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Archive for Sunday, September 19, 2004

Arctic Refuge photos at center of national oil-drilling debate on view in New York

September 19, 2004

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— Two giant, bowhead whale jawbones form an arc to mark the entrance of a small cemetery with simple, white Christian crosses erected amid a vast, snow-covered landscape.

Light hits a patch in the lower left corner of the photograph, illuminating the grainy, crystal texture of the snow and almost inviting the viewer to touch the canvas. In the upper left corner, a sun dog -- which is like a rainbow, but formed of ice crystals -- cuts through the clouds.

"Inupiat Cemetery," an UltraChrome print made by Subhankar Banerjee, is among 29 images on display at Gerald Peters Gallery in the photographer's first solo gallery show.

Banerjee, a scientist who taught himself photography, says the photographs, taken during a two-year, 4,000-mile journey of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, are born of a meditative process of observation. He began his voyage in March 2001; most of the photos were taken in 2002.

In the image of the Inupiat Eskimo village, he hears the "voice of nature."

"This is nature and culture living in harmony," he said during a recent interview at the gallery.

Banerjee traveled across the 19.5 million acres of the refuge with a native Inupiat guide and lived with local families to capture the simplicity and harshness of remote northeastern Alaska where the wind chill can plummet to 120 degrees below zero. He describes the region as "grand yet simple," and a place where "the existence of life, including wild flora and fauna and native cultures is modest and fragile."

While Banerjee said his work is not at all "driven by politics," his photographs of pristine wilderness are part of a debate between environmentalists and the Bush Administration. President Bush and the oil industry want to allow oil drilling on 1.5 million acres of the refuge's coastal plain, where they believe oil is abundant. Environmental groups say drilling will damage one of the country's largest tracts of untouched wilderness.

Banerjee's photos were included in a display last year at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., and are the subject of "Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: Seasons of Life and Land," published in 2003 by The Mountaineers Books.

"Caribou on Coastal Plain," a 27-inch-by-40-inch print, shows the migration of pregnant female caribou on the proposed drilling site. The animals, who make up about 80 percent of the local diet, roam under an opaque, light purple sky. The photo was taken around 3 a.m. on day in early June, giving the image Banerjee's signature subdued light.

From mid-May through mid-August, the region experiences 24-hour daylight, Banerjee said. There are some 130,000 caribou on the plain, and about 40,000 calves are born there each year.

Lily Downing Burke, the gallery's director, said it was the artist's idea to reframe the photographs for a gallery setting. Banerjee chose 29 images, each with 29 prints, because it is a prime number, she said. The prints range in price from $2,500 to $3,700.

Banerjee was first discovered by a gallery in Santa Fe, N.M., just before the Gerald Peters gallery decided to launch his career as an artist and open his first show in New York, Burke said. The gallery has a long tradition of exhibiting artists who use the natural world as inspiration -- from Georgia O'Keeffe's flowers to Ansel Adams' vistas.

"His work works with our idea of artist/explorer," she said. "There is also a part of his work that is modern and abstract. It balances between 19th century, prewar and contemporary."

Born in India in 1967, Banerjee earned a bachelor's degree in engineering before moving to the United States, where he earned a master's degrees in physics and computer science. He worked in scientific fields for six years, with Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico and Boeing in Seattle. A self-taught artist, he became a full-time photographer in 2000, at the age of 32.

"Science definitely helped me immensely to deal with the equipment, the weather and the conditions, but I feel science creates a very rational mind, and I just wanted my passion to take over," Banerjee said. "When you look at the work, it's very much from the soul."

"Subhankar Banerjee: The Last Wilderness" runs through Oct. 16 and is not expected to travel.

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