After photographing the entirety of North America’s west coast for the 2012 book West Coast: Bering to Baja, David Freese had no plans to document its east coast. Hurricane Sandy changed that. As he describes in East Coast: Arctic to Tropic, recently released by George F. Thompson Publishing, witnessing the 2012 storm’s destruction in New York and New Jersey, he began considering the fragility of the eastern shoreline. The subject could be as compelling and timely as his look at the west coast’s dynamic geological activity.
“On our older, low lying Atlantic Coast, the present danger is due to rising seas caused by climate change and the resulting warming temperatures,” Freese told Hyperallergic. “Ice melts and the sea rises. In East Coast: Arctic to Tropic, this peril becomes even more evident when photographing from the air, a viewpoint that reveals a fragile, vulnerable coast with the sea at the brim.”
Starting in Greenland at the Arctic Circle and continuing south to the Dry Tortugas in the western Florida Keys, Freese created a photographic voyage down the east coast, seen both from above and at eye level. On one page of the large hardback, the perspective is on the ground at the mouth of the Jacobshavn Ice Fjord, with an incredible panorama taking in its icy peaks and the human spectators dwarfed by its form; on another, the New York Harbor is witnessed from the sky, an angle that emphasizes the proximity of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan’s high rises to the water. Shots of a polar bear on the ice floes near Baffin Island and the eroded forms of the Hopewell Rocks in the Bay of Fundy showcase the east coast’s natural beauty. Developments like the homes perched on the rocky coast of Uummannaq, Greenland, and the Turkey Point Nuclear Generating Station on the edge of Florida’s Biscayne Bay underline its delicate connection to the waterways.
“My hope is to play a small part in the overall message by providing a photographic perspective that allows the imagination to easily envision the peril on the horizon,” Freese said. “Photography allows us all to see cause and effect with our own eyes — to be a witness.” He added, “I hope this book proves to be a valuable record of our whereabouts at this moment in time. It will change dramatically and probably sooner than we think.”
Each caption for the almost 200 photographs in East Coast: Arctic to Tropic only indicates a location, leaving the viewer to make their own assessment of what the scene means for the coast’s future resilience. Two essays in the book go more in depth, with journalist Simon Winchester exploring the geological history of this 5,500-mile stretch of the world and author Jenna Butler contextualizing the images within current concerns about global warming and the environment. In the video below, Winchester and Freese discuss those themes.
Freese’s sepia-toned images recall 19th-century landscape photography, and the use of the medium as a form of activism goes back to that era. On view in the National Gallery of Art’s exhibition East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography is an 1888 photograph by Seneca Ray Stoddard capturing a field of dead trees, drowned by an industrial dam. One of Freese’s most haunting landscapes echoes Stoddard’s vision, focusing on the silhouetted skeletons of trees caught in the rising currents on South Carolina’s Edisto Island. While the American government continues to lag in addressing climate change, photography can, hopefully, be a catalyst for action.
“The coastal environment that Freese portrays ranges from the High Arctic, at 76 degrees north, to the tropical, at 24 degrees north,” Winchester writes in East Coast: Arctic to Tropic. “And, throughout [Freese’s] photographic journey, the one word that seems most appropriately to characterize all that landscape and scenery and population, all those miles and latitude lines of flora, fauna, and humankind, is the simplest: fragile.”