Monday, June 13, 2011
Exhibit review: Where I Live I Hope to Know, at Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum
"I don't pay attention to such things as focus." -- Subhankar Banerjee
Subhankar Banerjee is not your typical nature photographer.
His exhibition prints are dark by design, and their subjects (often hinted at in the image title) are small and inconspicuous in the picture — a presentational strategy designed, he says, to "slow down the viewing process" and force the observer to engage with the image.
His framing of the subject matter is seemingly haphazard, with some prints consisting of what appears to be nothing but a sprawling mass of branches, some of them blurred by the motion of the wind — an effect Banerjee refers to as the "flux of time."
Even in terms of color, the prints are subdued, some of them giving the impression of duotones or intentionally desaturated products of post-processing. (They are not. Banerjee makes a point to refrain from any digital manipulation, beyond the scanning of his film negatives into digital format prior to print.)
His photographs of the suburban wilds around Santa Fe, New Mexico could not be further removed stylistically from the work of traditional nature photographers, such as Ansel Adams or Philip Hyde; as Banerjee puts it:
"I don't pay attention to such things as focus."
What his exhibition of 17 large-scale prints (titled "Where I Live I Hope to Know") is intended to offer the observer is a naturalistic, "you are there" perspective on the place they were taken, at the time they were taken.
Eldorado (a suburb of Santa Fe), we discover while touring the exhibit with the artist, is a troubled environment, as is much of the high desert southwest. When Banerjee moved here from Seattle in 2006, the first subject that drew his camera's attention was a dead house finch on the ground outside the plate glass window of his home. Banerjee quickly installed hawk-shaped decals on all large glass expanses, to caution birds against flying head-on into the reflection of their outside world; he discovered that flying into windows is the second largest cause of death among wild birds, after habitat loss/climate change.
Far more impactful from a broad ecological perspective is the dying off of the old-growth pinon pine population, which Banerjee estimates has been diminished by 90%. The cause is twofold: Bark beetles do the actual killing of the trees, but their ability to thrive and wreak unaccustomed havoc amongst the far-flung woodlands has been greatly enabled by climate change, in the form of warmer average temperatures and ongoing drought.
Banerjee points out in several of his photographs the yellowish blobs attached to the trunks of pinons. These are masses of sap, emitted by the tree in an attempt to "drown" the attacking beetles. But in most cases this natural defensive mechanism fails; the beetles are just too numerous and too persistent for the tree to deal with.
From an observer's standpoint, the most striking (and, initially at least, off-putting) aspect of Banerjee's current exhibition is the unusual orientation of several of the prints: They are skewed at seemingly random angles, as if hung by a seriously inebriated museum employee. Only by learning the means by which Banerjee frames his images does one begin to understand the method behind this seeming madness.
In the field, Banerjee will frame his photograph to follow the intended subject of the image, regardless of the orientation of the horizon. A study of an angled tree limb, for instance, results in a photograph taken with the camera at a tilt; the exhibitors then mirror this angle in the process of mounting the print to the museum wall.
Pretentious? High-handed? Just downright goofy? You be the judge.
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