In the middle of the night, photographer Simon Norfolk dips a garden rake, wrapped in shaggy white carpet — a makeshift wick — into petroleum and sets it on fire. He then shoulders this flaming torch as he traverses the rocky terrain of Mt. Kenya’s Lewis Glacier, which has receded dramatically over the past eight decades. In a video for the New York Times, we see that walking is a test of endurance for Norfolk in the thin, cold air. At an altitude of 17,000 feet, he breathes heavily, panting, extinguishes the flame, and then collapses backward, physically drained and out of breath.
Norfolk captures his walks through long-exposure photographs, now on view at Stratographs, his fourth show at Benrubi Gallery. Since he wears dark clothing during these walks, his body is not visible in the resulting photographs; only the brightness of the moving flame is visible, rendered as a solid line, a searing slash on the mountainside.
The word “stratograph” refers to the scientific description of geological strata, the art of communicating strategy, or a technique for embossing paper. In addition to the Lewis Glacier photos, collectively titled “When I Am Laid on Earth,” the exhibition includes a second series, “Time Taken,” documenting the war-ravaged Afghan landscape. A photojournalist by training, Norfolk approaches both environments with a forensic impulse, parsing apart layers of time, history, material ruins, and geologic strata.
Norfolk characterizes the photographs of “When I Am Laid in Earth” as pyrographic drawings. Assisted by Project Pressure, an organization documenting vanishing glaciers, Norfolk charts the glacier’s historical limits by referencing old maps and modern GPS surveys. The Lewis Glacier is ideal because it is “superbly well mapped, with detailed records … going as far back as 1934” and its reduction is visually dramatic: 90% of the glacier has melted over the past 80 years. The perimeters of the glacier in 1934, 1963, 1987, and 2004 are then inscribed into the terrain of Mt. Kenya with “fire lines.”
Today, the greatest challenge of environmental activists is communicating the reality of climate change. To see a picture of a glacier without a historical referent fails to convey the relative instability of the glacier’s form. Norfolk’s photographs visualize what science and data cannot by compressing change over time into single images. The swathe of exposed earth between Norfolk’s fiery path and the distant edge of the remaining ice — the contrast between the glacier’s historical and present boundaries — corroborates its relentless melting. This melting is shown incrementally, producing what Norfolk refers to as a “stratified history of the glacier’s retreat.” Not only does the fire line delineate the glacier’s historical edge, but the petroleum-fed flame also embodies the careless and unrelenting burning of fossil fuel that has directly contributed to the glacier’s melting and to irreversible climate change.
In Time Taken, Norfolk explores the residual effects of a different type of violent human action: military occupation and warfare in the Bamiyan Valley of Afghanistan. Each of the Time Taken series focuses on a different site; Norfolk returns to these sites on a seasonal basis, producing up to eight identically framed photographs at each location. Between the photographs at each site, small, incremental changes occur. Litter appears, trapped between rocks in a river, then washes away. Soviet military tanks are sometimes obscured — blanketed by snow and then submerged in a field of flowers. “The tanks are decaying, useless, becoming parts of the landscape,” William Meyers observes of the “Time Taken 11” photographs, “Whatever the conflict that brought the tanks to this valley, nature will be the ultimate victor.” Such an optimistic interpretation of Norfolk’s photographs is naive; though their visibility ebbs and flows on a seasonal basis, the form of the tanks is continually present, dictating human agricultural activity. Plow lines curve around the tanks as farmers adjust their planting and harvesting around the unyielding steel tanks; the vestiges of decades of military occupation have carved their form and ruins upon the Afghan landscape. Nature is unable to fully subsume human violence and the ruins of warfare.
Norfolk tangentially makes the case that humans are implicated in climate change and warfare, but the human body — aside from few silhouettes — is largely absent from Stratographs. His highly performative fire walks on Mt. Kenya, which are almost ritualistic, require a level of bodily labor and urgent athleticism that fails to map onto his photographs. By relying on the natural environment to convey its narrative, Stratographs misses an opportunity to present a scathing indictment of human responsibility for global warming and systematic military violence. Though Norfolk argues that beauty can “draw the viewer into looking and thinking about things which otherwise they wouldn’t think about,” any political or environmental agenda he possesses exists primarily as text accompanying his images and is quickly and tragically subsumed by the quiet elegance of his landscapes.
Simon Norfolk: Stratographs continues at Benrubi Gallery (521 West 26th Street, 2nd Floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through March 21.