The Invasive Species of the Built Environment

The Invasive Species of the Built Environment

Leah Schretenthaler, 2024 Finalist

“The Invasive Species of the Built Environment” examines my home of Hawaii with its past and current controversial manmade structures laser etched out of  images printed on silver gelatin paper in an attempt to remove them from the landscape. The industrial growth happening in Hawaii goes beyond simply manipulating the landscape; it destroys the historical records and spiritual places that have existed there for thousands of years.

Ala Moana Construction

Ala Moana

Tripler Hospital 

Waipi’o Valley

Akaka Falls Welcome

Diamond Head from Kapiolani Park

Ford Island

Hanauma Bay from Koko Head

Hike to Akaka Falls

Honolulu Rail Transit: Kapolei

Kamehame Ridge

Ko’olau from Ho’omaluhia Botanical Garden

Ko’olau Range

Mamalahoa Highway

Mauna Kea Looking Toward James Maxwell Clerk Telescope

Mauna Kea Satellites

Mauna Kea Observatory

Nu’uanu Pali Lookout


Photographer's Statement: 

Although the land of Hawaii is vast, luxurious, and idyllic, once we move past the wanderlust images, the land is very controversial. Having been born and raised on the beautiful but populated island of Oahu, I have seen the growing population and tourism threaten the space and its ability to accommodate all the occupants. Since the “discovery” of the Hawaiian islands in 1778 by Captain James Cook, the islands and its resources have been continually exploited. The overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and Queen Liliuokalani in 1893 was an event that had been building for a century. Establishing a new government, Sanford Ballard Dole, owner of Dole Plantation, became the new president, and with that a swift change in Hawaii’s landscape and culture.

Through these photographs I am creating, the attention focuses on the spaces where these infrastructures impede on the natural environment. The photographs use black and white silver gelatin medium instead of color photographs that one would expect from the idyllic Hawaiian landscape. The images consist of controversial man-made spaces that have been burnt away through the use of a laser etcher. The attempt to cut the structure from the landscape leaves a scar upon the image, while trying to aid in seeing what Hawaii would be like without these impositions. These areas that have been removed from the images are not being replaced with anything, therefore communicates the natural impingement this structure has on the environment even if it were to be removed. However, the process of trying to remove these objects has weakened the paper and metaphorically weakened the landscape it is trying to depict. The areas that have not been completely removed leaves a faint and thin layer of paper residue. The structures still exist and can never be completely erased. However, it draws attention to what is becoming the built environment in Hawaii.

As I continue to work on this project I think about my education growing up. I remembered the myths and legends, the chants and the hula dances. I also think about the difference between Native Hawaiian and being native to Hawaii. I belong to the latter. Although I was born and raised on the islands, I am not Native Hawaiian. However, I respect the culture, the land, and the people. But in this narrative I am still an observer and as such I have watched my home change into something almost unrecognizable.

Although these images visually discuss the reality of Hawaii, it also brings to light that this is not a localized problem. Much like the invasive species that we eradicate from our gardens and fields, so too should we approach these human invasions onto the landscape. No longer should humanity build for the sake of building; but should instead question the social and political concerns that exist in the natural world.


Leah Schretenthaler
LeahSchretenthaler's picture

Leah Schretenthaler was born and raised in Hawaii. After relocating to the mainland, Hawaii continues to be a point of reference for her research and studio practice. Her work uses traditional photography, laser etching, and metal casting to create images. Through her art practice, her research presents a connection between land, material, and performance. Her ongoing series, The Invasive Species of the Built Environment focuses on controversial manmade builds of her home state.

Schretenthaler completed her B.F.A. from the University of South Dakota and holds an M.A. in art education from Boston University and earned her M.F.A. Recently, she was awarded the College Art Association Professional Development Fellowship in the Visual Arts and the Mary Nohl Fellowship for Emerging Artists. She was named one of LensCulture’s Emerging Talents of 2018 and was awarded 2nd place in the Sony World Photography Awards. In 2019, she was awarded the Rhonda Wilson Award through FRESH2019 at the Klompching Gallery. In the Fall of 2019 she received the Film Photo Award.