Peter Funch’s The Imperfect Atlas is an interesting attempt to tackle the subject of climate change in photography. I’m not too sure where I heard about the book. It was Jeff Mermelstein’s favorite photobook of 2019, but by 2019 I was already trying to ignore best-of lists as a money-saving strategy, so I probably heard about and ordered it on swerdnaekalb’s recommendation.
For The Imperfect Atlas, Funch employed a rather ancient and (in contemporary terms) novel technique: the trichrome or three-color process, what Funch calls “RGB separation.” I’ve long wanted to try trichromes on 4×5 and acquired all the tools (3 filters), but haven’t ever done it. The process requires making three black & white photos of a given scene—one each with red, blue, and green filters—then combining the three negatives in the darkroom (or computer) to create a color image.
Given that Funch worked on this project in the 2010s, he started with three digital files, each shot through a different filter. He massaged the files, then printed negatives onto transparency and produced color darkroom prints to give “the final print a mechanical (rather than digital) feel.”* Why is that important? It’s not, not really, and if there’s not a strong analog feel to the pictures, they don’t scream digital either, and, really, given the process and the way the pictures look, it doesn’t matter much.
More important is Funch’s overall process. He began the series by collecting postcards of the Pacific Northwest, especially Mount Shuksan, perhaps the most photogenic of all American mountains. Comparing the postcard images with photos he made in the 2010s, as he does in exhibitions and in rather too-small reproductions in the back of the book, climate change is rather obvious: the glaciated peak obviously shrank and changed shape over the last 80 or 100 years. And it seems overwhelmingly likely that our collective (in the Industrialized West, anyway) addiction to comfort and ease is a major contributing factor.**
Now. If you only realize climate change thanks to The Imperfect Atlas, well what a charmed life you lead! Kudos for missing the fires, the increased number of far larger hurricanes, the vastly changed weather patterns that heavily disrupt crop production. Did anyone come to recognize and accept the facts of climate change thanks to The Imperfect Atlas? I sorta doubt it, and really suspect Funch is largely preaching to the choir, if, indeed, any viewers recognize the climate change content without reading the interview or any of the press about it.
If anything could show the passage of time in a single image, the trichrome process sure can: anything that moves shows up only on a single channel, either red or green or blue. If one could plant a tripod near Baker Lake, looking towards Mount Shuksan roughly where 95% of everyone who ever photographs the mountain stand, and take a single image every 10 or 25 or 50 years, each on a different channel, and then combine, you’d really see some change. Between Funch’s collection of postcards (each several decades old) and his contemporary images there’s a similar effect, but it requires some imagination that a trichrome simply does not.
I like The Imperfect Atlas. I like the process, I like the photographs, I like the archival bit, I like the transparent jacket. My only complaint lies with the archive section, as the postcard images are basically thumbnails and hard for my old eyes to really study. Overall, I rate it 4 solid stars.
Funch shares pretty much all of the images from The Imperfect Atlas on his website, so go have a look, and the book remains available through TBW Books and elsewhere. Looking around, I’m also sorta interested in Funch’s earlier 42nd And Vanderbilt, where Funch photographed the same corner over several years and paired images of individuals together… It’s a similar concept, sorta, to The Imperfect Atlas, and looks like fun. That said, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed with my photobook collection at present and really need to slow down and get a handle on it.
* Funch, Peter. “Peter Funch and William Pym in Conversation, Berlin/London, via email, October 8-14, 2019,” in The Imperfect Atlas. TBW Books, 2019. p. 4 and available at https://www.peterfunch.com/portfolio/theimperfectatlas/ retrieved 6 September, 2021.
** In mid- and late-2021 a couple of the richest men in the world spent astonishing amounts of money to fly themselves into space for a few seconds. In the process they both added more pollution to the environment than I will in my lifetime. Does it matter what I do? Yes, yes it does, if only for the reason that Allah is going to ask me about every last little thing that I did, and did I use my privilege to enrich only myself? Or did I attempt to improve the world, uplift others, leave the world a little cleaner, or at least not waste ever so much… Aren’t you glad I put this in a footnote?