Hong Kong-based photographer Kyle Ford investigates how we perceive, represent, and interact with the natural world. His work has been published internationally, from the United States to China and Japan. He has been recognized as a Critical Mass Finalist by Photolucida and as a Flash Forward Photographer by the Magenta Foundation. Ford’s work is included in multiple permanent collections including the Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence; the Savannah College of Art and Design, Georgia; and Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York.
Ford’s photographs in Southbound, from his Second Nature series, explore our consumption of nature, from majestic live oaks used to sell romantic visions of home to notions of mountaintop adventure embedded in fairground rides. Ford’s photographs include outdoor goods stores in “anywhere” USA, subdivisions in Savannah, Georgia, the Fairchild Tropical Botanical Gardens in Miami, and the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta. Some of his images, moreover, have the added interest of capturing things set to vanish over the early twenty-first century, from the orca show at SeaWorld to Ringling’s storied circus.
The mediated versions of the natural world that interest Ford are fodder for what is, purportedly, the world’s largest industry, tourism. Thus, his journeys in search of Second Nature take him to the state most synonymous today with mass tourism, which rose to prominence in Europe just at the time that ideas about a New South were first being touted in the aftermath of the Civil War: Florida. At the turn of the twenty-first century, Florida is a cardinal point in the processes of demographic, social, and economic change that make for the newest New South, and the sort of package tourism we associate with Disney’s Animal Kingdom or with SeaWorld, both in Orlando, make for carefully orchestrated encounters with a “natural” world far removed for our everyday existence. Ford pictures them in works such as Expedition Everest, Disney’s Animal Kingdom, Florida (2009) and Shamu, SeaWorld, Florida (2009).
The world’s second-largest aquarium tank, at the Georgia Aquarium, looms in Ford’s explorations. In his photograph of that tank, titled The Whale Shark Tank, Atlanta, Georgia (2008), a silhouetted boy, dwarfed by a whale shark floating twenty feet above him, frames his encounter with a giant grouper through his own digital camera. We peer at him in Ford’s image as he mediates his exposure to a natural world separated from him by acrylic windows two-feet thick and through his camera in turn. Ford’s layering of degrees of separation between us and nature in this image raises questions about our relationship with the very organic things upon which life, inevitably, depends.
Atlanta is central to the economic geography of today’s New South, and markers such as the aquarium, darling of the urban planners who would jump-start redevelopment projects through tourism; the world’s busiest airport at Hartsfield-Jackson, moving more than 100 million people a year; or the city’s new standing as a major production site for television and film, all speak to the its place in the region. Southbound artists Lucinda Bunnen, Sheila Pree Bright, and Mark Steinmetz also photograph the city, and Steinmetz, along with Jeff Rich and Jeff Whetstone, share Ford’s fascination with the interface between human and natural worlds. Ford’s attention to the commercial dimensions of that nexus between culture and nature make his photographs especially germane in a world long since given over to commodification.