Hundreds of photographers worldwide are using photography to document the effects of climate change.
Some are under the mistaken assumption that showing the public what is happening will overcome climate change skepticism. It won’t. Photographs can only show the What of existence, not the Why.
Camden-based photographer Jim Nickelson understands this, which is why he has taken a sci-fi approach to climate change, or rather a “cli-fi” – climate fiction – approach in his “Annals of the Former World” at Cove Street Arts in Portland (through Sept. 24).
Nickelson was in Iceland in 2018 when the idea for the project came to him: What if he presented images of nature taken in the here and now as though they were evidence of the former world in a museum exhibition in 2124?
The idea was partially inspired by trying to reach his father, a climate change skeptic in the deep red state of Texas. “If anything is going to work,” Nickelson reasoned, “it would be showing him beautiful things that are going to be lost, that his granddaughter will not get to see.”
Nickelson brings an unusual perspective to photography, having previously worked as a NASA aerospace engineer and a corporate attorney. Since 2009, he has operated Nickelson Editions in Camden, printing fine-art photographs for others as well as pursuing his own photography full-time. Nickelson’s left-brain past may help explain the pseudo-science of his photographic project.
The majority of the photographs in the exhibition and in the book of the same name were taken specifically for the project. About a third are selections from previous work that fit the thesis.
“In our inaugural exhibition of the New American Museum of Natural History in the summer of 2124,” Nickelson writes of the fictional exhibition, “we welcome ‘Annals of the Former World: The Anthropocene Survey (2013-2024).’ This year marks the 10th anniversary of the tragic failure of the Greater Manhattan Seawall, which resulted in the loss of thousands of lives as well as the flooding and destruction of our historic Manhattan location.”
This ingenious conceit elevates photographs such as a gorgeous picture of a lone moose standing before the Andromeda Glacier in Canada’s Jasper National Park to the status of a cautionary tale.
“Visitors to the Columbia Icefield in 2019 could gaze at the glacier on Mount Andromeda while standing on the massive Columbia Icefield,” reads the caption. “A century later, visitors now unfortunately can no longer see the remnants of the Andromeda Glacier, and the location of the former Columbia Icefield itself where visitors once stood on the surface of the glacier instead provides insight into the return of alpine meadows on land once covered in ice.”
A pastoral image of wheat growing in the Mendocino Coast Botanical Garden in Northern California explains that “After the breakup of California in the Water Troubles late last century, the gardens were also the temporary home of climate refugees, first from Pacific Island nations and later from the former Arizona.”
Nickelson’s speculative visual fictions might actually be funny were they not so frighteningly possible.
I tend to think it’s too late for human beings to undo the damage we have done to the environment. Nickelson is somewhat more optimistic.
“I think we absolutely have time,” he says, but then he qualifies that optimism. “Change takes time. Can we save most of the glaciers? Maybe not. Can we save most of the coral reefs? Maybe not. Things I thought would happen in 50 years have happened in three years.”
“Annals of the Former World,” curated by Bruce Brown, consists of 33 digital prints that sell for about $1,000 each. The limited edition of 40 hand-made books sells for $350. Not a bad investment if it forestalls the end of the world as we know it.
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978. He also writes the weekly opinion column, The Universal Notebook.