Todd R. Forsgren

At first glance, these images might remind you of abstraction expressionist work by the likes of Jackson Pollock. However, these aren’t drips and splashes of paint made by an artist baring the depths of his soul. The patterns, forms, and colors are actually created by marine flora and fauna growing on research plates set out by scientists to monitor the vitality and health of the ocean’s reefs. So instead I think of them in relation to one of Pollock’s most famous quips, rather than his paintings: “I don’t paint nature. I am nature.” 

To the scientific community the data is clear. The world’s oceans are undergoing unprecedented changes in levels, temperatures, and acidity. Coral reefs are especially vulnerable to these impacts of climate change. If this continues, the reefs will all but disappear by the end of this century. This is especially tragic because reefs are among the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet and are vital breeding grounds to many species who range far beyond their boundaries.

A global coalition of scientists are working to understand the impact of climate change on reef ecology and develop management systems that could mitigate the consequences. Autonomous Reef Monitoring Structures (A.R.M.S.) are one tool being used. Though the term sounds high tech, and many aspects of this research are, the structures themselves are remarkably simple: a stack of 9” x 9” PVC panels that get left in the ocean for months or even years. The structures become covered with corals, sponges, and other marine life. These images are photographs of ARMS plates taken by scientists just before the organisms are removed from the plates for molecular analysis. 

I consider these plates as analogous to photographic film (although the year plus an A.R.M.S. is “exposed” at sea is substantially longer than the typical photographic moment). Like a camera, A.R.M.S. allow us to see the world in a way we cannot directly observe. The new understanding being gained through this technique allows us to see a possible future of the oceans (one without coral reefs if we don’t change course). Reflecting on this, I recall a quote from Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida. Referring to a photograph of a prisoner bound for execution, Barthes wrote, "He is dead and he is going to die..."