May 6th, 2019
Introducing: Karolina Karlic
For the second installment of our new series, “Introducing,” Aperture speaks with a photographer tracing the globalization of rubber from the Amazon to Ohio.
By Annika Klein
In 1987, when Karolina Karlic was four years old, her family moved from Wrocław, Poland, to Detroit. Her father had been hired as an engineer, and Karlic spent her childhood in a city troubled by racial tension and economic decline. Later, in California, Karlic studied with photographer Allan Sekula, whose work traces the connections between labor, industry, and the environment. Karlic’s first major body of work, Primer (2008–13), reflects upon growing up in the motor city, and investigates the industry that first brought her to the U.S.
“In the Ford archives, I located many photographs that were made with the intent to report back to headquarters,” Karlic recalls. Her research on American auto manufacturing eventually led her to the archives of tire companies back home in Michigan, and in Akron, Ohio. These corporations fuel the economy and enable globalization: commerce would break down without jets and trucks to deliver goods, and these vessels still rely on rubber tires. Though some rubber is synthetic, a surprising amount—about half, some thirteen million tons annually—comes from a rubber tree indigenous to the Amazon.
Karlic has made this blight-prone and economically essential plant the focus of her latest series, Rubberlands (2014–ongoing). “Plantations are precise, calculated machines of replication, ecologies devoted to repetition and production, not very different in concept from the assembly line,” Karlic says. A photograph of the multibillion-dollar Minha Casa, Minha Vida (my house, my life) development in Brazil, at the confluence of the Tapajós and Amazon rivers, similarly emphasizes a commitment to efficiency: identical white houses stretch to the horizon in perfect rows, like trees in a plantation.
Rubberland combines Karlic’s black-and-white, documentary-style pictures with the photographs and drawings from the archives of Ford, Goodyear, Goodrich, General Tire, and Firestone. “Rubber and photography were both integral components of the second phase of the industrial revolution,” Karlic explains. “I am thinking about the ways in which photography can open a dialogue to the past and become meaningfully constituted in the present.”
Traveling throughout Brazil’s Amazon basin, Karlic photographed manufacturing plants in Salvador and Itaparica, a fishing village in Bahia, and the ruins of Fordlândia, where Henry Ford attempted, and epically failed, to create an American-style town deep in the jungle. Karlic spent most of her time, however, at a Michelin-owned ecological reserve in the Atlantic forest. The reserve also functions as a plantation, and is known for successfully cloning blight-resistant rubber trees.
At the Michelin plantation, Karlic photographed not just plants and landscapes, but also collaborated with families living and working there, including the daughters of the Farias family. An arresting portrait reminiscent of Sally Mann’s 1990s-era photography shows Emilly Farias, a teenager, standing in a grove of rubber trees. Emilly wears a simple white dress, her black hair falls down her back in ringlets, and her long limbs echo the pattern of tree branches behind her. In another picture from 2014, two of Emilly’s sisters play with a cousin in the backyard, where laundry is hanging out to dry on the porch. “My intention in the making of photographs picturing adolescent women was to depict the female body as an occupant in the environment of labor,” Karlic says.
Annika Klein is assistant editor of Aperture magazine. All images courtesy the artist; Grafted Rubber Tree image courtesy the collection of Ford Motor Company.