We Could/Should/Will Have Done More – Review of “SINK / RISE, The Day May Break, Chapter Three” by Nick Brandt

There is a painting in Room 701 of the Denon wing at the Louvre, which stops me every time I have the good fortune to be there. I do not mean I merely slow down or pause. Although that room is often crowded and there are people who want to keep going, and even though I have seen the painting in person and in a thousand replications before, I stop. Full stop. Right in front.

I linger. For reasons I cannot gracefully articulate, this painting speaks to me. It is beautiful.  It is tragic. It is calm. It is horrifying. It contains a narrative that is both immediate as well as subtle and nuanced. It is both definite and open to interpretation.

“SINK / RISE. The Day May Break, Chapter Three” by Nick Brandt
Published by Hatje Cantz, 2024
review by W. Scott Olsen

La Jeune Martyre (The Young Martyr) by French painter Paul Delarouche shows a young woman in a white gown, hands bound, floating in what I am told is the River Tiber. She is dead. A delicate, thin, golden halo floats in the air over the woman’s face. In the background, in darkness, a couple embraces in shock or anger at what they see.

There are as many ways to parse the painting’s intent and meaning as there are people who view it. Leaving aside the religious interpretations, the painting, for me, has always been about the sacredness (in every tradition) of humanity, the fragility of humanity. I look at the light coming from the halo, and I look at the bound hands. After a while, the initial peacefulness of the image changes into a deep and almost angry restlessness.

We could have done more. All of us.

Perhaps my encounter with a painting in a museum 4,241 miles away from where I live (I looked it up) is an odd way to begin a book review. But I am holding Nick Brandt’s new book, SINK | RISE, The Day May Break Chapter Three, and I recognize the feelings in my heart and head from standing in front of La Jeune Martyre. This book is profoundly beautiful. This book is calm. It is also a warning about a possible, perhaps probable, horrifying tragedy.

Akessa and Maria on Sofa, Fiji, 2023

SINK | RISE is the third installment of Brandt’s environmental/ecological portrait series, which I deeply admire.

A review of the first book is here.

A review of the second book is here.

And while it should be no surprise by now that I am a fan of this series, I find myself surprised at how far this new book goes beyond the previous two. This is not just a new twist on an established theme. This is a completely new take. The result is deep-core good.

SINK | RISE is a response to global climate change and rising sea levels. The book is a collection of portraits of humans, and every one of them is underwater. Not swimming. Not scuba diving. Instead, they are sitting on tables, chairs, benches, and even a teeter-totter. Sometimes, they’re sitting or standing on the ground, the ocean floor. Sometimes, they are standing alone or in an embrace. They are dressed in street clothes. Their poses are what you might expect above water. There are no breathing apparatuses and no life support. Every face, every gaze, is pensive.

Ben and his father Viti, Fiji, 2023

The images are outstanding. Actually, they are more. The images are astounding.

While, yes, there is a technical mastery to achieving these images, the aesthetic response to the images is a kind of loneliness, sadness the seas have risen above our heads when we knew better and we could have done more.

No one in these images looks happy. And, frankly, no one looks angry either. They look resigned, sad as if the change has already happened and what they’re feeling is regret. Keep in mind, looking at regret is a way to provoke a sadness which morphs into anger and then action.

Joel and Sosi, Fiji, 2023

SINK | RISE begins with an eloquent introduction. Zoë Lescaze, in a piece she calls “Floodwaters: Nick Brandt and the Art of a New Catastrophe” writes:

For thousands of years, torrential waters have shaped our collective imagination with indelible force. Apocalyptic storms and violent swells that submerge the land and claim the lives of all but a few survivors appear in the ancient myths of cultures around the world. From Australia to Alaska, Pennsylvania to Tahiti, floods have served as agents of divine wrath, reminders of human weakness, and catalysts for planetary renewal.

…Today we are living in the early stages of a global deluge, a rising tide that will engulf coastal areas and swallow entire nations if we fail to act. The coming flood is real, and it requires a radically different kinds of art than the disasters of myth and legend. Once they rise, these waters will not recede. It is through art that human beings can grapple with forces too big complex and unwieldy to address any other way.

…Faced with a seemingly impossible task, Nick Brandt has created a profoundly original body of work, one that represents an entirely new approach to climate conscious photography. Each photograph in SINK | RISE, a series of forty-five dreamlike portraits taken underwater in the Fijian archipelago. depicts one or two local people framed by luminous turquoise water. These individuals, young and old, represent the untold millions who stand to lose their homes and ways of life as coastal land disappears into the world’s oceans.

…Even as he depicts people in the crosshairs of climate change, Brandt does not portray his subjects as one-dimensional victims or martyrs. They appear as complete human beings, individuals whose identities are not reducible to their circumstances. …They invite us to linger, to look harder, and to go deeper. With every return there is something new to discover within the images or within us.

Qama in Reef, Fiji, 2023

In his own introduction, Nick Brandt writes:

We need to all become good ancestors. We need to adopt a way of life that reduces the environmental impact that our actions will have on those billions of unborn yet to come.

Can we show that we care about humans and animals and trees that we will never live? To? See?

…I always return to this: it is better to be angry and active than angry and passive. Once we become active, the despair feels less overwhelming. Our actions, no matter how small, can energize and focus us.

Despite their calmness, despite their dreamlike and beautiful appearance, these images are exactly what we need because they are beautiful, and because they are about our world, what Brandt calls pre-apocalyptic, and because the beautifulness involves a reaction against tragedy and sadness. They are very much like the painting in the Louvre, where the more you look at it, the angrier you get. The more you look at it, all you can think about is we should have done more.

Serafina and Keanan on Bed, Fiji, 2023

One other wonderful thing about this book, on a technical level, is a short concluding essay called “The Precious Seconds,” in which Brandt writes and shares essentially backstage images about the process of making these extraordinary underwater photographs. There are lights and breathing tubes and safety personnel and the whole apparatus of making the impossible seem natural. It’s a bit like a painter discussing brush strokes or the quality of certain brands of oil pigment. It satisfies a technical sense of wonder and gives the book a kind of completeness.

All three books of The Day May Break series are moving. And I don’t mean just emotionally deep. They are catalysts. They move you to action, even if that action is simply a vote. Brandt has found a way to give a visual articulation to something not present in front of a lens, a way to give a visual articulation to a need. Our planet is in peril. And so, we are in peril. What we stand to lose is wise and deep and beautiful. We need to do more.

Behind the scenes: Joel at Cliff
Behind the scenes: Petero at Cliff
Behind the scenes: Serafina at Table

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