The practice of photography in all its various forms remains primarily a humanist endeavour. It loops in and around itself valorising people who make good photographs, asking how photographs can be interpreted, and what effects they might generate. This was all made possible when it was discovered how to ‘fix the shadows’ – how to capture and chemically fix an image in a stable medium.
The story of the beginnings of photography is lucidly told by Geoffrey Batchen in his 1999 book Burning with Desire. In it he quotes William Henry Fox Talbot wondering about the images captured by his Camera Obscura: “how charming it would be if it were possible to cause these natural images to imprint themselves durably, and remained fixed upon the paper” (34). Talbot followed up on his charming idea and became one of the inventors of photography.
Tangle of stems – wild fennel, 1835-1842 © William Henry Fox Talbot
Photographer Subhankar Banerjee has followed annual caribou migrations in Alaska. Capturing the herd from above, hunters who depend upon the herd for food, and sometimes simply the tracks left behind in the soft earth.
The delicate lines and sense of transience they invoke call into view the fragility of connections in nature and the desire to ensure that caribou will continue to make these marks long into the future.
In, Impasses of the Post-Global: Theory in the Era of Climate Change, Vol. 2 (2012), Yates McKee points to anthropogenic climate change to question the future durability of these tracks. No longer can the natural predictability of climate be appealed to for reassurance.
Indeed, in addition to climate change, caribou migratory pathways are thought to be affected by weather, predators, and sport hunters arriving by aircraft. However, it is encroachment by humans that is seen as one of the primary reasons that “on a global scale, long-distance, terrestrial migrations by large mammals are an imperiled phenomenon.”
Geoffrey Batchen recounts the invention of photography as a story of desire. A desire that was felt by a range of individuals thirty years prior to 1839. And photography continues to deal in desire. From Talbot’s initial desire to fix an Italian landscape, to the ‘desire lines’ of hundreds of thousands migratory caribou, and to the desire called forth by images of Nature’s fragile marks.