Big Books: Part 3
Untamedby Steve Bloom
Abrams, 424 pp., $55
Tree: A New Vision of the American Forestby James Balog
Barnes & Noble, 160 pp., $50
Pimping nature photos in the name of environmentalism can be a dicey exercise, what with the perils of off-putting piousness and awkward futility and perhaps the superficial irony that such glossy tomes don't really work on recycled paper. But if the photographs are remarkable enough as are those in both Tree and Untamed, in different ways none of that matters. Untamed is culled from wildlife photographer Steve Bloom's 10-year quest to shoot fauna on every continent, and its strength lies in his patience and experience rather than in technical prowess or stylistic flair. Bloom's eye for animal "expressiveness" and brilliantly hued, big-format shots turn what could be a cloying collection into a simple, moving experience: Emperor penguins toboggan on impossibly blue glaciers, water buffalo mass in swirling herds out of Bosch or Goya, and giraffes startle in those nocturnal, glowing-eyed watering-hole shots that always look like blackmail photographs or Paris Hilton videos. It's possible purists will find a tad too much digital enhancement here, and Bloom's prosaic calls to save the planet cry out for an editor as well. Still, Untamed documents a disappearing environment in a way that disables cynicism and will no doubt delight children thereby fulfilling the two noblest goals of the amazing animal photograph.
Balog's approach is both subtler and more artful no surprise, given that he made a name for himself bringing to wildlife photography a conceptual sensibility Bloom lacks. His Survivors: A New Vision of Endangered Wildlife drew and commented upon fashion-photography traditions by posing wild animals against a stark white background; his latest project documents North America's grandest trees in equally innovative fashion: A Christo-like wrapping silhouettes a magnificent Texas Live Oak; the "Wye Oak" in Maryland stands stranded on a traffic island; we meander through the cottonwoods of Hygiene, Colo., and ponder a hog-battered American Beechnut in Waynesville, N.C. There are bleak landscapes, textural close-ups, and heartbreaking color studies, most in collage form; the text references (rightfully) Braque and Hockney, but there's also some Walker Evans here: sober and rich depictions of the landscape of American life. Most sensational are the mosaics of our largest redwoods and sequoias; Balog and crew rappelled down neighboring trees, shot hundreds of sections, and assembled collages that are both painstakingly representational and somewhat abstract. The driving passion behind Tree is environmental preservation, but Balog displays an unusual appreciation for a singular aesthetic. "Old forests have character, the imprint of time, biologic complexity and architectural elegance," he writes. "Regrowth doesn't. ... A response to aesthetics should guide a sane society and not be an afterthought." It's a message worth felling a few (newer) trees for.