“I wanted to people think of the homeland differently when it comes to the costs of war, ”Makeda Best said. “We think it’s all happening overseas, but it is happening here too. It has always happened here.
Best, Menschel Curator of Photography at Harvard Art Museums, was showing Devouring the Earth: War and American Landscape Photography Since 1970. Open today, this is the museums’ first major exhibition since it closed in March 2020. Over 160 photographs are on display, almost all from the institution’s own collection. They offer insight into the military’s footprint on American soil: a vast geography of profound environmental, economic and social impacts – entire cities and industries have boomed or collapsed – and often damaging, but systematically damaging. invisible.
The subject preoccupied Best for a long time. His book 2020 Raise the masses was a study by Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner, one of the many photographers of his time with a special sensitivity for the natural landscape. “At that time, they even viewed trees as injured, in every sense of modern war destruction,” Best says. Gardner, in particular, was a pacifist and even wrote before the Civil War about how money spent on military combat should be used in different ways. The exhibit takes its name from a phrase by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, who wrote that his “march to the sea,” a literal scorched earth campaign, would “devour the land” as he and his soldiers pushed their way through Confederacy, razing both military camps and civilian farmland.
But for Best, it’s also personal: her mother worked for 30 years in the environmental justice movement, as a speaker and organizer traveling the country, starting with a garden she planted in San Prison. Francisco where she was an advisor. It turned into an agricultural program for inmates. “She was thinking of the connection between kids who don’t know what a grape is, who don’t eat green vegetables, who feel disconnected from the earth and prison or drug addiction,” Best said. “What does it do to a person, this disconnection, the fact that they literally live in a dump? It was a bit of a strange childhood, but I always had this environmental awareness.
The exhibition opens in the 1970s, with a wall of images documenting Americans’ complicated relationship with nuclear power and nuclear war: protesters and protests, but also ordinary people who worked as technicians of laboratory in power plants. Robert Adams’ famous photo, “Burning oil sludge near Denver, Colorado”, is here – an image that Best says “heralded a new moment in American landscape photography” – as well as photos of artists less known, many of them women: “Photos that are usually kept in the archives,” says Best. “I wanted to bring them into the conversation.
Harvard Art Museums, gift of Barbara Norfleet, 2010.448.16. © Barbara Norfleet; image courtesy of Harvard Art Museums.
The nuclear age and its aftermath occupy a large part of the exhibition: black and white representations of abandoned Cold War facilities, closed radiation zones, weapon test sites resembling lunar landscapes. A series of photographs by Barbara Norfleet, Ph.D. ’51, former curator of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts and member of the Atomic Photographers Guild collective, shows the decaying structures of empty post-Cold War sites: radioactive waste in California, an abandoned airfield in Florida, a munitions factory that polluted the water in three Minnesota towns, a coyote standing in the distance from a radioactive site in Nevada. Norfleet’s handwritten legends hint at the immense scale of some of the places: 300 square miles, 725 square miles, 1,350 square miles.
Meanwhile, a pair of photographs by Navajo artist Will Wilson offer a striking juxtaposition. On the left is an image titled “Autoimmune Response: Confluence of Three Generations”; it shows him and his mother and daughter looking out across the Utah mountains that have been home to the Navajo people for millennia. To the right, an aerial photograph of the Mexican Hat elimination cell, nestled in those same mountains of Utah; contains radioactive material from a former uranium ore processing plant. The Navajo Reservation 1.5 miles away has seen an increase in lung cancer, bone cancer, and kidney disease. “Wilson compares this toxic pit to sacred hills and talks about the weather,” Best says. “In Navajo cosmology, these hills have always been there. And now that toxicity will also be here forever.
Most touching images of Devour the earth highlight the disproportionate effects on the poor and communities of color. Stacy Kranitz shows people living in the Baton Rouge neighborhood of Standard Heights, in a part of the country known as “Cancer Alley” due to the concentration of petrochemical plants. Standard Heights sits next to an Exxon oil refinery; The US Department of Defense, Best explains, is the world’s largest consumer of fossil fuels. “And most of them are made here.” Ashley Gilbertson, a war photographer, shows people fishing in polluted waters and harvesting vegetables from polluted soil. “These people live in there,” Best says. “It’s important to see this,” and to consider not only the idea of disease and devastation, but also everyday existence and how it unfolds in these damaged environments.
Harvard Art Museums, Photographic Acquisition Fund, 2020.166. © Ashley Gilbertson / VII; Image courtesy of the artist.
One of Gilbertson’s other photographs shows a resident of San Francisco’s Hunters Point neighborhood, near the shipyard that once housed the Navy’s largest applied nuclear testing laboratory, bending down to speak to a group of workers who appear to be digging a trench in his neighbor’s yard. “That says a lot about injustice,” Best says. “The woman doesn’t know what’s going on, no one told her. Men wear these protective suits, but she has nothing. And you have, like, a hanger attached to another fence to keep people out. That’s it. Everything looks very random. It is life in a polluted area.
Best grew up not far from where the photo was taken. “My mother created community gardens in this area,” she says. “I went to school with a lot of children from there who had asthma, who had a lot of illnesses in their families. And they had weird things going up in their gardens – something was sort of oozing, and then people “- like the men in Gilbertson’s picture -” would just come and dig a ditch and patch it up. ”
Devour the earth also explores the idea of regeneration and the power of community organization. Some of the photographs on the show are startlingly beautiful, others ironically humorous. “This exhibition asks us to think about what we do not control and what we should have control over, ”Best says. “And it asks us to think creatively about sustainability and to put our energies into solving some of these problems, instead of towards more weapons. These photographs remind us that what we do has consequences.