The Atrocious in the Veracruz Landscape: Ecology in Byron Brauchli’s CROSSROADS

“We do not see things as they are, we see them as we are.”Talmud

“The first glimpse of hope is fear, the first aspect of the new is alarm.”Heiner Müller

“Its roots are veins, nerves its branches, thoughts its tangled canopy.”Octavio Paz, The Tree Inside

Most images of the Veracruz landscape capture the loveliness of its deep diversity. Beaches, birds, mountains, and the famous Orizaba peak are part of a rich iconography that has shaped the vistas of what we recognize as the panorama of Veracruz. Byron Brauchli’s project, Crossroads, reveals to us a different perspective: a landscape devastated by man.

If we think of Veracruz as one of the Mexican states with multiple threats to its environmental diversity–its flora and fauna are among the most preyed upon–we must ask ourselves: Should art continue to insist upon producing images of unspoiled and serene beauty in spite of the growing deforestation and destruction of woodland and jungle? What can art do? What is its role, if any, in the codification of a threatened landscape? We know that art, certainly, does not have the capacity to transform the world, but rather to make us more mindful and to sharpen our perception of what happens in it.

With this series of images Byron proposes that we look at the landscape as it has been revealed to him during 30 years photographing Mexico. In love with the landscape of the Veracruz mountains, of Jalacingo and its surroundings, he began–more than 20 years ago–“Crossroads,” a series of photographs that creates a conversation bearing upon the relationship between landscape and the modern forces of change. Today, with the images before you, he has returned to those places as a witness to verify that the forests have been cut to build houses; the rivers are filled with trash, there is less mist, and small towns have as many urban problems as large cities. The bucolic images of grazing sheep and cattle are few, because the countryside has been forsaken. Faced with these facts Byron asked himself an ethical and esthetic question: How can I communicate this ecocide? Ecological devastation is often an unremarked atrocity, because most often there are no bullets or mutilated corpses, or great lines of people hoping to be rescued, or starving faces to remind us of our own excesses. Not yet. Not because it is not happening, but because it´s not represented since it is horrible. If we should want to picture the silent drama before us we would have to revert to movie images, to a virtual and esthetic reality almost always outside our own experience, as if to say, “This is happening to other people.”

So how can an artist create images that will speak to our oblivious state of mind and ask the critical questions? One strategy that many photographers have employed is to document the existence of paradise before its destruction. Byron has taken another path, one less hackneyed but filled with risks, which links him to a group of artists cognizant of the threat we face. The majority are painters living in various parts of the world and documentary photographers ready to record an apocalyptic landscape. Since photography by tradition rests on a premise of references, Byron does not avoid it. He does not intend to make digital ecological landscapes, products of his imagination and technical skill. Rooted in the real world, he focuses on it and esthetically manipulates it, while not forgetting the exigencies and formal rigor of his craft. Deeply aware of the history of his medium and of the different forms by which the landscape has been recorded as a genre in photographic practice, Byron has recaptured the first techniques with which the impressionistic vistas of the Rocallosas were fixed; he incorporates their esthetics and shifts their thematic content. The result is before you: a hybrid–beautiful but appalling–that examines the representations of landscape and questions them formally and thematically. In fact, in this series the viewer finds a depiction of nature in warm tones that vary from sepia to black. If one examines it in detail there is an important frame around the shot, which is left by the copper plate when the roll of the etching press passes over it. This intrusion in a photographic print alerts us to the fact that we are looking at an object made by hand, an artifice that the photograph regularly conceals as it pretends to “objectivity,” that is, with no mediation between the object in front of the camera and the camera itself. If we add to this tone the texture of the rich cotton paper, the immediate sensation is one of standing in a museum before an exquisite image. Its quality as an artifact (made as an art object) obliges us to scrutinize the workmanship, the medium in which it is expressed–in this case the photogravure on copper, an ancient and delicate process. Tree branches, recently cut trunks, the image that overwhelms the page in obsessively black tones takes our breath and obliges us to look away. At this moment the question arises: “What is happening in the picture? What am I seeing and not recognizing? I look again. I notice trees, mountains, shadows and lights, but gradually, as I become aware, the initial beauty that draws the gaze changes to surprise and I react with emotion. It is painful that the trunk of “El pulpo,” old and apparently healthy, has been cut; it is painful to see that some of its roots are still buried in the earth like a shout claiming its right to life, despite the fact that its bare branches affirm, “you are dead.”

The feeling of anger is atrocious. The pain is atrocious. Semantically the word “atrocity” is applied to war crimes, to the useless pain inflicted upon one human being by another; but I think that this word is also appropriate to describe what happens in the environment when what man does to it is cruel, inhumane, unjust, either as folly or blunder. So, if disaster, as calamity or catastrophe (words used to refer to environmental devastation) have an aftertaste of destiny, fate or luck in their meaning, atrocious, besides the black and ominous elements conjured by the word and captured brilliantly by Byron, returns to man his appropriate position, empowered and responsible in the scheme of things.

Susan Sontag says in her reflections on war photography that the narratives, the stories, help us to understand, but the images haunt us like ghosts. If the evidence provided to us by photography persists, let it be to haunt us and make us diligent. Faced with the clear and cloudless skies of Veracruz, Byron Brauchli restores the ominous blacks that corrupt this idyllic landscape. The process is gradual and obliges us to look deeply inside ourselves as we slowly ponder what he presents to us and examine the possibilities of meaning while the esthetic qualities exacted by the delicious technique of photogravure reveal themselves.

Thus, we not only identify threads of reality we also must give them an ethical and esthetic meaning. His images do not offer an explanation of environmental devastation nor are they a total or univocal vision. They proclaim themselves in the depredation of the environment and to it they return to give coherence to the individual and esthetic discourse that they open up before us. But in this process our gaze changes, it veers away from the trite and hackneyed path that we were accustomed to, and this changes what we see: the landscape of Veracruz and a way to perceive it, to explain it, and to represent it.

Instituto de Investigaciones Lingüístico Literarias

Translation by Connie Todd, 5 March 2014