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At Yale, Fazal Sheikh exposes the elements in every sense

With its 150 images of desert and depredation, ‘Exposures’ shows harsh realities

Fazal Sheikh, "Mexican Hat Uranium Mill Disposal Cell, Mexican Hat, Utah, 37°8'0.88"N/109°52'28"W," from the series "Exposure," 2017© Fazal Sheikh

NEW HAVEN — The title of “Fazal Sheikh: Exposures” begins straightforwardly enough, with the name of the photographer whose 150 images make up the show. There’s also a video, several texts, and a sound installation, by Jeffrey Ralston Moore. The show runs through Jan. 8 at the Yale University Art Gallery.

Born in New York in 1965, Sheikh’s best known for his photographs of refugees and migrants. That work is visually restrained, deeply humane, and no less deeply impassioned. It’s not inaccurate to say that Sheikh practices what one might call advocacy photography. His doing so, and doing it so well, puts him in the tradition of Lewis Hine and Dorothea Lange, and in the contemporary company of Sebastião Salgado.

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Good advocacy photography shows without exhorting. Clarity of execution complements clarity of purpose, making exhortation superfluous. That’s the case with “Exposures.” Which brings us back to the title. With that third word, things become more complicated. “Exposures,” in the context of the show, has multiple meanings, and all of them matter.

The most basic, of course, refers to photography. Each of those 150 images (mostly landscapes, but also portraits) is an exposed piece of film: an exposure.

There’s also exposure in the sense of revelation. That revelation can take the form of moral or ethical insight. It can also mean the revealing of something hidden and/or illicit. That’s the kind of revelation we describe as an exposé. Both meanings apply here.

Fazal Sheikh, "Latitude: 30°53'60"N/Longitude: 34°45'53"E (October 9, 2011)," from the series "Desert Bloom," 2011.© Fazal Sheikh

Finally, there’s exposure in an ecological sense, as in exposed to the elements; and exposure in the sense of physical hazard. “Exposures” is divided into two parts. They have in common a desert location (Israel’s Negev and the American Southwest) and depredation. A desert is the kind of landscape most exposed to the elements — and in both deserts, those people who have traditionally lived there, Bedouins and such tribes as the Diné (Navajo) and Hopi have been exposed to sometimes-deadly political force. In the Southwest, there are also serious medical threats from the toxins generated by mineral extraction.

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“Erasure,” the Negev section, comprises four series. The most notable is “Desert Bloom.” It consists of 48 aerial photographs of the desert, shown in a tight grid. Their soft, even chaste, dun palette makes all the more unsettling what the images show: emerging Israeli settlements, newly planted forests encroaching on Arab villages, and the remnants of Arab villages whose residents were expelled.

Fazal Sheikh, "Independence/Nakba: Israeli, Born 1999; Palestinian, Born 1999," from the series "Independence/Nakba, 2013."© Fazal Sheikh

Another series, “Independence/Nakba,” consists of five diptychs, large black-and-white portraits, each showing an Israeli and a Palestinian born in the same year. They’re drawn from the full series, which begins in 1948, the year of Israel’s founding, and extends to 2013. The portraits are in Sheikh’s standard mode: faces filling the frame, the sitters alert and engaged, seeming as much collaborators with the photographer as subjects.

None of the persons are identified. This makes a larger point, presumably, the idea being that personal information would be a distraction from the greater concept of hoped-for reconciliation that the diptychs are meant to evoke. These are as much representative figures as individuals. That makes sense, but it also robs the sitters of a specificity that could help make a different sort of point.

Fazal Sheikh, "Lola Yellowman (Diné), Widow of Uranium Miner John Guy, Monument Valley, Navajo Nation," from the series "Exposure," 2019.© Fazal Sheikh

There are also portraits in the other half of the exhibition, “Exposure” (yes, singular, not plural). They, too, are black and white and tightly framed. They’re of Native Americans from the Four Corners area. Each sitter is identified, and several of the portraits include lengthy statements from the subject. The texts matter a great deal. One complaint about the hanging of the show is that the wall labels should be higher and have a larger point size, to enhance readability.

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As with “Erasure,” the lion’s share of images are color landscapes, most of them aerial shots. Sixty-six of them make up the series “In Place.” Sheikh took them in and around Bears Ears National Monument, in Utah. Tightly gridded, they hang in a small side gallery. They’re large, roughly 25 inches by 37 inches, but not so large as to be overwhelming. With little space between individual photographs, the images become themselves a kind of visual landscape. The cumulative effect is transfixing.

Fazal Sheikh, "Raplee Anticline, beside the Southern Border of Bears Ears National Monument, Utah," from the series "In Place (Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, Four Corners Region)," 2017.© Fazal Sheikh

The subdued, austere beauty of the “In Place” photographs makes all the more shocking the contrast with 10 photographs in the larger gallery space (that’s where the portraits are) which show coal mines, mineral disposal sites, and the like. The juxtaposition is an implicit, and unanswerable, condemnation. The violation of the land is shocking to see. It’s like something out of the Book of Job, with the terrain as Job. These extraction-industry photographs are striking, no question. They’re unreal looking, like toxic versions of color field paintings. Looking at them, one wonders if a better term than advocacy photography might be warning photography.

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FAZAL SHEIKH: EXPOSURES

At Yale University Art Gallery, 1111 Chapel St., New Haven, through Jan. 8. 203-432-0600, artgallery.yale.edu


Mark Feeney can be reached at mark.feeney@globe.com.