Float Photo Review: A Place to Disappear, Pablo Lerma

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In the mid-19th century caravans of mormon soldiers set out across the American southwest in search of their promised land of Deseret. Between them and the ripe coast of California stood the great Mojave desert. It is said that when they came upon the dreadful and desolate land they witnessed Joshua, leader of the Israelites, beckoning them forward, his arms raised up towards God. Upon investigation they found that their vision of Joshua was nothing more than the odd silhouette of Yucca Brevifolia. “The Joshua”, they called it, and today “Joshua Trees”.

It is telling that in speaking of the Joshua Tree one usually begins with this story, a telling of its name and of its human history. Encounter any living thing and our first instinct is usually to determine what it’s called. Names help us to navigate the natural world. They convey relationships and otherwise categorize that which is out there. Even something as alien to us as a Joshua Tree is made tame through recognition. Names always imply that which is human about their subjects first and foremost.

But Joshua Trees, apart from their name, are remarkable in their own right. Native to the arid Southwestern United States, confined mostly to the Mojave, Joshua Trees thrive where few other plants persist. Individuals, though difficult to age, average 150 years, with the oldest of them surviving over a thousand years of droughts, floods, frosts, and fires. They are as resilient as they are odd and, above all, they are particular.

Imagine, for a moment, a desert that does not see proper rainfall more than once every three years. Imagine, perhaps, a desert that does not frost in winter at just the right time. Imagine a desert too hot for the yucca moths which pollinate Joshua Trees, or perhaps imagine a desert inundated with yucca-boring weevils. These imagined deserts are incapable of sustaining Joshua Trees. They are also visions of what the Mojave is likely soon to become.

Joshua Trees are at the heart of Pablo Lerma’s A Place to Disappear (though they are hardly it's only subject). They are cast alongside dramatic palm trees, algaes, seaweeds, mosses and small desert shrubs surviving and thriving within a utopic wilderness landscape. Humans are conspicuously absent from the world that Lerma offers. In their place we have only the primeval forces of the holocene;  sky, water, and rock.

Published through Kris Graves Projects in 2017, A Place to Disappear imagines an Earth of the near future in which humans, perhaps out of an impulse toward benevolent stewardship, have removed themselves from the planet, returning centuries later to observe the now alien world. The land that they encounter is dramatic, stunning, and ripe with life and energy. Here, Joshua Trees till the desert in our absence, and here the world continues on, delicately balanced without us.

© Photo by Pablo Lerma

Take a moment to survey the world of Lerma’s photographs and you may be delighted by the drama, beauty, serenity, and resiliency of the land. We see tides shifting cliff faces, clouds transforming mountains and water running through rock. The color of this space is ripe and bucolic. The form of trees and waterfalls are like something out of a Bierstadt painting. Interspersed within the sequence are archival images, likely taken during early expeditions into the ‘untamed’ wilderness’ of the mid to late 19th century. In them we are reminded of what once seemed wild, and what wilderness (in the form of Lerma’s own juxtaposed images) can still be discovered today. Do not be distracted by the nature however. “Wilderness” is not the focus of Lerma’s investigation.

Consider the word, ‘wilderness’. What are its implications? Look into its history and you will find it hitched to a series of events that undermine everything it represents. Observe it closely enough and you will see that ‘wilderness’ (like the name ‘Joshua Tree’) has everything to do with people. The Mojave, Yosemite, Alaska, great wilderness’ of the turn of the century, are regarded as virgin land. But no land is virgin in a world where humans have become a dominant geological force. (This isn’t even to mention the native peoples that this narrative of ‘wilderness’ erases). We live in the Anthropocene, the age of humanity, and this fact colors ‘wilderness’ for human eyes.

As we can imagine it now, our vision of the future includes the disappearance of the iconic Joshua Tree. This vision of the future does not come our way from Joshua, leader of the Israelites, nor does it come from any other biblical prophet. It comes to us from a report by the United Nations scientific panel on climate change which suggests the likelihood of catastrophic global warming as early as 2040 unless drastic measures to mitigate carbon emissions are taken immediately. While Lerma makes no direct connection to climate change, it is hard to ignore the potential impact it could have on these places; it is not beyond the realm of possibility that we will soon see them disappear.  

A Place to Disappear seems to offer us two solutions to the recession of wild places. First and most overtly would be the removal of all humans from the planet. This solution suggests a high degree of impossibility. It would be a monumental task unlike anything we have ever undertaken. It echoes the very real task at hand, mirroring the apparent impossibility of reducing all carbon emissions drastically enough to prevent disaster. This solution, however, is a Macguffin, meant to draw us toward the real subject of the work.

Lerma is not interested in wilderness so much as he is interested in ‘vision’, in photography and what it means to make a photograph. Like names, photographs always imply a human presence. All photographs were taken by someone for some purpose. Lerma’s clouds have something to tell us.

As an artist, Pablo Lerma is preoccupied with the function of image making. He often combines his own photographs with archival images, maps, drawings and illustrations in order to explore the ways in which these things interact to construct reality. Here too we see him playing with these tools. Included within the book is a smaller booklet that features art-historical paintings of dramatic landscapes, snippets of text from Paradise Lost, webster dictionary definitions of words like ‘disappear’, and examples of his own writing. The cryptic Guide for Disappeared Places, lets us in on the constructed reality of everything else contained within the larger body of work. It’s here to reminds us that, like Deseret, the “Place to disappear” is imagined, and that also like Deseret, it carries tremendous power.

So what is Lerma’s real solution to the issue of vanishing wilderness? How do we save the Joshua Tree from ourselves if not by removing every single human from the biome today? Our hint is contained within the very last image, on the final page of the larger book. An archival image, it is also the only one to feature a human. Look closely and you will see two legs, black and white, lost within a fuzz of silver grain. It is a deeply pessimistic comment on the whole idea of ‘saving the world’. In giving us this ghost of a person, Lerma is reminding us that people were always present. Even on this planet without people, people are impossible to remove.

© Photo by Pablo Lerma

The ghost reminds us that Lerma’s initial task was always contrived. All photographs are necessarily anthropocentric. There is always a person in the picture. It is impossible to relate to the Joshua Tree without relating to its name and to it’s humanity by extension. It is impossible to imagine nature without first being human.

Faced with the impossibility of removing the photographer from the photograph (and from the planet by extension), perhaps we can look to the mediums other significant quality. Photographs preserve, if only in shadows. We might not be able to save the world itself, but we may be able to photograph it before it’s gone.

Thoreau said “in wildness is the preservation of the world”, but in entering the Anthropocene it is clear that nothing can escape the influence of a species which actively shapes the Earth. In this age can anything be wild? Can anything be preserved? Perhaps in the absence of ‘wildness’ only the camera can save the Joshua Tree, freezing it like desert frost within Lerma’s dye and silver salt. Sadly, it may be that only photographs of this world can survive us. At least they are beautiful.