Fires on the Frontier

01/13/2010 2:30 PM |

The Ukrainian-American photographer Sasha Bezzubov is fundamentally concerned with homes and settlements, and the bizarre spectacle of their eradication by and conspicuous absence after disasters. His beautiful, melancholic large-scale photographs document the fringes of civilization where wilderness has reasserted its rule. He comes through after the waters recede, the dust settles, and the embers burn out, to see what's left. Such subjects could easily lend themselves to facile, heartstring-tugging disaster-porn, but Bezzubov is after something else. His photographs are humbling reminders of our own frailty, and the essential transience of our existence. As nature reclaims the landscapes we've appropriated, what mark will we leave on the world? What is our responsibility to this planet, and what will humanity’s legacy look like?

Bezzubov's new exhibition on the aftermath of fires in California, Wildfire, asks these questions forcefully, but without abusing or condescending to viewers. After a tour of global crises in his 2007 series Things Fall Apart—which captured the eerie, mostly uninhabited landscapes left by hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, earthquakes in India and tornadoes in the Midwest—his latest series (just published by Nazraeli Press and on view at Front Room Gallery in Williamsburg through February 14) finds similar themes playing out in the hills of Southern California, where wildfires wreak massive destruction and devastation almost every summer. Photographing burned out homes, forests, hillsides and rural roads, Bezzubov juxtaposes the region's striking natural beauty with the remains of man-made structures and objects—many shots evoke war photography and post-apocalypse movies.

Bezzubov's charred landscapes are cast in a pale, diffuse light that barely shines through the thick ceiling of gray smoke hanging over every scene. The dominant palette is the range of browns and beiges in the soil that, no longer marked by the bright green of living plants or the pastels of SoCal stucco homes, fills each picture. In those few images that feature bright traces of the previous landscape—splashes of faded pink where the remains of a house lie slumped on the ground, bursts of bold green where partly scorched palms and cacti survived, traces of blue from a destroyed front door or playground—the juxtaposition of faded and vibrant colors is surreal. As opposed to the terrifying, awe-inspiring man-made landscapes of Edward Burtynsky, in whose photographs unnatural, chemical colors often overwhelm the environment of browns and greens, Bezzubov captures places where traces of human activity have been overwhelmed by a kind of mythic, primordial, all-consuming calm. Like Burtynsky, though, Bezzubov imbues expansive areas of land with a solemn grandeur that harkens back to 18th and 19th century landscape painting, with hills and valleys crisply rendered one behind the next, apparently to infinity.

His most eloquent and moving photographs match these impressions of endless expansiveness with very real and tangible evidence of violence and destruction. In one of the series' few vertical compositions, Bezzubov shoots a spiral staircase against a pale blue sky at what could just as easily be sunrise or sunset. The house that formerly stood around the steel structure is strewn in clumps at the bottom of the stairs, with some portions of twisted rebar and roof materials draped over the railing like a Salvador Dali timepiece. In the background, just beyond a fence that still stands as evidence of our parceling off of nature into supposedly manageable plots, an apparently untouched house sits next to a row of verdant trees, as if to suggest that the fire, like some cruel and vengeful god, deliberately attacked one building and not the other. The stair-case, with its double-helix shape, is an especially evocative symbol of life standing defiantly, absurdly upright amidst evidence of its sudden uselessness.

Another absurd symbol appears in Wildfire's only non-landscape, a photograph of a partly burned garden sculpture of a deer (above), which doubles the series' overlapping imageries of nature and man-made artifice. The fake, Bambi-like fawn sits obediently at the foot of a wall, a sentimental, non-native, man-made version of nature transposed into the very different, occasionally ruthless SoCal environment. The image could easily have been tastelessly cutesy, or cruelly sarcastic, but Bezzubov imbues the pale woodland creature with tragic pathos. Its turned head and mournful, downcast gaze just about summarize the series, as if warning us that this is the risk of thinking that we can domesticate nature and transform it as we see fit. Bezzubov doesn't sanctimoniously suggest a way out of this eternal conflict between wilderness and settlement, logic and the irrational; to do so would cheapen his very rich work. His are very pensive and elegant photos from the front of a conflict that will go on burning for all of human history.

(All images copyright Sasha Bezzubov)