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Pretty pictures of ugly realities

Matt Zencey is a former Inquirer editor who lives in West Chester When you first look at one of J Henry Fair's photographs, you're not sure what you're seeing.

Matt Zencey

is a former Inquirer editor who lives in West Chester

When you first look at one of J Henry Fair's photographs, you're not sure what you're seeing.

In one, a big splotch of white bleeds into a wide expanse of luminous, deepening green colors. Etched throughout with wavy rivulets, it looks like a detail from a Georgia O'Keeffe flower painting.

Another shot features a skewed rectangle full of reddish shades and splotches that could have come from the work of the abstract expressionist Mark Rothko. Splatters and swirling lines in another photo evoke the action painting of Jackson Pollock.

Often there is no clue, except in the photo's title and caption, that the particular work of art has a dual purpose: It is also powerful evidence of the industrial insults being inflicted on the Earth.

Fair's photographs, on display at Swarthmore College's McCabe Library through Wednesday, are shot from the air over places where the sometimes-brutal impact of our modern economy lies obscured from the ordinary person's eyes.

Fair has flown over bauxite waste flumes, polluted wetlands near oil refineries, coal ash dumps, gurgling paper mill effluent, and deserts created by fertilizer waste. He has produced strikingly beautiful images from BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and mountaintop-removal coal mining in West Virginia.

Some photos are simply abstract shots, with pleasing patterns of colors and shapes. Others include evidence of the industrial activity that produced the garish scene.

Fair, who spoke to a small, friendly crowd at Swarthmore shortly after his exhibit opened last month, wants us to rethink our role as consumers and reconsider the relentless drive to have more, more, and more.

He pointed to his phone and asked, "What are the consequences of getting that magic box in your hand for $300? That's what I try to do - to show the true cost of goods sold." He is appalled that old-growth in Canada's boreal forests is being clear-cut so we can have paper for drying our hands and blowing our noses. (He uses a cloth handkerchief.)

In his recent book, The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis, Fair writes that he has given up on political change, because our government is bought off by corporate interests. "These days the vote that matters the most is the purchase decision. . . . The goal of these pictures is, promote an activist consumerism."

Granted, there's something to be said for doing what you can to distance yourself from the economic status quo and the environmental destruction it inflicts. But Fair is a little harsh on us consumers when he writes, "I'm constantly amazed by the willingness of people to ignore the consequences of their actions." Whatever I may do as a consumer, I'm not the person who ordered a mountaintop removed or a forest clear-cut.

If I join Fair in using a cloth hankie (yuck!), the biggest benefit is probably to my psyche rather than the environment. I can agree to pay more for "green" power, and in so doing I cast a vote against the ruin inflicted by coal mining. But it's just one lonely vote in a process that is still rigged in favor of exploitation. As long as the environmentally harmful choice is cheaper, that's the dominant outcome our market-based economic system gives us.

Change also requires political power, because we need to rewrite the rules that let the market produce environmental ruin. We need to stop electing so-called leaders who deny the human role in climate change and hamstring the Environmental Protection Agency in the name of defending corporate America's "freedom" to pollute.

Fair told the Swarthmore audience that "art can somehow reach people when dialogue doesn't. People can look at these pictures and say, 'Oooh, there's something wrong there.' It doesn't depend on your political persuasion."

Whether we respond with indifference, resort to delusional self-justification, or take action - as consumers or as voters - is up to us.