Lucas Foglia’s new book, Human Nature, explores the grey area between two narratives about the Earth he feels we have become overly focused upon: ecological disaster caused by humans and the discovery of a pristine ecology we must protect. In that grey area lies the crossover where humans affect nature and it affects us.
I sat down with Foglia prior to the opening of his recent show in London and talked hurricanes, the wilderness and about the place with the cleanest air on Earth.
VICE: So we last spoke about your previous book, Frontcountry, in 2014. It seems to me there’s a very clear progression in your three books. Most obviously there’s a widening of scope. The first book focused on a small group of people in Appalachia; Frontcountry on the American West; and now Human Nature is global in terms of themes and locations.
Lucas Foglia: The new book is about people, nature and the science of our relationship with nature. The narrative of the book unfolds in sequences of images, starting in cities and then moving through forests, farms, deserts, ice fields and oceans, towards wilderness.
What sorts of scientists were you dealing with in the making of the book?
In an era when the average American spends 93 percent of their lives indoors, I photographed government programmes that connect people to nature, climate scientists measuring how human activity is changing the air, and neuroscientists measuring how spending time in wild spaces benefits us. The first scientist I photographed was a neuroscientist at the University of Utah, Dr David Strayer. He was measuring how time in wild places changes human cognition – the actual speed of learning. His study showed that, after spending time in nature, you do your work faster and better in your daily life. He told me he believes that time in nature is part of human nature.
Theme-wise, how do you see the three books fitting together?
My first book, A Natural Order, focused on people leaving cities and suburbs to live off the grid in Appalachia, adopting lifestyles from the past. My second book, Frontcountry, focused on the current economy in the rural American West, exploring how people use the land in a region that’s famous for being wild. I went to the American West expecting to find cowboys, ghost towns and wilderness. When I got there, everyone was talking about the jobs mining gold, oil, natural gas and coal. I saw a tension between the economy and the mythology of the place.
And your third book? How did it come about?
I grew up on a small farm surrounded by a wild forest, 30 miles east of New York City. In 2012, Hurricane Sandy flooded our fields and blew down the oldest trees in the woods. On the news, scientists linked the storm to climate change caused by human activity. I realised that if humans are changing the weather, then there is no place on Earth unaltered by people. I remember talking to my parents about the news after the storm. The glacial nature of climate change means that it easily skirts the news cycle. It affects us all every day, but it takes a specific political event or a natural disaster for a story to make headlines. The content is predictable: either a pristine wilderness or a catastrophe. Human Nature focuses on the area in between those extremes; on how we live with nature in a time when strange weather is becoming normal.
So there is nothing pristine? The idea of untouched wilderness is no longer realistic?
Exactly. Photographers normally portray nature as either a pristine wilderness or as a disaster. I want to describe a relationship with nature that is more complicated and more intimate. I think if we start seeing ourselves as a part of nature, then we have a way forward. The problem with thinking about nature as pristine is that as soon as nature ceases to be pristine we think of it as broken. Unfixable. Disaster. It’s a relationship. If you're in love with somebody and something’s off, you talk through it. An argument is a way to get closer through dialogue. And – to extend that – if you hold things up to an impossible ideal, you end up 60 years old and single.
How did the image of the couple making love in the cleanest air on Earth, at the end of the book, come about?
I asked a researcher at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration where the cleanest air on Earth was. He gave me an exact spot. I went there and took a photo of the landscape: ground, plants and ocean. It wasn’t a very good picture. Then, walking back to the road, I met a couple on their first date. It was after sunset, so I asked them if they would meet me the next morning. I wanted to photograph them on their second day of knowing each other, in the cleanest air on earth. And they met me they next day. During the shoot they started kissing, and that led to the photograph that closes the book.
So as an image it ties to that scientific aspect, if even subtly.
The title ties the image to the backstory.
When we last spoke you said, "It's important to me that the photographs in the book don't tell people what to think." I suppose, again, with Human Nature, the narrative isn’t explicit, or ranting… it’s open to wide interpretation?
Letting people make up their own minds is what makes something art, and not propaganda. Propaganda tells you what to think or feel. Art compels you to pay attention and then leaves you room to think and feel. With this book I want to tell a complex story about places, programmes and people I believe in. Many of the scientists included in the book are now facing budget cuts and censorship by the Trump administration.
Even though you say you didn’t see or work on the three books as a "series" – that you worked on them simultaneously to an extent – did you always have the feeling that the scope would expand in this way? Or was that coincidental?
I think the scope widened along with my life. I began my first book when I was 23, by photographing friends of my family in Appalachia. Then I started photographing in the American West when a friend from university moved there. After my first book was published I started having exhibitions around the world. I made friends as I travelled and was introduced to the people and places I photographed through them.
Not to dumb down the conversation, but in practical terms, a project like this must have been hugely time consuming and demanding in terms of travel. How does putting together a project as broad as this into a book work?
I made at least 80,000 photographs. At least. It was daunting to edit. It wasn’t until 2016 that I had the idea to start the book in cities and move towards wilderness. In that sequence the photographs became linked by content and colour.
What’s the book’s core message?
Go outside. It’s good for you. We’re a part of nature. Even with all our technology, we are vulnerable to the storms, droughts, heat waves and freezes that result from climate change. So support scientists, programmes and policies that work towards a healthy environment. A healthy environment is both a human right, and our responsibility.
See more photos from 'Human Nature' below:
'Human Nature' is available via Nazraeli Press