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Through the Lens

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Exhibit explores environment

By Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press

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Boldly plastered on a bright green wall at the New Mexico Museum of Art in Santa Fe are the words of photographer, art historian and curator Beaumont Newhall.

In the face of turmoil, unrest and unhappiness, he asks what photographers, writers and curators can do.

“To make people aware of the external things, to show the relationship of man to nature, to make clear the importance of our heritage, is a task that no one should consider insignificant. ... These are days when eloquent statements are needed,” the quotation reads.

The museum’s curator of photography, Katherine Ware, can barely finish reading the words aloud before getting choked up. She says Newhall may have penned the words in a 1955 letter to Ansel Adams, but they are still true today.

Ware spent the past two years building an exhibition stemming from the works of Adams and fellow landscape photographer Eliot Porter that explores the power photography has had on America’s attitude toward nature and the environment.

“Earth Now: American Photographers and the Environment” stretches from Adams and Porter’s pristine views of nature to the latest generation’s unapologetic but beautiful depictions of what nature has become over decades of human influence.

The show, which opened last Friday and runs through early October, features nearly 100 works.

The museum is also offering an online preview along with videos, a photo gallery, details about the photographers and a blog.

Ware said her goal is to get visitors thinking about their personal relationships to the environment as well as the impact of individual and societal choices.

“My theory is that art can get to us in a way that say debate can’t by not appealing to us intellectually, but appealing to us in other ways — emotionally, subjectively, narratively. It can get in, it can get past our defenses and get past our entrenched points of view and make us think and ask questions and possibly bring us to another place,” Ware said during a tour of the exhibit.

The pieces in the show don’t offer any answers. It will be up to visitors to come away with their own conclusions, Ware said.

Opening night saw a steady stream of visitors, including some of the artists.

Carlan Tapp was one of them. He has spent much time on what he calls “social documentary photography.” His photographs in the show revolve around members of the Navajo tribe who have been impacted by coal mining near their homes in northwestern New Mexico.

Like Adams and Porter, Tapp said today’s artists “are still pushing forward, still getting people to ask questions and bringing about awareness.”

Some of the photographers in the exhibition use scale, some rely on black and white and others look to humor to get their messages across.

Among the last images is a color photograph of the antlers of dead animals rising up from a blanket of snow. It’s about the cycles of nature, death and regeneration, Ware said.

“These cycles are pretty strong but if they’re interfered with long enough, that regeneration can’t happen,” she said.

Focusing on landscape photography and its impact on attitudes about the environment seemed natural for Ware, who recalls running around the woods as a youngster in Ohio and planting a tree as a grade-school student on the first Earth Day in 1970.

She acknowledged that when she started planning the show two years ago, she was in a “negative frame of mind” with regard to the environment and its future. But that started to change as she combed through images and talked to the photographers.

“The artists recognize things are broken but there’s still beauty,” she said, referring to the “sinister beauty” captured in some of the images.