Endangered geographies 

The current Indianapolis Museum of Art exhibition reveling in nature’s gifts and challenges is testament to the photographic art. Following runs in the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., The Houston Museum of Science, Bellevue Art Museum in Seattle and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, The Nature Conservancy exhibition celebrating its 50 year-anniversary, In Response to Place, is now on view here.
The Nature Conservancy, unique among environmental preservation organizations for its approach of purchasing endangered lands in order to protect them, has a broad geographic scope. An effort such as this, which brings home its message without the confrontational elements, has the potential to draw awareness subtly but effectively.
The dozen artists commissioned to participate in In Response to Place were asked to explore Nature Conservancy-protected lands in an effort to celebrate them. It’s hard to overlook the irony, though, that large-scale efforts such as this one require the financial support of corporations — sometimes of the type that perpetuate environmental destruction in the first place. Not-for-profit organizations have always contended with this tension, especially as they grow in scope and stature, and companies wish to elevate their reputations as “good environmental citizens” by attaching their names to such projects.
I won’t point the finger, though, at any of the entities who sponsored In Response to Place — Merrill Lynch, Cadillac, Georgia-Pacific Corporation, MBNA America, Millstone Coffee and 3M — because my purpose is not to examine the environmental report cards of corporations. Instead, my focus is more effectively trained at the beauty of the work, and the effort it reflects to bring artists to the table in enlightening the general public.
This is testament to the scope of the Conservancy’s efforts and as such is a brilliant stroke of public relations genius. Rallying artists in service of a cause is certainly not new. But this exhibition draws upon the particular strengths of its participants: William Wegman, who has made a career photographing his Weimaraners; Annie Leibovitz, who is known for her celebrity portraits; and for the art-world literate, there’s Sally Mann, Lee Friedlander and Mary Allen Mark. Rounding out the dozen are Karen Halverson, Terry Evans, Lynn David, Richard Misrach, Fazal Sheikh, Hope Sandrow and William Christenberry.
The photographers visited places specifically for this project, capturing the social desolation, in some cases, as well as the environmental state of affairs. Portraits of both landscapes and people populate this exhibition, which includes traditional photographs as well as more experimental digital abstractions.
Among the latter variety, Sandrow’s ink jet prints are haunting and arresting in their use of brilliant color. Misrach’s desert photos are striking for their simple linearity and suppleness of vision. And Leibovitz surprises with her ghostly portraits of contorted trees. Mann’s Calakmul Biosphere Reserve photos are also mysterious and seem to lift from the frame as spirit-filled worlds. The portraits range from the red-rock plateaus of Utah to the coral reefs of Indonesia, and not all of them are pristine: developmental effects can lend their own ironic beauty, as in an abandoned motel or a lifeless body of water.
This exhibition reminds us that there are beautiful places still, and the necessity of preserving them should not be underestimated. In Response to Place: Photographs from the Nature Conservancy’s Last Great Places is on view through Aug. 2 at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, 4000 Michigan Road, 923-1331, www.ima-art.org. In conjunction with the exhibition, photographer Terry Evans will present a lecture on June 19. Beginning June 7, the IMA will offer the class “The Photographer’s Eye.” Contact the museum for further details on these and other related events.

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