The Living Dune

Jockey’s Ridge, located in Nags Head, is the most popular state park in the North Carolina system. Considered a “living dune”, it has changed in shape over thousands of years and continues to move incrementally southward to this day. While on average it typically only moves about 6 feet per year, in recent years, due to increased wind erosion from hurricanes and stronger storms, it has begun to shift upwards of 30 feet annually. This shift has begun to  threaten the homes of residents nearby, prompting a large-scale project designed to relocate 3.8 million cubic feet of sand from the south end of the dune to the north. In contemplating this undertaking, Helena Mitasova (the Associate Director of Geovisualization at the Center for Geospatial Analytics at NC State University) questions: “do we preserve the feature or the process?”

This dilemma highlights the often fraught relationship between human behavior and the “natural” environment. Either choice made represents an interference on the part of people. However, it also calls into question the very idea of what a natural environment is, or even what it should be. To (attempt) to return the dune to a former state of being is to intercede in a natural process, while also casting it in an inaccurately fixed and monolithic light.

Our initial interest in Jockey’s Ridge sprung from the idea that a landscape can be presented as one thing, but exist as something else entirely. This tension between the natural and the mediated was our photographic foundation. While many artists making work about the Anthropocene depict environmental destruction, endless development, or threatened wildlife, we are more curious about what is not immediately visible. We contend that the Anthropocene cannot necessarily be visualized, and that only a constellation of visual poetics can hint at a world that is no longer natural (if it ever was). And while places like Jockey’s Ridge may look wild or natural, in reality they are manicured, preserved and manipulated for a complex of recreational, economic and cultural reasons. In essence, they are hybrid spaces.

Following suit, the camera operates as the perfect metaphor for this kind of hybridity. On the one hand, it possesses the ability to record impartially; on the other, that impartiality is always corrupted by the subjectivity and perspective of the photographer. We are always projecting ourselves into (or onto?) our photographs, similarly to how we physically imprint ourselves onto the landscape. The camera’s role as a recorder of place, particularly in the tradition of landscape photography, is perpetually haunted by its inherent propensity to alter what falls in front of it. 
In photographing Jockey’s Ridge, we’ve sought to heighten the camera’s predisposition toward distortion, as a means of addressing the kind of intervention present (albeit invisibly) at the site. Whether that manifests through artificial or colored light, spatial confusion, abstraction, performative gestures that we enact, or the literal or metaphorical depiction of others, the resulting images foreground photographic decisions that ultimately implicate a human presence in this fragile landscape. Taken together, the photographs that make up this show constitute a very different portrait of this pseudo-natural environment – one that is at once surreal, unfamiliar, but ultimately still beautiful.

There is a theatricality to this place. It operates as a stage for visual metaphors about our presence in, and relationship to, nature. While our footprints operate as physical traces of that presence, our photographs operate more as symbolic residues. This work is an attempt to make visible that which remains hidden.

– Ben Alper & Peter Hoffman (Feb 21, 2020)