Act natural

Calendar-art quality of photographs obscures environmental message

__In Response to Place: Photographs From The Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places is a survey of landscapes — mountains, prairies, plateaus, rivers — with a 21st-century agenda. The images on display at the High Folk Art and Photography Galleries were shot by 12 prominent photographers, including Sally Mann, William Wegman and Richard Misrach. The photographers were commissioned by The Nature Conservancy to document a "Last Great Place" — defined by the Conservancy as an ecologically important area the organization is helping to protect — in celebration of its 50th anniversary.

Accompanying text is used to amp up the eco-agenda of the show, to make these images of endangered wetlands, forests and myriad Edens from Alaska to Indonesia inspire the expected lefty pangs of guilt about the ruin of our host planet.

In Response depends upon beauty to persuade, as if that will somehow make the conservation point more persuasively. But that reliance on beauty can also backfire, reworking the unique and sublime qualities of nature into pretty but sterile images imprinted with a photographic identity even more assertive than the place itself. The Nevada sand dunes captured in Richard Misrach's images, for instance, are not so much lovely as Misrach-Lovely ©, instantly recognizable for that photographer's aesthetic "touch" as much as a Josef von Sternberg film is recognizably his own.

But beyond such interesting peculiarities of photographic "voice," the show lacks a certain substance beneath its calendar-art beauty.

The work in Response is often beautiful, at other times banal and on several occasions, both. But all the photographs are overly invested with the show's agenda of articulating a distressing codependency between nature and humankind: nature increasingly relies on human charity to preserve it, and a human world overrun with manufactured ugliness often needs nature to sustain and inspire it.

It is not hard for most people to be disturbed by the destruction of the world's resources without Annie Leibovitz's spooky photographs of the misty Shawangunk Mountains or Terry Evans' portraits of the Oklahoma Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. Ironically, a more persuasive point about destruction might have been made with images not of such sublime beauty but of the hideous factories and subdivisions that compete with them for earthly quarters. But because In Response recognizes the persuasive, agenda-dictated needs of the show to "sell" the positive preservation-goals of the Conservancy, beauty tends to be the more commonly invoked tool, as in Sally Mann's gorgeously transporting, dreamy images of Mexican ruins.

In this geographic "Miss World" beauty contest, some of the most spectacular images are Lynn Davis' serene photographs of Utah plateaus and highways, which achieve what other photographers in Response clearly aspire to. Her photographs invest the landscape with a sentient, moody quality — the aura of a living presence charged with mystery and strength. The picture "Highway to Dugout Ranch," of an isolated road leading into shadows cast by a succession of three looming plateaus, looks like something out of a metaphysical road movie, a passage from the asphalt marker of civilization into the primordial.

Davis' images offer an iconic vision of the American West as powerful as director John Ford's visions of Monument Valley. Her image "Wilsons Arch" could, in fact, be a production still from Ford's The Searchers, with its sliver of craggy desert glimpsed through an eyeball slit in the rock.

Other artists bring a more formalist approach to the project, like Lee Friedlander, whose black-and-white images of gnarled cottonwood trees flanking Arizona's San Pedro River have the chaos of Jackson Pollock's canvases.

There are also some duds included in this survey, like William Wegman's images of his famous Weimaraners cavorting in Cobscook Bay, Maine. The imposition of human ego onto the landscape defies the eco-message of the In Response project and demonstrates an inability or unwillingness to rise above professional shtick.

The only truly startling and subversive images in this gorgeous show art are Mary Ellen Mark's photographs of the struggling Alaska and Virginia coastal town residents linked by their reliance on depleted fishing industries. Rather than subscribing to the nature-centered work in the rest of the show, these images are more committed to the photographer's personal agenda of empathetic humanism.

Mark's photographs of a man pitifully snuggling a stuffed animal or a little boy dwarfed by the looming seats of his school bus force a human perspective back into the show, refusing to see people as simply an environmental bogeyman.

But like many of the photographers in Response, Mark's struggle to insert her own artistic mission into a social agenda results in visible strain. Most of the artists in the show seem limited by the narrowness of this Nature Conservancy project. In Response is made in the service of an undoubtedly worthy cause but one that transforms this photography into advertisement using famous names to sell its agenda.