Ashes to ashes
photographs by JOAN MYERS
For more than a decade Joan Myers has being photographing volcanic regions of the world where people have adapted to changeable environments, sometimes under threat for their survival from eruptions, lava flows, heat, and ash. The project took her to Java, Easter Island, Antarctica, Europe, and the Americas, among other places, culminating in Fire and Ice: Timescapes, a collection of her photographs published this year by Damiani. Myers discusses her career and experiences with art historian Lucy Lippard at Collected Works Bookstore on Friday, April 24. An exhibit of works from the project, Joan Myers: Fire and Ice, opens the following day at Andrew Smith Gallery. On the cover is Myers’ Italian nuns tour the Hverarönd geothermal field near Myvatn, Iceland, a 2007 archival pigment print.
We expect — we need — our planet to be firm and solid beneath our feet. But a stable Earth, whatever we would like to think, is an illusion.
— Joan Myers
t he Earth is changing all the time. Sometimes the changes are sudden and dramatic, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the volcanic regions of the world. Santa Fe-based photographer Joan Myers has spent more than a decade traveling to distant locations to record those changes and, in the process, document how people living amid turbulent landscapes have adapted to them. Beginning in 2002, Myers visited Antarctica, Hawaii, Iceland, Ecuador, Italy, Indonesia, Easter Island, and many other regions where volcanic and glacial activity visibly shapes the planet. “The first trip was the Antarctic,” Myers told Pasatiempo. “I was down there for four months. I was seduced by the ice. The ice is the most beautiful part of the planet, I think. I’d have been quite happy to photograph ice forever and ever, but my husband said, ‘Nope. No more ice.’ He wasn’t gung-ho for me to disappear again for another four months. At that point, I had climbed up Mount Erebus, which is a dramatic volcano, and I was curious to see others.” Myers gives a talk with art historian Lucy Lippard at Collected Works Bookstore on Friday, April 24, where she signs her new book, Fire and Ice: Timescapes, published this year by Damiani. An exhibition, Joan Myers: Fire and Ice, opens the following day at Andrew Smith Gallery.
Among the hot spots Myers’ interests took her to are Herculaneum in Italy, an ancient Roman town preserved when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 — some of Herculaneum’s buildings were made with volcanic rock; Quilotoa in Ecuador, a water-filled caldera (a volcanic crater) where dissolved minerals turn the water a vibrant green; and the verdant lava fields of Reykjavík in Iceland. “Volcanic places are actually creating new earth,” she said. “There’s an area in Iceland
where the mid-Atlantic rift is pulling apart, and you’re seeing new ground that’s never been there before.”
Myers’ photographs capture the wild beauty of the locations in rich tones, and she has a keen eye for capturing inherent contrasts in her work, whether it’s a lone tree sprouting from a fissure in the barren rock of Hawaii’s Kilauea Iki, a pit crater near the summit of the volcano’s main crater, or the road encircling the rim of Oregon’s Newberry Volcano. Part of her book’s fascination is in the stories behind each image. Newberry, for example, a cinder cone or conical hill surrounding a volcanic vent, was once used as a training ground for astronauts in advance of the United States’ first moon landings. Human involvement in volcanic terrain underscores many of the images, reminding one of the sometimes uneasy relationship between people and extreme regions of heat and cold. “When you get to the ice or to the top of a volcano — either one — the beauty is totally natural and unadorned. For me, to be able to go to Antarctica was like being able to go to another planet. I have felt the same way when I climb a volcano. I think it’s probably built into the human condition that we love to look at something that’s got flames. We’re just drawn to it.”
Geothermal areas have long been sources of sustenance for populations. Volcanic soil is rich for agricultural purposes, and many of the photographs attest to the lush growing conditions. “People have gardens and grow all sorts of things in the shadow of volcanoes. I saw it in Indonesia, in Java, where they have a lot of volcanoes. Merapi erupted just a couple of years ago, and there are people in the area where all the ash is, and they’ve got little stakes in the ground to plant their gardens. The government hasn’t allowed them to do that yet, but it’s fertile. They’re ready to plant.” People take a risk when living beneath active volcanoes, as several images show. A ghostly image of Myers is reflected in the television screen of a ruined home in Java, consumed during the 2010 eruption of Mount Merapi. Her panoramic shot of the city of Plymouth in Montserrat is a haunting look at abandoned houses shrouded in ash. What isn’t evident in the photograph is the struggle for life that reasserts itself in new growth after an eruption. “When I actually got into the town very briefly — you’re not supposed to be there — I found that things were sprouting up all over the place. There aren’t any pictures in the book from Mount St. Helens, but I made a trip up there and I was amazed at how the area has come back.” Mount St. Helens was the site of a catastrophic eruption in 1980.
For generations living in such volatile places, the presence and power of volcanoes is constantly felt, permeating day-to-day life and sometimes inspiring religious devotion. “Every place where people live around volcanoes, they’ve had myths and stories about them. Hawaii’s prime example is Pele, the goddess of the volcano. Anybody who’s lived there a period of time has the feeling that Pele is there and waiting. In some ways I think that’s a positive thing, because it shows that people are at least aware of the power of natural phenomena.” At the Kukaniloko Birthstones State Monument on the island of O’ahu, Myers shot an offering left at the site. Offerings to Pele are left at the summit of Kilauea, and a painted shrine is carved into the volcanic rock on the island of Guadaloupe in the Lesser Antilles. And the monumental, mysterious moai sculptures of Easter Island, which Myers also photographed, were carved from compressed volcanic ash, or tuff.
One thing Fire and Ice: Timescapes has little of is dramatic shots of erupting volcanoes and searing lava flows. “I really wanted to show the human part of living around volcanoes.” The unpredictable nature of her work often carried the possibility of peril. “I went to eruptive places like Stromboli, in the Aeolian Islands off the coast of Sicily. That’s a volcano that erupts about every 20 to 30 minutes. Periodically, it’s a little too active for the local population. It’s not a very big island. It’s pretty spectacular for a small eruption. You can go out in a boat, and it’s quite beautiful, sending lava up into the air. It’s the same thing, really, in Kilauea; you never know what the Kilauea is going to do next, and it recently almost took out a village there. You’re quite aware that this is a breathing creature.”
Always in the back of her mind was a consideration for the impact that the human population, as a whole, has had on Earth’s topography and climate, particularly near the poles. “The evidence of global warming in the Arctic and the Antarctic is visible just about everywhere you go. I think last year was the warmest year on record for the Antarctic. There’s an awful lot of ice there: It’s not going to melt overnight, but it is melting. The Arctic is melting like crazy, and it’s something you’re aware of every moment. We can’t just reverse it. It’s now got momentum. We don’t just live in isolated places on the planet anymore. We’re all connected, and we’re filling in all the empty spaces. It’s become a very dangerous and precarious situation.”
Joan Myers: Television and controller from the 2010 eruption of Merapi, 2012; left, White Crater on Java, 2012;
opposite page, Hverarönd in northeastern Iceland, 2007; all images archival pigment prints