I honestly do not know why I feel the need to argue this point. Perhaps it is because I do not view myself as an “Art Photographer” and that I work very hard to capture the world around me as accurately and faithfully as I can minimising behind the camera manipulations. Do I take the image (Sontag) or do I make the image? It is possible to do both with photography and I think there is a difference. A painter clearly makes their image and Cindy Sherman, Cecil Beaton elaborately create and stage the scene they are to photograph and so in that regard are much closer to a painter than a strict documentary photographer. Martha Rosler begins with indexical photographs and then behind the camera heavily manipulates the original image to “construct” the political statement she wishes to convey. She too is more like a painter. These photographers create tableaus.
Every photographer makes choices, selections of what, where, how and when to photograph, but those selections are first and foremost from real things that are in front of the photographer’s camera. One cannot photograph what is not there, or as Barthes put it “the necessarily real thing which has been placed before the lens, without which there would be no photograph.” (Barthes, 1981: 76) Certainly this is equally true for all photographers whether they come to the scene accepting it as it is, or if they choose to rearrange “what was there” before taking the photograph. And this is where I feel the need to challenge the assertion that every photograph is a construction, or at least challenge the way the term is used.
Every photograph involves choice and selection, but I argue that is different than construction. Just because I cast my gaze and that of my camera in a particular direction, I did not “construct” what is in front of me. Only when I purposefully rearrange the scene by moving objects or posing people have I constructed the scene that will become my image.
To argue that the “camera” coverts the light from the four-dimensional scene into a two-dimensional representation of that scene and therefore the image is made, and while true, it is not something over which the photographer has direct control and is in my view a lazy argument. By painting all photographs with that unnecessarily broad brush it fails to recognise the spectrum or continuum of photographic practice and creates a false equivalency between a Jeff Wall or Cindy Sherman and Edward Burtynsky or Lynsey Addario. While this spectrum has no distinct boundaries at any given point on the continuum, I think it useful to acknowledge that there are differences in practice without having to necessarily assign a label or pigeonhole any photographer.
I do believe it is valuable to consider the spectrum of photographies in more nuanced way. Obviously, the grey areas in between are what create the difficulty and there are no hard and fast rules of distinction with regard to how much constitutes a truly constructed image versus one that is intended to be indexical. It is usually the case that the most highly constructed images and studio portraits for example make no pretentions of being anything other than constructed and it is fairly obvious to even the most casual of observers. With the advent of digital imaging, it is less obvious on the documentary end of the spectrum and there are plenty of documented cases of photographers and publications surreptitiously altering or intentionally choosing an out of context moment or vantage point to support a particular political or editorial point of view.
With the majority of my work out of doors and either landscape, wildlife, or action shots, I can with absolute certainty tell you the scenes in front of my camera that comprise my images are not constructed. I acknowledge the argument that because the light that enters the cameras lens is transformed and ultimately results in something made there are those that would consider that a construction. As well, any post processing is fundamentally an action that in some way alters that which the film or sensor captured and could be argued as constructive in nature. But I continue to hold that, as long as I am trying to remain faithful to that which was in front of my camera and not alter it in any substantive or significant way I am not constructing. I am taking, with the tools at my disposal and all their inherent capabilities and limitations, a representation of what I saw, not making something that did not exist before I arrived or a representation of something that was not there. This to me is the essential distinction in what constitutes a truly “constructed” photograph.
The following image for instance involved me carrying 20kg kit several miles and sitting in the same place for about 5 hours observing the tens of thousands of nesting seabirds as well as predators like the ravens. I took over 500 photos with 600mm and 840mm focal lengths. I didn’t direct the pair of ravens to the Razorbill nest they raided, but my knowledge of bird behaviour and observational acuity allowed me to see the situation developing and record it in its entirety. This is only one shot in a sequence. Now I suppose one could argue the final product, since it was cropped slightly and minor adjustments to the tonal quality were made in Lightroom, was constructed, but again I don’t find that distinction nuanced enough, and it creates a false equivalency with staged or posed images.
Raven Burglar – Ashley Rose
Another example would be the following photograph of a 9-day old colt out for its first run around the arena with its mother. This photo required knowledge of how horses move and what positions are most telling about a horse’s innate ability and potential as a world class dressage horse. This is an extraordinary example of an “uphill canter” and shows how well this young colt gets his rear legs under him and how light he is in the front. Once again other than some minor cropping and tonal adjustment, nothing about this photo was constructed in my view. Like the previous photo, planning, patience and a bit of luck were involved.
