Lamenting the plight of nature
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Lamenting the plight of nature
Installation view.

by Sophie Haigney

NEW ORLEANS (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- In one photo, ice floes separate like shattered glass — a world of blue and white, cracking apart. The photo beside it looks almost like a scene from another planet: a marsh overflowing with water, rivulets of deep blue between bright patches of green.

These aerial photos were taken by New Orleans-based photographer Tina Freeman, many miles apart: the ice, off the eastern coast of Greenland and the marsh, near Delacroix, Louisiana. But Freeman paired them as a diptych, part of her exhibition “Lamentations,” on display at the New Orleans Museum of Art through early March.

Side by side, the structures in the two photographs are strikingly similar. The ice and the marsh shapes look almost like inverses of each other, a negative and positive of the same photograph. Both environments in these photos are unhealthy and breaking apart, though you might not be able to tell from one glance. The ice is moving south, cracking off a glacier, melting; the marsh is rotting and breaking up, starved of organic matter, turning into open water.

Freeman’s diptychs in “Lamentations,” which have also been published in a book by the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, make visible the troubling connection between two threatened environments.

Glacial loss and rising sea levels are intricately connected; because glaciers store so much water, the loss of a single large one could increase sea levels by a matter of feet. This can have disastrous consequences in low-lying regions like Louisiana, where already, according to a 2017 U.S. Geological Survey, a portion of the coastal wetlands the size of a football field is lost every 100 minutes.

This connection between melting glaciers and rising seas is well documented, but it can be hard to conceptualize or see.

“These photos are showing you something that you can’t apprehend together,” said Russell Lord, the museum’s curator of photographs. “A lot of people know, oh yeah, sea level rise is caused by melting glaciers, but you can’t stand in Louisiana and see a glacier, and most people never will. It’s bringing that connection home in a visual form.”

For Freeman, 68, this project began with a trip to Antarctica in 2011 when, she said, she was struck by the “otherworldliness” of the glaciers and began photographing them.

Then, in 2013, she was invited to a New Year’s Eve party at a duck camp in the Louisiana wetlands, where she also took photographs. Looking at two of the photos side by side, she was struck by similar forms and compositions in the wildly different landscapes and thought of pairing them.

“I made tons of little 4-by-6 images from Costco, and that allowed me to really begin to put them together,” Freeman said. “I have a magnetic wall in my office, and I started just having lots of pairs on that wall, and unpairing and repairing them, and putting them in different pairs.”

This project, which became the book and exhibition, led Freeman to take multiple trips to Iceland, Greenland and Norway, and to travel through the wetlands in Louisiana over the course of nearly a decade.

The final diptychs are often based on structural and compositional echoes: a hollow cypress tree in a Louisiana lake whose shape is eerily similar to that of a glacier in Greenland, or glacial outflow in Iceland and sediment near Wax Lake, Louisiana, that move in similar patterns. Sometimes the connections are less obvious — a pink Arctic dusk and an orange oil boom after the Deepwater Horizon explosion and oil spill, the colors dissonant and bright.

Part of what drew Lord to these photos were these echoes and contrasts. “I really like the idea that placing two photos together can create a kind of conversation and is essentially a mode of forgoing text because you are asking the viewer to think about the relationship between two pictures,” he said. “Everyone will see something different. Meaning in photography is slippery; everyone brings to it what they want.”

The meaning can be complex and sometimes opaque, especially at first glance. Though “Lamentations” is explicitly an exhibition about the global climate crisis, the photographs don’t scream “disaster.” Beauty is at the forefront of the work — there are wild Louisiana irises in addition to abandoned pumping stations. And even the melting glaciers, or rotting marshes, are beautiful; it is not always easy to see the destruction in each piece.

“As a photographer, I don’t go after the grit,” Freeman said. “What I’m trying to do is seduce people with the beauty first and then get them to look a little closer at the pairs and begin to think harder about it. The beauty is a kind of hook.”

Lord added: “It’s somewhat of a controversial mode, juxtaposing the beauty against the terrible. In Tina’s case, you don’t see something terrible happening in all the pictures. In some cases it’s a healthy marsh; in other cases it’s a stable glacier, and it provides this sense of constant haunting.”

Freeman said that as she was working, she realized that this project went back to childhood summers, when her family would drive from New Orleans down to marshes near the end of the Mississippi River and spend the night on a boat. She recalled certain images: heat lightning traveling from cloud to cloud, tall grasses, gas flares on the horizon, droves of red-winged blackbirds.

“I was just reading the other day that 3 million birds have disappeared, and one they mentioned was red-winged blackbirds,” she said. “And I thought, yes, it’s true, you still see them but not in the large numbers you used to.”

The title of the exhibition, “Lamentations,” evokes an essentially lost world — lost birds, lost glaciers, lost acres of wetland — but for Freeman, it’s also about the urgency of change. It’s about preserving what remains, she said, “and lamenting that if we don’t do anything, this will all be gone.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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