A body of work informed by the environmental crisis and focused thematically on the natural world and humanity's place within it.
After years of debate, on August 29, 2016 the Subcommission on Quaternary Stratigraphy recommended formalizing the term ‘Anthropocene’ as a new geological epoch. Based on global evidence that Earth's natural systems have been irrevocably altered by human activity this term redefines the current geological time period as being human-influenced.
Within this context of a single species having fundamentally changed the very mechanics of the natural world I am interested in grappling with ideas of science, mythology, evolution, human industry and our place in the natural order. Through the transmutation of skeletal remains - the very crystallization of life - it is my intention to speak to the physical and mystical connections between humans and the natural world.
These connections are reflected strongly within the pre-industrial cultural wisdoms that were forged from sustained and visceral observations of the intricate relationships between land, ocean, flora, fauna and atmosphere – wisdoms ensuring long-term survival within ones surroundings. While centuries of colonialism, war and globalization have extinguished much of this knowledge, re-learning and integrating it back into our technological, urbanized culture offers a path though the environmental challenges now upon us. These photographs represent a warning, but also a rendering of hope, speaking to this integration as an antidote to humanity’s subjugation, domination and consumption of the living planet.
Alongside a review of historical cultural artifacts, in which human and animal essences merge, this project was informed by the photographs made by missionary Martin Gusinde as he documented the last indigenous tribe of Tierra del Fuego from 1912 to 1918 and by Irving Penn’s mid-century skull studies. Anthropocene continues the traditions embodied within these works – exploring allusion and metaphor surrounding life and death and the relationship between humankind and the environment.
The Last Stand
As a youngster on Cortes Island, in Canada’s Pacific Northwest, I walked daily through the woods to catch the school bus, passing by remnants of the old growth forest. These giant looming stumps, peering through the second growth trees as far as I could see, seemed an ominous presence. They remain so.
Five generations of my family have been a part of the forest industry in British Columbia from falling old growth trees and clear cutting to contributing to local sustainable harvest initiatives and environmental responsibility. My great grandfather and great uncle, in providing for their families and future, fell many of the actual trees whose remnants you now see in these photographs.
It was in this familial context, filtered through the contemporary environmental crisis and thoughts of personal responsibilities in that regard, that the seeds of this series were sown. As this project began the iconic remains of the old forest first served as a meditation on the human-altered landscape but soon evolved into a metaphor for the natural world, contemporary globalized culture and the essential incompatibility of the two.
This incompatibility is evident in the forests through the historical lens of conflicting cultural and social attitudes. British Columbia's aboriginal people harvested trees as needed by their local communities over the millennia - a truly sustainable approach reflected in the majestic forests found by the arriving Europeans. Colonists added an overriding attitude of "commodification" to activities in the forests, extracting timber for sale into the expanding global market and contributing to serious concerns about the long-term sustainability of forest ecosystems.
The cognitive dissonance arising from this dilemma of participation in, and yet responsibility for, the fouling of one’s own nest was a dominant theme guiding the creation of these photographs. This discomfort from holding conflicting beliefs or ideals, and perhaps more importantly where it leads one, remains a key motivator in my work.
Although the pattern of progress and disaster has been repeated throughout human history, the urgency I now feel in our globalized world is one of scale...a scale said to be so vast, perhaps nearing a point of no return. No doubt evolution is progressing as it should, which brings some measure of comfort, yet I cannot help but feel apprehension for the life my family will lead in the not-too-distant future.
The Last Stand
Photographs were made between 2009 - 2015.
Archival prints are made with pigment ink on cotton rag paper.
19 photographs in the exhibition collection.
120 individual "portrait" photographs from the grids are available for special projects but unavailable as exhibition prints.
A pregnant Orca, known as J-32, was discovered dead near Comox in the Pacific Northwest in December, 2014. This photograph was made during the necropsy 2 days later.
Preliminary data indicates a combination of starvation and toxic anthropogenic pollutants were the cause.
