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Art for Mankind’s Sake

Though they seem like distant past lives, I used to write often about photography and I used to live in Paris, the latter for about ten years. One of my favorite annual events there was called Paris Photo, a gathering of and displays by 100-plus of the best photo galleries from around the world, in the Carousel de Louvre. I met and made many friends there over the years, occasionally bought some beautiful photography that I would never have discovered otherwise, all in a very Parisian setting.

As luck would have it, the event was on last weekend while I was in Paris, so I lucked out. I went on a warm November Saturday, so the place was packed … I would have preferred to wander the gallery displays privately, or at least unaccompanied by a thousand elbowing, rubber-necking Frenchmen, but it was still great. The biggest difference since the last event I’d seen, easily a half-dozen years ago, was the content. Then, it seemed, the most beautiful work by some of the best art photographers in the world was focused on art for art’s sake. Still-lives from Japan, big colorful recreations by Gregory Crewdsen, and lots and lots of work by my old pal Peter Beard.

It’s a different world now and was reflected in the artwork, and the theme of the show: Work by and about the Arab and Iranian worlds. Fourteen galleries from the Mideast were spotlighted, as were about fifty Muslim and Mideastern photographers. Most of the work would not be considered photojournalism but rather an artist’s take on real life, but the line between the two in many instances was thin. One goal of the curators, I am sure, was to get away from the stereotypical image of life in the Arab world – veiled women and local craftsmen – and on the destruction that has wreaked havoc in the Empty Quarter so intensely this past decade. Talks and videos by Iranian photographers were highlighted during the weekend, as was the Arab Image Foundation, dedicated to preserving photography of the region going back one hundred and fifty years.

Given my affection for blue water, I especially liked these photos by Tehran-born Jalal Sepehr, seen at the Esther Woerdehoff Galerie. The experience reminded me of the mountain film festivals I’d seen in recent days, and my discouragement of the need for any more movies focused on privileged white people throwing themselves on boards off the tops of increasingly steeper mountains; art for art’s sake will always have a place, but art focused on the human condition – particularly when it is at its worst – is invaluable.

On Thick Ice, Ski Porn and OCEANS, the Movie

Regarding tourist ships stuck in the ice, apparently the “Captain Khlebinkov” is out of the pack ice in the Weddell Sea and headed back to Ushuaia, running just a couple days behind schedule. But after the incident was first reported, I had an email from a passenger who’d been on the previous voyage with the “CK,” reporting that the ship had taken a very similar route – near to Snow Hill, down the east side of the Peninsula, just into the Weddell Sea – and had gotten similarly “stuck” amongst the ice in windy, whiteout conditions. It was, she wrote, a fantastic adventure!

On the big screen, in Torello, Spain

On the big screen, in Torello, Spain

In Ushuaia, the ship will pick up another group of passengers and apparently is headed back towards the same region, the same risks. As the season progresses (i.e. warms) there’s more chance the thick ice will begin to move out, but there’s no guarantee. I’m obviously not on the ship, and don’t know what the captain knows … but … returning to a place along the Peninsula where you’ve managed to get stymied by wind – or lack of wind – and lots and lots of thick, old ice two trips in a row seems a bit odd, a bit risky. I’m assuming the company has sold the trip based on getting into the Weddell Sea and is delivering! We’ll watch its website to see how it progresses.

Meanwhile, I’m writing from the comfort of Paris, where yesterday I spent the day with filmmaker Jacques Perrin and his team who are set to launch their new, eight-years-in-the-making OCEANS film (premieres in France late in January and in the U.S. on Earth Day, April 22). I screened the movie last night and, following on the global success of their “Winged Migration,” OCEANS promises to change the way movie-goers view and consider the ocean. Since the film is still something of a work in progress (some reviews have started to trickle out) I’ll hold off on any specific comment. Suffice to say OCEANS is the ‘wildlife opera’ that Perrin describes, delivering the most beautiful imagery from the undersea world that I’ve yet seen.

I’m fortunate to be linked to the film in a small way, editing an anthology of ocean issues writings to accompany the movie’s release in the U.S. in April.

My route to Paris took me to film festivals in Graz, Austria, and Torello, Spain … so I’ve had a full ten days of travel and movie watching. Our most recent film – TERRA ANTARCTICA – played at both, to great, fun review, which is always nice. After ten days I’m not sure that I ever need to see another ‘traditional’ ski film again; you know the variety, verging on ski porn? Snowboarders and skiers hucking and chucking themselves off impossibly higher and more dangerous peaks, dropped there by risk-taking helicopter pilots and more than occasionally plunging to death in the rocks below. Given all that’s going in the natural world around, both the threats that are everywhere and the cultures that abound in those very same mountains, do we really need to see more young white guys and girls risking their necks on the steeps for the cameras?

Hubert Reeves, “Poet of the Stars”

It’s rare to hear our planetary environmental issues talked about in celestial terms. But the other night in the countryside north of Quebec City – an early snow falling outside – I heard French Canadian Hubert Reeves take our future into deep space. The Montreal-born astrophysicist is a fixture on television and stages in his adopted hometown of Paris and environmental conferences around the world, in which he attempts to explain complex science to a popular audience. This night the so-called “poet of the stars” illustrated with one image just how big – or small – our problems here on Earth really are. Projecting just a solitary photo of our galaxy, with Earth just a pin-point among millions of other stars and planets, the Einstein-haired, one-time NASA adviser (whose PhD thesis was titled “Thermonuclear Reaction Involving Medium Light Nuclie”) paints a not-so-pretty future for our blue orb.

Planet Earth, just a tiny dot on the far left

Planet Earth, just a tiny dot on the far left

“Imagine two planets meet. One is grey and white, denuded of life. The other is blue and green and vibrant. Blue Planet asks Denuded Planet what’s wrong?”

“I’ve been sick, suffering from Human-itis. As you can see, it has nearly killed me. My atmosphere is polluted, land destroyed,” says Denuded. Blue Planet responds reassuringly. “Don’t worry. I know that disease. It doesn’t last long and once its gone, you’ll recover quickly.”

Using statistics on energy use (the oil on this planet took hundreds of millions of years to create and we’ve managed to use half of it in just one century) and man’s rapacious consumption of natural resources Reeves laid out a not particularly bright future. “In thirty years – so, your children live to see it – we will know the results of how we’ve treated the planet. It could be a very dark future.”

Asked whether he was optimistic or pessimistic about this planet’s future he paraphrased a French politician who helped orchestrate the rebuilding of post-war France and Germany. “He was asked the same question and said, ‘Neither. I’m determined.”

“That’s what we have to be in regard to the environment,” said Reeves. “Determined. We must try to make changes, to fix the mess we’ve made. We can’t give up. In regard to climate change, for example, some of the things being talked about and worked on will be successful. Some will not. But we must try. Saying things are ‘impossible’ to change means we have given up.”

Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves

Astrophysicist Hubert Reeves