Ashes to ashes

pho­to­graphs by JOAN MY­ERS

Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Michael Abatemarco I The New Mex­i­can

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

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