The photograph is not straight. The extreme angle is the way the photographer, Subhankar Banerjee wants it displayed, here on the walls of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, where his latest body of work is on exhibit.
Many of his large-scale photographs are hung this way, cropped at an odd angle, but always hung with the landscape's horizon line parallel to the floor. The photographs of treetops and clouds are mounted high on the wall, so the viewer has to look up, as if the trees were in the gallery. The visually awkward hanging causes you to cant your head this way and that, up and down like a bobble head, constantly attempting to reconcile the extreme angles and heights and make the photographs all upright and straight. It's a challenge and an irritant, which was the artist's intent.
Banerjee is an artist and environmental activist. He is adept at raising red flags and waving them about furiously. He came to national attention in 2003 with a series of photographs and a book on the North American Arctic. After one of those photographs was used by proponents fighting a push by oil companies and the Bush administration to open the region to oil and gas drilling, an exhibition of Banerjee's Arctic works was moved from the main rotunda of the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., to a lower level. The move sparked criticism of Smithsonian officials and accusations of political influence. Eventually, the California Academy of Science revived the exhibition, and it traveled across the U.S. Banerjee's book, The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land, became a national bestseller.
In 2007, the native of Berhampore, India, moved to a suburb of Santa Fe, N.M.. His home was in a housing development that had a number of environmental considerations built into the infrastructure. Houses were built one to an acre, fences were not allowed so that wildlife could roam unimpeded. There were a number of hiking trails in the area, and Banerjee used them for daily treks. He began to take his camera with him. The resulting photographs -- unlike his Arctic photos that were sweeping vistas -- are tight, the vegetation overpoweringly close. The landscape is the desert, but when photographed from such an intimate point of view, it looks as impenetrable as a jungle.
Banerjee began to notice that what seemed desolate was actually teaming with wildlife, especially birds. In almost every photograph there is at least one bird. His three- to eight-mile walks would take him to one of three turn-around points: the power lines, the railroad tracks or the house with the dog. He uses those destinations in the titles; it is a way of naming that was influenced by living with indigenous communities in the Arctic -- Dead Piñon Where Birds Gather in Autumn; On My Way to the Powerline and Dead Piñons and Live Junipers Are Almost Bound Together; On My Way to the Railroad. His interest in the dead piñons was not immediate. He admits that he didn't even notice they were dead or dying at first; he thought they were just part of the new landscape. But the more he walked, the more he began to notice that the only piñons along the paths were dead ones. A severe drought early in the decade had caused 90 percent of the piñons to die off. The lack of water weakened them and a bark beetle finished them off. What were left in Banerjee's neighborhood were the upright remains.
But where there was death there was also life. The dead trees were providing homes for insects that, in turn, attracted birds, and small rodents were moving into the cavities, carrying nuts and seeds back to their nests. New growth was sprouting up in the hollows of the piñons. He moved in tight and photographed the cycle of life, all with a backdrop of overcast skies. It is the desert dweller's conundrum -- a clear sky portends a sparkling bright day; an overcast one, while depressing, suggests the possibility of rain, which is always needed and is essential for continued existence within that landscape.
"My aesthetic is rather simple; in fact, if the viewer was with me on the walk, he/she would see exactly what I see, and to aid that, many times I explicitly include the path in the photograph. What we see in the photographs is simultaneous juxtaposition of being alive and being dead," Banerjee writes in an essay about this body of work.
In 2008, Banerjee's neighborhood was threatened by oil and gas development. His photographs were too personal and therefore useless to Santa Fe's activist community, which used the work of other photographers to stave off development, at least temporarily. He acknowledges that he is complicit in the need for more fossil fuels and subtly highlighted this reliance by sandwiching each of these photographs between 1-inch-thick pieces of white Plexiglas overlaid with a transparent layer.
"The medium of photography has made significant contributions to our imaginations of landscape, place, space, geography... but perhaps little thoughtful work has been done about species [animals and birds] other than our own, or our relationship to them, or thinking about land from the inhabitants' point of view," Banerjee writes in the essay. "My Arctic and desert work simply addresses two issues, 'home' and 'food' that land provides to humans, as well as many other species with whom we share this Earth. I call it land as home."
Gaile Robinson is the Star-Telegram art and design critic, 817-390-7113