Edward Morris was a private investigator in 2006 and his wife, Susannah Sayler, a fledgling art photographer when they read Elizabeth Kolbert’s potent three-part New Yorker series on global warming, “The Climate of Man.” That set them on their path.
“She made the reader understand that climate change is happening now, not a problem for the future,” says Morris, who began traveling around the world with Sayler researching and photographing “landscapes impacted by climate change.”
Their subtle pictures of melting Peruvian glaciers and rising Venetian waters formed the core of what they call the Canary Project, which over the past decade has encompassed films, bus posters and educational programs.
For its efforts, the Canary Project — the name alludes to the canary in a coal mine that serves as a warning signal of doom — is being honored with the David Brower Center’s 2016 prestigious Art/Act Award and Exhibition, given to artists whose work has inspired what it calls “environmental advocacy and engagement.” Previous winners include designer-artist Maya Lin and photographer Richard Misrach.
The Canary retrospective, which opens Sept. 23, features work made over the years in association with scientists, designers and writers. It includes photographs, posters and a video about the extinction of the passenger pigeon, “Eclipse,” featuring Kolbert.
The show draws primarily on two major projects: “A History of the Future,” landscape photographs from Niger, Antarctica and other far-flung locales; and “Water Gold Soil: American River,” an ongoing look at California’s complex water issues through the prism of a single flow of water — the American River and its confluence with the Sacramento River.
When Morris and Sayler began in 2006, they looked for visually arresting spots that bore the effects of global warming, photographing them in a way that didn’t actually show the ice melting but somehow triggered the foreboding feeling — fueled by what we know about climate change — that it was in fact melting.
“How do you get the feeling of something you can’t necessarily see and put it into a medium that’s about seeing? That’s what we’re going for,” says Morris, who lives in Brooklyn but is on the phone from Maui, where he and Sayler, both 40, are mixing a little work and vacation.
“It’s that ominous feeling of knowing something’s there, but you can’t see it, and it’s huge,” Morris continues. “That became the tension and energy of the project.”
They’ve photographed a range of climatic effects — “glacial and permafrost melting, drought and fires, extreme weather events.”
Hurricane Katrina caused the incongruous pile of refuse in one of their photographs. In another, a living-room chair sits comically on the deserted beach at Coney Island in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
The couple photographed parts of the American River from the air in 2015, including an inlet-etched stretch of the south fork whose shoreline shows how severely the drought has caused the river to recede.
“We were interested in the rich history that goes along with that flow, and the fact that gold was discovered in the south fork of the American River,” says Morris. He said he wanted to show the infrastructure that controls the river’s flow according to the needs of cities, the farming industry and fish.
They’re documenting the river as it is now and using it to tell a story “about the economic history of California. And water has a central place in that.”