Sunday, April 5, 2009

Photography, Text and the work of Subhankar Banerjee

Subhankar Banerjee's photographic project Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land grows out of a long tradition in documentary photography where by a photographer travels to a place or community to bear witness to the particular characteristics of its existence and returns with images that aim to allow an audience to similarly bear witness. As we have discussed previously in this class, working with the concept of nature in this way can be problematic because in many instances, photographs come to define nature as a place apart from humanity that is meant to be contemplated and appreciated for its beauty rather than a concept that is interconnected with the needs and desires of humans. Banerjee's work is particularly interesting because it relies so heavily on text to prevent it from slipping into the realm of abstraction or contemplation. When the text that accompanies the images was censored during an exhibition at the Smithsonian for political reasons, the meaning of the images also changed significantly.

Subhankar Banerjee, Caribou Tracks On Tundra, 2006
*This image is only a visual reference. Please visit the website of Subhankar Banerjee for a more detailed look at his project and the text that accompanies his imagery. I do not wish to reduce the project on this blog in the same way that the Smithsonian did but the space constraints of a blog will not allow me to publish the entire exhibition. (obviously)

Here are some questions I have for Banerjee when he comes to visit our class:

1. Why do you think the debates held on the senate floor about ANWR centered so heavily on the aesthetic value of the region? What role did the beauty in your images play in shifting the minds of senators who overturned the proposed drilling in the region? In other words, do you think senators responded more positively to the beauty and aesthetic value of the region that is highlighted in your photographs or the text which illustrates ways the ecology of this region is connected to a broader global ecology that impacts all of humanity?

2. Do you believe that photography can allow a viewer to bear witness to the ecological or spiritual value of a place without text? Do you find it problematic that a large part of the meaning of your photographs was so easily ripped away when the Smithsonian scrapped the text?

3. Though I haven't seen the exhibition of this work, on your website some images have accompanying text and other do not? Why have you made this choice? Do you think some images more clearly convey your ideas without text while other require explanation?

4. Do you think you will ever make a body of work about the land that does not use text? Are there photographers working now or in the past that you feel have been able to create a compelling argument for the ecological as well as aesthetic and spiritual preservation of a particular place without text?

5. Can you talk more about the history of imaging the land and the ways your work has descended from this tradition? Beauty, color and composition are clearly strategies for picture making that you have adopted from past photographers. Why is it important to use these ways of working when making pictures but break them when using text?

6. How do you feel about the fact that the act of creating your photographs actually contributes to the consumption of resources that have made ANWR such a contested region? As a participant in modern society, do you feel at all conflicted about the ways your personal consumption reflects a reliance on oil, natural gas, food and transportation systems that contribute to the destruction of animal and human communities in places like ANWR?

Stephanie Lempert, Flushing Meadows Corona Park from the GeoBiographies series, 2008

Today I was catching up on my NYT reading and I came across a review of an exhibition that Banerjee is currently in called “And for All This, Nature Is Never Spent,” at the Pelham Art Center. Interestingly, there is another artist named Stephanie Lempert who is working with text and landscape in the show. Her images look like nostalgic and pristine nature photography but they are actually photos of city parks that are built on top of reclaimed landfills. On top of the images, Lempert has put text transcribed from interviews she conducted with people who helped to lay the plans for the site's conversion. Though I find that the text distracting because it becomes a barrier that prevents me from entering the space, Lempert's technique is an interesting way to force a text to be integrated into the meaning of a work of art.

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