Images of the Environment: Terror and Beauty

This project-based seminar will focus on producing “thick”  descriptions of photographs of environmental crises in the recent decades. Those of interest include Edward Burtynsky’s series “Mines and Tailings,” which captured the aftermath of metal mining and smelting; Daniel Beltra’s “Spill” series of the infamous 2010 British Petroleum Deepwater Horizon oil spill; and Wally Skalij’s documentation of the 2018 Los Angeles wildfire, “Evacuated.”

Each photograph has dual registers: as photojournalistic evidence of the terror of anthropocentric disasters and a work of fine art with hypnotic beauty. For the seminar, each student will engage with one of such photographs along these two interrelated yet distinctly parallel registers.

We will produce short essays each week that identify the author of the photograph, equipment used, editing process, venues of dissemination, and the subsequent public discourse. In parallel, we will borrow the techniques of image analysis and abstraction from contemporary fine artists. By applying such techniques to the photographs in question, we seek to demystify the unfathomable beauty of the terrible images.

The outcome of the seminar will be a dossier with a series of short essays and image analyses. Through these exercises and in-class reading-based discussions, we will work towards articulating the complexity of images and the power to recalibrate our understanding of the environment through image making.