Visual Arts

Documenting a Disaster: BP Oil Spill Images on View at Houston Center for Photography

While there may be some argument about how many millions of gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded in 2010, sinking and spewing oil and methane gas from its uncapped wellhead for 87 continuous days, nobody is disputing that the event – which led to the deaths of 11 humans and countless wildlife – was the largest marine oil spill in United States history.

One of the photographers at the scene was Madrid-born, Seattle-based Daniel Beltrá. Since 1997 he has been trying to raise awareness abut the impacts of global warming, documenting all seven continents and undertaking expeditions to the Amazon, the Arctic and the Patagonian ice fields.

To cover the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, he photographed the disaster from the air, capturing both the beauty of the deep, blue ocean and the horror of the wide swaths of red pollutant spreading out from its toxic source. For that work, he was named 2011 Wildlife Photographer of the Year, an award given annually by London’s Natural History Museum, as it looks for the best in nature photography from all across the world with the hope of raising awareness about the beauty and fragility of our planet. (His majestic images from Greenland, a country that supports the world’s second-largest ice cap, are on view through April 24 at FotoFest 2016 Biennial, "CHANGING CIRCUMSTANCES: Looking at the Future of the Planet.")

Five pieces from Beltrá’s “Spill” series are on display at Houston Center for Photography in its “In the Wake” exhibit, a group show exploring our impact on water, as well as our attempts to make good on the damage done by humanity. The ocean glows from below in Oil Spill #4 and Oil Spill #8, while the oily waves spread out like the rings of a geode as seen from the air in Oil Spill #17. The viewer fully realizes how high the photographer flew to capture these images in Oil Spill #14 (following a helicopter’s trek) and Oil Spill #18 (with the airplane’s vapor trail crossing over the arterial flow of the oil).

Before walking through the gallery spaces, be sure to pick up their scavenger hunt worksheet, as the clues are found in the photographs, film and sculpture throughout the exhibit.

The Stockholm-based artist duo Bigert & Bergström, known for their large-scale public works, have four UV-printed photographic sculptures from their “The Drought” series in the show. Three of the pieces – Salt Pan Crystal I, Salt Pan Crystal VIII and Salt Pan Crystal V – would make a puzzler proud, yielding multifaceted acrylic sculptures that glow from within with low-energy lighting.

Constance Hockaday (from Port Isabel) offers a live streaming video titled Tide Clock. It shows a projection of footage from the tidal zone near Monterrey Bay and, at its center, is a live population clock. It’s unsettling and sobering as the number keeps advancing upwards (in early March we were at 7,409,269,829) as the number accounts for both births and deaths.

Also on view are icy cold shots from the Antarctic by Ian van Coller, and from the largest glacier in Peru by van Coller and Dr. Douglas Hardy. Lori Hepner, who spent time studying climate change in Finland, offers four photographs of LED lights in playful motion. Caleb Cain Marcus experiments with perspective and vantage point in three starkly white images, and Leah Dyjak's 24-square panel is displayed horizontally in the show (it also works as a portrait installation).

Exploring the mysterious disappearance of the volcanic island Nuuk, Anaïs Tondeur has created an eight-minute 25-second video. The artist spent a year in residence with physicist Jean-Marc Chomaz, who specializes in fluid dynamics, to learn more about how an island – that we know existed in 2012 – could so completely vanish beneath the ocean surface.

There's a water conservation family day on Saturday, March 19 from noon to 4 p.m., with story time at 1 p.m. and eco-cartoons from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. A panel discussion, "Climate Change and Its Effect on Water," with one of the artists and environmental experts on the subject, is Tuesday, March 22 from 6 to 7:30 p.m.

“In the Wake” continues through May 8 at Houston Center for Photography, 1441 West Alabama, open Wednesdays and Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., 713-529-4755, Free.
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Susie Tommaney is a contributing writer who enjoys covering the lively arts and culture scene in Houston and surrounding areas, connecting creative makers with the Houston Press readers to make every week a great one.
Contact: Susie Tommaney