Visual Arts - Waste not want not

Kathryn Kolb's photography explores the place where nature|mankind meet

Southern Wildlands: Exceptional Remnants of the Great Eastern Forest

You'd think that once you've seen one portrait of a big leaf magnolia, you've seen them all.

But Atlanta photographer Kathryn Kolb's nature photography, concurrently on view at Thomas Deans Fine Art and Fernbank Museum of Natural History, proves that context is everything.

Put that leaf in a Buckhead gallery and you make it artful. Put it in a venue like Fernbank, and you invest it with a backstory and a projected future.

Kolb's photography of various imperiled Southern landscapes at Fernbank were inspired by her work on a Wilderness Society publication in which Southerners described their emotional investment in an endangered landscape. The images document nature's last stand, where old soul tulip poplar trees grow and mighty rivers give nature a sense of invincibility and timelessness, despite developers' threatened transformation of these native Edens into parking lots.

A people's history of the Southern land, Fernbank's Southern Wildlands: Exceptional Remnants of the Great Eastern Forest is also a remarkably progressive view of the region that reaches beyond conservation to touch on race, class and personal history.

The color photographs of young sourwood trees in the riotous blush of fall and blooming galax are accompanied by the remembrances and observations of people connected to the land, like Janisse Ray, whose snippet from The Ecology of a Cracker Childhood describes the frightening moment when her father saved her brother from being swallowed up by the Altamaha River. Kolb's foreboding image of the wide, black Altamaha attests to nature's power to embody startling beauty and a potential deathtrap.

While nature photography often gives the illusion of a view from within its midst, devoid of human trace, these narratives make clear any view of nature is a human one, imposed first with the ordered vision of the camera, and second by the entire history of humankind's interaction with it.

Far from the grandeur of the Ansel Adams school of nature photography, Kolb's is a more intimate observation of nature in a botanical, still-life tradition (a view especially apparent in the Thomas Deans show).

And unlike Sally Mann or Richard Misrach, whose views of nature tend to be underpinned with a conceptual thrust that invests the landscape with historical or political impact, Kolb's nature photography is celebratory rather than revelatory. Kolb's photographs worship in the cathedral of natural beauty, especially those on exhibit in her solo show at Thomas Deans. There, Kolb's work bounces between views of nature's singularity, as in a portrait of a "Bracken fern" isolated in a meadow, and the marvels of multiplicity found in each Southern red oak acorn or veiny dogwood leaf, which are as perfectly formed and complex as the next. Kolb's work argues for the miraculous design of nature from the constituent parts.

But devoid of context, much of those works feel equivalent to technologically mediated flower arrangements. The abstractions are especially disappointing. Kolb's brightly hued blossoms are kept purposefully out of focus to emphasize nature's riot of color, but they feel more like a fussy, alternative way to deal with her favorite subject than some expansion or progression in her work.

The combination of Kolb's photos and the testimonies of Southerners at Fernbank are better at evoking the sublime and spiritual aspects of nature so often indebted to the tension between singularity and the infinite.

Nature as a fetishized branch or bloom can become inert. But nature filtered through human experience is a wild, living and varied thing. It is nature transformed. The jumping off point for Kolb's Fernbank exhibition is an environmental consciousness and a view of nature mingled with human experience. The quotes placed next to Kolb's photographs are exceptionally well-chosen for how they find common ground in nature, instead of making it the proprietary province of environmentalists or activists.

Equally welcome is the exhibition's refusal to gloss over nature's many previous contaminations, and the brutal way the American soil has been compromised by the twin injustices of slavery and the ruin of Native American life. Southern Wildlands is a vision of nature that doesn't deny the Southern reality.

One of the more eloquent passages is provided by Congressman John Lewis, who asserts that our civil rights include access to clean air and water. A fierce and motivating call to arms, he says, "The wilderness lives in all of us, and we shouldn't try to separate ourselves from it."

What the Fernbank show illustrates quite beautifully is that nature is a communal enterprise composed of the experiences of the people who have wandered its mountains and nearly drowned in its rivers.

Though it is human-centric to say so, the truth is that without human contemplation and preservation, there is no nature; the Fernbank work is a documentation of that sad reality.

The beauty of the fern-lush meadows and pillowy mountain ranges documented by Kolb add an important weight to pleas made by one Virginia mother and clear-cutting opponent, Nancy Ward: "Pretty soon there will be nothing left for our children. Is that what we really want?"

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