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The Green Life: Nature Photographers Flash Their Stuff

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November 14, 2011

Nature Photographers Flash Their Stuff

The Desert WestNew Zealand, said Tim Wagner, “is a photographer’s post-9/11 dream.” He was talking about the country’s lax security to a roomful of people at last Thursday’s Open Show event, held at Sierra Club headquarters in San Francisco.

Wagner was showing his slide show of viaducts and whirlpools from New Zealand’s sizeable renewable-energy industry. Four other eco-minded shooters joined him for an evening that included social critique, natural wonder, and visual dazzlement.

The crowd favorite was David Liittschwager, a National Geographic photographer. His “Ocean Acidification” series details the scary effects of rising CO2 levels on sea animals that have calcium carbonate exteriors. A mere 0.4 drop in seawater pH kills barnacles and causes sea stars to ickily soften. He strongly believes that the trouble in calciferous paradise is a sign of forthcoming disaster.

As he narrated his slide show of snails and sea stars on backgrounds of pure white, he told the audience that his training was in advertising photography and that he'd worked with Richard Avedon. The influence shows: In their naked yet posed close-ups, Liitschwager’s sea creatures look like pieces of jewelry steeped in their own rich histories. The other photographers asked how he did it and found out that the images weren’t Photoshopped (“You aren’t allowed to do that at National Geographic”).

Lou Dematteis, a self-described “conflict photographer” (and a dead ringer for Gary Oldman in The Dark Knight) also showed portentous images. His shots came from his recently published "Crude Reflections," a bilingual photo essay that documents oil drilling's gruesome consequences in Ecuador. One image shows a woman walking away from a sort of mausoleum — both her parents and her brother died of cancer. Others present barefoot children walking on roads slicked with oil; yet others depict children with birth defects.

Dan Shepherd photographyWith a lighter tone, Dan Shepherd (left) presented a vision of how humans tell stories around nature. He’s an L.A.-based conceptual artist who asks people to draw him a tree that's important to them. He then takes a double-exposure photograph with the drawing in front of its subject, creating blurry, transparent layers that allow the tree and drawing to form a complementary relationship.

Finally, there was Lane Wilson (top), whose ethereal photos occupy a realm of their own. For seven years, Wilson has been walking through the West's deserts with a camera around his neck. “Some projects are photographed over a lifetime, and at the end, there is still work left to do,” he said. His slide show of austere and confounding black-and-white images threw familiar settings — like Monument Valley and the Canyonlands — into surrealistic relief. He seems to descend from both Dali and Ansel Adams, and his scale has a trompe l’oeil quality that’s not typical of environmental photography: Are these landscapes galactic expansions or boxed-in dioramas?

Before Wilson left the stage, someone asked if he thought he was undermining his potential for stewardship by representing his landscapes on a non-human plane. Are people less likely to care about something they can’t connect to? If so, does the documentarian have a responsibility to give his art a degree of accessibility? The question hung in the air for the rest of the evening.

--Jake Abrahamson / images courtesty Lane Wilson and Dan Shepherd

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