On Lost Rivers and Other Man-Altered Landscapes: A Conversation with Alejandro Cartagena

Article excerpt

The problem of imaging ecological harm is not getting any easier. Artists who have taken a documentary approach now seem almost quaint in their investments. Painters from the nineteenth-century Hudson River School, for example, gave audiences composite scenes of a romantic, indigenous wilderness on the cusp of industrial expansion. A hundred years later, in distilled photographs of western mountain ranges, lakes, and dunes, Ansel Adams expunged the human presence altogether, instead sacralizing nature. These ways of seeing are tricky in the face of contemporary environmental problems, largely because they register and reinforce certain binaries--nature/culture, city/country, human/nonhuman that routinely collapse under the operations of advanced capitalism. How then to picture the damage wreaked by these operations? And how to picture it in ways that are sensitive to the enduring appeal of that which we call natural?

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The landscape aesthetics of Alejandro Cartagena offer one possibility. Dominican-born Cartagena spent two years photographing the desiccation of streams and rivers in and around the metropolitan area of Monterrey, Mexico. Entitled "Lost Rivers" (2007 08), the resulting series makes up part of Cartagena's larger project on Mexican real estate development, which tackles the complexities of tract housing, home ownership, and inner-city decay. "Lost Rivers" is an integrated feature of "Suburbia Mexicana: Cause and Effect" (2006 09), a lush and moving testimony of the toll taken on ecosystems enmeshed in the region's rapid growth.

Crucially, Cartagena's art also represents a rediscovery of imagemakers featured in the watershed exhibit "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape." Curated in 1975 by William Jenkins at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, and re-launched in 2009 for an international tour, the exhibit featured work by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, Frank Gohlke, and six others, and marked a radical turning point in picturing the American landscape. The New Topographers eschewed idealized treatments of nature by showing, with an understated irony, its presence as a constitutive part of the built environment. These sharply focused photographs look familiar elements of the landscape tradition trees, mountains, deserts, waterways--and placed them in matter-of-fact conversation with the subdivisions, roadsides, industrial parks, and parking lots that stood by and around them. (1) More central to Cartagena's practice, however, is the extent to which their man-altered landscapes resonate with the current experience and effects of Monterrey's sprawl and Latin American suburbanization more broadly.

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This past summer, I had the opportunity to interview the photographer about these and related concerns. Our lengthy email exchange revealed "Lost Rivers" as an exploration of the shifting and layered dimensions of all environments under strain. Cartagena gives us a potent example of what cultural theorist Ursula Heise provocatively calls "eco-cosmopolitanism," an environmental imagination that, while responsible to the local, refuses to stay in and speak from one particular place. (2)

LISA UDDIN: I want to begin from a place of urgency. I've been digesting the daily stream of images coming in from the BP Oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, mostly from a popular photo blog called The Big Picture. (3) Today's scenes, for example, include an aerial shot of an oil slick moving toward an umbrella-lined beach, a wide-angled image of pooling oil along coastal marshlands, and several close-ups of coated pelicans, turtles, and crabs struggling at the shoreline. I find it difficult to breathe when I look at these pictures, and they resonate with me long after I stop looking. I am wondering if and how they are affecting you.

ALEJANDRO CARTAGENA: So many things come to mind when looking at those images: greed, helplessness, anger, tragedy, disgrace. …