Australian photographer Trent Parke, a member of Magnum Photos and winner of four World Press Photo awards, returns after a five-year hiatus with his first project since 2015. His book Crimson Line is a meditation in scarlet on industrial pollution, creativity, and light.
Unless you’re passionate about natural sciences, you may not have heard of the scale insect called cochineal, Dactylopius Coccus, that lives only on cacti in South America and Mexico. It is, however, to this tiny parasite that we owe the crimson color of certain foods and cosmetic products. To protect itself from predators, it produces carminic acid, a natural, extremely effective dye. Scale-insect breeders dip the female insects into boiling water when they are pregnant in order to harvest the precious acid.
What might have been no more than an entertaining anecdote about South American wildlife becomes a founding myth of sorts when it is coupled with Trent Parke’s nebular photographs. Parke draws a straight line from the original harvest of scale insects to unbridled industrialization. And it is this omnipresent crimson, purple, and carmine, that binds together the building blocks of this narrative. The photographer has paired wreaths of smoke seized at dawn or dusk with the writings of John Ellis, an English naturalist, and author of An Essay toward a Natural History of the Corallines, published in 1754.
Ellis described cochineals and the optimal way to harvest carminic acid. He encouraged the cultivation of these parasites in the British colonies in order to produce “that beautiful scarlet dye so most esteemed by all the world.” In the scenes of post-industrial waste captured by Trent Parke, we are tempted to see the direct consequence of the industrious, conquering spirit that continues to steer our productivity-obsessed world to the point of the absurd.
Born in the steel town of Newcastle, Trent Parke grew up facing a skyline dotted with industrial smokestacks, shipyards, and steel mills. His way of looking at the beauty of these landscapes is unparalleled: as the sky undergoes daily metamorphosis, day tipping into night, these great monuments to productivity are infused with poetry. Factories and trailers, designed above all to be functional, acquire a fortuitous beauty as they stand out against a brightly colored sky. The industry is transformed through aesthetics.
But it would be wrong to reduce Crimson Line to a simple denunciation of consumerism. The photographer uses factory-emitted billows of smoke to create abstract paintings, which seem to draw inspiration from science fiction. The project is a hallucinatory journey through clouds and to the stars: up there, in the nebulae, when a new star is born, our telescopes capture a crimson hue similar to the sky at dusk as well as to the dye extracted from scale insects. Crimson red is a color of creation par excellence.
Can you tell the story of the world through a color spectrum? Trent Parke borrows the title of John Ellis’s essay, A Natural History of the Corallines. Except that this natural history encompasses everything tinted in scarlet: the setting sun, the pink wig of a mannequin in a shop window, a drop of blood. There is something mystical about carmine red extracted from the cochineal beetle so that our food seems more appealing and our cosmetics more attractive. It is the color of birth and creativity.
Rather than scale insects, docks, or smokestacks, however, the object of Trent Parke’s study is light itself. At the peak of his art, the great photographer continues his long exploration of light and its ability to transform the most banal landscapes into vibrant scenes of magic and mystery.
Par Joy Majdalani
Joy Majdalani is a Lebanese-content editor and creator based in Paris. Her writing focuses on technology, art, culture, and social issues.