With just 12 large color images, Newton resident Bremner Benedict nudges viewers into reassessing their attitudes about modern civilization's impact on the environment.
Joni Mitchell sang about paving Paradise to put up a parking lot and now photographer Bremner Benedict has taken the pictures and they're equally striking and disturbing.
Mitchell's "Big Yellow Taxi" crashes head on into electrical towers sprouting like mushrooms in the wilderness in "Power Structures," a small exhibit that raises big questions at the DeCordova Museum & Sculpture Park in Lincoln.
In just 12 large color images of industrial structures infringing on the natural world, the Newton resident nudges viewers into reassessing their attitudes about modern civilization's impact on the environment.
Taken from Benedict's "Gridlines" series, the 40-by-40-inch inkjet prints depict gargantuan electrical towers and power lines slicing through wide open spaces with a stark beauty.
The sleek gunmetal gray generator in "Alewife" resembles a battleship's turret with cannons pointed skyward. Like aliens in "War of the Worlds," electrical towers seem to stride across Western flatlands beneath blue skies.
The slanted braces of a tower frame the panoramic view of "Cedar Wash" as if viewed through a triangular porthole.
For exhibit organizer Nina G. Bozicnik, Benedict's photos ask viewers to question the effect of industrialism and technology on the planet. Describing her work in a statement accompanying the show, Benedict said, "I want to encourage dialogue about the dissonance between the beautiful and the ugly as well as the conflict between the desire for pristine nature and physical comforts that industrial structures produce."
Located in the Photography Study Space, the exhibit runs through Sept. 7.
Benedict's most striking photo, "St. Catherine's," is equally beautiful and disturbing. Shooting through a cross-hatched wire fence, she photographs a phalanx of five high-tension towers that appear to be striding toward her lens like animated erector sets.
We want to know if the fence is protecting viewers from the giant-like towers or confining them so they can't get away.
Either way, it's lovely but unsettling.
Often shot from ground level, Benedict's photos depict industrial structures as almost alien monoliths looming over meadows and woods beneath rapturously blue skies.
Yet seemingly familiar visual metaphors can be misleading.
Careful viewers will have to acknowledge the web of power lines crisscrossing the sky in "Sand Springs" might be powering schools, hospitals or clean energy.
By adding an interesting wrinkle to the exhibit, Bozicnik reinforces Benedict's deeper point: Photographic images shape our perceptions of their subjects in ways that often elude us.
"A photograph can frame our understanding of the world," said the Koch Curatorial fellow. "When Bremner (Benedict) shows a place through the lens of her camera, she's constructing an understanding and a meaning."
Rather than simplifying matters, Bozicnik adds another layer to Benedict's visual onion by hanging across the gallery six black-and-white photographs that juxtapose human and natural realms in more benign ways.
While Edward Steichen's "Bryant Park Breadline," and Harold Edgerton's moody "Night Aerial View of MIT" were shot in 1933 and 1945, respectively, the other photos were taken over the last 25 years.
Yet their rich chiaroscuro and softer tones evoke an era that, in our minds at least, preceded environmental degradation.
On a smaller scale, these black-and-white photos also depict the intersection of man-made and natural worlds. Yet curiously, these warm and elegiac images conjure a more harmonious balance of seemingly opposing realms.
Like an affirming natural reminder, a sturdy tree rises in front of an elevated train and paved roads in Gary Metz's 1984 silver gelatine print, "Quaking Aspens." Using a pinhole camera, Walter Crump captures a bridge sinuously spanning a harbor bathed in soft light.
In the show's most distinctive image by Steichen, a bread line of tiny Depression-era figures threads along a rain-slicked avenue beneath an elevated subway.
How does Steichen give the Depression an autumnal glow?
Despite the real misery, Steichen's distance from his subject softens their suffering. Never taking the easy way, Benedict presses our noses into luminous yet violated landscapes.
By hanging contrasting images on both sides of the gallery, Bozicnik invites visitors to question photography's seductive power to shape and shade our perceptions.
Describing the "Gridlines" series which produced these photos, Benedict observed, "I focus on these curious structures because we take them so much for granted that we no longer notice them. We tend to ignore these structures since they disturb our fundamental notions of both the natural and man-made landscapes."
Viewers must ask whether Benedict's images reinforce or subvert our concerns about the fragile environment.
Do her photos prompt us to open our eyes or turn away?
First you have to look.
The DeCordova Museum & Sculpture Park is located at 51 Sandy Pond Road, Lincoln.
The museum is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and on selected Monday holidays. The DeCordova is open Memorial Day, Monday, May 25, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Admission to the DeCordova campus (gallery and outdoor Sculpture Park) is $12 for adults; $8 for seniors, students and children 6 to 12. Children under age 5, Lincoln residents and active duty military personnel are admitted free.
Free guided tours of the museum's main galleries take place at 1 p.m. Thursday and 2 p.m. Sunday.
Call 781-259-8355 or visit www.decordova.org for more information.