To paraphrase an old saying about the power of art, a photo exhibit at Middlebury College Museum of Art demonstrates that the camera can sometimes be mightier than the keyboard.
“Land and Lens: Photographers Envision the Environment” features seventy-one historic and contemporary photographs presented in groups that include Forest, Troubled Water, Built Environments and Cosmos. And instead of publishing a catalogue, the show’s curator, Professor Kirsten Hoving, has produced a digital guide for visitors’ use as they view the show.
Thanks to works such as Ansel Adams’s iconic mountain vistas, the earliest images elicit a sense of wonder at the grandeur of the natural world. Even a tiny daguerreotype of Niagara Falls from the 1850s conveys the sense of vastness and power.
The more contemporary images also showcase nature sublime - often in conflict with man. “Tree Sonata” is a harsh elegy to a disappeared forest. The magnificence of the sea is shown in contrast with the melting Greenland ice sheet. A leaking underground storage unit at a nuclear plant is seen near Washington’s glowing Columbia River. These are gorgeous images of potentially terrible things - and therein lies their impact.
We are encouraged to see both the glory and the pain of the earth as equally important. Together, they reveal what we already know only too well, but they also elicit visceral responses that are very different from the way we respond to even the most convincing scientific information. That’s why art has always been part of movements for change.
Back in 1968, a quote from an unknown Senegalese forester made its way into popular culture because it makes instant sense. He said, "In the end we will conserve only what we love, [and] we will love only what we understand."
And that’s what I was thinking when I turned a corner in the exhibit and suddenly there was “Earth Rise,” that famous image of the earth taken from Apollo 8.
I’d seen it before, of course, but in this context it intensified my awareness of our planet’s beauty and fragility… and its loneliness, floating in dark, eternal space.
And it helped me remember that we’re all riders on it together, now in great peril of cutting our journey short.
Such is the power of art that images like those exhibited in “Land and Lens” have the capacity to remind us of the danger.