Blankness in the Antarctic Landscape of An-My Lê
As world reserves of oil and gas go on shrinking, and as
the richest mineral deposits approach exhaustion, international
consortia will begin to exert pressure on governments to permit
exploratory drilling in the unglaciated dry valleys . . . and on the
continental shelf of Antarctica . . .. The machinery, the supportive
establishments, and the roads that will be necessary for conducting
intensive, year-round exploration for oil cannot but produce a
devastation at least equal to that which the consortium of petroleum
corporations at Prudhoe Bay on the Arctic coast of Alaska have been
responsible. (Eliot Porter, Antarctica, 1978)
U.S. Conservation activist and landscape photographer Eliot Porter's
concern 30 years ago over the possibility of pressure from a "consortium
of petroleum corporations" to drill in the fragile U.S. Arctic might
well have been written in the summer of 2008, as the ice of the North
Pole melted to create a new, open zone of imperial contestation. The
Antarctic, though protected for the present from economic mining
interests by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty Secretariat (ATS), has
nevertheless become a focus of economic pressure driven by a renewed
scramble for scarce resources.
Figure 1 Eliot Porter, The Crater and Lava, Deception Island, Antarctica, January 19, 1975,
Dye imbibition print (Kodak dye transfer), (c) 1990 Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas.
Bequest of the artist, P1990.51.478.2.
Yet the photographs comprising Antarctica (1978) depict a "timeless"
and composed Antarctic landscape, betraying no sign of the human
intervention that nevertheless motivates and frames the album. Porter,
a celebrated nature photographer, was the first to bring to U.S. public
attention a place very little known. Much wider and deeper public
cultures of Antarctica developed in Britain, where the race to the south
pole at the turn of the 20th Century reflected directly on imperial
history, and in southern hemispheric colonial and commonwealth countries
like New Zealand and Australia, where relation to the British crown
still shapes national self-understanding. "Deception Island" serves as
the cover for Antarctica, emphasizing the relative familiarity of
its greenish, grass-like lichen and varied rock forms, and clearly
echoing the strategies of Porter's earlier landscapes in the American
Porter helped create the Sierra Club aesthetic, which was also a
complex strategy of promoting conservation in the U.S. post-War era.
Advocates sought to curb development in Yellowstone Park, but advocacy
required promotion. The photographic school that developed to capture
and control the image of the western landscape created dramatic and
anachronistic images of seemingly untouched nature. Tourism, unleashed
as a force to save the park, also created a pressure to industrialize
and pave roads through the newly-desired wilderness: a paradox of
eco-tourism now continued in relation to Antarctica. Following the
lead of the Sierra Club to use aesthetics as a strategy to promote
conservation, Porter aimed to preserve the Antarctic wilderness against
the inevitability of capitalist development through the power of his
lush, full color coffee table book. But bringing the little known,
non-nationalized Antarctic to a U.S. audience as wilderness, and as a
handsome album of carefully framed photographs, also heavily marked the
Antarctic as an object of U.S. national concern, and possibly of
ownership. This tension between the documentary features of photography
and its instrumentality to ownership, both private and national,
continues to generate visual meaning in Antarctica.
Photography in the Antarctic has, since the Heroic Age of Antarctic
exploration (1895-1917), been the most overexposed of visual
technologies. The mediation of photography brought into view a
territory that had previously been represented only in written narrative
and paintings and sketches that did not circulate as widely as
photographs. Yet for all its popularizing, and indeed because the
medium of photography became so ubiquitous and powerful, its
significance in the creation of Antarctica as a place is often taken for
granted. As documentary proof of national territorial claims,
knowledge-gathering and mapping, and as advertising/promotion, and even
as an aesthetic practice in itself, photography has played multiple
roles in the creation of Antarctic place even before 1911-12, when both
Norwegian and British explorers photographed their arrivals at the South
In this essay I build on the centrality of Antarctic
photography to the creation of Antarctic place in order to make a claim
about how a particular U.S. landscape aesthetic has emerged within and
through the contemporary era's breakdown of national borders and of
awareness of environmental crisis.
The 2008 series Events Ashore by U.S. photographer An-My Lê
exemplifies this post-national, post-ecological view of the Antarctic.
Working within and against the powerful imperial notion of Antarctica as
a tabula rasa and the landscape tradition that nurtured
Antarctica's blankness, Lê presents Antarctica as a "non-place,"
questioning assumptions about the impact and future of national presence
on the continent.
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