Category Archives: Environment

Another Kind of a ‘Huh?’

My latest self-published book, Twentysix Hydrocarbon Blocks, explores some of the consequential effects hydrocarbon extraction activities in the Peruvian Amazon are having upon biodiversity, languages, and indigenous peoples. Featured below is my own short introductory text. The book also includes an essay by anthropologist and Peruvian expert, Miguel Alexiades.

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“In 1963, the American artist Ed Ruscha released Twentysix Gasoline Stations, a photographic publication now widely considered the first modern artist’s book. As the title suggests, it contains banal photographs of twenty-six gasoline stations taken along Route 66 between Los Angeles and Oklahoma. The work has generated much discussion around its significance within conceptual art and the meaning (or otherwise) of its content. This includes religious sub-texts, nods towards the American road movie genre, and Duchampian allegories to the ‘ready-made’. Absent from the discourse, though, has been any serious discussion around gasoline or oil, which is surprising in view of its historical and ongoing importance to the United States both culturally, economically, and geopolitically.

Picking up on this oversight and in the spirit of Ruscha’s original, this artist book explores the issue of oil and gas extraction within the Peruvian Amazon, alluding to the consequential human and environmental effects it is and will increasingly have upon the region. Over the past thirty years, successive Peruvian governments have pursued a path of national development focused on hydrocarbon extraction, which in large part occurs within areas of high biological and cultural diversity. Western Amazonia, which includes a significant portion of Peruvian territory, is the most species rich part of the Amazon basin and is home to high concentrations of indigenous ethnic groups, including some of the world’s last uncontacted peoples living in isolation from mainstream society. Unlike Brazilian Eastern Amazonia, it is still a largely intact ecosystem, but one where the underlying substrata contains huge reserves of oil and gas, many yet untapped. The growing global demand is leading to unprecedented exploration and development of the region threatening biological and cultural integrity (often within protected areas) driving forest clearance, causing interethnic and civil conflict, and the colonisation of hitherto sparsely populated areas.

This book utilises spectral species density imagery from the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and NatureServe; hydrocarbon block and protected area Geographical Information System (GIS) shapefile data produced by hydrocarbon promotion agency, Perupetro; and indigenous territorial mapping data produced by the Peruvian civil society group, Instituto del Bien Común (IBC). The data has been combined, arranged, and passed through seven separate cartographic and creative software packages and manifests itself in the double-page spreads that follow. Each of these spreads contains a visual representation of species concentration and indigenous presence within twenty-six active or soon-to-be active hydrocarbon blocks located throughout the Peruvian Amazon. Also included is a text by anthropologist, Miguel Alexiades, a leading expert on biocultural diversity and the political ecology of Western Amazonia.

During numerous interviews, Ruscha has described Twentysix Gasoline Stations as “simply a collection of facts”. In a 1982 interview with Art News he declared it a “training manual for people who want to know about things like that”. This succinctly summarises my own intentions with this book.”

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Taxonomy Book

New self-published artist book exploring the poetics of species naming, focused on the 1879 known bird, 417 known mammal, 389 known amphibian, and 300 known reptile species in Peru.

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Representing Amazonia

Even though Amazonia is now the focus of much international attention, and is often considered in a metaphorical sense as the embodiment of humanities assault on the natural world as part of the globalisation frenzy, it is fair to say it remains pretty much off-limits to all but the most committed of travellers. Lingering metaphors of “green hell,” including rampant caricatures of wild Indians and apocalyptic images of environmental devastation are such that whilst there is a greater interest in the region than there has probably ever been it is still a place few people would endeavour to spend much time in.

Amazonia is of course much written about in both specialist and non-specialist publications but much of how people perceive the Amazon is as a direct consequence of the imagery that has emanated from the region during the past century or so. This blog post aims to briefly discuss the history of such imagery, including some key examples from the realms of anthropology, photojournalism, travel, and the fine arts.

Probably the earliest serious attempts to render the Amazon visually came via mid-19th century Victorian naturalists such as Bates, Wallace, and Spruce, independent explorers and commercial scientists focused on the regions flora and fauna. Bates’s 1863 publication, The Naturalist on the River Amazons contained “…a record of adventures, habits of animals, sketches of Brazilian and Indian life and aspects of nature under the Equator during eleven years of travel.” Based upon their extended periods in the field, such naturalists provided the first systematic and widely disseminated accounts of “green hell” the legacy of which remains popular.

