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Some Scary Pictures

May 02, 2003

It's sweet justice when attempts at censorship backfire and call attention to the very thing the censor hoped to hide. Such is the case with the dazzling photographs of Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge that go on display today at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History amid controversy that is already bringing photographer Subhankar Banerjee's work the attention it deserves.

"Seasons of Life and Land" was scheduled for a prime spot next to the museum's rotunda. Then Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) brandished a super-sized Banerjee photo of a polar bear while railing against the Bush administration's push to drill for oil in the refuge.

Who knows how much effect that big white beast had on the Senate's 52-48 vote to strip the budget bill of a provision that would have allowed oil development -- the second time in two years it had defeated drilling in the refuge. But after Boxer spoke, the museum informed Banerjee that his exhibit would be moved to a downstairs room near the cafeteria. It dropped the introduction and photo captions he had written and replaced them with short labels. And Smithsonian attorneys shot off a letter to Banerjee's publisher, warning that the name Smithsonian Institution was a registered trademark and demanding that reference to the exhibit be removed from the book jacket of a collection of his Arctic photos.

Although moving the photos involved swapping places with an exhibit that had already opened in the downstairs room, a museum spokesman described the change as mere housekeeping.

Whatever.

The White House, which has vowed to renew its push for drilling, should be scared of Banerjee's photographs.

Taken over 14 months, they defy the administration's argument, made most recently by Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton, that drilling would not disrupt the refuge because for most of the year it is an area of "flat, white nothingness." In the tradition of landscape photographers Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter, Banerjee's images of a densely feathered American dipper flitting in a pool of icy water, of the bleached bones of whales reaching out from a snow-covered cemetery, of a sky painted lipstick red by the Northern Lights, tell otherwise.

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