Aluminum Spew, Plastic Inferno Bring Ugly Beauty to Photo Shows

"Coal Ash Reservoir" by J Henry Fair in Harriman, Tennessee, a photo of a large containment vessel under construction at power plant. Flight provided by SouthWings. Photographer: J Henry Fair via Bloomberg

At the Wolf Conservation Center in South Salem, New York, a wood stove heats a cottage whose sole occupant, photographer and co-founder J Henry Fair, chucks a log on the fire as he holds forth on U.S. environmental policy.

“We haven’t enacted any major environmental legislation since, what, 1973? Nixon,” Fair says, and then thunders “Nixon!” with amused disgust. “The environmental president.”

With two new exhibitions in New York and a book coming out next month, it’s a busy time for Fair. The day I visit, he is making frames for his prints in the shows with wood milled from local trees he felled.

The center, about 75 minutes’ drive north of Manhattan, provides education on wolves and the environment. Working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, it breeds endangered wolves and helps reintroduce them into the wild.

Adorning the cottage’s walls and work table are samples of Fair’s work, brilliant photographs of environmental nightmares.

For the past 20 years or so, Fair has been shooting industrial sites such as mountaintop mines in West Virginia and petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River’s “Cancer Alley,” a stretch of Louisiana from Baton Rouge to New Orleans with high incidences of the disease. A photo of a smoldering plastics factory looks like something out of Dante’s Inferno.

“It’s funny, I’ve been putting this together for 20 years,” he says. “Much of it seemed unrelated, and it’s now coming together.”

Toxic River

These aren’t just pretty pictures of horrible things. The images -- usually aerial shots -- are an education in environmental impacts, the otherwise unseen costs of modern living.

He shows me a stunning bird’s-eye view of a white toxic river spewing from a battered coastline into a brown-red sea. “I didn’t know what that was when I took it,” he says of the scene captured over Baton Rouge a few months after Hurricane Katrina.

Later he learned it was the byproducts of bauxite refining, used in the manufacture of aluminum, coursing into the Gulf of Mexico.

“What’s so interesting about this stuff is the abstract beauty,” says Fair.

I find myself looking closely at each print wondering: What the hell is that? Which is good, says Fair, since he wants, above all, for people to ask questions. “I realized that the more abstract the images became, the more interesting they were.” It’s true.

“The other side of this stuff,” he explains, “are these very mechanistic images: the giant excavators chewing earth, which are pretty amazing, and the drill rigs spitting fire over the Gulf of Mexico.”

Abstraction, Information

The two aspects of his work require two distinct exhibitions. The show of artsy abstractions opened Jan. 13 at the Gerald Peters Gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. The show at Cooper Union from Jan. 20 “will be very informational and, image-wise, more Charles Sheeler, a little more mechanistic.”

The photographs at Cooper Union will be given context with information from such sources as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxic Release Inventory. It will also include practical information for consumers.

Fair’s first book, “The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis,” features his dramatic aerial photographs with essays by prominent scientists, authors and activists, such as James Hansen, Jack Hitt and Frances Mayes.

Fair can identify specific industrial villains in his work, yet he prefers not to name names. He doesn’t want to simply list brands to avoid, since some people will think a boycott is enough “activism” and stop asking questions. (I note, though, that one of his pieces is titled “Claws of Brawny,” depicting the paper-towel manufacturer’s brutal tree-pulping operation.)

Change in Canada

He will cite good-citizen companies, such as Kimberly-Clark Corp., maker of Kleenex and other paper products. A couple of years ago, Fair photographed the manufacturer’s atrocious culling of old-growth forests in Canada for the Natural Resources Defense Council which, with Greenpeace, had launched a campaign against the company. The pressure must have got to Kimberly-Clark, because in 2009 it agreed to stop messing with Canada’s old-growth forests.

“And the beauty of this story,” says Fair, “is the success of consumer pressure to have a producer do the right thing, all of which starts with citizen awareness.”

At some point, Fair wants to fly over Iceland to photograph the aluminum industry’s impact on the wilderness. He’d like to figure out a way to shoot the giant vortex of garbage swirling around the northern Pacific. If anybody can make such things beautiful, it’s this guy.

“J Henry Fair: Abstraction of Destruction” is showing through Feb. 11 at the Gerald Peters Gallery, 24 E. 78th St. “Landscapes of Abstraction” opens Jan. 20 at the Cooper Union School of Art, 41 Cooper Square. The photo sizes are 20” by 30,” 30” by 40” and 50” x 70,” with an edition of 10 for each size. The prices range from $2,550 to $6,000. “The Day After Tomorrow” will be published by PowerHouse Books.

(Mike Di Paola writes on preservation and the environment for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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