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The Beauty before Disarray – Review of “Entropy” by Diane Tuft

At first glance, it seems there is a problem with Diane Tuft’s new book, titled Entropy.

Every image throughout the collection is strikingly beautiful.

The book’s subject is climate change and water. According to the book’s press materials, “Entropy is Tuft’s fourth monograph capturing the sublime and awe-inspiring beauty of nature as it is radically transformed under the unrelenting pressures of climate change.”


“Entropy” by Diane Tuft
Published by Monacelli, 2024
review by W. Scott Olsen


So I was expecting an angry book. I was expecting a book filled with scenes of devastation and decay. I was expecting an explicit and loud call to action. What I got instead was a more subtle, more sophisticated, more artistic approach.

States of Transformation

Landscape photography easily falls into the overly romanticized or cliché. We have seen pictures of mountains and streams and rivers and skies endlessly since the beginning of photography, and certainly before that with painting and drawing. It is difficult to find a voice that means anything in landscape work.

Tuft, however, is one of those people who has found a voice. Her images are painterly, pastel, and watercolor-ish. They are fine art photography of patterns and shapes and colors and moods, and they are captivating as well as deeply pleasing to look at.

Jones Island, Chesapeake Bay

That’s the apparent problem. This book is called “Entropy.” Entropy is the second law of thermodynamics. All things tend toward chaos. All things tend toward disarray. This is true at every level. It takes more work, however you define that, to keep a system together than to let it dissolve.

To name a book about the universe’s tendency to fall apart and then fill it with beautiful images of ocean and lake seems at first blush to be a mismatch.

According to Tuft, this is a book about climate change. This is a book about the threat our behavior towards the environment is creating for ourselves. In her Introduction, for example, she writes:

The stories I encountered were deeply harrowing. Every year, homes succumb to the relentless force of water, washed away by the unforgiving tides. Land that once nurtured rice paddies had transformed into fingerling shrimp farms by the encroaching saltwater. Families live in platform huts, precariously perched on narrow strips of land between river and pond, devoid of access to essential resources like food and fresh water…Entropy is an invitation to witness, to reflect, and to act. It is the visual reminder of the beauty we stand to lose and the delicate equilibrium we must strive to restore.

To witness, to reflect, and to act. This is exactly what this book is about. To witness, through compelling photography, the beauty that remains, the beauty that is today, and to say, dear reader, this is what we are going to lose.

Intervention

Along with the images, there are several elements of text in this book. In an essay by Art Historian Dr. Stacey Epstein, she writes,

As an art historian specializing in American art, I’ve often considered her [Tuft’s] work in conversation with a long trajectory of American artists who recorded and reframed their own experiences with nature. While multiple touch points serve as reference, the ideological underpinnings of Tuft’s art can be directly connected to the mid-19th century Hudson River School painters, who laid the foundation for landscape painting in America. These artists exalted nature and recognize its potential to lead us to greater personal reflection and mindfulness and to move us spiritually, as also evidenced in Tuft’s work. Their visually stunning displays capitalize on the power of art to convey ideas about the fraught relationships between mankind and nature and nature and industry.

Precisely. Hudson River School paintings, like the images in Tuft’s book, are beautiful. (They are also very different.) In that beauty, we find something to preserve.

Paradox

Epstein says a little bit later,

In an age where desecrating art to make sociopolitical statements has become an arresting trend, Tuft instead uses her creativity to facilitate timely discussions intended to embolden change. Her work symbolizes a union between moral imperative and artistic drive.

Tuft is also a poet. There are two page-length poems in the book: one called “Coastal Requiem” and the other called “Entropy.” And it’s instructive to note that both of these poems, although several stanzas long are written in a form where every stanza is a haiku. Every stanza is something subtle, evocative, and miles deep. Recognizing the haiku in her poetic imagination and the power that comes from building a series of them is a good clue to understanding how she asks us to consider her images.

A second essay in the book is written by Dr Bonnie Baxter, professor of Biology and Director of the Great Salt Lake Institute at Westminster University. More directly pointed at what’s happening to the Great Salt Lake and Tuft’s images of the lake, she writes,

Despite decades of dedication to Great Salt Lake, today I sit on a desolate shore and contemplate what this place will be in the absence of water. Without intervention, the effect of climate change will be a catastrophic transformation of the water on our planet; “Entropy” signals a plea for action.

Chopin’s Prelude

Of course, the most important elements of this book are the images. “Entropy” is not a small book measuring 10.5×14, so the images are large in your hand. They are brilliant in color and captivating in the shapes. While the images are representational, it is often difficult to say exactly what they capture. Coastlines, waves, littoral zones, intertidal zones, the book is more about the interplay between color and shape in these areas than about chemistry, pollution, or heat. The images are more like tone poems that are after a deeply personal emotional reaction.

Tuft is an extraordinary photographer. All of the images in this book are aerial shots taken from helicopters or, perhaps, from drones. They give us a special overview, a perspective from which to encounter the emotion that says whatever I am seeing is large and important. The fact that we are looking down upon a landscape instead of up is a way to emphasize connectedness as well as fragility.

Tuft is a master of color and line, shape, and texture. I find myself, with every page, whether I’m looking at salt flats or lagoons, at the Florida Keys, or Bangladesh, mesmerized by the colors and lines. Although I am not immediately concerned with the threat to what I see in these images—there is no death or desolation, no ruined villages or corpses of sea life, it doesn’t take long to remember the title of this book and to realize I am, in fact, deeply concerned.

Silent Sea

The second law of thermodynamics states that the universe is moving toward a state of equilibrium. And equilibrium sounds like such a pleasant thing. However, what it really means is that everything has fallen apart. There is no order. There is no pattern. There is no value.

Beauty is a value. Life is a value. Values require work. There is something here about the beauty of the earth’s water, which is fragile and sad.  “Entropy” is a fascinating book.

A note from FRAMES: Please let us know if you have an upcoming or recently published photography book.

Every year we release four quarterly printed editions of FRAMES Magazine. Each issue contains 112 pages printed on the highest quality 140g uncoated paper. You receive the magazine delivered straight to your doorstep. We feature both established and emerging photographers of different genres. We pay very close attention to new, visually striking, thought-provoking imagery, while respecting the long-lasting tradition of photography in its purest incarnation. Learn more >>>


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