There’s an old story that you can boil a frog if you put it into cold water and then gradually increase the temperature. Since it’s not smart enough to notice the change of temperature, it will eventually boil. That’s not true, though. Frogs aren’t that stupid. But humans are. If you replace the frog with humans and the cold water with the Earth’s atmosphere, then you have the situation humanity is in right now. We all know how well our efforts to prevent global warming are working out: Not so terribly well - it seems frogs are smarter than humans! Olaf Otto Becker’s Above Zero, currently on view at Amador Gallery (until 9 January, 2010), tackles the issue photographically. Above Zero shows images of the melting icecap in Greenland and of snow/ice blackened by soot particles. Just like Edward Burtynsky’s Oil, Becker’s Above Zero uses photography to show us the consequences of our life style.
I think it’s very important to have this back story of Above Zero in one’s head when looking at the photography at Amador Gallery, especially since the images for the most part are spectacularly beautiful. Tracing along a river in Greenland, Above Zero shows images taken at different locations (the show provides the GPS data should you want to go to Greenland to see for yourself, I suppose); in fact, you get the complete set of photographs for one river (so conceptually, they all belong together, but they can be sold separately?).
The combination of the images’ beauty with the knowledge of what these images actually show creates the full effect of the show; and it provides yet another strong reminder of the power of contemporary fine-art photography: It can tackle big issues in very powerful ways, and its slower pace - compared with photojournalism - often allows the creation of more depth and more detail.
In addition to the landscapes, the show includes two or three (if memory serves me right) images from an atmospheric research station, plus a single image of “ecotourists”. I found the photos of that research station compelling - given the fog in Greenland, they almost look weirdly staged, as all you see are weird contraptions and people against a completely white background. But they don’t integrate very well with the landscapes (and the “econtourist” photo comes across as almost gimmicky). I think the show would have gained from either omitting these photos or from giving them more space, but keeping them somewhat separated from the landscapes.
But all in all, Above Zero is a show you don’t want to miss if you have the chance to see it, especially in the light the photography’s background.