The most poignant documentation, however, features the wheatfield against the backdrop of the World Trade Center. In 1982, the Twin Towers loomed in the background like capitalist villains. Today, it’s impossible to see them without lamenting the lives lost on September 11th, and all the tragedies that have followed: two long wars, international conflict, and mounting religious intolerance. The world in the wheatfield photographs is far from perfect, but it’s difficult not to look at it and wish we could reverse time.
Curators are deeming Denes prophetic for her ability to see climate issues for the quagmire they are. Yet Denes didn’t foretell the future—no one can. Scientists can’t even agree on exactly how our climate will change within the next 50 years. Denes merely identified basic human tendencies, such as competition, greed, and shortsightedness, that have led us into our contemporary climate crisis. Most of all, her work conjures some ever-relevant, 50-year-old Joni Mitchell lyrics: “You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.”