Visible Climate: Postcards from America’s Changing Landscapes
Lee Lines and Rachel Simmons
10 × 8 in. closed
Binding: Drum leaf with hard covers
Postcards are a peculiar medium, evoking presence and absence simultaneously. The writer of a postcard says, “I am here” to someone who isn’t. Or they say, “I was there” to a future self who may have forgotten. Postcards are, therefore, a medium of imagination and memory. They are also readymade representations. Unlike the snapshot a tourist takes, a postcard has been carefully chosen to represent a place with commercial and political goals, or at least considerations. This was the case for the National Parks Service postcards that inspired the imagery in Visible Climate, made to promote “America’s best idea” to a nascent public of domestic tourists.
The pages of Lines and Simmons’ collaborative book are not literal postcards, or even facsimiles, but rather draw on the formal and conceptual foundations of the medium. Each pair of text and image relates a memory from a national park, the writing intimate and the imagery iconic. The text is present tense, which departs from a typical postcard but lends a more literary sensibility. A representative passage reads, “I hike back to the spot in the photograph but so much has changed. Gone are the old weathered Juniper trees and dense stands of Pinyon Pine. Dry grassland stretches for miles in every direction as I walk through a mostly silent landscape.” The postcards do not form a single narrative but accumulate to paint a worrisome picture of how climate change is impacting the unique lands that comprise the United States. The themes that emerge are well suited to the medium – changes and time, presence and absence (visibility and invisibility), memory and imagination. After all, landscape itself is a work of imagination, a human representation imposed on the reality of land. Visible Climate grapples with the perils and potential of this very human way to perceive the environment.
The book’s structure and materials do embody a bit of what one might expect from a postcard. Printed on demand through Blurb, the “Layflat Imagewrap” book is essentially a drum leaf binding, resulting in thick pages that open flat with no gutter. The book’s dimensions (20 × 8 inches open) and rather large text encourage the reader to take the book in at arm’s length – perhaps flat on a table – a visual rather than tactile experience. The large pages also leave room to solve the challenging layouts, balancing one image and one block of text without trapping awkward negative spaces. In some spreads one page contains the image with the text across the fold, but most pages pair both elements within their ample margins. The text and image never touch, the gutter is never crossed, and nothing bleeds off the edge. The compositions would be static, stale even, were it not for the organic, unpredictable sensibility provided by the handwritten text and liquid borders of each image. Likewise, the choice to compose both single pages and two-page spreads livens the straightforward text-image format and introduces an element of pacing that makes the bound book function as more than a pile of postcards.
This pacing is suggested on the book’s cover, which is patterned with thumbnail reproductions of the images inside. Neither the spine nor cover display the title, leaving the grid of images to operate free of context. The resulting preview, not unlike the images on the back of a wall calendar, emphasize the book’s affective use of color. In hand coloring Lines’ photographic images, Simmons pushes the warm and cool palettes to an extreme. Blue skies and glacial ice contrast sharply with the arid reds of riverbeds and desert bluffs. This limited color scheme makes the few appearances of green seem artificial, imaginary even. In one such image, a phthalo green swamp gives rise to a ghostly mangrove whose black and white rendering seems to suggest that the plant is already dead.
Just as Simmons’ hand is present in the hand-tinted photographs, Lines’ can be seen in the handwritten text. His rounded hand complements the organic outlines of the imagery and lends an authenticity which contrasts with the artifice of the colorized photographs in an interesting way. The handwriting also references the idea of a postcard, of course, and helps the reader connect more intimately with the narrators than the relatively short texts might otherwise allow. And while the consistent handwriting unifies the collection of vignettes, it also raises complex questions about authorship. The book’s colophon explains that the captions “imagine the voices of park visitors,” meaning each vignette is that of a different fictional narrator. But rather than embody each imagined narrator with a different hand, Lines layers his own identity onto the texts by way of penmanship. Thus the handwriting and hand-coloring point to the process-oriented practice behind the book.
That process included nearly two hundred hours of field work in the national parks featured in the book. Lines and Simmons’ collaborations are grounded in intensive research, and the handwritten text seems to recall a scientist’s field journal, positioning the fictional accounts as the results of research. The importance of process is even clearer in Simmons’ treatment of Lines’ photographs, which begin as conventional digital images. Simmons converts the images to black and white, transfers them to paper and hand-colors them before digitizing them again. The retreat from digital to analog (and from color to black and white) lays the conceptual groundwork beneath the nostalgic, vintage look that hand-coloring ultimately gives the imagery. The point is, after all, not just to reference the historical but to enact a sense of loss over time. As Simmons works, the images lose more and more data until the subjective workings of the artist’s hand supplant the objectivity of the digital photograph.
For all this emphasis on process, the final product remains impeccably crafted; not only the text and imagery but sequence and pacing of the book as well. With the familiar intimacy of the writing, it is easy to read oneself into the imagined correspondence. An inherent sense of temporal and geographic distance makes the suspension of disbelief central to the postcard as a medium. Whether reading a postcard immediately at the mailbox or years after from a shoebox, one is always already later and elsewhere. It is a medium of imagination grounded by the fact of really having been somewhere, not unlike the strange authenticity of Lines’ handwritten fiction. The premise of multiple writers also accommodates more repetition than a straightforward narrative. Visible Climate has no introduction or conclusion; all of the storytelling is accomplished through the fictional missives. Their major themes and motifs are far from subtle, but the book’s quick pace and the sheer variety of landscapes depicted keep the repetition from growing tiresome. On the contrary, Lines’ ruminations on time and change unify the human experience of those disparate geographies and demonstrate how pervasive the effects of climate change really are.
This larger message about the environment emerges not just from each vignette but from the careful sequencing of their accumulation. For while the book may lack an introduction, it does have a beginning, middle and end. Much of Visible Climate’s power comes from subverting the linearity of the codex form. The first postcard ends, “…we’re struck by the near total absence of young trees.” In other words, the beginning of the book is the beginning of the end. The next postcard reflects on ancient cliff dwellings, introducing the human timescale that will remain in tension with the geological throughout the book. It is then all the more shocking when the two timescales reverse: “Decades have passed since I last visited Nisqually Glacier. Most of my fellow climbers are gone, and the glacier is now hundreds of yards upstream.” Changes to the Earth have accelerated to the human scale, and the narrator is left to “recall the sound of the ice, bending and snapping in the distance.”
In the second half of the book, a turning point is signaled by three smokestacks sticking out above the horizon, releasing steam that disappears into the clouds above. On the following page, the narrator writes, “Our hike back to the road feels like we are leaving the scene of a crime.” The final image is the book’s only nocturne, but the linear progress from day to night is complicated by a reprise of the first passage. “The young Joshua trees are mostly gone, while the few remaining mature trees are like oases, providing shelter for dozens of animals in an otherwise harsh landscape.” It is hard not to project one’s own condition onto these trees, survivors of the beginning of the end, caring for others in the face of an improbable future.
Such anthropomorphism is, of course, part of the problem. Our ability to relate to a tree (but less so a blob of algae) speaks to the power of imagination in constructing our views of the natural world, in making landscape out of land. As one postcard notes, “The carbon flowing through those towers can’t be seen and makes no sound.” The climate crisis is, in part, an aesthetic problem, a matter of what can and cannot be seen. Visible Climate is an intervention in the aesthetic realm, a reminder that something is lost in our mediated perspective of the environment. Lines and Simmons acknowledge that some problems of perception are natural, like the inconceivable gap between human time and geologic time, while others are human-made. Visible Climate shows that our inability to see the world as it really is can be catastrophic, and yet any remaining hope lies in the very ability to imagine a world different from our own.
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