This Commentary is the second in a series about three photographers I discovered during the Photo Lucida 2015 Critical Mass 50 (CM50) portfolio reviews. Each of these photographers give the viewer a vision of the world through a different set of eyes. The artist has created a visual expression and a message to help us see the world differently going beyond the literal mechanical capture of an image, whether on film or digitally. This article, or commentary as I refer to these, is about the work of Alejandro Durán. 1
Alejandro Durán takes what is slowly happening in our physical world, and forces our attention on it by gathering objects already surfacing around us, and impinging on our physical and visual environment. His series, “Washed up: Transforming a Trashed Landscape” addresses “the issue of plastic pollution making its way across the ocean and onto the shores of Sian Ka’an 2, Mexico’s largest federally-protected reserve.”
This commentary on Durán’s work is not written to raise a cry for environmental activism. Instead, it’s putting environmental art into a context of what other photographers 3 have done and are doing to give a viewer a framework for better understanding this genre of art. Yet, given the crisis today in Flint, Michigan over drinking water for the entire city, Durán’s work deserves attention. 4
What is seen in Durán’s images is not a beautiful landscape in a classic sense, but a beautifully arranged image of objects that should concern us deeply. Beautiful landscapes like the work done by Ansel Adams inspires 5 an appreciation for the natural environment. In speaking about a 2013 exhibition at MOMA, a reviewer wrote: “They (Ansel Adam’s images) inspire reverence for these landscapes and for the wisdom of preserving them.” 6 Another commentator that same year wrote: “To some, landscape photography is encapsulated by the work of American photographer Ansel Adams who introduced the world to the dramatic landscapes of the American West. A passionate conservationist, Adams sought to inspire the preservation of the landscapes he captured on film. Significantly, these are photographs that sought to emphasize the value of a protected, pristine space at a time when many still seemed to think that the land was limitless.” 7
Durán’s work is in line with a growing trend of “Environmental Art” ( also referred to as EcoArt, land art, or earth art). 8 It is an art movement driven by the activism of artists who have the power to bring into our homes a visual image of what our world was, is becoming and will be, challenging our willingness to sustain (or save) what we have. Another of these photographers is the Frenchman Yann Arthus-Bertrand. “Soaring high above the earth, Yann Arthus-Bertrand takes aerial photographs that offer an intoxicating perspective on our world. Seas and cities, deserts and deltas, mountains and marshes--they all seem to bloom majestically, revealing colors, hidden textures and the mesmerizing patterns of nature. But the photographs also act as something of a visual ecology lesson, carrying within them an implicit--or even sometimes very obvious--warning: our planet is fragile and threatened by ominous forces. To overcome pollution, deforestation and climate change, explains Frenchman Arthus-Bertrand, will require concerted action from we humans, the ones looking down on all this.” 9 He has photographed more than 110 countries, including Mexico. 10 Other photographers who have captured the impact of man’s footprint on the earth using aerial photography can be found in an earlier Foto Relevance commentary. 11 The images of Alejandro Durán are different in that his feet are planted on the ground, putting us intimately up close to what he wants our eyes to see.
With this work Durán has joined other photographic artists that make us confront the many environmental issues that challenge our planet. 12 This year’s Fotofest theme is “Changing Circumstances”. 13 The artists and their projects cover “climate change; industrialization and urbanization; bio-diversity; water; the use of natural and human resources; human migration; global capital, commerce and consumption; energy production; and waste.” 14 One of the photographers in this group, Mandy Barker, a photographer from the UK, has also collected and photographed plastics found in the world’s oceans. Her images are beautifully presented in a studio setting against a black background. 15 It is fascinating to see two artists dealing with a similar topic with very different techniques. Durán’s arrangements differ from Barker’s in that his photos exist within the external natural environment. Significantly, without his photography in place on the shoreline, the messages here would not be communicated except for the local people or visitors that went to this part of Mexico and could see the trash piling up for themselves. The documentary nature of photography becomes as important as the artistic capture. 16
Durán began the project in 2010 like a giant “shoutout” as to what is washing up on this beach from the more than 50 countries so far identified. In a not yet released film of the project, the scientists who were interviewed suggest that an estimated 269,000 metric tons of plastic waste are floating in the oceans. 17 The plastic finds its way into the global food chain and ultimately into our own systems from the foods we eat that are contaminated by the waste. Alejandro even created a venue on the beach for school children to learn about this environmental disaster- “Museo de la Basura” (A Museum of Garbage). His work visually transforms these accumulations of trash into something of visual beauty. Although the colors of the plastic bottles, toothbrushes, and all manner of other objects made with plastic are embedded into the landscape with vibrant color and placed into beautiful patterns, the reality is that this pollution is poisoning the global ecosystem. It is this artist’s visual warning sign of what and how much we consume and that we need to change our habits of creating and handling waste.
