In the entirety of art that confronts topics of catastrophe, tragedy, and war, the harsh realities of this world are spoken of in the present and past tense. Speculation on the future is normally reserved for science fiction. But work about climate change is different; it is a condition that is both looming and imminent. We are amid its prologues now.
The threats posed to us by melting ice caps, changing weather patterns, and rising sea levels are so alarming and magnificent in scale that they can quell the significance of any tangential conversation. As I write about these photographs now, there is a voice of guilt inside me saying, the climate is worsening, you need to do something more. If humanity nears an inflection point of its very capabilities to survive, what is the value in stopping to admire beauty? In 1951, the German philosopher Theodor Adorno wrote, “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric.” I wonder what role he would ascribe to art in our present moment.
It’s despite my hovering guilt to state that the innovative vision and craft of Anastasia Samoylova’s FloodZone, published by Steidl in 2019, is hard to ignore. She makes remarkable pictures. However, let’s not linger too long here because the waters are busy rising. Samoylova’s most recent work is rooted in the legacies of 20th century American documentary photographers. Throughout her pictures, we see pictorial grammars that deftly quote the likes of Walker Evans, Stephen Shore, Robert Adams, and other luminaries who sought so ambitiously to portraitize America with a capital ‘A’.
Samoylova’s ambition is far more grounded and concerned than those of photographers past, as she records scenes within Miami and in other localities that are destined to become early victims of our changing planet. In the pictures of FloodZone, we see alluring systems of formal play competing with stern evidentiary documentation. We see commercial aesthetics that promise visions of utopia, contrasted by records of rusted infrastructure and industrial-stricken animal habitats. The sequence of the book, edited and brought to life by British writer David Campany (also the author of the book’s essay), induces a psychological tug of war between irony and melancholic concern.
Current estimates say that in eighty years, and probably sooner, much of the ground Samoylova walked on to make her pictures will be underwater. What then, when coastal populations must migrate inland? Not just from Miami, but much of the country’s seaboards. And not just those in the US, but all of the coastal populations of the world. What happens then? It’s not unreasonable to forecast the worst of what we can imagine. And what we can imagine is likely never creative enough. The effects of climate change will compound in unpredictable ways, its threats will be exponential. Its danger is magnificent.
Samoylova brings straight photography as close as it can come to forecasting a future. Her pictures are warning signs signaling that the myth of the flood is precariously close to becoming reality. But photographs can only speak of the past. In a climate-collapsed future, photographs will play a role. They will show us all the animals that used to exist. They will show us the luxurious seaside condos we constructed in folly and arrogance. They will show evidence of what used to be, a long time ago, when things were better. If Samoylova’s FloodZone comes to be viewed as nostalgia, and if it’s a visual prologue of a story to come, then there is no ark that can save us.