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Bill Anders, Earthrise, NASA, 1968.

The homepage of Anthropocene Alliance features a dramatic, color photograph called Earthrise. It was one of several taken on December 24, 1968 by astronaut Bill Anders as part of the NASA Apollo 8 mission to circle the moon and return safely to Earth. Anders described the picture’s genesis:

After the first two-and-a-half to three orbits… we rolled [the lunar capsule] over, heads up and turned around, going forward, like you would be driving a car around the moon. I don’t know who said it, maybe all of us said, ‘Oh my God. Look at that!’ And up came the Earth. We had had no discussion on the ground, no briefing, no instructions on what to do. I jokingly said, ‘well it’s not on the flight plan,’ and the other two guys were yelling at me to give them cameras….and we started snapping away.

Though photographers on piloted balloons and airplanes had long taken photos of the land from the sky, nobody had ever before taken a photo of the Earth from the moon. Seeing the Earth in this way – its living colors suspended over the bleak grey-brown of the surface of the moon – told a story that had been gathering force since the late 18th Century: that planetary life was a rare and precious thing, and that it must be protected and nurtured.

The modern environmental movement is often said to have been started by Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, which described how uncontrolled pesticide and herbicide use had decimated bird populations and created springtimes without any songs. It also specified the toll on human health of chemical pesticides. But the Christmas Eve, 1968 Apollo 8 photograph from the moon may have had an even bigger impact. Two years later, the US Environmental Protection Agency was formed and two years after that, the UK Department of the Environment. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970 and Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth were established in 1971.

Today, in the age of climate change, the photograph has gained even greater poignancy. It reminds us that the fate of life on Earth is now in human hands and that people everywhere have the capacity and responsibility to join together to protect it in all its diversity. Anthropocene Alliance is part of that global effort.

Gislebertus, Detail from Last Judgment, West Tympanum at Autun Cathedral, c. 1130.

On the Day of Judgement, according to Christian eschatology (the study of last days), all human souls will be weighed to determine which will ascend to heaven, and which will descend to hell. This is the subject of a large, semi-circular relief sculpture (“tympanum”) over the West (main) entrance to the 12th Century pilgrimage church at Autun in France. The main figure in the full sculpture is naturally Christ, his arms extended at his waist in a gesture that says: “‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world….You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” (Mathew 25:34; Matthew 25: 41) The detail illustrated here shows the weighing of souls by angels at left, and demons at right. Note that one leering demon is cheating; he is pulling down the balance to make sure the tormented soul within the basket is cast down to hell. That figure was likely guilty of greed or pride, considered by early Christian churchmen the worst of the seven cardinal or deadly sins. Greed was generally personified as a demon, as shown here, deformed by his single minded pursuit of money or Mammon: “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” (Matthew 6: 24).

That final injunction became one of several bases for the modern, environmental movement. Nineteenth century philosophers and critics such as Thomas Carlyle, Karl Marx, John Ruskin and William Morris all invoked the phrase in order to describe the impoverishment of the many, the enrichment of the few and plunder of the earth under the aegis of industrial capitalism. In the mid twentieth century, the ecologist Rachel Carson in her essential book, Silent Spring described the ignorance and greed that allowed government and business to unleash a barrage of insecticides on the earth that not only destroyed agricultural pests, but birds, animals and human health along with them. Recently, 16 y.o. environmental activist Greta Thunberg in a speech at the United Nations decried the drive for mammon that enabled corporations and their government sponsors to destroy the very future of civilized human life on earth: “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words….We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.” The language is biblical, and the imagery – theft, dreams, the eternal and money – recalls the representation of last days on the tympanum at Autun.

Vincent van Gogh, Wheatfield in Rain, 1889, Philadelphia Museum of Art

Van Gogh excelled at the conventional genres of art (portraits, still lives and landscapes) but he painted in an unconventional manner. He selected his colors based not so much upon their relation to the thing seen, but to the world felt. As a result, his landscapes are highly expressive and even abstract, like the landscape shown here, painted from the artist’s window in the asylum of St-Paul-de-Mausole in St. Remy, (Provence) France in November 1889. The rain is depicted with long strokes of grey-black paint set against the blue-grey sky and hills above, or as diagonal strokes of blue-grey against the green and aqua of the rows of plants in the walled garden below. The rain falls in sheets, as if it were the biblical Deluge.

