The sublime is what captivates your attention, the mix between horror and beauty. This discomfort that the sublime evokes by being fascinated with something horrifyingly beautiful is what the latest photography exhibition at the UMMA revolves around. Aftermath: Landscapes of Devastation brings to the forefront of our minds how we use photographs to mediate and memorialize disasters. While the exhibition includes 150 years of medium, it depicts the course of over 2,000 years of human history and photographs moments to last into the infinite future.
Instead of displaying the pictures in chronological order of when the event occurred, the pictures play with time, as the sequence is nonlinear, the arrangement dealing with the increasing amount of time between when the event occurred and when the photograph was taken. By capturing a landscape of devastation mere seconds after the event or two thousand years later, the effects of that devastation can be either visible or invisible, creating a landscape with a timeless story tied to the land.
A lot of the photographs were indirect, not clearly depicting any “devastation” at first glance. This exhibition really makes you stop and read the description to understand why certain photographs belong in a collection that starts with the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb. Even that is an interesting choice — a distant view of a giant cloud in the sky that is a clear sign of devastation without overtly showing the scene from the ground. It is hard to miss the mushroom cloud, but the unimaginable carnage of bodies remain unseen. The picture that follows is an aerial shot of an accident on a beach, the conglomerating crowd and oblivious beach-goers fully captured in this spectacle that is centered around one individual’s life and near-death, an unforgettable memory that will now always be remembered.
9/11 has its place in this exhibition, the two selected photographs shaping our collective memory and national identity as we continuously return to this historic event. However, events of less obvious violence that are equally devastating have their rightful place too. The repetition of the land at Shiprock taken throughout one day represents the relative timelessness of a geographical sight that is perceived despite the destruction on native land that has slowly taken its course through many years.
One of the most interesting photographs was one of joy in an environment of devastation. Bosnian-Muslim refugee children are playing in a bombed building, this innocent side of human nature persisting in a haunting scene very unnatural yet very human, and this direct juxtaposition tugs at your heart as the suffering and resilience of families during a period of war and genocide makes this image — and this ongoing reality — truly devastating indeed. There are certainly many more photographs, each as intriguing and thought-provoking as the last, that makes this exhibit that is on display until May 27 worth seeing.
There is beauty and tranquility in these photographs despite the devastation, and it is precisely because of that that there is something harrowing about them, these moments — or aftermath of moments — suspended in time and carried into infinity. Natural and manmade destruction is never forgotten. Even if it escapes the lens of a camera, it will be forever ingrained in human memory and the natural history on the land.