Photo: J Henry Fair, with permission of Gerald Peters Gallery Crime and Punishment, Gulf of Mexico , 2010
A good documentary photographer takes us to places that we never could imagine and teaches us something at the same time. Some do it by shooting stark realism, like Canadian Ed Burtynsky, or South African Pieter Hugo, but J. Henry Fair's work is more abstract.
His aerial photos look like a beautifully painted canvas that could hang over your sofa. Until you begin to unravel the subject matter: devastated landscapes and environmental pollution.
Photo: J Henry Fair, with permission of Gerald Peters Gallery Lightning Rods, Fort McMurrary, Alberta, Canada , 2009
From oil refineries to chemical waste to oil slicks, his pictures show a world which is destroying its natural environment on a massive scale. He has travelled to photograph these natural disasters in Canada and the USA, Mexico and Spain. The images are all in his recent book The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis. The book also contains essays by the likes of James Hansen, Allen Hershkowitz, Roger D. Hodge, Jack Hitt, Frances Mayes, and John Rockwell.
The photos are all taken from airplanes at 1,000 feet. This enables him to capture the vision and colour as well as the abstraction. It is a paradoxical and bizarre beauty of waste. How can something so striking be so harsh?
J. Henry Fair has strong credentials. Not only is he a photographer, showing work recently at the Gerald Peters Gallery in New York but he is also co-founder and director of the Wolf Conservation Center in Salem,New York.
Photo: J Henry Fair, with permission of Gerald Peters Gallery Coal Slurry, Kayford Mountain, WV
Artist or activist is a question that must be asked of his work. He says that at first he
"photographed "ugly" things; which is, in essence, throwing the issue in people's faces. Over time, I began to photograph all these things with an eye to making them both beautiful and frightening simultaneously, a seemingly irreconcilable mission, but actually quite achievable given the subject matter."
He is still an optimist about America's future:
"To gear our civilization toward sustainability does not necessitate sacrifice today, as many naysayers would argue, but simply adjustment. There are many societies existing at present that have a standard of living at least as high as ours while consuming and polluting a fraction of what is the norm in the United States."
But his question (and mission) is one that many artists have pondered: "how do I translate my message to my medium such that it will effect the change I want?"