Liminal Frontier Climate Adaptation and the American Coast
Essay and photographs by Virginia Hanusik
When Carleton Watkins and Ansel Adams made photographs of the American West in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they were trying to familiarize people with an entirely “new” frontier. Of course, this land was by no means “new” or uninhabited, but the images were used as visual propaganda for manifest destiny.
Images of land have always been used to tell us about who we are as a country and as individuals. Our national identity is tied to American landscape paintings just as much as portraits of the Founding Fathers. At this moment, we are experiencing a truly new frontier as we are re-imagining how to live along the coast and the boundary between land and water continues to shift with the impacts of climate change.
Visualizing climate change is a challenge that is evident in our collective inability to process, understand, and imagine what the future world will look like on a grand scale. We are told with more regularity than ever before that certain weather events are the most severe, the most catastrophic, and the most rare. But many of us around the world—those fortunate enough to have been spared from a terrible environmental disaster—don’t experience these events in a way that encourages, or demands, lifestyle change. Despite continuous media coverage of disastrous events such as flooding in the American South or wildfires in California, we are still able to dissociate and remove ourselves from the current situation. Because of this distance, climate change remains an abstract concept for a majority of people, even for those who actively want change.
As a photographer, I focus on daily life in landscapes most vulnerable to environmental changes or landscapes already undergoing adaptation measures. I approach scenes that are reflective of the everyday, but incorporate symbols of a changing physical world with details that become more apparent when viewed together. Architectural style and land use patterns of a region provide details and insight into the values of a certain place.
For the past several years I have been building a body of work that seeks to document the changing relationship that we have with coastal land. Liminal Frontier is an ongoing project to document, analyze, and generate discussion about the coastal spaces of the world in order to capture and learn from the current paradigm shift in development and spatial thinking. This moment in time forces us to re-conceptualize how and where we live, and to acknowledge that the right to build along the water without restrictions will likely cease to exist in the coming decades.
I have spent a majority of my time photographing the American Gulf Coast—particularly South Louisiana—and the impact that climate adaptation is already having on communities there. In the past year, I have focused more on cities along the East and West coasts in order to build a collection that compares urban and rural areas across various geographies. The photographs presented in this essay demonstrate the diversity of form and use for structures, land use patterns, and personal behavior along the water.
As conversations around adaptation and managed retreat become more common in communities around the world, it is important to understand the sentimental value we have historically placed on the coast. Documenting these spaces and learning from the mistakes of past development can assist in planning for a new system of inhabiting coastal land that is symbiotic with the natural world.
Virginia Hanusik is an artist and architectural researcher whose work explores the relationship between culture and the built environment. Her photographs have been exhibited internationally and featured in publications such as Domus, Places Journal, NPR, Fast Company, Newsweek, and The Atlantic, among others. She received her B.A. from Bard College and is currently working on a project about the architecture of climate change in South Louisiana with support from the Graham Foundation. She is a member of the Climate Working Group at New York University and was ranked as one of Planetizen‘s Most Influential Urbanists in 2017. She lives in New York City.
www.virginiahanusik.com | @virginiahanusik