James Balog's The Old Man and The Ape, 1992.
James Balog's "The Old Man and The Ape," 1992; Courtesy CPNAS

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James Balog: Photography of the Anthropocene at the National Academy of Sciences

Since the 1980s, photographer James Balog has documented global environmental degradation. A wide-ranging exhibit at the National Academy of Sciences, Photography of the Anthropocene, showcases some three dozen of Balog’s photographs—beautiful, ugly, and sometimes both. (“Anthropocene” refers to a proposed label for our current epoch, in which humans have driven environmental change.) In the exhibit, disasters abound, shown vividly and with seemingly no travel expense spared. Several images document fire, including one image of a controlled burn in Canada that sent ashes flying amid brilliant orange flames, and another of yellow and red school bus lights melted by a wildfire, which turned them into something resembling a cheeseburger slathered with ketchup. Balog also photographed threatened animals—including a giant panda incongruously seated in an ornate auditorium, and a chimpanzee posing in Garboesque fashion—and examples of pollution, including a horribly beautiful pool of molybdenum tailings in Colorado. But his most impressive oeuvre involves ice, or, more precisely, its slow disappearance. One image features a fantastical, glowing blue orb that has separated from a melting glacier amid a lunar-like environment; another, an extreme close-up of ancient air bubbles in Greenland ice, looks positively cartoony, with a riot of blue, white, and black circles. Balog’s interest in ice led him to launch the Extreme Ice Survey, which uses cameras to monitor the retreat of glaciers across the globe. The project has collected more than 1.4 million frames of evidence, making Balog not just a passive observer, but a contributor to science itself. James Balog: Photography of the Anthropocene is on display through May 2 at the National Academy of Sciences West Gallery, 2101 Constitution Ave. NW. cpnas.org. Free. Proof of vax and masks required.