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Christopher Valentine's Perspective on Humans' Power over Nature
Published23 Nov 2023
- Topics Contemporary Issues, Documentary, Landscape, Nature & Environment, Travel
During a journey spanning over two and a half years across 36 states, the photographer delves into humanity's complex interaction with the environment.
Around 2020, a few months after graduating in photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology in Rochester, New York, Christopher Valentine and his then-girlfriend, now wife, purchased a motorhome and embarked on a cross-country trip across the U.S., heading West.
Hailing from Upstate New York, they cruised through more than 30 states over two and a half years, before making Eugene, Oregon, their home.
It wasn't just a road trip; it was also a photographic adventure.
“We had a lot of curiosity about seeing different places,” Valentine says. They’d often go off the beaten path, seeking a place to spend the night and those detours often resulted in capturing peculiar scenes from their unique accommodations. “It was the most freeing work I've ever made,” he says.
As they traveled, they frequently found themselves in remote, seemingly untouched landscapes that, despite their isolation, stood vulnerable to future effects of climate change. This redirected Valentine's focus towards depicting the interaction between humans and the environment in his photography.
That’s the heart of Taking Note In The Splendor, where Valentine attempts to blend thought-provoking images on the impacts of climate change with lighter, humorous takes on landscapes and humanity.
The photo taken at Biosphere 2, a science center in Oracle, in the Arizona desert, is one of those instances. The artificial indoor ecosystem includes prairies, rainforests, and even a small ocean, its surface visible in the photo’s background. Within the image, a tree on the verge of falling over is propped up by two white poles. “It relates to this idea of the goodness in humans,” he says.
Another photo, taken at the Petrified Forest National Park, an Arizona desert area where ancient trees have turned to stone over millions of years, highlights a common problem: visitors taking home petrified rocks as keepsakes. In this image, the car's tires are flattened due to the weight of a fossilized tree trunk in the cargo—a representation of nature resisting humanity's urge to control and own natural elements.
“I wanted to interject a little humor into it,” Valentine says. “The rock is so massive and heavy that they just can’t move anywhere. Over time, the tires [deteriorates] and then [the car] is just stuck in this parking lot forever.”
As they traveled across states and accumulated an extensive archive of photographs, Valentine began seeking connections among the varied images. Gradually, he noticed gaps within the collection, focusing on certain areas, and searching for additional pictures to complement them. Much of this process stemmed from chance encounters, followed by meticulous editing to weave them together and craft a cohesive narrative.
In one photograph, hand-painted blue herons grace the paper walls of an opulent mansion, embodying a seamless fusion of nature and domestic space.
Within these country estates, taxidermy and nature dioramas were common. Valentine is fascinated by the affluent homeowners’ choice to embellish their residences with these representations of nature. Yet again, it seems an attempt to exert dominance by showcasing exotic wildlife within an enclosed environment. During his visits, Valentine had seen bear pelt rugs complete with the bear’s head, elk busts mounted on the walls, even elephant busts as part of the decor.
“I’ve been steadily taking pictures to explore that idea of human intervention on the environment… but also the idea of bringing that sense of nature into the home,” he says. “That's the common thread in all of them.”
With a blend of irony and sincerity, he observes the evolving landscape amidst human presence and the profound shift in our relationship with the environment due to new technology. It's no longer the intimate, personal experience it once was. This is poignantly portrayed by a woman reaching out of a car window, capturing the landscape on her cellphone before driving away.
“I’ve been interested in watching people look at the environment... They’re there to look at the beauty of it, but the common thing I’ve noticed is that they’re seeing the world through their phone screen.”
A scenario Valentine has encountered countless times during his travels, he says, sometimes at the expense of truly witnessing the beauty around us.
“It’s an interesting way of thinking about how we experience nature these days.” As he acknowledges that it might not be universal but holds a significant truth, he also ponders our constant desire for validation, shaping our approach to experiencing the world.
“We have this propensity to capture our experiences to share them online and to get engagement over it. Almost this idea that ‘I was here, look what I saw,’ but they don't always actually see it... We always crave a little bit more attention.”
All photos © Christopher Valentine, from the series Taking Note In The Splendor
Christopher Valentine is a photographer living part-time on the road exploring the United States. He received his BFA in Photography from The Rochester Institute of Technology in the Spring of 2020. He is currently based in Eugene, OR. Find his work on PhMuseum and Instagram.
This article is part of the series New Generation, a monthly column written by Lucia De Stefani, focusing on the most interesting emerging talents in our community.