Art and Climate: Making the Invisible Visible

On view in the Works on Paper Study Room, Saturdays and Sundays, December 31, 2016–February 5, 2017

Much of climate change is invisible to us. The “smoke” you see coming out of smokestacks is not carbon dioxide, which is transparent in visible light, but a combination of water droplets and soot. The trade-offs of replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources are generally not discernible. And changes, particularly natural changes, occur so slowly that they can be difficult to observe directly. So, how can the reality of climate change, its impacts, and its solutions be communicated? The photographs in this installation make the invisible visible through a variety of means.

  • They play with interesting adjacencies, such as a sooty fire next to an oil well in Robert Adams’s Denver, 1974, or a field of wind turbines between sand dunes and a forest fire.
  • They use unusual vantage points, such as aerial perspectives of landscapes, or the dramatically low viewpoint of smokestacks in Michael Kenna’s The Rouge, Study 59.
  • They incorporate disconcerting cropping effects, such as the high-contrast presentation of a car factory, or the fragmentary view of coastal houses in Alexander Heilner’s Palm Jumeirah.

For those concerned about mitigating and adapting to climate change, we must ask how to make our climate system visible to all.

The photographs also challenge us to ask whether Earth’s environment and human civilizations are resilient or fragile—or both. Among the most fragile landscapes are our coastlines, because of sea level rise, and our cryosphere, because the icy parts of the Earth system fluctuate dramatically over decades and millennia. We make ourselves more susceptible to climate change by assuming that these landscapes are stable. What is unique about each landscape shown, in what ways do they change through time, and how do those shifts impact ecosystems and humans? The choice of these photographs is our argument that there is no single answer to these questions.


Catherine Riihimaki, Associate Director, Science Education, Council on Science and Technology

Veronica White, Curator of Academic Programs

Students in GEO 102 (Climate: Past, Present, and Future): Amanda Morrison ’19, Lila Currie ’18, Micaela Keller ’20, Grace Searle ’20, and Jenna Shaw ’20

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    Michael Kenna, British, born 1953
    The Rouge, Study 59, Dearborn, Michigan, 1994, printed 1996
  • 8001
    Michael Kenna, British, born 1953
    The Rouge, Study 98, Dearborn, Michigan, 1995
  • 47623
    Virginia Beahan, American, born 1946
    Laura McPhee, American, born 1958
    The Blue Lagoon, Svartsengi Geothermal Pumping Station, Iceland, 1988, printed 1995
  • 47634
    Virginia Beahan, American, born 1946
    Laura McPhee, American, born 1958
    Windmills, Coachella Valley, and Fire in the San Gorgonio Mountains, California, 1995
  • 14704
    Eliot Furness Porter, American, 1901–1990
    Amphitheater, David Gulch, Escalante basin, May 12, 1965
  • 55141
    Marilyn Bridges, American, born 1948
    Sand Dunes with Truck on Pan Am Highway, Peru, 1989
  • 16917
    Robert Adams, American, born 1937
    Denver, 1974
  • 11906
    Liliane DeCock-Morgan, Belgian, 1939–2013
    Barn and Smokestacks, Moss Landing, 1967–68
  • 55139
    Marilyn Bridges, American, born 1948
    Windmill Farming, Tehachapi, California, 1986
  • 18967
    Robert Dawson, American, born 1950
    Hoover Dam, Arizona/Nevada, from the Water in the West Project, 1987
  • 16876
    Robbert Flick, Canadian, born 1939
    Manhattan Beach, California, Looking North from Marina, 1982
  • 57105
    Alexander Heilner, American, born 1971
    Palm Jumeirah, Dubai, United Arab Emirates, 2008
  • 15269
    Ansel Adams, American, 1902–1984
    Clearing Winter Storm, Yosemite National Park, California, 1944, printed 1980
  • 39885
    Peter Goin, American, born 1951
    Burial Ground from the series Nuclear Landscapes, 1988
  • 15733
    Eliot Furness Porter, American, 1901–1990
    Path in Woods, Great Spruce Head Island, Maine, 1981
  • 12257
    Minor White, American, 1908–1976
    Schoodic Point, Maine, August 1968
  • 12354
    Brett Weston, American, 1911–1993
    Untitled, 1937 (San Francisco Bay), 1937
  • 15800
    Eliot Furness Porter, American, 1901–1990
    Iceberg, Ross Sea, 1976, printed 1984
  • 35057
    Emmet Gowin, American, born 1941
    Old Hanford City Site and the Columbia River, Hanford Nuclear Reservation, Near Richland, Washington, 1986, printed 1996
  • 15799
    Eliot Furness Porter, American, 1901–1990
    Labyrinth, Wright Valley, 1975, printed 1984