Chthulucene Photography

“Chthulucene Photography,” is, at the time of this writing in July 2015, is one of those magical kind of search terms which produces no results. So according to my search engine mediated view of the digital world, it is something which does not yet exist or has not yet been labelled as such.


The Chthulucene is a name offered by Donna Haraway to trouble the proposal of the Anthropocene. A term which is thought to universalise the human anthropos and so obscure social inequalities within current earth system forcing, and which pays no attention to systems of production (read: pollution), namely capitalism.

The Chthulucene is also deliberately forward looking and explicitly concerned with reworlding. What kind of world are we going to make in this century, and the next, and the next…? The name we use matters, because, according to Haraway “it matters which stories tell stories, which concepts think concepts. Mathematically, visually, and narratively, it matters which figures figure figures, which systems systematize systems.”

Chthulucene: The dynamic ongoing sym-chthonic forces and powers of which people are a part, within which ongoingness is at stake. Maybe, but only maybe, and only with intense commitment and collaborative work and play with other terrans, flourishing for rich multispecies assemblages that include people will be possible. I am calling all this the Chthulucene—past, present, and to come.
– Donna Haraway.

In the absence of a photographer of the Chthulcene, I want to propose one, a non-obvious one. Following the biological and organic motifs of Haraway, lichens and compost (as a substitute term for the posthuman), we might look to Eliot Porter as a photographer of the Chthulucene.

Porter is well-known for his close studies of plants, leaves, and lichens. In his photographs gone is the large scale of the industrial Anthropocene and scale is returned to the level of the human. Porter is personal and intimate, sweet with the smell of decaying leaves. Porter gives us life and death and ongoingness. Things huddled in close proximity. Complexity and mess.

Eliot Porter
Ruffed Grouse Nest, Silver Lake, New Hampshire, June 3, 1953 © Eliot Porter

Proposing Porter might be regarded as possibly the worst photographer to suggest. Opposed on grounds of invoking a too beautiful and idealised conception of Nature – a term itself which is currently a target for dismantling. Or that, what Porter photographed was not nature at all and that he inadvertently showed us instead that “there’s really no such thing as nature photography.”

In offering Porter, I am (perhaps very naively) not accepting of these criticisms enough to willingly discard Porter altogether. So Porter needs defending from, or perhaps a rehabilitation, from charges of this kind in order to play a positive role in a Chthulucene reworlding which does not repeat the methods of its emergence.

I think the strength of Porter lies not in his use of colour or occasional dubious method, but rather in the content of his photographs, the ideas he was trying to capture. Porter was a scientist-artist and so interested in inquiring into issues of natural complexity and so the very pattern of life. And attempting to get to grips with these sorts of ideas can only help in a age where we are challenged to commit to the flourishing of rich multispecies assemblages.