Vermont photographer, cartoonist send an environmental message at Mass. exhibit

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    Photographer Stephen Gorman's "Monument to Infinite Growth" is part of "Down to the Bone," a show at the Peabody Essex Museum with cartoonist Ed Koren through Feb. 5, 2023. (Courtesy Stephen Gorman) Courtesy Stephen Gorman

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    Cartoonist Ed Koren's "Thinking About Extinction IV" is part of "Down to the Bone," a show at the Peabody Essex Museum with photographer Stephen Gorman through Feb. 5, 2023. (Courtesy Ed Koren) Courtesy Ed Koren

  • Photographer Stephen Gorman, of Norwich, Vt., on Monday, November 15, 2010, in Hanover, N.H. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

  • Cartoonist Ed Koren stands in his studio at home in Brookfield, Vt., Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to James M. Patterson

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/20/2022 11:27:02 PM
Modified: 4/20/2022 11:25:45 PM

Ed Koren, of Brookfield, Vt., has sketched cartoons satirizing human foibles since the 1960s. In recent years, his meditations turned to environmental destruction, or “our own form of suicide,” as he calls it. His alarm saturated his work, yielding a series titled “Thinking About Extinction.”

Steve Gorman, of Norwich, has traveled the globe to capture nature’s majesty in his photographs. His work took him to Kaktovik, Alaska, a small Inupiat village, in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, where the battle over whether or not to drill for oil has dragged on for decades. He went to photograph polar bears congregating outside the village, and he found nature’s majesty degraded.

The two artists’ intellectual dispositions are as far apart as their mediums. For Koren, cartoons begin with doodling. He does not offer answers, only musings, he said in a phone interview. Gorman’s photographs confront the viewer with the reality of environmental degradation so complete that it reaches beyond the northern border of Alaska, the self-proclaimed last frontier. The titles of his photographs — Overshoot, Monument to Infinite Growth, Limits to Growth — encapsulate a worldview: We must stop pursuing limitless growth on a planet with finite resources, an idea he explained during an interview at the Norwich Public Library.

Yet their artistic works, seen together, play off one another in uncanny ways.

“Down to the Bone,” an exhibition at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., pairs the lost creatures of the New Yorker cartoonist with the hungry, begrimed polar bears of the wildlife photographer. The curators thoughtfully placed their art side by side, drawing out unlikely similarities in their compositions. The gallery is small, with less than 10 works by each artist hung around the perimeter of the room. A video streamed in the center of the room gives visitors a chance to listen in on interviews with the artists.

In Gorman’s Overshoot, a lone polar bear looks out at the viewer. The monumental bones of a bowhead whale loom behind it. The Inupiat hunted the whale and discarded its carcass after gleaning what they needed to sustain themselves. But the bones still hold enough flesh for polar bears desperate for food as they wait for sea ice to form. They are only able to hunt seals on ice, but the ice forms weeks later than in centuries past.

The polar bear, so associated with bright white fur and massive strength, is reduced in Gorman’s photograph. Its head sinks. Sand and grease from the decaying carcass yellow its matted fur. Gazing past the camera, it seems to watch for the ice it expects but cannot find.

Koren’s cartoon Thinking About Extinction II hangs next to the photograph. Two four-footed creatures with skeletons for bodies stand suspended among piles of broken bones. The walking dead seem precariously close to falling apart into more inanimate bones like the ones that surround them. Their round, baffled eyes stare out of hairy, grizzled faces. Like the polar bears, they are also confused beings, lost in the detritus of a collapsing world.

The two artists confront the same unsettling truth: “It may seem impossible to imagine that a technologically advanced society could choose, in essence, to destroy itself, but that is what we are now in the process of doing.” The New Yorker environmental journalist Elizabeth Kolbert wrote this damning diagnosis of contemporary society at the end of her 2014 book The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. The quote is printed on the wall above the artists’ works.

Gorman’s bears and Koren’s creatures stare out at the viewer, but they do not accuse. They are too confused by their own plight to ascribe blame. They look at the viewer as though asking for answers, but no answers are within reach. They do not invite pity either — we are too close to finding ourselves in the same misfortune. They are our mirrors.

Serendipity brought Gorman and Koren together after Gorman and his wife, Mary, walked through an exhibition of Koren’s cartoons in BigTown Gallery in Rochester, Vt.

“(Koren) had created these imaginary scenes, but they were so similar … to the scenes I had actually captured with my camera,” Gorman said.

Gorman sent his photographs to Koren.

“I was gobsmacked,” Koren said.

Koren, born in 1935, grew up in New York City. The Natural History Museum’s panoramas encapsulated nature for him. The carefully arranged models seemed inviolable in the sanctity of the museum. He believed the ecosystems that they represented were just as immune to disruption.

“It was immutable nature, nature that would never change, and was always in harmony with all the ecosystems that were in place at the time,” he said.

Yet climate change, disasters and mass extinction reveal just how unstable nature can be.

Gorman’s photographs show nature that is far more tumultuous than the panoramas that animate Koren’s imagination. Gorman said that he finds it ever more difficult to find a place that does not bear the mark of destruction.

The series of cartoons in the gallery are Koren’s meditations on environmental degradation, but they are also continuous with his much longer body of work.

“What I deal with as a cartoonist is human frailty,” he said. “Suicide, that’s what we’re doing to ourselves.”

Koren is a social satirist, and he captures both the tragedy and the comedy in the drama of the Anthropocene. In a geological age when humans dominate the environment, our own actions lead to our undoing. At 87, he also knows that he is on the other side of the most dire consequences of climate change. While buying an EV is still worthwhile, it does not measure up to the enormity of the crisis, he said. He has no answers.

Both Koren and Gorman expressed doubt that artists can make much of a difference, but Gorman has clear ideas that he wants to advance through his work. He wrote a manifesto to accompany his photographs.

“The root of the climate crisis is cultural,” he writes. “Industrial growth capitalism is the modern adaptation of the myth of the frontier — the belief that there are no limits to Nature’s bounty, nor to its capacity to absorb our waste.”

He seeks out places where people live within natural constraints. He chose to photograph the Inupiat because they live so lightly on the land that they have sustained themselves for millennia. He holds them up as models, and evidence, of a path other than endless over-consumption.

“Down to the Bone: Edward Koren and Stephen Gorman” is on view at the Peabody Essex Museum until Feb. 5, 2023. The exhibit is part of the museum’s Climate + Environment Initiative, which features art that engages with our changing relationship with the natural world. Admission costs $20 for adults; $18 for seniors; and $12 for students.

Claire Potter is a Report for America corps member. She can be reached at or 603-727-3242.

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