Another Kind Of Landscape
Several weeks ago, I was listening to American Public Media’s “Marketplace” on NPR as I was driving home from work. “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal conducted a brief interview with photographer J. Henry Fair about his recent book “The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis.”
“The photographer J. Henry Fair does landscapes, images of places that’ve been changed somehow by the industrial process,” Ryssdal said in introducing the interview. “Places like the Gulf of Mexico and the BP oil spill. Or clear-cut forests and pulp mills. They’re aerial shots of what is actually quite picturesque terrain.”
The book sounded interesting, so when I arrived home I ordered a copy from Amazon.com. It arrived in a few days and I glanced at it, but I didn’t get around to reading it and absorbing its full impact until a few days ago. “The Day After Tomorrow” presents an array of stunning images, many of which were taken from small airplanes. Some of the images are of environmentally devastated landscapes. Others are of massive facilities that drive home the scale of some human activities and the impact we have on Earth. The book also contains brief essays on environmental topics by a number of prominent writers, scientists, and environmentalists.
Fair is up-front about his motivation for publishing “The Day After Tomorrow.” “This is a book of photographs of environmental disasters occurring at different points in the consumer/industrial cycle, which illustrate the negative impact our contemporary consumer society has on the planetary systems that sustain our existence,” he writes in the introduction to the book.
“The objective of these pictures is not to vilify any given company or industry—there are good and bad actors everywhere. My intent is to engage the viewer, stimulate curiosity, and encourage dialog,” he continues. “Our society’s structure has evolved to the point where government responds not to the citizenry, but to the corporations that finance it. These days the vote that matters the most is the purchase decision. Though our government does not defend or respond to us, the manufacturers do. If we all demanded toilet paper made from old newspapers instead of blithely purchasing brands made from old-growth forests, those forests would be saved as would all of the animals who live there (not to mention the carbon that would remain sequestered). So the goal of these pictures is to promote an activist consumerism.”
As Fair makes clear, “The Day After Tomorrow” is the work of an environmental activist. Fair is a photographer, not a scientist or engineer. Some of the captions on the photographs in the book are technically pretty sketchy.
That said, many of the images in “The Day After Tomorrow” are beautiful. They are also mesmerizing because they operate at so many levels. As art. As environmental statement. As indictment of our addiction to consumption. They are also disorienting because, in many cases, the sense of scale isn’t immediately obvious. You have to spend some time with many of the photos to grasp the enormity of what you’re looking at.
The accompanying essays are interesting, but it is the photographs and Fair’s own words that make “The Day After Tomorrow” such a compelling book. His call for consumer activism is clear. “I believe that we could very easily change the direction of our society and economy toward sustainability with nothing but benefits for our children, ourselves, and our economy,” he writes. “The only losers would be those currently making fortunes from destruction and exploitation. We have the power. Spend your dollars with your children in mind.”
Thanks for reading.
A truck sprays grass seed and fertilizer on a clear-cut site near Kayford Mountain, W. Va., where coal has been extracted. (From "The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis," by J Henry Fair, published by powerHouse Books)