I know I haven’t posted on The Graphic Imperative yet… but it’s coming. Really. I think I’m going to go back to the exhibit this week for another look.
Ken Gonzales-Day wandered around California taking pictures of trees for his series Hang Trees. These trees were (or might have been) used in lynchings in the 19th century. Landscape photographs often neglect considerations of human interaction and influence, reproducing the classic definition of Nature as “a place without humans.” Therefore, the places where humans are is not part of Nature. By focusing on trees used in lynchings, Gonzales-Day is taking an image generally taken to symbolize natural beauty, peace, and strength and reconstructing the landscape as a point of social conflict between human beings, and a point of interaction between human beings and their environment.
He told Weekend America, “…when you think about the landscape in California, you probably think of the very pastoral, beautiful image. And it’s probably taken by a number of Weston or Adams, or a number of photographers that are well known in their fields. They construct this idea of a landscape that is race neutral, in which there are no people, there are no races and there is no conflict. And part of my photographic journey has been to go back and look for these sites. They’re still beautiful photographs. They’re still beautiful trees, but I hope that the viewer will rethink their assumptions about how they look at photographs of landscapes.”
While not exactly “NIMBY” (Not In My Back Yard) posters, or even part of the “Environmental Justice” movement, Gonzales-Day’s photos irrefutably link landscape and human injustice. They provide a space for considering environmental influence on human action (note the use of native trees in the lynchings, with the low twisted branches). His photos also contemplate the erasure of human action upon the environment, by suggesting a reconceptualization of [peaceful, beautiful] landscapes as places of social conflict.
Although Gonzales-Day’s point is to draw attention to the marginalized racial conflicts in the 19th-century West, he is also reconceptualizing human- environment interactions. In considering human effects on the environment, we often neglect the social implications of using Nature, and the environmental implications of social injustice. There are countless ways in which the Human and Natural spheres pervade each other.