. < http://www.jeffbrouws.com/series/main_franchised.html >

[10]. After Image Gallery, Terry Falke. < http://www.afterimagegallery.com/falkenew.htm >