Natural Selection

For all its amazing qualities, one of the great failings of the human race is its consistent inability to balance its needs with those of nature. The result of mankind's rape-and-pillage attitude toward the environment can be seen in the ecological struggles of an ever-growing number of areas worldwide, struggles that groups such as the Nature Conservancy fight to overcome every day.

On the occasion of its 50th anniversary in 2001, the Nature Conservancy came upon a wonderful plan to document the "last great places," ecologically important areas around the world that the group helps to protect. Commissioning a dozen of the world's foremost photographers, the project resulted in a poignant and moving collection of 48 photographs called "In Response to Place: Photographs From the Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places."

The exhibition, which opens at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art this weekend, features sites from as far away as Indonesia and Brazil and as close to home as Arizona's San Pedro River. According to Erin Kane, assistant curator for SMoCA, the collection's diverse range of styles is a reflection of the singular interests and approaches of the artists involved.

"There is a wide range of subjects, ranging from landscapes to animal life to portraiture, none of which were assigned to the photographers who participated," Kane says. "The subject matter was completely up to the artist, and each focused on what they believe told the story of these biologically important and endangered areas."

In conjunction with the exhibition, the museum will sponsor a number of special events, with an eye toward educating the public about both the artists involved and the Nature Conservancy's efforts. Scheduled events include lectures by photographer Hope Sandrow, whose photographs of Indonesia's Komodo National Park are included in the "In Response to Place" collection, and the Honorable Peterson Zah, former president of the Navajo Nation, who will share his perspective on the environment and sacred places.

As a collection, "In Response to Place" is buoyed by the ability of each photographer to capture the essence of each of the stunning locales. From landscapes contributed by William Christenberry, Lee Friedlander and Annie Leibovitz to moving portraits by Mary Ellen Mark and Fazal Sheikh, it is a collection that exudes an educational and aesthetic appeal, while hinting at the possibility that humanity and nature can in fact co-exist, even if they haven't quite done so yet.

"At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is that this is truly a wonderful exhibit," Kane says. "It stands as a collection of really great work by important photographers on a very important subject: that of our relationship with nature and the world around us."