To create each image, Durán enlisted groups of volunteers to gather up the garbage , sort and assemble it into patterns and arrangements. He makes it clear that the plastic has invaded nature’s body like a disease, a cancer. In a way, his images are a type of visual petri dish showing how the cancer cells are replicating and taking over the body of the landscape. Durán’s work, in a sense, is a multimedia project taking a cue from well-known sculptors that have, he would say, influenced his work. Andy Goldsworthy, and Robert Smithson 18, artists who also used photography, created works physically imprinted onto a landscape. While their works were not environmental statements, it influenced Alejandro to use the landscape as his canvas.
In the image “Brotes” we see a colorful field of toothbrushes that washed up, but have been cleverly placed into the ground as the most natural growth one might expect to see as if produced by nature itself. It’s like a group of flowers in bloom. Just beyond the tooth brushes we see the real natural mangrove and plants. The toothbrushes, very sharply in focus, have taken over the earth they occupy. The natural shoots or plants are pushed to the back of the image and slightly out of focus. Durán has given a view, as if through a microscope, into a segment of ground where the invading species is taking over. Yet, the new growing mass of brushes are so colorful and nicely arranged from the perspective he has given us, that at first we might admire and enjoy the image more for a visual appeal than realizing the reality. Had Durán given us more of a distant or elevated look, then the reality of the situation might descend on us more heavily.
We might be so familiar with water parks and slides that we may not at first appreciate what his image, “Derrame (Spill)” is all about. The plastic circles or caps are brightly colored. The rock landscape just seems to naturally embrace the stream of plastic as it would flowing water. In our minds eye we are initially deceived, again, until we focus on the detail within the image. There does not appear to be any water flowing across the rock surface, and accumulating in small pools where we might look for minnows, crawfish, or some small slimy algae. Instead, very naturally, there is an unnatural flow of plastic caps that indeed look like they should be there. They are in the right places where our mind, by instinct, tells us to see water. The use of different groupings of color give the image dimension and a sense of a flow where no actual flow exists. These plastic circles are not really flowing across the rock surface. They are set in place by gravity, and will remain there, indefinitely, until rain, wind, or people pick them up and move them somewhere else. But the rainbow of colors still gives us the sense of a flow from the top to the bottom of the image. The reds to yellows to greens to ocean blue mimic the reflections of light and color we expect to see in water. The mix of white, red, pink, and blue in the closest and smallest pooling is like the froth off the top of a wave of water as it comes rolling toward us. The pools of water vary in size. The largest pooling of the objects is at the back of the image where we would expect the largest concentration of water to be. As we move down the image, the pools of the plastic moves sinuously toward us getting smaller, longer and narrower, like a dribble of water approaching our feet would. The plastic caps act so much like natural water, that our visual senses make a pleasing substitution, before we realize we cannot drink what we see. What we see will not flow or move. Our mental image has moved from a visual reaction, leading to engagement in the image to better understand it, and then our intellect makes us fully aware of what this photographer has done to us.
While there are a number of well-done images to be seen in this portfolio, the last image we discuss is “Mar (Sea)”, which takes us back to a beginning of the process Durán is introducing to us.
“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”
― Rachel Carson, The Sea Around Us 19
Again, on first impressions, there is a beautiful sky, clouds and blue water. Our gaze then drifts down to the lower third of the image. Our expectations are to find rocks and/or sand, but instead we come to the slow realization that we have a shore line of waste. There is a pleasing order and consistency of blue color to the accumulation of plastic bottles and other objects. We bounce from the incredibly sharp beauty of the sky and clouds to the fabricated waste accumulation. We notice there is bottle with a red top just visible at the edge of the water, the beginning of the shore, as if to emphasis this spot. Our eyes are drawn deep into the image by a red object, the cap to a bottle. No other object in the image has red in it, so we assume this placement was intentional to focus our eye and bring us into the ocean scene. It emphasizes that the plastic is arriving onto the shore from out of the ocean. We know from other studies that the plastic will ever so slowly shred and find its way into our ecosystem, our water and food, into the ocean and ultimately into us. Yet, it’s such a dramatic, pleasing image on first impressions, that we can find it hard to put it aside and not look at it. In this way, Durán has forced us to confront and realize the reality of what we see.
The magic of photography can transport us to many places, real or imagined, through time or merely freeze a moment. Alejandro Durán took us to a beach in Mexico, yet at the same time gave us a global view of a universal issue impacting this one shoreline. His images are of a constructed scene, in a way a single performance with each installation, that are not static events, but a series of regular repeat performances. The images reflect a continuous activity continuing as endlessly as the ocean waves that bring plastic and other trash onto the shores of Mexico, and where ever else the ocean currents take these objects. In the images, our view is framed to clearly face the objects themselves, the plastics and waste, despite the fact that the detritus ends up ingested here, elsewhere or in some animal, including humans. The images have a definite visual appeal. Just beware of the message that floats between each.
“Through Different Eyes- Parts 1” was published February 4, 2016 20 and Part 3 will follow, discussing the work of two other artists that have created different photographically based works. Your comments on this or the other articles are welcome. Please share this article with others who may be interested.