It's telling that at least 2 of the shows I attended this weekend dealt with trees being cut down, at the intersection of documentary and landscape. The first, an exhibit of Robert Adams' photographs at Matthew Marks, supposedly re-traced the journey of Lewis and Clark backwards through contemporary black and white images of those regions which have now become a nightmare of clearcutting. Looking at all the tree stumps and fragments strewn around the barren hills, I couldn't help observing out of the corner of my eye the potential here for some kind of "shock and awe" shaving commercial. Logging really is applied to the landscape in such a way that you're supposed to be both horrified and impressed. Adams plays up this effect in many photos by staging verdant hills in the backgound that peek over the tops of the barren landscape like a memory. Coming off it, I realize that photography is basically an art dependent on framing as a means to create context. If it is to be something more than just a European "compositional excercise" within the frame, it must imply or aspire to the notion that this frame is also a window and that a corresponding world exists beyond those boundaries.
But unlike the context of desperate, elegiac nakedness provided by the stragglers on the edge of Adams' clear-cut forests, the Ori Gersht film over at CRG provided a more meditatively terrifying experience. Covertly an environmentalist thriller, Gersht's movie establishes a series of panning shots across a peaceful Ukranian forest landscape creating an atmosphere which every minute or two is suddenly and shockingly pierced by the sound of a tree splintering and crashing to the ground (sometimes directly at the viewer). The fact that all sounds of a saw or ax appear to be inaudible (or perhaps edited out) makes the sudden collapse particularly upsetting and unfounded. Aside from the implied holocaust allegory evoked in Gersht's exhibit notes, it's almost as though the trees are falling by themselves.
Both of these shows on some level deal with what we might call the recognizable baseline of environmentalist pathos, but inspiring us to what? Some of the eco-rhetoric seems confused. Both photographers realize this dilemma and in some respects have iconicized or abstracted their projects from a particular catastrophe, especially Gersht. I wonder how many of Lewis Hine's original comments about documentary photography's ability to create social change are valid, or if we've simply become too jaded by a barrage of speedy imagery and well, shocks, with no time to react to any of the tragedies one is exposed to on a daily basis. Here those acts of mourning do receive camera time, but it's muffled. And if they imply a vision for a world beyond the frame, it's not a very liveable one.