When a whale cannot find enough food it begins to metabolize its blubber fat and, as the Northwest killer whales are among the most contaminated marine mammals in the world, the toxic chemicals enter their bloodstream causing serious illness and death.
This photograph comes from an on-going series titled "Singular Observations" collecting stand-alone images, small projects and field observations often captured while traveling or working on larger projects and assignments. The images are realized as large scale exhibition prints.
Growing up on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest, the ocean has always been an important part of my life, but since the British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 it’s great decline seems to haunt my mind. In the media barely a day now passes without a reminder. The International Program on the State of the Oceans (IPSO) declaration that “the world's ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history” is but another in a growing list.
Using most of my last supply of Polaroid's extirpated Type 55PN film and drawing on the historical darkroom processes of Man Ray and the botanical studies of Karl Blossfeldt, I was compelled to create a response to this ongoing decline of the planet's ocean. Fishermen's fresh harvest and scientific specimens comprise the majority of the subjects. Experiencing firsthand both the incessant consumption of marine life and the academic preservation of species, which soon may be all that is left of many, added another bleak layer during the creation of this series.
The creatures contained in this collection of photographs are not intended to be a concise record but rather a feeling, a fascination, a darkness. I return often to a "dark beauty" in my photographs and this portrayal of these denizens of the deep seems an accurate metaphor for our times.
Accompanying Essay by Rex Weyler, cofounder of Greenpeace International
Humans and the Ocean
A troubled relationship
The sea runs in our veins. Our ancestors in the great heaving seas grew circulatory systems to deliver the briny nutrient soup to hungry cells. Humans may have left the ocean, but the ocean never left us. The water still finds our hunger. We stand on shorelines and contemplate a dark mystery. We take the ocean’s bounty to feed ourselves. Now, however, in our forgetfulness, the magnificent human enterprise has changed the oceans in ways we hardly dreamed possible.
In June, 2011, the Australian Seabird Rescue Service recovered a dead sea turtle on a New South Wales beach with 317 pieces of plastic – fishing line, packing tape, lollipop sticks – in its digestive tract. A study by Scripps Institution of Oceanography found that over nine percent of sampled ocean fish had eaten plastic and were dying from blocked digestive tracts. This plastic comes from you and me, from bottles, bags, toys, and the gadgets of modern consumer life, tossed away without much thought.
If, however, we pay attention, we feel the conflict between human desire and natural bounty. We might ignore this conflict, carry on, and avoid the remorse of knowing, but deep down, we know. We might dream that humanity could devise new technological solutions and expand forever, but eventually the laws and limits of nature prevail. Nature is bountiful but not limitless; she is patient but not sentimental. A time of great reckoning approaches.
Plastic garbage is only one of the human impacts contributing to an historic decline in ocean health and marine species. Oceanographers, coral reef ecologists, toxicologists, and other marine scientists, convened by the International Programme on the State of the Oceans (IPSO) in 2011, warned that the “cumulative effect” of these impacts is causing an “extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.”
Humanity has disrupted marine life through overfishing, acidification from carbon emissions, ocean warming, coral bleaching, toxins dumped at sea, radioactive nuclear waste, agricultural run-off, oil spills, and oxygen depleted dead zones. We have not been treating our mother well.
Scientists know the solutions: Sustainable yield fishing, restricted vessel and net size, a ban on bottom dragging, effective regulation of pollutants, a sharp reduction of plastics, recycling of agricultural fertilizers and human waste, an end to crude oil spills, and a massive reduction in human carbon emissions approaching zero by 2030. However, like global warming, the solutions clash with dreams of economic triumph and industrial expansion.
No nations appear rushing to sign onto such a program. Our political systems appear too slow, bogged down in partisan favoritism and financial corruption. Meanwhile, ocean health progressively declines as fishing communities from Canada to Africa face the end to an historic coastal way of life.
