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J. Henry Fair's On The Edge exhibit shows the beauty, and fragility, of Charleston's coast

Standing on the Edge

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On the surface, the new exhibit of photographs by J. Henry Fair, called On The Edge: From Combahee To Winyah would seem to be about the natural beauty of South Carolina's coastline. The centerpiece of the exhibit is a 300-foot continuous photo of said coastline, comprised of over 1,500 individual pictures put together to recreate every linear foot of the coast. It was taken from an airplane about a half-mile off the coastline from a height of 1,000 feet, and the sheer scope of it is incredible.

But there are other photos in the exhibit that reveal the double meaning of the phrase On The Edge. Photos of vast stretches of forests and beaches hang alongside pictures of tightly packed beachfront homes, or rows and rows of trailers crowded onto a beach. There are also clues to what Fair is really talking about in his portfolio: Other exhibits he's put on or taken part in include Industrial Scars, Storm Warning: Artists On Climate Change, and Wasted Land.

"There's a literal meaning in the name," Fair says, "but there's the implied meaning as well, which is that we're not handling our resources sustainably. Not just in South Carolina, but also nationally and internationally. This show is about unsustainable growth and the impending crash."

It's a perspective that Fair came by from a distance, both in terms of the way the panoramic photos were taken from the air, and his 20 years away from his native Charleston. "I love both Charleston and this entire region," he says, "and looking at the changes that have occurred in the last 20 years, I worry that if we continue to add 34 people a day to the city, or 50 people to the region, it means that we will continue to cut down coastal forests and continue to develop every linear inch of developable coastline, and suddenly the things we all came here for will disappear."

The photos of South Carolina's coast are part of a much larger project that Fair has undertaken. "I'm photographing the whole coastline of America," he says. "I spent a year and a half exploring the coasts from the air, which enables one to see things and get a different perspective. I made it a point to do it in all seasons so I could see the marshes in every stage of growth, just as I did with the forests."

But as challenging as photographing all of America's coastline seems, the 300-foot photo that anchors On The Edge was especially difficult.

"It practically killed me," Fair says with a laugh. "It was so much work. I hired a plane on two consecutive sunny days because I wanted the shadows to be the same. I did the south coast one day and the north coast the next day. I instructed the pilot to fly a half mile offshore and 1,000 feet in the air, and I set the camera to take a picture every five seconds. And I wound up with 1,500 pictures that had to be put together. But now you can walk around the gallery and see the entire coast of South Carolina as seen from the ocean."

There are artists who prefer to let their audience draw their own conclusions from an exhibit, but Fair is not one of those. He wants people to see through these photos what overdevelopment and climate change can do and are doing to the natural beauty of our coastlines.

"I'm an artist that is all about message," he says. "To me, the great artists are people with something to say. It's not just about, 'Does it match the sofa?' It's not just decoration; it should be both. It should be visually beautiful, but imbued with a message. And in this case, the message is about the unique and staggering beauty of the South Carolina coast, but also about the threat that it faces and the changes it's undergoing."

In fact, Fair says that climate change actually threatens development itself, because of the shortsightedness of those who build near the ocean.

"If we allow developers to build houses there, then they'll soon be gone," he says. "The ocean is going to move that land. The ocean is rising. This is science. This is fact. The ocean is rising and storms will increase. And we can argue about that, but it's silly to argue about fact. The coasts are increasing in population just as the ocean is rising and should drive us back. There are a lot of factors there that should make us step back rather than just allowing growth and then suffering the consequences 50 years from now. That's what the show is about: Let's assess what we've got and make some rules to everyone's benefit so we can preserve it."

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