Photographing Landscapes Under Glass

Nov. 24, 2017, 6:45 a.m. ·

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A new book of photography examines some of the world’s largest landscapes contained under glass. Dana Fritz, a professor of photography at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, spent 10 years on Terraria Gigantica, photographing spaces at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, Biosphere 2 in Tucson, Arizona and the Eden Project in Cornwall, England. NET News’ Ariana Brocious talked with Fritz about her approach to capturing these human-made vivaria.

NET NEWS: Can you describe what a vivaria is?

DANA FRITZ: It's a plural for vivarium, and it's like a terrarium only it has animals and other living things, not just plants.

NET NEWS: Some people might be familiar with some of these because we have a couple good examples close to home at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, right?

DANA FRITZ: That's correct.

NET NEWS: Can you describe a bit more of what these spaces consist of?

DANA FRITZ: I like to call them enclosed landscapes. And that's what really interested me about them. They're very large-scale: the three in my book were the largest in the world at the time when I was photographing, and they include so many features of landscapes. They include natural and artificial elements. In all of these places, either intentionally or unintentionally they include plants and animals and, of course, people, because we are either the researchers or the observers. Biosphere 2 is actually the world's largest laboratory. From 1991 to 1993 there were actually Biospherians, people, living in there, doing experiments on themselves and also on all kinds of other things within the site.

NET NEWS: What sparked your interest in these enclosed landscapes?

Dana Fritz's new book, Terraria Gigantica, was published by the University of New Mexico Press in October 2017. To see more photos from the book, visit Fritz's website.

DANA FRITZ: It started a long time ago. I was doing a previous project where I was visiting a lot of conservatories: large, Victorian-style glass houses. And I wondered if there were such things like that now, sort of contemporary versions of these places that collected the world and invited people inside to enjoy it.

NET NEWS: When we think about these spaces, the Desert Dome or Lied Jungle at the Henry Doorly Zoo, for example, are these places escapes? Are they refuges? Some of them are used for research. What were you interested in exploring with your photographs?

DANA FRITZ: The thing that interested me is that combination of natural and artificial and how sometimes it was really hard to tell what was an actual plant and what was a sculpted plant, for example. And I was really interested in the change in scale and the spatial illusion in them. And I was thinking of that, not just as a physical phenomena that we experience while we're in there but also kind of metaphorical and thinking about how maybe we don't know the difference between natural and artificial, and what might that mean. And of course I approach them as a landscape photographer so I think about them as a landscape.

Corner Outlet, Lied Jungle. (Photo courtesy Dana Fritz)

NET NEWS: Some of the examples in the book include things like a power outlet or an exit sign.

DANA FRITZ: I think these places are kind of beautiful and amazing and I go in there and have a sense of wonder, which I think is similar to many visitors to the places because they are kind of fantastical and they're not like our everyday experiences. But I was really interested in those areas where the natural and artificial were indistinguishable or where they would kind of bump up against one another. And so the photograph of the outlet is a straight photograph like all the photographs in the book; they don't have any editing and they're not composited. But it's hard to understand the space in a lot of them, and I thought that was really interesting. And so the outlet picture has a mirror and it's reflecting the jungle and it's hard to tell, are you inside, are you outside, what is reflected, what is real, things like that.

NET NEWS: What can we learn from these enclosed environments?

DANA FRITZ: I think we can learn about ourselves, actually. I think they reflect us and obviously their missions are to teach us about environmental issues and to conduct research. So we can learn about endangered species, for example, from the zoo, we can learn about coral reef research from Biosphere 2, and we can learn about landscape reclamation and environmental reclamation from the Eden Project. So those are some of the things they want to teach. But I think we can also learn about ourselves and how we may or may not understand the natural world very well, and that these places, while they replicate synthetically a lot of things from the natural world, they can help teach us about it. And hopefully we can do something to try to preserve biodiversity and the environment.

And we might ask ourselves, how much do we know? How much do we need to learn? What is our relationship to the natural world? Do we go to these places instead of spending time outside? And how is our experience different inside the zoo versus outside without a roof?