Anastasia Samoylova, FloodZone

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Steidl (here). Clothbound hardcover, 225×262 mm, 136 pages, with 86 color reproductions. Includes an essay by David Campany. Design by the artist, David Campany, and Holger Feroudj. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Figuring out how to visually capture the urgency of the global climate change crisis has been an exercise in frustration for most photographers. Many have trekked to the ends of the Earth to document melting glaciers, drought ridden deserts, dying forests and coral reefs, savage fires, and the destruction of increasingly powerful storms of all kinds. And while these photographs do show us in some sense the horrors of what is taking place and provide a call to action, it is often difficult for photography to handle a time scale that makes the aggregation of small incremental changes almost imperceptible. Unfortunately, extinction events are rarely dramatic.

Anastasia Samoylova has taken a different approach to searching for the signs of how climate changes are already affecting us. Rather than seeing global warming as an abstraction of dire events worldwide, she has narrowed her focus to just one contemporary American city that has future ruin written all over it. Depending on which climate forecast we decide to believe, Miami will either be 20% underwater by 2045 (at high tide), 60% underwater by 2060, or completely underwater in roughly 80 years; more generally, it is clear that rising sea levels will push much of the state of Florida toward disaster – the question is less if, but when (and how quickly). So in her photobook FloodZone, Samoylova has taken today’s Miami as her subject, and made a smartly layered visual portrait of the city, highlighting the seeds of coming climate peril that hide in plain view.

Samoylova’s previous photography projects don’t exactly mark her as an activist artist. Most have been made in the confines of the studio, where the flattening eye of the camera can play tricks with compositional space. She has constructed complicated illusionistic scenes with mirrors and Internet-scavenged imagery, made breakfast still lifes inhabited by photographic references, and built sophisticated collages out of image fragments and paint. The through line to FloodZone comes less from a consistent position of concerned documentary, and more from her well honed craft of arranging photographic space as applied here to the land- and cityscapes of Miami.

Samoylova sets an ominous tone right from the start. The cover of FloodZone is murky green, punctuated by the dark silhouette of an alligator swimming through the water. Alligators are a classic Florida species (the University of Florida mascot is a gator after all), but this one hovers like a monster from a horror film; what’s worse is the gator is above us, implying not only that we are all underwater, but that we are already in pretty deep. Then the first image after the title page offers us an anonymous man standing on the stern of a large boat – it too implies a waterworld, but with a faceless sense of unease. When Brody first sees the great white shark in Jaws, he famously quips “you’re going to need a bigger boat,” and this image has that same grim we-know-what’s-coming foreboding.

FloodZone is filled with water motifs of different kinds. Of course, Samoylova shows us the ocean, which is a constant background presence in Miami, but there are also seemingly endless variants of inland water – inlets, canals, waterways, ponds, and swamps, seen both from up in the air and down knee deep in the muck. Water wets the streets and floods neighborhoods, fills futuristic swimming pools, provides a place to go fishing, falls as raindrops, gathers in puddles in alleys, sprays like sparkles in the air, and increasingly gets choked by leaves, lily pads, and creeping jungle. Samoylova seems to see fluids everywhere in Miami – washing storefront windows, as a blue swimming pool pattern on a car sunscreen, in the coffee spilling in a peeling painted mural, and even in a cool glass of ice water with a slice of lemon. This place is liquid, in more ways than one.

Part of the future that comes with the rising waters is a realization that Mother Nature is going to more broadly re-exert her dominant power. Samoylova sees this in the widespread return of animal and plant life to the urban streets of Miami, and we’re not just talking dogs and cats. She has discovered manatees near the concrete piers, gekkos on the windows, flamingos and egrets perching, bird eggs hidden in steel beams, and even a pair of bold chickens on the sidewalk looking up at the skyscrapers. The mangrove roots are grasping at whatever they can pull on (even a manhole cover), the palm trees are falling like dominoes, and one rooftop plant was so stubborn the humans just decided to paint over it rather than try to pull it out. All of these images have an end of days, mythical flood mood, particularly the single chicken inexplicably swimming in the shimmering water.

Samoylova then doubles down on this undercurrent of psychological dread, especially in her images made in black and white. The waters seem to close in from all sides, surrounding an airstrip, flanking a highway, and snaking through neighborhoods, their encroaching presence making the human built environment all the more vulnerable. She also brings in a selection of frontal interruptions, essentially fencing us in or blocking our exit. And when the futuristic concrete pods tumble into the ocean and the stilts are footed in water, she incisively points out the potential delusions of our high tech hopes.

No portrait of Miami, or Florida more generally, could be complete without an array of pastel colors, and Samoylova doesn’t disappoint, turning the Art Deco fantasies, tropical paradise dreams, and Miami Vice swagger inside out. She finds bougainvillea pink, bright blue, peach, lemon yellow, and light green all over town, on clothing, buildings, walls, boats, sidewalks, skyscrapers, and even hair, the sunny colors never far from view. But she upends these visual clichés with rot, wear, and decay, introducing more than a hint of unease. Some of her mold discoveries are unexpectedly lovely, from green climbing up a salmon pink wall to light purple and brown dripping from the edge of a concrete support. But more toxic sprays of creeping black cover boat bottoms, alley walls, and old cars, nature quietly moving up from below.

That anyone would be starting up fancy new construction projects in a city destined for climate trouble seems like a puzzlingly obvious mistake, but Samoylova shows us plenty of just this kind of building. What makes these pictures all the more ironic is that these sites are plastered with aspirational vinyl renderings of sleek futures, where people stride into modern restaurants, swim in perfect pools, wait for helicopters, and linger outside retro-new apartment blocks, all while the mess of demolition and construction debris goes on in the background. This sense of misguided, head-in-the-sand foolishness is similarly captured by an image of beachgoers taking smartphone pictures of a grounded yacht, seemingly reveling in the destruction without realizing there is plenty more on the way.

The design of FloodZone is straightforward and unassuming. Vertically-oriented pictures are set on spreads with just a bit of white space around them, while the horizontal images run full bleed across the spread. This difference, and the movement left and right across the spread of the upright pictures, creates just enough rhythm to keep the flow unexpected. But this is really a full bodied, photographs first design, and Samoylova’s images rise to the challenge of being shown with such confidence.

FloodZone belongs on the short list of superlative climate change photobooks, precisely because it doesn’t overreach or scold. Seen as one body of work, Samoyloava’s photographs are reliably well-crafted and elegantly composed, but also quietly intimate and melancholy – they use smart framing to aim our attention, forcing us to both acknowledge that things are changing and to recognize some of the uncomfortable realities that we haven’t yet admitted. It’s a strong photobook offering from a photographer whose career is clearly starting to accelerate.

Collector’s POV: Anastasia Samoylova is represented by Dot Fiftyone Gallery in Miami (here) and Galerie Caroline O’Breen in Amsterdam (here). Samoylova’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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