Falcon Caledonia at 9 days old – Ashley Rose
I know this notion of constructed versus not constructed is one that will continue to spark debate, probably for as long as photography exists. It is complicated further by the ease in which digital photography can be manipulated and frankly weaponised. And perhaps in the end the discussion is moot because photography has gone from the paragon of “objectivity”, to the perhaps the most suspect and mistrusted of the visual media. Divisive politics, tabloid journalism and an erosion of civility and humanity caused and furthered by the highly selective use of photographic weapons taints the broader world of Photography. It is an unfortunate reality of our time.
I have not often written much about work I was doing this early in the term. Partly because I quite often take on other projects or personal work that was unrelated to the MA project I had been pursuing. However, since I needed to be away from Scotland and the site where my project is based, I have been using this time to explore a different aspect of my landscape work, expand on a project that has been underway for about 12 years, and to push my skills even further.
I have talked in the past about the inspiration Axel Hutte provides, in particular his landscapes which betray no sense of place or time. Jem Southam is another photographer whose work is similar in the sense that it often belies place and time and yet, like Hutte, conveys a mood and often an intimacy of perspective.
Since I was only going to be back in the US for about six weeks, I also decided to travel lightly and only packed one camera body, Canon 5D MkIV and two lenses, 24-105mm f4 and 135mm f2 along with ND filters and a 1.4 extender. This choice has the added benefit of limiting the type of photographs I could reasonably take to the more intimate landscapes I intended.
My South Carolina house sits in the middle of a heavily wooded 8.5 acres and over looks a 5 acre pond on the lot adjacent. I designed the house in 2006 in a style that merged a Japanese and Frank Lloyd Wright aesthetic with some Western sensibilities, but the essence of the house was open flexible space with views in every direction and a clear intent to blur distinctions between space to space within the walls and between the inside and outside.
I have always loved and photographed the views from the house and enjoyed watching how they changed from day to day, season to season and year to year. My photographic skills have improved significantly over the past year and it seemed a good time to see what I could make of this very familiar place. Here are a few examples.
While I certainly know where these photos were taken and the place holds special significance to me, to any other viewer these photograph can represent anywhere and therefore contain a universality that allows a viewer to imagine or believe these are places they know or have been. I am pleased with these photos and believe they offer a line of enquiry for my practice in the future.
I took an opportunity during a short stay in New Jersey just after my return to the US in January to photograph a lovely waterfall I encountered. I had seen it the prior day, but the light was poor and so when the weather and light became more conducive I returned to the site.
I choose lengthy exposures and acute angles to capture the nuances of the light and shadows and the differences in the way the water came over the spillway on to the rocks below. The middle frame explores the varied textures of the stones of the dam as well as those in the river below the dam. Once again the intimacy of the framing does nothing to reveal its actual location and as such again make it familiar to any viewer who seen a waterfall somewhere. These too I feel are successful photographs.
I do believe have room to continue to grow and explore this type of photography and can certainly explore the moods that would result from different lighting conditions. I enjoy this type of work and it sits well as an element within the direction my practice is taking.
It seems from the outset photography has been locked into some apparent need to seek legitimacy by being acknowledged as art. Does earning that moniker somehow change photography? It reminds me of people who wish to argue whether golf is or isn’t a sport.
Photography is. Photography is not going away anytime soon. Photography is a form of visual communication that engulfs our every waking moment. Photography has value, whether as a cherished remembrance of a moment or a loved one, or a Gursky photograph of absolutely nothing for which someone was willing to pay $6 million. It makes no difference to the reality of photography whether someone deems it art or not.
Why not stop arguing about what it is not and focus on the fact that photography is just photography. And like everything else, some will be good, some will be bad, some will be both depending on who is doing the looking, some will sell, some won’t, some will be viewed as more important to more people than others which may important to only one person, some will last, and some will fade quickly.
Why some photographers seek to have their work considered art is frankly beyond me. The definition of art has never been ironclad and the “art world” are a fickle lot anyway. What was fabulous yesterday is passé tomorrow. What is art to one person is rubbish to the next, and there are as many opinions as there are people, so why fight the battle?
As I mentioned in a prior post, I have concerns that the project I have been pursuing for the past year and had hoped to take into FMP is looking less and less suitable for that purpose due to delays in the development decision. While there was always a risk the development would not be approved, I didn’t view that as a problem initially as I saw the project at the outset as a natural history focused endeavour. A year of taking photographs at the site has informed me that even a full two-year span is insufficient to truly reveal dramatic enough change from a natural history (repeat photography) perspective to create a story that would garner much interest. Consequently, my approach to the project evolved through each term and moved away from a purely natural history project to one that considered how the land was, is and could be used in the future. If the development is not approved, then there is not much of a story beyond that which I have already captured.
