“Contemporary photographers have fostered a more direct dialogue on the intersection of art and climate change. The issues we face are increasingly urgent, and artists around the world are feeling this deeply and responding to it in their work,” says Meredith Breech, the Curator of Fotografiska New York’s Human/Nature: Encountering Ourselves in the Natural World. It’s a group show that brings together 14 trailblazing photographers from around the world, such as Cig Harvey, David Ụzọchukwu, Djeneba Aduayom, Ori Gersht and Yan Wang Preston. Each image-maker investigates humanity’s fraught relationship with the Earth. On display are photographs, immersive video installations and sculptures that push audiences to reflect on our complicated relationship with the environment. In this interview, Meredith Breech tells more about the works on display, the structure of the show and how contemporary lens-based artists are responding to the natural world differently to their predecessors.
A: How did the concept for this show come about? And how has the exhibition evolved since you came up with the initial idea?
MB: The show first opened at Fotografiska Stockholm under the name In Bloom with a wider selection of works. As we began to adapt this exhibition concept for a New York audience, we wanted to deepen our focus on the intertwined and complicated relationship between the climate and humanity. We added three artists that were not previously shown in Stockholm. This included Edward Burtynsky, famous for his photographs of industrial landscapes and his environmental advocacy; Pat Kane, whose photography documents Indigenous-led conservation in the Thaidene Nëné National Park Reserve in Canada; and Lewis Miller, a New York-based artist whose “Flower Flash” installations highlight the impact of nature in urban environments.
A: Human/Nature explores our complex and multi-faceted relationship with nature from a range of artistic perspectives. Could you highlight some pieces that display this scope?
MB: David Ụzọchukwu’s Heartstrings (2018) is an image of a man submerged in water among a bed of lily pads. His eyes are closed, and he seems to be having a restorative moment enveloped in nature. It’s a beautiful portrait that reminds the viewer of times they’ve felt the same relief from a moment connecting with the earth. In contrast, Ori Gersht’s Big Bang (2007) shows the violent destruction and death of natural beauty through videos of exploding bouquets. These already cut flowers are blown to pieces – reminding us of our tendency to exercise control over nature and destroy it. Yan Wang Preston brings her documentary practice to the fore. Her photograph Allotments under Caiyuanba Bridge, Chongqing, China (2017) shows one effect of the Chinese government’s attempts at bringing urban landscapes back into balance with nature.
A: The exhibition presents over 40 works from over a dozen photographers. How did you go about selecting artists?
MB: We wanted to ensure that we incorporated a wide range of perspectives on the relationship between humans and nature. Each community and artist has their own narrative to share. We brought together 16 artists from more than 10 countries who investigate the fate of humankind and the climate. Some highlight nature’s beauty, others expose the detrimental impacts of consumerism and extraction of our natural resources whilst others celebrate moments of harmony.
A: Inka & Niclas’ Family Portrait IX (2018) is a particularly arresting piece. Could you tell us more?
MB: This photograph features three figures, glowing with light and standing together in a dark forest. The work considers how our relationship to nature has been effected by modern-day travel and an obsession with consumption. The figures are washed with bright light, making them anonymous – the ubiquitous vacationer. This photograph, the artefact left from their travels, focuses solely on their presence. It takes precedence over the experience itself.
A: On the sixth floor of the museum, you’re showing photographers from the past who have pioneered the genre, such as Ansel Adams and Edward Weston. Could you tell us a bit more about their work? And how do they enrich the themes explored in Human/Nature?
MB: Adams’ photography threads the needle between beauty for beauty’s sake and environmental advocacy – both of which are also goals of many contemporary artists on view in Human/Nature. With Weston, we see a photographer deeply attuned to the Western landscape. Instead of Adam’s wide vistas, here we see incredible details of the landscape, one feature at a time. Alongside these, we are also showing works by Edward Steichen and Aaron Siskind. These photographers encourage us to pay attention and look closely at the world around us. With these forebears of the genre on view at the same time as the contemporary artists downstairs, we’re posing the question: How has the relationship between artist and nature remained consistent over the past century – and in what significant ways has the landscape shifted?
A: The natural world has inspired countless artists throughout history. In what ways are photographers of today responding similarly or differently to those before?
MB: Contemporary photographers have fostered a more direct dialogue on the intersection of art and climate change. The issues we face due to our changing climate grow increasingly urgent, and artists around the world are feeling this deeply and responding to it in their work, from a variety of practices and mediums. Some may use their lens to document and raise awareness about environmental challenges within their local communities and across the globe, others may reflect the deep uncertainty we face through complex and layered visual practices. There has been a marked progression beyond the more romantic and mystical depictions in the past.
A: Could you tell us a bit more about how you’ve chosen to structure the exhibition? How do you want visitors to experience the space?
MB: The exhibition is designed to illustrate the symbiotic yet fraught relationship between the Earth and its inhabitants. As visitors walk through the gallery space, they are taken on a journey through the complex emotions that emerge as we explore this challenging relationship. The exhibition begins with a celebration of the beautiful and harmonious relationship we can have with nature. Works of artists including David Ụzọchukwu, Lewis Miller and Cig Harvey show moments of connection between humans and their natural environments. As visitors move through the exhibition, they transition from audience to subjects, becoming the figure in the landscape. The works of Ori Gerscht then prompt an abrupt shift, and the audience is confronted with the destruction humans have caused and the realities of climate change through fine art and documentary photography, as well as a video piece by Djeneba Aduayom called Atmospheric Perspective (2022) – a poetic reflection on where we now stand. Finally, texts by climate activist Xiye Bastida and photographs from artists like Yan Wang Preston and Pat Kane offer attempts to move forward and repair this relationship.
A: How do you want viewers to feel after leaving this show?
MB: We hope viewers leave the show thinking about their role in this particular arc of humanity. The works throughout Human/Nature are meant to encourage audiences to reflect on the realities of climate change and to be energized to find ways to correct and repair what we can. There is urgency and there is also hope that humans can return to a connection with the rest of the living world that would move us to protect it.
Fotografiska New York, Human/Nature: Encountering Ourselves in the Natural World | Until May 25
Words: Diana Bestwish Tetteh and Meredith Breech
- © Lori Nix & Kathleen Gerber, Library.
- © Inka & Niclas, Family Portrait IX.
- © David Ụzọchukwu, Heartstrings (2018).
- © Lori Nix & Kathleen Gerber, Botanic Garden.