I owe significant intellectual debts in this vein to Frank Gohlke (although it is Laura McPhee's photograph I show here, from the series River of No Return). Gohlke's fascination with the sublime mirrors a trope we are accustomed to reading through in fiction and in literary nonfiction. Despite this familiarity (consider how often Thoreauvian imagery is invoked in North American nature-inspired writing), explicit representations of the sublime still remains remarkable when we come face to face with them.
It has become more fashionable to bring discomfiting images to the public: Edward Burtynsky's images of industrial ruin, waste, and wreckage have wide public followings and have won accolades via the popularizing TED platform. And it may be almost fictive qualities of the unfathomable environments he represents that make them so palateable: uranium and nickel tailings turn the landscape bright fairytale colors.
It is the creative exploration that happens at the edge of conceivable possibility that intrigues me in the experience of being compelled by these images. After a week of watching the world turn away from terrible suffering brought by natural disasters in Japan to contemplate the possible (but yet fictive) suffering brought by the following industrial disasters, I cannot help but being struck by the fact that the New York Times review of Gohlke's last major retrospective at MOMA begins by likening the amount of energy released by the 1980 Mt. St. Helens volcanic eruption to "the detonation of one Hiroshima-size atomic bomb every second for nine hours." Our compulsion toward domains for which our explanatory stories remain only fuzzily drawn is striking and seems matched (and illustrated, as in the news this week) by how little we have to say in the face of the terrible sublime. The review continues,
"showing the effects of a destructive force of unimaginable proportions calls to mind the 18th-century idea of the sublime: the frightening and exhilarating confrontation with an unfathomably vast and powerful universe in which human life seems but a minor and fragile accident."