Simon Roberts is British photographer whose landscape work explores the relationship people have with the land and issues of identity and belonging. Much of Roberts’ work evokes for me a reminder of the landscapes of Monet or Renoir which depict people going about their activities as integral to the landscape they were painting. Like the impressionists, for Roberts the individual is rarely the primary focus of a photograph, but rather he adopts a more pulled back perspective that clearly shows “people” in a space doing something. Roberts work is also reminiscent of work by of David Hurn, Martin Parr and Robert Frank and others of that generation.
Another aspect of Roberts work is that he has found benefit in a slightly elevated perspective using the roof of his camper van as a platform. This affords a view which allows the scene to be ever so slightly “decluttered” achieving a degree of separation between elements of the photograph that would not be possible from ground level, and yet is not so elevated as to seem a different perspective to that which a viewer might experience from the ground. It makes a scene seem clearer and yet familiar at the same time.
I think it is also a technique that allows Roberts to almost disappear from the surroundings in a way that results in better, more natural photographs than would be achieved from the ground. It is my experience, as counter-intuitive as it may seem that people in busy places don’t look up, and while he might seem conspicuous atop a camper van, the likelihood is that he is actually less so. People therefore would be more likely to go about their activities in more normal and natural ways allowing Roberts to capture people as they truly are in the places he chooses to photograph. As in the example below, although he is quite nearby, nobody seems aware of his presence.
Roberts work provides some examples and insights for my work at Coul Links. I too use elevated perspectives tending to “perch” on the higher ground where I have more commanding views. My more recent work in trying to include people engaging in normal activity within the landscape also uses a more distant perspective and I am conscious of trying to not be noticed by my subjects, human or wildlife. The more invisible I am the more likely I am to get a photograph of “normal” behaviour.
Edward Burtynsky is a Canadian photographer, who has spent 40 + years documenting the impacts of humans on nature.
Burtynsky wrote “[we] come from nature.…There is an importance to [having] a certain reverence for what nature is because we are connected to it… If we destroy nature, we destroy ourselves.” His work has always looked more specifically at residual landscapes, those impacted by the activity of humans and he seeks to explore how nature is transformed through industry. He often employs elevated perspectives and people also do not feature in his photographs, but rather the aftermath of their actions. Mines, quarries, water, air, agriculture, oil fields and refineries have all been subjects for Burtynsky, and each have left their scars on the earth as humans knowingly trade the better lives they seek for the irreparable damage they inflict on the place they live. These contradictions which rarely seem to find the delicate balance point they require are the underlying theme and source of tension in Burtynsky’s photographs.
Edward Burtynsky, Nickel Tailings, Sudbury, Ontario, 1996
He also uses a lot of elevated perspectives and employs a variety of tools from large format cameras to drones and helicopters which allows him to tell the story in a way that can not be done from the ground. His most recent work “The Anthropocene Project” has been done using a variety of media including stills, video, and virtual and augmented reality.
I find a lot of common ground with Burtynsky from a basic interest in how humans and nature interact, to the use of elevated perspectives to tell the story. Until his most recent work he has generally shown what humans have done without showing humans. There is no ambiguity in how the scars on our planet were created. His work is powerful because the viewer finds herself somewhat torn between the ugliness that is shown in an often beautifully created photograph, and we too are left with a sort of scar of collective guilt about what mankind has done. In “The Anthropocene Project” Burtynsky is much more direct in the way he shows people as essential elements in the scenes that mankind has created.
Edward Burtynsky, Dandora Landfill #34, Plastics Recycling, Nairobi, Kenya 2016
My work has a long way to go to reach the significance or quality Burtynsky has achieved and he sets a worthy bar to which to aspire. There is much to learned from looking at his work as I move forward with my project.
Axel Hütte, a German photographer born in 1951, and a student of the Becher’s at the Dusseldorf School of Art, is recognised for his land and cityscape work. He works in large format film.
Hütte’s landscape work is based in emptiness. All evidence of humans is absent. His work isn’t intended to convey any story and in fact seeks to blur time and space in order to revel in the sheer beauty of the scene. Hütte also seems to eschew detail preferring his landscapes to be viewed and considered as a whole without any particular emphasis in the frame. Though he has photographed around the world, it is quite often impossible to discern from the photo itself where it was taken. Even after reading a caption one doesn’t truly have a sense of place in most instances.
Terra Incognita, Axel Hütte
This approach is quite the opposite of the direction I have generally taken in trying to achieve detail and clearly depict time and space in context. And yet I am drawn to Hütte’s work. I have done quite a lot of past work that is more like Hütte’s, though even in my recent work there are examples. It seems in those cases, I find myself less concerned with showing a particular place in a way that it can be recognized than I am with depicting a mood or a texture that observe in that place. Where it is and even when becomes unimportant.