Bigger Boats, Less Fish
The rise and fall of the world’s annual fish harvest demonstrates the simple fact that nature comes with limits. In five years, between 1992 and 1997 the world’s fishing fleet capacity increased by 22 percent, but the annual catch increased by only 3 percent. Human ingenuity and technology simply outpaced nature’s fecundity. A large factory supertrawler built in the 1990s had four times the fishing power of a typical 1970 trawler, greater range, better sonar, and bigger nets. However, bigger, faster boats cannot catch fish that aren’t there.
Like every other ecosystem, the world’s oceans have a limited capacity. The human harvest has now surpassed that capacity. The annual global ocean fish harvest grew from about 20 million tonnes in 1950 until it peaked at about 90 million tons in 1998. By 2008 the annual wild catch had declined to about 80 million tons, and continues to decline.
Fish remain among the last wild species that humans harvest from the global commons. Modest coastal communities around the world have survived for centuries from the sea’s bounty. Today, the decimation of the oceans threatens those communities.
Large, industrial fishing fleets harvest fish faster than the reproduction rate. An unwanted “by-catch” of dead sea life is discarded. Turtles and marine mammals die on fish hooks. Meanwhile the impact of fishing gear, bottom dragging, and lost nets contribute to the decline of marine species.
Most North Atlantic commercial fish populations – cod, hake, haddock, flounder – have been reduced to less than ten percent of their peak numbers. In 1992, the Grand Banks cod fishery collapsed. Tens of thousands of fishermen from Iceland to Canada lost their livelihoods. Coastal communities disintegrated. Similar fisheries collapses occur in South America, Africa, Europe, and in Asia.
Large-scale industrialized vessels, about 1 percent of the world’s fishing fleet, take almost 60 percent of the fish, leaving small, coastal fishing communities with the remnants. Fisheries scientists know that the solution to overfishing requires a limit on these large industrial fleets, and a limit on net size and indiscriminate long lines, but the industrial fishing nations – primarily China, Peru, Chile, Japan, the US and the European Union – resist these solutions. The lure of quick money appears to trump long-range planning and common sense.
While we plunder the seas for their bounty of protein, we simultaneously degrade the very waters that provide that bounty. When humans burn coal and oil, we emit CO2 into the atmosphere, and the oceans absorb about one-third of this carbon dioxide, disrupting the ocean’s natural pH balance. Today’s oceans are about 30% more acidic than they were in 1800.
Historically, the oceans adjust to small changes in atmospheric carbon through calcium-carbonate formation that naturally balances the ocean pH level. However, the rate of human carbon emissions has outpaced the natural ocean self-regulation system. Today, ocean acidity is increasing about 100- times faster than any such change in the last 20 million years. This pace of change proves critically important.
As carbonic acid levels increase, marine animals such as tiny copepods, snails, and sea urchins must rebalance their own body pH, but the compensation can stunt growth and disrupt reproduction. Tiny animals can fail to form adequate shells. Those species unable to adapt quickly enough perish. Die offs begin low in the marine food chain, among small organisms, but eventually disrupt the larger marine ecosystem and threaten fish and marine mammals. This die off is already underway in the world’s oceans.
The species collapse now taking place in the oceans represents the greatest decline in ocean diversity since a meteorite struck Earth, 64-million years ago. This time, humanity is the source of the catastrophe.
Life is Realtionship
In North America, the public equates the Exxon Valdez oil spill with the largest ecological disaster in recent memory, but over 30 oil spills are larger than the tragedy in Prince William Sound. The 2010 British Petroleum Deepwater oil well blowout in the Gulf of Mexico spilled about 20-times more crude oil – 5 million barrels, 210 million gallons – than the Exxon Valdez spilled, changing the Gulf marine ecosystem for centuries to come.
Over the last several decades, the North Sea has endured about one significant oil spill each week from drilling rigs and wells. Meanwhile, more oil is spilled into the oceans each year from what the industry calls “normal spillage” – the operation of tankers, pipelines, and refineries – than from the large, dramatic oil spills. Regions of the ocean floor remain saturated with crude oil, killing off shellfish and burrowing or bottom-dwelling species.
