J. Henry Fair is a bit of an industrial waste expert. From his perch high above the earth in a hired plane, he can look down and tell you whether that colorful pool of sludge below is coal ash, bauxite ore by-products, phosphate fertilizer, or pulp mill waste.
The acclaimed photographer, a Charleston native now living in New York, documents such environmental degradation in his exhibit Industrial Scars, which opens at the Gibbes on Dec. 17.
As a young student at Porter-Gaud School, Fair "lived in the darkroom," he says, and he eventually found a career shooting portraits and commercial photography. While he's always been particularly attracted to capturing decay, his focus changed on a flight several years ago.
"I started doing these pictures because I wanted to make art that made people think about the consequences of consumerism," Fair says. "I was haunting the backyards of refineries and factories and getting chased off and sometimes arrested, and I was on a commercial flight one time and looked down and below me was probably a coal plant ... I saw cooling towers on the river, and the river was covered in fog. It was quite a compelling image and I snapped it through the window. The realization was that the only way to see what I wanted to see was from above. And once you have that realization, then it's just a matter of executing it."
Fair's first project focused on a place known as Cancer Alley, a stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge that is occupied by numerous industrial sites.
"The pictures that I got on those flights were pretty amazing and mysterious, so I spent a year trying to figure out what the pictures were of," he says. "That included actually going back and driving down to the same place I had flown over, writing down what was on the signs, and pulling in and asking in my best Southern accent what the heck they were doin' there.
"Originally the project was about going to an area where I knew there were dirty things and taking pictures," he adds. "More and more I go looking for something in particular."
Since then he's taken stunning pictures of gutted mountaintops in the Appalachians, the Athabasca tar sands of Alberta, and coal ash combustion in South Carolina. And the world has taken notice — he's been featured by CNN, GQ, National Geographic, the Today show, and many international media outlets as well. But his goal isn't to point a finger at negligent corporations. In fact, he rarely names the companies responsible for the waste he photographs.
"The question is not, 'Is that given power company bad?' Well, what they're doing is bad, but it is legal, and they answer to their stockholders. The larger question I'd like to address is, 'Do we the citizens of this country want to allow that?'
"I'm not really interested in putting companies on the defensive," he adds. "The time is too short for recrimination and antagonism. The time is now for action and change."
Statements like that suggest that Fair is as much an activist as an artist. During the course of our conversation, he casually drops memorized facts and statistics about climate change and pollution — it's clear that he cares deeply about environmental issues.
"I think I'm an artist first," he says when asked about activism. "There's certainly a significant activist component to what I do, and when I speak, I will confess that I usually speak more about the subject than I do about the process of my art, but I am an artist. I utilize the rules of art and composition and beauty and aesthetics to create works that will hopefully move people."
Despite the psychedelic look of some of the images, Fair says that he uses minimal editing.
"All of my pictures are straight pictures. I don't change anything," he says. "There has to be a certain amount of believability. On some levels what I do is reportage. To alter the images would rob them of their essence."
He's set to release a book of his photographs, along with essays from noted environmentalists. The Day After Tomorrow: Images of Our Earth in Crisis, will be published by Powerhouse Books in January. The book showcases a staggering display of pollution across the globe, but Fair's just getting started. He's hoping to organize a flight to photograph a power plant between Charleston and Columbia in the near future — the groundwater is known to be contaminated with arsenic. Until then, he's just happy to be coming home.
"It's a real pleasure to be doing an exhibit in Charleston," Fair says. "It's my hometown and a place I really love and one of the most beautiful places in the world. To be coming back and doing an exhibit at the Gibbes about these issues that are so close to me, that are somewhat controversial in Charleston, is a real honor."