The Dayton Art Institute exhibit is the perfect wake-me-up for anyone feeling FotoFocus fatigue at the end of October. Using infrared film to turn the lush greens of the Democratic Republic of the Congo into shocking shades of lavender, Irish photographer Richard Mosse captures viewers’ attention and jolts them into remembering why pictures matter. Mosse’s images from a country torn by civil war share space with Edward Burtynsky’s beautiful-yet-unsettling photos of industry’s effect on our environment.
During a month of more than 60 regional shows dedicated to lens-based work — on top of all the images the world shares on social media — we can turn numb to what we see. Mosse and Burtynsky recognize that and dig deeper. Wall text for Ravaged Sublime cites Mosse’s observation that “beauty is the sharpest tool in the box” for an artist. He understands that viewers who are seduced into experiencing pleasure while looking at a landscape where human rights violations happen all the time will feel angry with themselves, then angry at the photographer, for making them feel that way. Yet the observers can’t escape from that moment of self-awareness.
Even though the shoreline is pink, Mosse’s “Enjoy the Silence” looks like an ad from a travel brochure, with calming blue waters merging into a peaceful sky. But then we remember that for many, life in the DRC is no vacation.
The rivers of orange in a shot by Burtynsky surely must be natural lava flows, you think. Instead, they are nickel tailings, potentially toxic waste left behind during mineral extraction in the photographer’s native Canada. In another Burtynsky photo, that peak is not the Great Pyramid of Giza or the courtyard of the Louvre set against the hazy sky, but rather a mountain of coal used to feed a steel mill in China.
The contemporary landscapes are even more impactful when considered with the historical photos in Picturing the West: Masterworks of 19th-Century Landscape Photography at the Taft Museum of Art. Whether showcasing a manmade monument like a railroad station or the natural wonders of Yosemite, the images inspired pride in a nation on the move. Some of the early photos influenced Congress to protect the pristine land, while others spawned more development, tourism and exploitation of natural resources.
Touring the Taft exhibit after seeing the Dayton show stirs up the conflicting emotions that Mosse and Burtynsky use to their advantage. Carleton Watkins’ 1878 picture of a tunnel cut through a dead sequoia in Yosemite invokes feelings of jealousy and awe. “How neat it would be to pass through a giant tree,” you might think. Then you see his 1880 photo of a tunnel that was cut through a living tree in response to that very thought.
Both of these exhibits opened late in the FotoFocus schedule and will remain up into the new year. Take a month’s break if you need to, but then see these shows before they are gone. Doing so can help ensure that the landscapes they depict won’t be gone forever, too.
RAVAGED SUBLIME: LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE 21ST CENTURY continues through Jan. 8, 2017, at the Dayton Art Institute. 456 Belmonte Park N., Dayton, Ohio. $14. More info: daytonartinstitue.org.
PICTURING THE WEST: MASTERWORKS OF 19TH-CENTURY LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHY continues through Jan. 15, 2017, at the Taft Museum of Art, 316 Pike St., Downtown. $12; free on Sundays. More info: taftmuseum.org.