Living in the Beauty of a Blue Oblivion, an essay by Eiren Caffall

Living the Beauty of a Blue Oblivion

                                                                                                                        Eiren Caffall

This spring in Chicago we had a heat wave, devastating and gorgeous at the same time.  It came in late February, a time when here the sky is a resolute grey, flat and monotone.  It is a lulling thing, that sky, hypnotic, and careful and bleak, reducing itself to a blank page afterthought, relieved of any shading, complexity or depth.

We walk under that sky for months, and the reach of it seems vast: out over the grey lake, down inside the grey concrete, up the length of the grey buildings, into the pallor of our skin. 

More than snow or bitter cold, this is the story of a Chicago winter: the grey, the flat.

But this year a riot of color broke on us in midwinter.  A sudden thaw and heat wave shook the grey out, and gave birth to early blue skies and to green grass and bright sun, then to a white and cloudless city.  The warmth brought freakish, carnivalesque alterations that set everyone in a vacation mood and left us blinking and grinning on the sidewalks, looking up at the sky with a sudden hunger for plants and swimming and consumption.

And there was greediness in the way we drew it in, as if we’d never seen beauty like that before, as if there was only one kind of summer, and it was here.  It was something we had to drown in, that beauty, something we had to have, as if our lives depended on it.

Though it was a new thing, the wrong climate, an alteration and a shift, here is what we said to each other: “Isn’t this warm spring wonderful?  Isn’t it sweet to see the flowers bloom so early?”

There is beauty in the collapse of climate change.  There is pleasure in a spring with no waiting.  And so we took our grace in ease we hadn’t earned, and we took our pleasure in beauty that wasn’t natural.  It heralded something unspeakably dangerous, was a messenger that came with bad news, but looked just like good fortune.

Humans can be lazy animals.  We thrive in the presence of unexpected sloth.  We love the blessed thaw, the simple ease of it, because of the wiring of our evolution.  Ease looks lovely to us, it looks like survival.  Beauty catches us up and makes us feel at peace, even with things we ought to fear.

None of us can pretend we do not know what that warm spring means.  We may choose to hold at bay our fear and grief.  But, whether we sit with the truth deeply or not, no one can avoid the reality of global climate and ecosystem collapse.

Beauty and pain exist as twins in every human moment and in every human heart, and to see a blazing spring day, so wrong in its temperatures, does not mean that we cease to see its beauty, nor should we.

The beauty of it keeps us alive in a way we must not lose, alive to the earth in jeopardy.

Fogelson’s vision of the earth in jeopardy in Exit Eden provides retreat, even if that Eden is corrupted by wrongness, by change. His images are gorgeous even in their destruction, the degradation of their altered landscapes.  They are full of tiny promises of nature to into which we might disappear.

Sometimes like fading Victorian postal cards, and then again like forests awash in blue flame, jungles swimming with water, painterly sweeps of acid mimicking the ocean, the photographs invite the viewer towards a fantastic version of the land, one that draws in the eye and the breath.

Fogelson’s process involves taking color Fuji film, discontinued by the manufacturer, shooting a landscape image and then distorting the image with bleach.  The emulsion of the negatives is selectively altered, removing yellow, magenta and cyan layers, to reveal what remains: blue, impossible blue.

It feels like no surprise that blue is what remains.  Blue: color of the sea and sky, continual human metaphors for the greatest mysteries, the unrevealed.

Fogelson’s blue bubbles like liquid fire, it sweeps along vistas swallowing them whole, it halos the sun, radiating something terribly wrong and ultimately seductive towards the trees within its orbit.

Blue is the color of our new horizon as a planet.  It was always the signature flag we flew out into space.  Here is our sweet oasis, that blue flag said, home of liquid water and moist winds — drinkable, vital and luminous.  Astronauts gazing back at the earthrise from our nearest celestial neighbor drew in breath at the comfort of that place they’d left behind.  And when we gaze at ourselves from that perspective, we are awake to all that feeds and nurtures us.

But, in the warming world, the world that’s coming, we will be awash in all that blue.

The rise of the seas, the startling sweeps of rain, the water where we do not want it, rising into cities, falling like a lake of tragedy from rainstorms we did not expect, subsuming what we seek to keep, absent where we most require it: water will obsess us in the world that’s coming. 

Sky, the other blue mystery, will be the silent god we look to.  Too much sun or too little, maker of hotter, blistering days, denier of rain, placid site of cloudless skies after the hurricane or derecho has done its worst, this will be the feel of the sky in the world that’s coming.

How perfect, then, that blue has always been where we’ve expected mystery to dwell.  Seat of gods, upper or lower case, the blue of the sky holds all their gruesome and magnificent power, and their coming has always been expected from a space beyond what human sight and understanding can predict.

The ocean, beneath whose depths we cannot ever see, has always been a metaphor for faith, for believing in the deep and mighty power of forces unseen but not unfelt.  Oh, God, we’ve said, thy sea is so great, and my boat is so small.

Beneath its blue surface, a life teems that we cannot ever know, and in those waters, with those spectacular and strange fishes, gods move, their powers to enforce on the lives that rest above in tension, fragility and hope.

Exit Eden’s images fade into the color blue as into those forces, as into those metaphors, so primal and so necessary to the soul of men.

But as those forces meet they meet in all the power and beauty they have, and we are standing in their wake, alive to both the pleasure and the worry of their coming.

In Fogelson’s images, chemicals and extinct media meet to form a great story of loss.  As the film he uses fades into a part of our industrial and artistic history, as the application of chemicals change the images he’s retained, Fogelson has created an Eden that we are all leaving, passing out of the time of film, beyond when the pictures were made, into a world of blue and wonder.

Oblivion awaits those of us leaving Eden, the unknown that will drown or bleach us, the coming of a world who’s newer mysteries we cannot guess. 

Like a sudden and glorious spring thaw that sends a crushing summer drought behind its beautiful perfection, we cannot be sure what those mysteries have waiting for us in their depths.

As we leave the subtle and predictable beauty of the things that came before, we are ushered into a new kind of beauty; it is a languishing, surprising and unpredictable beauty, from which we cannot look away, even when we worry it will take us with it back into the unknown from which we came.