Richard Mosse captures the deforestation of the Amazon from the air, the trees and at micro-scale
What does damage to the environment actually look like at different angles and perspectives? Richard Mosse captures deranged deforestation from the air, within the trees and at a micro-scale, in the latest illuminating and luminous feature length.
A decade ago Richard Mosse represented Ireland at the 55th Venice Biennale. He challenged the authenticity of photojournalism in its attempt to capture the contradictions of war-torn and ecologically damaged environments. Showing hyper-real reimaginings of the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mosse captured an alternative take on the lived experience of people marginalised by conflict and climate change.
Two series of work were created from extensive visits to the central African country, the 11th largest in the world. With Infra, he made shockingly lurid portraits of child soldiers and breathtaking psychedelic landscapes of lush jungle – in pinks, reds and purples.
The Enclave, with cinematographer Trevor Tweeten and composer Ben Frost, went on to win the artist the 2014 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. The infrared film used to take the photographs was intended as military tech. The discontinued Kodak Aerochrome film was initially employed to highlight targets on the ground from reconnaissance flights. Once developed, the pictures show an extension of the visible spectrum we can usually see. In these undeniably powerful works, images include human compassion and character and beautiful geographical vistas.
Identifying the international refugee crisis as his next focus, the artist spent time in and around the Mediterranean, North Africa and the Middle East. Again, exploring photography on a conceptual level and having a keen eye for composition, Mosse got hold of further military equipment. He used a camera so powerful it is considered a weapon by the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR).
The film Incoming included shots taken from up to 30km away. Images registering temperature difference and heat signatures formed striking depictions of over-packed boats crossing oceans and, similarly, people clinging on to overburdened vehicles traversing desert sands. A strange otherness is achieved in these images, as aspects of faces and features are inversed in silvery black and white. The heat and distance defuse the typical characterisation.
Three years in the making, in his latest work, Mosse has teamed up again with Tweeten and Frost, the latter's use of throbbing bass and sound design even more refined and physical. Broken Spectre takes the team over to Brazil and witnesses the deranged deforestation of the Amazon rainforests. Across a 20m screen, sometimes split in two, sometimes three or four, Mosse's reportage takes in conflicting scenarios, desperate destruction and human struggle.
There are domestic scenes of hard-working families and children playing surrounded by land razed by trees. There is a sequence when the camera follows men around, setting alight the undergrowth and the sense of the space suffocating is tense amid the crackling flames. We see ancient trees chainsawed down in unison – a harrowing scene. Later, an abattoir is shown at work in a cold reportage style.
The cattle, of course, displace the forests in a never-ending capitalist false logic. From the air, the footage shows vast spreads of jungle wiped out. Mosse uses an especially made multispectral camera – allowing the devastated land beneath to be captured in an array of enhanced colours at different wavelengths, directions and speeds.
Over 74 minutes, the film moves from showing cowboys to illegal loggers and gold miners at work while using similar camera techniques to former work. Then the viewer is up close, microscopically close, to jungle fauna in luminescent and day-glow clarity. We are shown the Amazon dying, both underfoot as well as from the air. Rivers are polluted, the land is forcefully eroded and giant trees are felled. It is sobering stuff. Just as the labourers are shown handing down skills to future generations, the viewer is reminded of how precarious the bigger picture is.
As a photographer and filmmaker, Mosse has been at the forefront of widescreen narration-less documentary-making for ten years. This latest piece is a rallying call for emergency environmental change and ecological protection. It shows what is happening not as climate change or even a crisis but as a full-blown catastrophe. The film shows the Amazon at a tipping point. When the exhibition premiered, Brazil was soon to go to the polls. The country elected Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva to succeed Jair Bolsonaro, and in doing so hopefully more will be done to protect 'the lungs of the planet'.
The exhibition includes some large-scale C-Type prints as well as the film. It's been extended twice already, but much like the Amazon it depicts, this really is your last chance.
Richard Mosse's Broken Spectre is on show concurrently at 180 The Strand, London until April 9 and NGV, Melbourne until October.