Julie Nelson Reviews Our Beautiful, Fragile World: The Nature and Environmental Photographs of Peter Essick, by Peter Essick
Throughout his professional evolution as a photographer for National Geographic, during a photojournalism career spanning 25 years and counting, Peter Essick has developed twin consciousnesses—one artistic and the other environmental. His new book, Our Beautiful, Fragile World: The Nature and Environmental Photographs of Peter Essick is an image-rich portfolio that pairs Essick’s best photographs with short background narratives he’s written that flesh out the circumstances and issues surrounding each picture. He walks us through the challenges he’s endured in pursuit of capturing the perfect shot while simultaneously sketching out the growth of his awareness of environmental degradation and the planet’s imperiled resources.
The snippets of writing accompanying each of Essick’s images are straight-up and descriptive. He neither offers solutions nor candy coats the tough situations he chronicles. He’s a visual artist, not a literary one, so his writing doesn’t satisfy on that level. But it gets its basic job done, providing an expanded context in which we can comprehend each photo on a broader scale. Hearing his voice serves to personalize issues which can seem abstract or too distant from the experience of a general American audience.
His written dedication sets the tone for the book by embracing the challenging paradoxes of earthly life and offering his hope for a future turnaround:
To our children, grandchildren, and those generations beyond who will inherit a complex world of wonder, promise, and loss. I have faith that these talented people, with their affection for life, will use the extraordinary tools of technology to change our current direction and renew our connection to the natural world.
Essick has chosen 102 representative photographs from among the innumerable images he must have shot over the span of decades. Sensitive reader, be warned: the emotional tenor of most of these images is dispiriting at best, depressing and discouraging at worst. However, as a form of compensation, the book includes a handful of pictures that are positive in tone.
A precious few of Essick’s images stand as worshipful visual elegies, unabashed love letters to the Earth. A couple of examples: a nighttime, snow-covered coniferous forest in Finland lies bathed in crystalline blue light under the visual riot of the aurora borealis. A vast, lofty, purple-tinged expanse of high mountain lakes under snow-capped rugged peaks in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile is, in Essick’s “humble opinion,” the most beautiful place in the world. Photos such as these are a celebration of nature’s participation in beauty’s transcendence.
In other cases, however, visual beauty and environmental degradation coincide in Essick’s work. His editor at National Geographic used the term “terrible beauty” to describe the best illustrations of environmental issues:
Sometimes I experienced artistic quandaries trying to make good pictures of bad issues, but I learned that the principles of lighting and composition remain the same, regardless of the subject.
Case in point: In a rural Kentucky pond photographed from above, two cows walk through a bright green algal bloom. In their wake, they leave marbled curvaceous patterns, agate-like, in the verdant green surface of the water. Essick’s balanced yet slightly asymmetrical composition is spot-on and viscerally satisfying. The range of green hues in the picture rivals the splendor of the Irish countryside. And yet, this algae is the unwelcome result of the runoff of excess nitrogen from fertilizers. By 1996, scientists had discovered that up to 80 percent of the pollution in waterways didn’t come from point sources, i.e., municipal or industrial pipes. It ran off the parking lots or farms within the watershed area. Essick’s photo effectively illustrates this problem, but does it in an artful way.
Even if no people are present in an image, through his explanatory back stories, Essick brings in the human element. Recalling a story he did in 1994 on President Bill Clinton’s California Desert Protection Act, Essick pointed out how two differently motivated groups of people viewed that landmark legislation. Understandably, there was friction between ranchers—negatively affected by losing part or all of their land—and visitors from nearby cities who use the desert as a weekend playground. And yet, his photograph of the desert rocks depicts only the sublime desolation of that barren landscape, remaining neutral and taking sides with neither camp.
In other cases, Essick pulls no punches in showing us the brutal realities of life in certain corners of the planet. A trip to China in 2002 yielded images showcasing the frightening effect of lax environmental regulations on its air and water resources. At the Yellow River at that time, there were “4,000 petrochemical plants along the watershed, most of which discharged waste directly into the river.” Essick had difficulty getting permission to photograph from local bureaucrats, but snuck a shot of a lagoon colored a murky Pepto Bismol pink by the runoff of a preservative from a nearby tofu plant. Instead of the pretty green algae-filled pond in Kentucky, here we see a gloomy, hazy landscape blanketed by what appears to be smog mirroring the color of the muddy pink lagoon.
The most disturbing and heart-rending image of concrete human misfortune in the book is entitled “The Eyeless Child” and was taken in Vietnam in 2006. The four-year-old girl in the photograph suffers from Fraser Syndrome, a malformation likely caused by previous generations’ exposure to dioxins during the Vietnam War. She was born without fingers or eyes, due to alterations in DNA caused by Agent Orange. It’s simply horrifying.
The list of threats to sustainable existence pictured in this book is extensive. A smoldering pile of cut trees in the Amazon clears the way for expanding farmland, but shrinks the virgin rainforest known as the “lungs of the Earth.” A ten-year-old boy in a Ghana shantytown ekes out a living sorting a tangled pile of plastic and metal e-waste shipped from developed countries for copper reclamation and recycling. In the Maldives, ocean temperature spiked nine degrees in 1998 during a single El Niño event, killing two-thirds of the nation’s surrounding coral reefs. He tells us:
Perhaps a good environmental photograph, like our life on this planet, is a complicated duality. On one wing, we need things like development to form civilizations. The stark reality is that we have to tolerate politics, and we need industry to provide energy to drive our cars and light our homes. But on the other wing is the realm of the artist, the visionary, the preacher, and the free thinker. Their message is a desire for justice, freedom, a New Jerusalem, or a Love Supreme. We believe and have faith that reason will prevail and harmony with nature is possible. We live in these two worlds and sometimes one photograph can speak to both. Perhaps it can even make us realize that . . . it takes two wings to fly.
At his most eloquent, Essick offers hope that competing interests can coexist and collaborate, just as two wings of a bird must both function for it to fly.
Photo of swan courtesy Pixabay.