Photo: J Henry Fair
I spoke to J Henry Fair on Election Day 2016. He had just overseen a special presentation of his “Industrial Scars” series in Berlin, in which his aerial photographs of industrial pollution (like Mordor on LSD) were projected over the heads of an orchestra playing Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, “The Song of the Earth.”
It was a fitting combination.
“I’m a big Mahler fan and this piece is particularly appropriate to these pictures,” Henry told me over Skype. “It was a low time in Mahler’s life when he wrote this piece. He’d just been kicked out of Vienna for being a jew – even though he had changed his religion to get the job of court composer – and his daughter had just died; and so he wrote this piece of music. It speaks about the sun will always shine and youth is so beautiful and ‘come my friends let’s gather round and drink to blah blah blah.’”
With his southern drawl, Henry’s “blahs” and his chuckle combined into a rippling sound of mordant delight. Though he is eager to steal the wind from his own sail, Henry has created art that is impossible to diminish. The photographs in the Industrial Scars series are at once arresting and repulsive. Their toxic colors are too unnatural to spring from the Earth and too mesmerizing to ignore. There is something inherently wrong with these images, and that makes enjoying his work a seedy enterprise for anyone who claims to have an interest in the survival of our species. Of course you know that oil sands are a thick and dangerous form of crude oil, but staring down at a gargantuan pool of the stuff and the way its psychedelic sheen reflects the sun – there really is nothing quite like it.
After Berlin, Henry was heading to Paris to appear at another of his exhibits and a book signing. It was a time of mixed emotions for the artist. On the one hand, he’d just seen the publication of a critically-acclaimed collection of his work featuring essays written by environmental luminaries like Bill McKibben. On the other hand, Donald Trump was the Republican nominee, and the future was still uncertain.
At the time, I was optimistic. The voter returns had yet to come in and a lot of my media associates were convinced Donald Trump would be booted off the national stage by a triumphant (if stodgy and decidedly pro-establishment) Hillary Clinton. I was right in the thick of it, already preparing a list of green policy issues progressives would need to hold her accountable for.
Henry, for his part, was a busy American staring back at his busy country with amused resignation. That half the voting public had nominated a loud-mouthed, blustering, boasting, billionaire – and that all of these traits were considered perks – was disconcerting. For a West Coast liberal like myself, his eventual win was devastating.
As Trump’s prospective cabinet was filled by fossil fuel sympathizers and his team called on the Department of Energy for the names of any employees associated with climate research, it seemed that Trump’s willful distaste for facts might become official policy. His Secretary of State, if approved by the Senate, would be Rex Tillerson, the former CEO of Exxon – the biggest oil company in the world and the reason climate denial is alive and well. Decades ago, Exxon commissioned its scientists to investigate the link between carbon emissions and global warming. When they discovered a positive link, they swiftly shifted their funds into climate denial and misinformation. Trump’s EPA pick is a man who’s spent years suing the EPA for doing its job. His Interior Secretary wants to open public lands to drilling and fracking and all of the industrial activities that Henry captures in his grand and grotesque photographs.
It is not a happy time for green people.
“It’s a Strange Country, America”
Henry has spent many years flying over the U.S. documenting the beautiful waste that is poisoning our country. His book, Industrial Scars, is filled with photographs that are beguiling in the classic sense: Deceptively beautiful. Whether it’s the oleaginous scintillations of tar sands or the muddy wreck of tailings ponds, Henry knows what the price of business looks like.
Granted, not all business looks bad. Bill Gates just tapped a superteam of fellow businessmen to lead a multi-billion-dollar investment in renewable power. It will be another breed of businessman that takes office next week, one who believes environmental regulation is getting in the way of profits, and has said more than once that global warming is just a “hoax” created by the Chinese.
Henry and I did not discuss Trump so much as we discussed the people who put their faith in him. Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton generated historically low popularity numbers, and yet Trump’s followers were energetic in a way the former Secretary of State’s just couldn’t match. It concerned me that Trump, and before him many members of his alleged Republican Party, flouted the scientific consensus on climate change (among other established environmental facts). As he is a frequent traveler to Europe, I asked Henry how the mood differed across the pond. He was touring his Industrial Scars photographs; clearly there was demand for environmentally-conscious art.
Henry answered in his sardonic drawl: “Yes, they have a more environmental perspective and yes they’re more intellectual and more liberal than…” He stopped himself from generalizing for the whole country, then decided to go for it anyway. “It’s probably fairly liberal there [in California]. Certainly in New York it’s fairly liberal. The rest of America is not really very liberal.”
The political rift between liberals and conservatives is at an all-time-high. That has been true for years now, but the particular hostility of Trump’s supporters reaches beyond politics. Trump tapped into the angry, dispossessed heart of the nation, which has elevated emotion over reason. I asked Henry, is the problem that we’re anti-intellectual? Why do we have such a contentious relationship with the facts?