Because of his institutionalization at St. Remy and subsequent suicide, Van Gogh is often considered to have been mentally ill and a solitary genius. The first proposition is unlikely, though evidence permitting a firm diagnosis is absent. (He may have suffered from a type of epilepsy or temporal lobe seizures.) But the second is demonstrably untrue; he sought to create a community of artists to realize his dreams of community and mutual support. That was his goal of coming to Provence in the first place in the fall of 1888 – to create in collaboration with the artist Paul Gauguin and others, a “Studio of the South”. Together, they would constitute a team or council, fighting for their right to fair treatment by the art establishment in Paris and for adequate resources – food, housing, artist’s materials – with which to thrive.

Wheatfield in the Rain is in part a concession of the failure of that collective dream. But the elevated perspective — the view from “higher ground” — announces that it may be possible to see beyond the current darkness to a new order in the future. The riot of greens and blues in the walled field, and the exuberant paint handling, suggests a dream of future abundance.

J.J. Grandville, “Les mystères de l’Infini,” Un Autre Monde, (Paris: H. Fournier), 1844

Grandville was among the most imaginative artists of the 19th Century. His first successful book, Metamorphosis of Days (1828-29; see below) illustrated animals in human costume enacting what the novelist Balzac called “The Human Comedy.” It was probably unfair of him to depict animals as vain and selfish — humans alone are guilty of those sins. But in doing so, he revealed the corruption of his times better than any conventional journalist could have. Soon in fact, he became a kind of a journalist, a political caricaturist, and one so effective he caught the attention of the state censors who put a stop to his work. After that, and until his premature death in 1847 at the age of 44, he was a book illustrator of an unusually creative kind: he at once faithfully illustrated the texts he was given (Don Quixote,Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Fables of la Fontaine, etc), and took such license that the images stand free of the texts that surround them, as if they were free renderings of dreams. If Freud had been alive in France in the 1840s, he would have asked Grandville to be his collaborator! “I don’t invent,” Grandville wrote, “I just juxtapose dissimilar things and interweave discordant and incongruous forms.”

Grandville’s next to last book, Un Autre Monde (Another World) was not an illustration of another writer’s work – it was his own, extended dream. The story is barely coherent. It concerns three people: a con man, a sailor and a composer who set off, like the crew of the Starship Enterprise to discover new worlds. And they do, but each is a kind of inversion of Earth. In one, trans culture is the rule; in another, women ogle men; and in a third, it is the French who are considered exotic beings while the Chinese are the metropolitan elite. (This was during a period of virulent, European racism.) In the plate shown above, the various worlds are tied together by a modern bridge. The universe has become a single community composed of interlinked member-chapters that stretch on into infinity. In this book, Grandville was not only a satirist, he was a utopian, imagining better worlds in which imaginations ran free, and nations and people joined together despite differences in space, time and character. “Another world is possible” was the slogan of anti-globalist and anti-capitalist protestors beginning in the 1990s, and climate activists today. Grandville would have stood shoulder to shoulder with them

Giuseppe Pelizza da Volpedo, The Fourth Estate, also known as “The Path of Workers,” 1901, Museo del Novecento, Milan.

Volpedo’s grand picture (almost 10’ high by 18’ long) was painted as a response to Georges Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of the Grand-Jatte (1886, The Art Institute of Chicago). Whereas the latter was concerned with the middle and lower middle-classes, the former was focused on workers. And whereas Seurat used small, bright points of complementary colors to celebrate the relaxation of men, women and children on their single, weekly day of rest, Pelizza deployed color dots to highlight the solidarity of industrial workers (all dressed in drab brown and grey) on a day when they have walked off the job, striking for better wages and working conditions, or perhaps for ownership of the business enterprise itself. A number of the people depicted in the imagined scene were family or friends of the artist, including at right, Teresa Bidone, the wife of the artist, holding their baby.

Because of its incendiary subject matter, conservative Italian arts officials for decades refused to exhibit the picture, but after World War II, it was taken out of storage and displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in Milan. Today, it is one of the best known of all modern paintings and is understood to represent the aspiration – if not the reality – of modern workers banding together to challenge the greed and frequent violence of modern, capitalist production. More broadly, it is seen as an expression of the very idea of solidarity – of the sacrifice of individual ego for the good of the community. That’s why the picture has so often been copied, imitated and adapted by progressive movements — women, indigenous or marginalized communities, and workers all over the world, as in the two examples here from Volpedo, Italy, and the Dominican Republic.

