Landscape Forensics


Reading a landscape is tricky: you need to look hard to detect unseen dynamics, hidden workings. What you see depends on what you are looking for, and where you are looking from: a geologist, a developer and a birdwatcher will see different possibilities in the same plot. That which is plainly visible is often only a small part of the story of a place, and the available evidence is viewed through the lens of prior knowledge and beliefs. This poses a problem for landscape photography, which by its nature must represent the visible. How do we visualize climate change, for example, or politically disputed claims on land and resources?

New York photographer Sasha Bezzubov uses a variety of conceptual methods to point viewers to larger phenomena that underlie visible landscapes. His series Albedo Zone (2008) features monotone, horizonless expanses of either dark ocean water or light arctic ice. Considered individually, the photographs could fit easily into a tradition of minimalist, aesthetically refined landscapes. However, the series title pushes the work into more dangerous territory. Albedo is a measure of reflectance, important to climate scientists because the dark water produced by the melting of ice absorbs more light and thus retains more heat from the sun — one of global warming’s many feedback loops. Bezzubov’s series illustrates this phenomenon starkly, while raising questions about photographic traditions celebrating the beauty of nature. Zone refers to the zone system, pioneered by Ansel Adams, in which a photographer tightly controls exposure, contrast and tonality by breaking down the scene into a set of luminance measurements. The technique has become closely associated with the kind of photography that, emulating Adams, strives for a controlled and classically beautiful vision of the natural landscape.

Bezzubov’s series Things Fall Apart (2001-07), depicts the aftermath of natural disasters in India, Indonesia, Thailand and the United States. The pictures function in part as documents of these tragic events, but the series as a whole does not convey enough specific information to be useful as documentary work. Rather, the images blend together to form a more generalized, and aestheticized, portrayal of destruction, following the long artistic tradition of appreciating the melancholy beauty of ruins and nature’s destructive power. That tradition is closely tied to the idea of the sublime — a sensation of beauty and terror in the face of nature’s power — prevalent in 18th and early 19th century philosophy and landscape art, and often understood as a way of experiencing the divine. Nature’s power is certainly evident in Bezzubov’s images, but the knowledge that human-caused climate change has increased the frequency and strength of catastrophic storms reshapes our sense of the sublime.

The series Facts on the Ground, made in collaboration with Jessica Sucher in 2010, takes a different approach to picturesque ruins, showing how political decisions become embedded in the visual landscape. These photographs, made in the Israeli-occupied territories, show views of beautiful landscapes, lone and unkempt olive trees, forest scenes dotted with ruins, and small hilltop towns. Only by understanding the political history of this place can we see how the pieces add up to tell a story. The artists write:

Early on during our time in Israel/Palestine, we climbed up to a lookout point in British Park and saw a lush green forest stretching out into the distance. It was the kind of sight that usually inspires awe and makes you feel grateful to those that had the foresight to preserve it. But within this park are the ruins of two villages that were home to Palestinians forcibly removed by Israeli troops in 1948. Since the villages are no longer visible, we photographed the pine forest that was planted to hide their remains and found it epitomized the misleading nature of the Israeli landscape.

Looming over the landscapes, the hilltop Israeli settlements — “facts on the ground” — stake a physical presence in politically disputed lands. The lone olive trees, raggedly beautiful, are visible evidence of Israeli policies that have made many orchards in the West Bank inaccessible to Palestinian farmers, cutting out an important part of their livelihood. The series subverts the conventions of ruin photography: here the lush forests are not just examples of nature’s glory, the untended olive trees not attractively melancholy emblems of benign neglect, the crumbling buildings not gentle reminders of the slow, inevitable march of time. Rather, they are the visual evidence of a complex set of controversial and consequential actions. The soft beauty of the photographs belies hard political realities.

Bezzubov’s most recent work, the ongoing series Sad Tropics, addresses the intertwining of political, economic and ecological issues in the forests of Gabon. Here the photographer has focused his lens on dirt roads built for the globalized extraction industries — oil, timber, and minerals — that drive the national economy. In some images, the frame is filled by the dense, dust-covered foliage that lines the roads. Others show views straight down the roads, obscured by clouds of red dust. (Bezzubov tells me that the final project will also include portraits of local residents, foreign workers and global eco-tourists met along the roads.) At first, the dust-covered forest reads as an easy symbol for paradise lost: a natural wonderland destroyed by global capital. But further investigation reveals the photos to be more open-ended. After all, some dust on the leaves does not necessarily herald the destruction of an entire ecosystem; these pictures can’t begin to tell the whole story of this place. That is, I believe, the point. Bezzubov photographs material traces of evidence, small fragments which must be pieced together with other disparate clues to see the way through the uncertain haze that pervades contemporary landscapes.

Editors' Note

Work by Sasha Bezzubov and Jessica Sucher will be included in the 9th International Biennial of Photography and Visual Arts in Liège, Belgium, which runs from March 15 to May 25, 2014.

Photos by Sasha Bezzubov. Text by Aaron Rothman., “Landscape Forensics,” Places Journal, February 2014. Accessed 09 Dec 2022.

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