“It’s a strange country, America,” he mused. “You know, there’s all of the best and the worst there. It’s easy to disparage it, being…hey, I’m not going to cut any bones, I’m a liberal and I’m intellectual. Right? It is what it is. I grew up in a place – South Carolina – where there’s not so many liberals and intellectuals… And I like culture, and I like intellectuals, and I like the progress of humanity, the progress of civilization. Certainly sometimes it seems like we in the U.S. are regressing a little bit.”
Eyes on the Edge
I spoke to Henry while he was in Frankfurt, several thousand miles from his native Carolina coast. Last year, Henry showcased that coast in 27 large-scale photographs that debuted at the Columbia Museum of Art. That series, “Eyes on the Edge,” depicts a land altered by relentless construction.
“[N]othing stays the same,” Bill told the museum. “Things evolve with God’s will, and are manipulated by the hand of man. The winding marsh-lined creeks where I learned to slalom are now crowded by houses with docks. The rivers where I cast my net now post warning signs about the mercury content of the fish. A giant condominium is falling into the ocean on the end of the Isle of Palms, coastal forests are being cleared for tract houses, and the traffic everywhere is a mess.”
Meanwhile, the sea is rising to reclaim the shore. In the near future, Charleston can expect approximately 30 days of flooding per year. Scientists predict that large portions of the nation’s coastline can expect the same as global warming alters both our climate and our sea levels.
With his coastal photographs, Henry asks his observers if unchecked development is America’s natural destiny. “Is this just the nature of progress, that all good things must be cut down or paved? Or are there effective limits to growth that will preserve this region into the future?”
The “not so subtle message,” he added, is that his home state is not adequately protecting its natural resources. “You’ve got something very valuable and you’re not being good stewards,” he said. “Just when we should be remediating the coast and moving slowly away from it, we’re rushing towards it. Miami’s a perfect example. Miami’s already underwater and they’re still building! And the real estate values are skyrocketing! Miami is ground zero for climate change and there’s nothing they can do about it because it sits on limestone formations, and so the water just bubbles up through the sewers.”
Unfortunately, it will be difficult for Florida officials to suggest fixes for this growing problem when the words “climate change” and “global warming” are verboten under Governor Rick Scott.
Art Can Change Things, but It Takes Time
Some of the photographs in Henry’s portfolio are so wildly colorful, and capriciously composed, that from a distance they appear to be abstract art. But on closer inspection, you can make out structures and landmarks that convey the scale of his subjects. It’s a balancing act, and landing the perfect photo can be a strenuous affair.
“When you’re in the air it all happens very fast,” he explained. “I have my moment. I take a lot of pictures, of course, because I try to make an establishing shot as well as the abstract beauty shot, the art piece. But I don’t hold the shutter button down and shoot thousands and hope for the one. I wait for being in exactly the right place and then I squeeze off two or three frames quickly. In the air, motion blur is a constant problem, [and so is] the vibration of the plane.”
When Henry charters a plane to take him to his sites, a full tank of gas can last four to five hours. “I try to stay up most of that time, and by the time you finish with that you’re pretty tired. Because the camera’s heavy – if you shoot it with a medium format camera – and then the gyroscope is quite heavy. It has a set of spinning flywheels that reduce vibration, and it fights you. There’s also the wind. It makes it very hard for the pilot to position the plane exactly where I need it to be. So that becomes another factor, and it can make the plane bumpy.”
I asked Henry if it was worth it. From an artistic standpoint, the work speaks for itself. The deliberate dissonance stirs the emotions. But as someone who cares for the land and would like to see it cared for, Henry is going for more than pretty pictures. Can an artist, I asked, make a real impact on the culture?
“Well that’s the $50,000 question, isn’t it?” he replied. “We know that art can have an impact. The fact that Vietnam was the first televised war ultimately put an end to the war. Yes, art can change things. It takes time. And sure, I can cite specific things that have been changed by my pictures and I’ve had plenty of people come to me and say, ‘Since seeing your pictures I’ve changed my behavior,’ or ‘I’ve stopped eating meat.’ Is it enough? We’ll see. Time will tell.”
After the November election results were announced and Hillary Clinton conceded to Donald Trump, Henry sent me a brief email with his thoughts.
“I think almost everyone is ready for change. This election has shown that,” he wrote. “It has also shown that the money won’t let that happen. And so we will have a money President. And thus I am convinced that the political system is broken. I hope that art, my art, will prompt people to consider that their true power comes with the money they spend. Politicians heed the money, not the voter. But the money responds to its customers. Or should we replace ‘money’ with ‘capital?’”