Federica Castellana, The Migrants of Vopledo (2015)

Settimio Bendusi, The Fourth Estate, Dominican Republic (2012)

The recent Climate Strikes – student-led walkouts to protest the continuing poisoning and warming of the planet – are perhaps the most vivid, contemporary expressions of solidarity like that shown in The Fourth Estate. They are the first, mass responses to the global, climate crisis, and portend even greater action in future. Aa is engaged in grass roots organizing, helping people who face the greatest environmental challenges, particularly lower income and communities of color, achieve solidarity in the response to the greatest challenge humans have ever faced.

Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, No. 3, 1940-41. “From every Southern town, migrants left by the hundreds to travel North.” The Phillips Collection, Washington D.C. Acquired 1942.

Lawrence’s series of 60 painted panels tells the story of the migration of African Americans from the South to the North from about 1910 to 1940. The migrants fled crop failure, unemployment, poverty and most of all racism and violence. Though lynching peaked in the 1890s, it continued well into the 20th Century, and in 1915, the Ku Klux Klan was revived, following its positive depiction in D.W. Griffith’s epic film, The Birth of a Nation. 25 years later, as Lawrence was contemplating his series (and completing sets of paintings dedicated to Harriet Tubman and Frederic Douglas), Gone with the Wind (directed by Victor Fleming), was given an Academy Award, helping perpetuate the myth that the Civil War was a noble “Lost Cause” waged by Southerners to protect a way of life, instead of a war to perpetuate slavery. Lawrence’s series was cinematic in its own way. Each vividly colored panel follows the next like shots in a movie, and the narrative pivots between past and present, rural and urban, agriculture and industry, and oppression and liberation.

The panel shown here represents the Migration as a force of nature. The migrants form a pyramid, echoing the shape of the hills beyond them and the migrating birds above. The panel thus also reminds us that the Migration was both a response to an existing ecological crisis and precipitated a new one. Reliance by southern land holders upon just a few crops, especially cotton, led to a crash when the weevil devastated cotton crops during the first two decades of the 20th century, increasing Black migration. On the other hand, the movement north, permitted acceleration of the fossil fuel economy – coal, oil and gas extraction, and concrete, steel, and automobile manufactures – that set the stage for the Anthropocene, the present age when release of greenhouse gases (especially CO2 and methane) has warmed the planet to the point of catastrophe. We are already seeing a new “great migration” of climate refugees, from the southern to the northern hemisphere, and in the U.S. from flooded areas on the coasts to higher ground inland.

Gordon Parks, Haverstraw, New York. Interracial activities at Camp Christmas Seals, where children are aided by the Methodist Camp Service. Camp buddies, August (?) 1943, Library of Congress.

Gordon Parks was one of the great, photographic chroniclers of mid and later 20th Century American life. After World War II, he worked for Life, where his photo essays on a gang leader in Harlem (1948) and segregated black life in Alabama (1956) earned him international renown. He went on to photograph celebrities and political leaders including Marilyn Monroe, Stokely Carmichael, Malcom X, Muhammed Ali, and Barbara Streisand, compose music, write an autobiography (The Learning Tree, 1963; made into a film in 1969), and direct the classic, “blaxploitation” film, Shaft, (1971) starring Richard Roundtree.

Parks took up photography in 1937 at the age of 25, and three years later was asked to join the Farm Service Administration (FSA) and work alongside Walker Evans, Dorothea Lang. Carl Mydans and others to document the nation’s dire economic and social conditions. These were the last years of the Great Depression, and as bad as conditions were for white Americans, they were even worse for African Americans who suffered from violence, employment and housing discrimination, and legal segregation across the U.S. South. Parks himself suffered from race-based abuse during his time with the FSA in Washington, D.C. from 1942-1945. “In this radiant, historic place,” he wrote, “racism was rampant.”

In 1943, just after the FSA was disbanded, Parks was assigned by the Office of War Information to travel to upstate New York to take pictures at an experimental, integrated Boys Scouts of America camp. The results are some of the most optimistic and poignant of Park’s long life. Black and white children are shown together swimming, playing sports, eating and just enjoying each other’s company. The photograph shown here is remarkable for its low perspective, making the two girls at the center of it appear heroic. The white child gazes out with an appraising glance while the black child at right offers a penetrating gaze into the camera-eye. Nearly all the photos of children and adults at Camp Christmas Seals reveal a casual, physical and emotional closeness between black and white that Parks rarely saw elsewhere.

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