Lichen and Gorse, Ashley Rose 2018
Over the past 9 months, I have been so focused on the project work in which time and place are essential elements that I have not done as much of this sort of work. However, these photos would have broader commercial appeal precisely because of their universality and a succumbing to the idea of simple beauty for its own sake. There is total ambiguity about the place in the above photo. While it happens to have been taken in Scotland and the yellow flowers are gorse, it could have just as easily been taken in a wetland in South Carolina in the USA and the flowers forsythia or wild honeysuckle. This scene might be found in many places around the temperate zones of the world and that is why it acquires a universality to which viewers can relate.
Therein lies the appeal and success of Hütte’s landscape work.
Paris Photo is an expansive show almost to the point of being overwhelming for a one-day visit. Should I attend in future I shall be sure to schedule at least two if not three days to take it in properly. It was thankfully far more diverse in its offering than Unseen Amsterdam, and there was a pleasant mix of old and contemporary work. Even at that, there was very little representation in the genres in which I work, either in the photos displayed or in the books offered at Paris Photo or Polycopies. I found the contemporary work to be strongly weighted to the “fine art” end of the spectrum which is clearly where money is as that is what the galleries chose to represent. There is probably a lesson in that.
That is not to say there wasn’t plenty of inspiration to be had. The quality of printing was something to behold and it was interesting to see the different choices in mounting,framing and display. There was a lot of very good work displaying excellent technique and creativity. A fair bit of the contemporary work wasn’t to my taste or was beyond my ability to comprehend without further explanation. I really enjoyed seeing work of the some of the arguably most significant and influential photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Andres Kertesz, Joel Meyerowitz and women who defied the stereotypes and limitations of their time such as Dorothea Lange and Martine Franck. They all had great influence on photography, yet it is interesting to contrast their work in terms of composition and technical quality with current standards of excellence. Clearly each has brilliant work that has stood and will continue to stand the test of time, but many also had work that would likely today be considered poor work. I reckon though that resulted in large measure from the limitations of the equipment they were using.
A minor digression is required to lay the basis for what follows. While in Paris and in addition to visiting photography galleries and the Paris Photo exhibition, I visited several art museums; Musee D’Orsay, Musee de L’Orangerie, the Louvre, and the “OnAir” installation at Palais de Tokyo. It prompted me to think more about the similarities between traditional art and photography and the evolution of each. While greatly accelerated in the case of photography, there are similarities in the trajectories of their respective histories and parallels to the trajectories in music history as well. Recognising this has caused me to look upon contemporary photographic trends with a little less aversion than I have tended to in the past.
HCB and the others mentioned above along with many of their contemporaries not mentioned endure because they, to use an Art History analogy, were members of the school of Realism. Their subjects while being specific carry a universality to which viewers can readily relate. Contemporary practitioners like Susan Meiselas, James Nachtwey, Lynsey Addario and LauraHenno carry on those traditions and I believe their work will endure as well.
Just as art evolved from Romanticism and Realism to Impressionism,Dada and Surrealism, photography has followed similar trajectories, but on a less unified path: i.e. many genres are still being produced simultaneously even though they may have been under-represented at Paris Photo. As I walked around the Paris show, and it was even more pronounced at Unseen Amsterdam, that a lot of contemporary “fine art” photographers have moved into (again using Art History terms) the realm of Magic Realism and in some cases Surrealism. I do wonder how many or which of them will be recognised as Picasso or Dali in the world of photography, or whether the work will just be a footnote somewhere in the archives of Photographic History. Only time will tell.
There was so much to see at Paris Photo and it is impossible to sort out and write about everything I experienced there. It has helped to have waited a week and reflected on what I saw and how I reacted to it. There were a few photographers, none of whom of which I was previously aware, whose work stopped me in my tracks; Lynn Davis, Jean-Baptiste Huyhn and Axel Hutte. Lynn’s extraordinary cultural landscapes, Huynh’s stunning portraits, and Hutte’s utterly unique prints on glass were for me “best in show.” In further investigating Axel Hutte I discovered his landscape work and how some of his philosophies are very similar to approaches I have been taking. But more about that in another post.
Edward Burtynsky’s aerial environmental work resonated strongly with me and the aesthetic captured in some of Todd Hido’s work, particularly Rivers at Night, made me think about how some of that technique might be applied to my practice.
Visits to other galleries and museums also proved helpful. I was struck by how differently I looked at art and photos. I was particularly intrigued at the Musee D’Orsay by how many of the landscapes included indistinct images of people going about their days in harmony with the landscape. This also resonated with me as it is what I have been trying to do during this module.
In the end it was a week well spent seeing things that are not readily available to me in NE Scotland or in South Carolina when I am in the US, interacting with cohort mates, exchanging ideas, deepening friendships and being thankful for the opportunities that life has brought me.