The pollution, acidification, bottom-dragging fishnets, and increased ocean temperature combine to kill off coral reefs, especially small, branching varieties. Three-quarters of the word’s coral beds are in decline. The Caribbean Sea has lost about 80 percent of its coral. Marine biologists estimate that by 2050 most coral beds will be gone, with only remnants in the North Sea and Pacific. In that case, millions of marine species will go extinct.
Pollution and ocean acidification also impact algae production and other primary marine organisms. Typical of ecosystem feedback in nature, the decline of coccolithophore algae effects ocean cloud cover, thereby changing Earth’s reflective quality – or albedo – which in turn accelerates global warming. In nature, no organism or process exists in isolation. Strictly speaking, from the perspective of scientific observation, nature is not a collection of things at all, but rather a pattern of relationships.
Our relationship with the oceans has grown somewhat dysfunctional.
Our civilization, with its glorious monuments to human intellect and imagination, still struggles to find its appropriate relationship with the biosphere and the non-human creatures, with whom we share the world. A great transformation may yet bring us back toward paradise, but any such social transformation must start with a new vision of the world. History teaches us that such paradigm-shifting social revolutions are not led by politicians and elites, but by outcasts and artists.
Photographic artist David Ellingsen has chosen to embrace our conflict with nature rather than ignore it. His art accepts a nagging inconsistency between our love for nature’s gifts and the damage we inflict on those gifts. Ellingsen was raised on an island, off the west coast of Canada, on a farm, in forests, surrounded by the sea. His artistic life led him into the heart of great cities, hubs of speed, light, and culture. These images suggest a journey back to nature, a journey that ultimately awaits us all. These images, however, do not provide a taxonomist’s record of sea life, but rather appear to probe some forgotten mystery, reciprocity of beauty and death that lurks in every living creature. In this way, Ellingsen’s art may aid us in finding our lost place in nature’s grand, dynamic dance of living patterns.
The images in this series help us reflect on our relationship with these ocean creatures. The stunning photographs provide more than typically bright, colourful images of nature. Rather, these images awaken something deeper and more disturbing within the artist and the viewer. This disturbance may serve to awaken within us a new relationship with the sea and with the natural world around us.
Pulitzer Prize Nominee
Cofounder of Greenpeace International
Publisher of Deep Green http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/about/deep-green/
As the second part in a series, SkyLife continues the narrative from the SeaLife collection, investigating and documenting the organisms within the declining ecosystems of the planet. SkyLife focuses on creatures of the air - birds and winged insects - their beginnings, endings and the physical forms between the two.
For the last several years, my artistic practice in photography has been triggered by the conflict between individual and societal values in relation to the environment. It is within these struggles that I find inspiration for my photographs.
David Ellingsen is a Canadian photographer creating images that speak to the relationship between humans and the natural world. He maintains a varied practice of which intersections form the foundation – intersections of observer and participant, documentary photography and contemporary art, archivist and surrealist, and emotion and cognition.
Ellingsen’s photographs have been exhibited around the world and are part of the permanent collections of the Chinese Museum of Photography, South Korea's Datz Museum of Art and Canada's Beaty Biodiversity Museum. They have been shortlisted for Photolucida's Critical Mass Book Award, appeared in National Geographic, and awarded First Place at the Prix de la Photographie Paris and the International Photography Awards.
In 2000 Ellingsen began his career as a freelance assignment photographer, eventually working with clients such as the New York Times Magazine, Business Development Bank of Canada, Canadian Medical Association, Oprah Winfrey Network, People magazine and CBC Radio Canada. Simultaneously, he was exhibiting his personal work in private and public galleries. Ellingsen continued this hybrid path for 12 years and then, in 2013, focused fully on his artistic practice.
Ellingsen lives and makes his work in Canada’s Pacific Northwest, moving between the city of Victoria and the remote island of Cortes where he was raised.
Click on any of the thumbnail images to launch the viewer. You can then navigate forward and backward within the portfolio by clicking the left or right side of the enlarged image. Click the add to collection checkbox to automatically add an image to your collection. Image tags or search engine keywords appear below the collections' checkbox and each word or phrase is a link to potentially more image matches.