Time and Tides in Jacob Hessler’s Rising Times

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We are pleased to release July's print from Jacob Hessler. Read more about Hessler’s work below.

Purchase this print from our print sale page.

Jacob Hessler
Archival pigment print
6.5 x 10, signed and numbered edition of 10

The sign reads “Danger.” A bird perches on top of it, apparently unaware of the dire warning beneath its feet. Around the bird and its sign, endless, placid water stretches from one edge of the photograph to the other, a thin horizon in the distance and clouds mounding even further, almost out of sight. What the danger is, and how it could exist in a scene of such calm, smooth serenity, requires an act of the imagination. It requires the viewer to remember well worn, but often sterile, narratives of destructive climate change and inevitable rising sea levels. With that memory comes realization that the danger, which once seemed so distant, is all around us.

Jacob Hessler’s series Rising Times brings to bear the power of this troubling false serenity. In “Danger, Georgia”, the peaceful seascape is disturbed by a warning—a literal sign—rising up from the water. The absurdity of the bird, quite at home and entirely nonplussed, drives home the commentary that the danger will not affect all life the same way. It also suggests that no matter what we think climate change might be, we are bound to underestimate or misunderstand the signs of warning.  

Danger, Georgia, 2014

Hessler, who grew up in Camden, Maine, has always had deep affection for the natural world. After a childhood in the Maine woods, he moved west to attend university in Montana. After a couple of years there, he headed to Santa Barbara, where he studied photography, working under Jill Greenberg on celebrity photoshoots. The work with Greenberg was intense, exciting, and formative, but ultimately, for someone like Hessler, it was also soul crushing. Even the perfect climate of southern California and the endless sunny skies of LA grew monotonous and heavy to him. “I missed seeing a cloud,” he says.

Hessler continued this peripatetic life, moving to New York City to work in graphic design and then briefly to San Francisco before returning home to Maine. The move seemed providential. A house near his parents became available for sale, and on the day he signed his mortgage to purchase it, he also met his wife.

Hessler’s return to Maine brought with it not only new focus on photography, but renewed dedication to exploring changes to the environment. As a child, he spent hours upon hours on the water, sailing around a small island where his family had a cottage. Accessible only by boat, the island and the sea around it were wonderlands for an eight-year-old boy, and when he returned home after years of traveling the country, he found renewed energy to not only experience the wonders of nature, but to help others understand what he was witnessing.

Vacant Stilts, Louisiana, 2015

Rising Times bears witness to the dramatic changes occurring in coastal North America. Hessler prints each image at a large size in order to provide the viewer with a sense of the scale of problems created by rising sea levels. Printed on aluminum, the images are at once durable and approachable. Unmediated by matting, framing or glass, when the viewer gets close to them, everything else around them disappears. It is just the sea, the landscape, and a view of the rising waters.

In some images, the impact is both mysterious and unsettling. In “Sea Wall, Martha’s Vineyard”, a broad, cloudy sky weighs heavily on a distant sea. In the foreground, a road cut bank turns to the left. The angle of the road disrupts the horizon line of the sea, cutting into the blue, but the sea has obviously left its mark by apparently collapsing part of the concrete retaining wall. An exposed butt of the wall, rough and crumbling, undermines any sense that the human creation is smooth, precise, or perfect. The horizon line and the wall are so low in the frame that it disorients and unsettles, as though the viewer can’t quite surmount the concrete edifice to see the sea rolling beyond. Despite extensive open space in the image, it is remarkably claustrophobic.

Littoral Capacity, Florida, 2015

Other images convey a sense of loss by showing the effects of rising water. In “Vacant Stilts, Louisiana”, the lush green of a lawn and the waving of high sea grasses in the background only serve to highlight the absence of a house. Foundation columns rise up out of the green, and stringers stretch from column to column, reminders of the structure they once supported. Off center to the left, a staircase to nowhere rises up from the edge of a concrete foundation. They end in empty space, still below the line of tall grasses in the background. Power lines stretch overhead, but the house which they would power is only a memory. That the viewer of the photograph is unable to see the ocean only reinforces Hessler’s point that our fantasy life of coastal living may now be obliterated by something that seems to exist in some unseeable distance, but is in fact present and powerful.

The folly of human persistence in the face of destruction emerges in images like “Littoral Capacity, Florida” and “The Old Road Home, Florida.” Despite clear evidence of rising seas, we continue to build, and build along beaches. Still, Hessler is keenly interested in beauty, walking a line between commentary and aesthetics. In doing so, he offers not so much a vision of destruction, but a vision of a natural world whose processes persist despite human desire. Nature adjusts to our incursions, frequently unpredictably, and changes our world precisely because we initiated a chain of actions whose end points we couldn’t imagine. Hessler’s photographs startle us with their power to destroy our creations, even while they remind us of the persistent beauty of natural systems that we have yet to fully understand.

This article first appeared in Issue 8.

Roger Thompson is Senior Editor for Don't Take Pictures. His features have appeared in The Atlantic.com, Quartz, Raw Vision, The Outsider, and many others. He currently resides on Long Island, NY, where he is a professor at Stony Brook University.