Toxic Sublime: Imaging Contaminated Landscapes

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Environmental Communication





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This essay attempts to address the lack of critical analyses of images of toxins by examining the photography of landscape artists whose goal is to create a presence for contaminated sites. Imaging toxicity is no simple task as many pollutants are invisible and sites of contamination are concealed, especially for those of privilege. Contemporary artists who attempt this challenge are often criticized that the beauty of their images obfuscates the health and environmental risk of the polluted sites they photograph. In response, this essay introduces the concept of the toxic sublime as a means of analyzing the tensions arising from visual representations of environmental contamination: beauty and ugliness, magnitude and insignificance, the known and the unknown, inhabitation and desolation, security and risk. The essay charts the evolution of the sublime in the US, describing how it has evolved from sites of nature to sites of technology to human damaged landscapes, some of which produce a toxic sublime. Through a close examination of Manufactured Landscapes, a twenty-five year retrospective of the images of noted environmental photographer Edward Burtynsky, this essay extends our understanding of the invention of the sublime in images, reconceptualizes the sublime response to contaminated places, as well as adding to our knowledge of how visual texts function to encourage contemplation of the viewers’ position within a polluted world.

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