A Conversation with J Henry Fair

jhenryfairIn person, J. Henry Fair, whose photographs grace the walls of the McCabe Library Atrium, is witty and self-effacing, yet rather mysterious. There is a sardonic edge to his words and a pensive air to his manner.  During my interview with the artist, he turned down my admittedly thoughtless offer of a paper napkin in case he spilled his coffee.  The man truly is conscious of even the most innocuous-seeming actions and the long chain of harmful effects they wreak on the environment.  In his library talk on Friday, Jan. 25, he stressed repeatedly the importance of recognizing climate change, which he aims to address in his oeuvre, and which he feels is the most pressing issue for our planet today.  I spoke with the artist shortly before his talk.

Deborah Krieger:  So, in general, can you talk about…. your artistic background and how you… began to approach art?

J. Henry Fair:  …Photography was always a natural means of expression for me… and I picked up a camera when I was very young, and never put it down… I’m very interested in social issues, the environment in particular… so I naturally looked for a way to tell these stories with the camera, the environmental stories in particular.  And I’m also fascinated by machines as sort of a pinnacle of man’s abilities in some ways… in some ways, machines are one of our highest expressions… And certainly the pinnacles of our tool-making abilities are beautiful in themselves.  I mean an offshore oilrig, as horrible as what it does is, is a beautiful thing.  So that tendency in photography, that direction, and my environmental consciousness, led to this effort to make pictures which told a story about the environment.

DK:  So do you come from more of an environmentalist background using photography to… advance your message, or is it more of… [first] photography, then you’re inspired particularly by the environmental issues?

JHF:  I’m an artist first, and then an activist.

DK:  So how did you get into environmental activism?

JHF:  Well, I’ve always been concerned about the directions our society is taking, the unsustainable directions. And things that seem very clear to me don’t seem so clear to other people and being a soapbox preacher by nature, and a loudmouth, I wanted to tell a story about “ok, what’s the cost of that paper napkin?” And it’s ironic that most of us in our world take comfort and pleasure in the representations of nature but yet in some sense almost everything we do sabotages nature.

…Back to the paper napkin… we don’t think about the fact that if you grab a handful of paper napkins you’re basically supporting deforestation. And supporting deforestation means supporting climate change and it means supporting habitat destruction. You know, it’s quite ironic… nobody doesn’t love Animal Planet, right? And we all love to look at the cute little animal babies… and yet everything we do…

DK:  There’s a bit of an interesting dichotomy because the things you are photographing are extremely horrible and terrible for the environment but you make them look so beautiful.  So how do you grapple [with that]?

JHF:  They wouldn’t be effective if that wasn’t the case.  If they were just boring pictures of cut-down trees on a hillside, which is the usual environmental picture that you see in your typical environmental magazine, you’d yawn and move on.  Whereas since they are beautiful, since they are graphically and colorfully beautiful, we stop and we say, “what is that?” And by stopping and being curious, then suddenly hopefully the viewer will think about “so that’s the waste from making paper towels? My god, who would have thought?”

DK:  In your work, have you ever encountered… a struggle from the people whose oilrigs you’re photographing?  Have there ever been any obstacles against showing your work?

JHF:  What I’m doing is very straightforward, and I’m pretty well known… and what I’m creating is art…most of the stuff as you’ve seen is abstract… I want people to think about our whole direction as a society and our responsibilities as individuals, so I don’t really name names… know very well if I’m looking at a waste pond, I know very well what company it is and what they’re making, I know what they’re emitting and all of that.  But it’s not really for me to say, “ok, that’s a certain brand of facial tissue and this is the emissions….” a. that’s boring and that would detract from the artwork and b. I’m more interested in people thinking about the issues of “ok, if I use facial tissues instead of a handkerchief, I’m supporting deforestations, I’m supporting water pollution, I’m supporting climate change, I’m supporting habitat destruction… I’d rather make those connections for people than [tell] people “oh, this brand of facial tissue is bad”…

…By looking at my photographs, I would like people to ask questions about the directions that our society is taking… and more specifically about their responsibility as citizens: are we citizens, or are we consumers? Everything has a consequence, and in our world those consequences are often hidden from us.  [There] are very real chains of cause and effect, but they’re hidden from us.  And so I’m trying to… illustrate those chains of cause and effect and get people to say “ok, wow, I contributed to that… by buying this product, I am complicit in that chain of causation, and am I willing to be complicit?” and obviously that’s a very complex message which not everyone will get by looking at the pictures… a lot of people will just get the aesthetics and walk away. And, I mean, as an artist, that’s your fate. You don’t know what someone will take away from your art.

DK:  Obviously, you fly a lot.  I’m assuming that you pay some kind of carbon offset?

JHF:  I’m gonna hide under the table now.  No, I don’t offset my travel.  My feeling is that yes, I fly a lot and yes, that’s a tremendous carbon footprint, and yes, that is a sin… I tell myself that I’m doing good, and I believe that I am.

DK:  [Do] you have a general closing statement that you hope that people reading this interview will take away from it?

JHF:  I hope that people will think about the consequences… are we citizens or are we consumers? Are we mindless purchasers of whatever is put in front of us?  Where will that take us?  Or are we citizens who are cognizant of the impact?  For me, being an adult is being responsible for the consequences of your behavior.  If you step on someone’s toe… you look them in the eye and apologize for it… for me, being an adult means I’m responsible for the consequences of what I do…  And that’s the big picture of what I would like people to take away from my work.

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