Huebner-couple

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The End of the Game

The tragic paradox of white man’s encroachment: the deeper he went into Africa the faster life flowed from it.”
Peter Beard, The End of the Game

Flattended Intro

Despite being one of 20th century photography’s most interesting characters and producing The End of The Game, one of its most intriguing photobooks, I expect the majority of people reading this post have never heard of Peter Beard. The notable exception of course are probably the readers with an interest in East African wildlife conservation where he is well known and I think fair to say pretty much celebrated. My own knowledge of him doesn’t come via the photography arena – it comes from my involvement with the animal charity Save the Rhino International where I volunteered for a few years. Once you know of Beard it’s surprising how often he crops up, most recently as part of the 2010 London Elephant Parade which was discussed in a separate post.

Coming from a long line of blue-blooded wealth, Beard first travelled to East Africa in the 1950’s supposedly after reading Karen Blixen’s Out of Africa. On the back of his experiences there, which included a friendship with Blixen herself, the fate of East African wildlife and cultures and all of the complexities around them became his passion. But there’s more to him than that – Beard was a prominent socialite whose milieu in New York high society included Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Bianca Jagger, and Jackie Onassis. He also had a close friendship with Francis Bacon whom he photographed and was the subject in some of his paintings (see Bacon’s Beard portrait, left).

The focus of The End of the Game is the damage done by big-game hunting and the incursion of the railways to wildlife and indigenous cultures in 20th century Kenya. The book commences by looking at the life of the elite band of white Kenyans who’d travelled from Europe in the late-1800s with a desire to profit and “impose order on the interior.” This eventually led to the construction of the ‘Lunatic Line’ –  a train system from Mombasa to Uganda, which served to open up these countries to further exploration and exploitation and which lit the touch paper for the bio-cultural extermination that would follow. Much of this happened before Beard’s time of course, but through his friendship with Blixen he was welcomed into Kenya by survivors of these elite, thereby accessing their records and anecdotes.

The construction of this ‘Lunatic’ railway is one of the most interesting and relatively unknown chapters in African colonial expansion. 562 miles long, it was built almost entirely by Indians brought in by the British who couldn’t compel the native Africans to be involved. Beard includes historical images of the line’s construction in the book including copies of diary entries by railway engineers, foreman, and colonial functionaries who record in remarkable detail the horrors of their endeavours, most notably tales of Indian workers being picked off almost at will by the man eating lions.

This ‘advance of civilisation’ inevitably called for the wild game – a central symbol of African culture – to be eliminated with all the concomitant effects on the local population who were dependent upon it for their own survival. One page of a hunter’s notebook records the remarkable killing of 996 rhinos during a single expedition. It is argued by Beard that, overall, the big game hunters in themselves had a marginal effect of wildlife but that they set the scene for its subsequent commercialisation that goes a long way to help understand the origins of some of Kenya’s present day problems.

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First published in 1965 it has since been reissued three more times, most recently in 2008 with a new foreword by Paul Theroux. After the 1977 edition appeared it included 40 pages of aerial photos of elephant carcasses and bones documenting the tragic elephant die-off of the 1970s on the back of disastrous conservation policies. The emotional impact of these images is immense, concluding the overall apocalyptic feel to the book which starts somewhat romantically with tales of adventure, daring, and geographical exploration and concludes with scenes of absolute mayhem. The volume contains about 300 images, the majority of which are Beards own, including some real stunners which are even more remarkable when one considers the technical limitations of the day. The design still seems innovative despite nearing 50 years old and the page layouts include all kinds of sketches, delicate drawings and symbols of Africa, hand written texts on many of the images, and beautiful typography and prose. The book is a life-form in itself, with the prints still exhibited and sold in private galleries where Beard develops his ideas further through the application of paint, poetry, drawings, etc.

In short, nothing short of a classic that can be returned to time and time again (ultimately the measure of any good photobook). I hope one day to experience the pleasure of seeing his prints up close.

 

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All images © Peter Beard.

UPDATE: I thought I’d add this video of Beard tracking elephants on foot in the Massai Mara, with interesting consequences!