Monday, April 6, 2009

Subhankar Banerjee

The treatment of Subhanker Banerjee's photographs seems to be an object lesson on the complicated relationship between art and advocacy. I admire his tenacity to challenge the drilling proponents' view of the Arctic landscape as being a barren wasteland, as I have analogous concerns about how developers view public housing. Both are places ripe with resources for financial gain, and both have existing ecosystems and communities that will be destabilized if commercial interests are fully realized.

Finis Dunaway's article "Reframing the Last Frontier" was not only an interesting recap of the ANWR/Smithsonian controversy, but also a thoughtful review of Banerjee's work. The article reminds me of all the things that consciousness raising documentary photography attempts to do, but often has to rely on heavy text. The pictures might be beautiful objects, but is it accomplishing what I want to do? Has the best thing that happened to Banerjee (and ANWR) the fact that the Smithsonian tried to censor his captions? Had Barbara Boxer not held up his photo in front of Congress to make a case, one might wonder if the Smithsonian would have been as alarmed. In any case, it's important to me that people took the pictures and words seriously. So seriously that it needed to be swept under the rug. I think all the heat that the Smithsonian caught is well deserved, and it has reminded me that the institutions are, for better or for worse, just as political as the artwork that hangs in them. I'm sure whoever instructed the Smithsonian to move Banerjee's photos didn't calculate the controversy that arose into the equation. It's troublesome how easy it is to recontextualize someone's work. Beauty (and resources) are in the eye of the beholder.

Also, I appreciate Banerjee's artistic strategies, as far as, like Terry Evans, using aerial photography to depict the scale of an ecosystem. While close-ups of animals do make them nice and cute, it is a convention that we know and that's how we learn what animals look like. To have the aerial view of an entire herd of migrating caribou seems like an attempt to understand the interdependence of animals and land. However, the god's eye could have the potential to abstract the image into large fields of color and make someone feel disconnected from the actual nature being depicted. One could look at it like a map, and ready to carve up the land like the Western powers did to the Middle East after World War I.

Subhankar Banerjee, Caribou Migration II, 2002

I am familiar with the anxiety the Banerjee felt when he recalled in Finis Dunaway's article polar bears being surrounded by people with cameras (p.3). When I've gone camping in national parks my objective is to appreciate nature – alone. But so is everyone else's. Often a community of mutual appreciation is formed with people acknowledging each other's presence on hiking trails, but unfortunately in the cases of super popular parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone, I can't tell the difference between the crowds of Times Square and the line to see Old Faithful. However, Banerjee's desire to live with polar bears seems a bit fantastical to me, and I'm glad that he did not indulge in this desire, lest he end up as a bear's lunch, a la Timothy Treadwell, the bear enthusiast documented in Werner Herzog's film Grizzly Man.

If Banerjee's objective is to document the wilderness for preservation, he risks the possibility of making his photographs "too" beautiful, and an unintended consequence of protecting ANWR from drilling would be to increase tourism of the Alaskan wilderness. In my opinion, this is surely the better of two evils, though one that must be carefully regulated.

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