Had the development been approved as originally planned in June of 2018, the anthropogenic changes would have been well underway, and they would have been nearing completion as I approached the end of FMP. The current timetable would not see the development complete (if it is approved) until 2021 at the earliest. I intend to continue work on the project, but I need to consider alternatives for FMP and I intend to use the Informing Contexts module to explore possibilities.
I have been compiling a list of possible projects for some time as things to do after the MA and as I had time during the MA course. These ideas align with my interests and passions and are consistent with the description of my practice as my understanding of it has evolved. However, none of the ideas are fully developed and some are less so than others. Among the candidates under consideration are the following which is comprehensive, but by no means exhaustive.
Last May I published a book based on a short-term project completed as part of Surfaces and Strategies. That book, 19 Sutherland Bridges, focused on a very few of the many interesting and beautiful bridges in the north of Scotland. Bridges connect people and places and they are, for the most part, taken for granted by the many people that use them each day. Many people have no idea what those spans look like except from the roadway they traverse. I took a different perspective to show the bridges and how those structures connected what stood on either side of the span to show them in a way many will have never seen despite the fact they used the bridge many times. There are hundreds more bridges in Sutherland; old, new, large, small, pedestrian, rail, road, in disrepair or daily use, each connecting one place to another. This project is achievable in the FMP window and discrete enough to be accomplished.
Following on to my interest in interactions between humans and nature, the significant move to cleaner, renewable energy production has resulted in a proliferation of windmills. While windmills have been used in many countries in many forms for hundreds of years, this new generation of turbines are cropping up offshore, on mountainsides and hilltops, where once the vistas were unhindered and purely natural. While there is no question our planet needs to find alternatives to fossil fuels, cleaner energy, like everything, comes with a price. This project would explore from a neutral perspective, like Burtynsky, the landscapes and seascapes that have the mark of human activity imposed upon them. Once again, this project is manageable in scope and could be accomplished in an FMP.
Fly Fishing in the Highlands
Fly fishing for salmon and trout in the Highlands of Scotland is important as both a pastime for many and as an economic source for some. In keeping with my interest of how people interact with nature, and as one who enjoys fly fishing, I see this project having possibilities along the lines of David Chancellor’s work. Capturing the dynamic world of fly fishing in the beautiful settings in which it takes place perhaps along with stories of the ghillies and fisherman interests me as a project and is again one with manageable scope and achievable as an FMP.
I plan to further research and explore these ideas during this module and experiment with some locations and methods of approaching each in order to test their viability as projects and visual interest as subjects. I see each in my mind’s eye, but I will need to determine if I can translate that vision into meaningful work.
I have taken time to digest the feedback received on the assignments submitted for the Sustainable Prospects module. I confess to being as disappointed with the quality of the feedback as I was with the course material and its presentation during the module.
I recognise that at some point more definitive information on details of exhibitions and books will need to be developed and it is not as though I have given those topics no thought. It is early in my view to begin to make definite plans as there is much yet unknown about the eventual outcome of the project I have been pursuing and furthermore the likelihood of this project being the subject of my FMP is diminishing with every passing day due to the delays on the development decision. The OP was limited to 10 minutes and there were any more topics that also needed to be (and were) covered. This topic could well have consumed a substantial portion of the 10 minutes if it was to be addressed in the detail suggested in the feedback and I took a decision to address all of the requirements with the balance being directed at other areas. Perhaps I should have discussed the topic more thoroughly in my CRJ and I will accept that critique, however, it seems odd then that it should have been raised in the OP feedback. I do not know what to do with a comment like this: We do feel there is still room for exploring a more creative approach to this project as you move forward – do look to expand your ideas and think a little outside the box and see where it takes you. My approach the project has evolved quite significantly since its beginnings as a purely natural history and repeat photography project in its original inception. I think I have shown both a willingness to adapt and take new directions and I certainly see that vector continuing. Cliched comments such as “think out of the box” are neither informative or constructive. Specifically, what box have I been in? How is my thinking limited? Perhaps looking at feedback in the other assignments provides a clue.
I agree the project has potentially greater significance as an example of competing imperatives. I have had that in mind from the outset and have spoken and written of it. It is not yet at that point and I am not willing to compromise my independence at this point to make the case for one side or the other. I have approached the work with an eye toward the ability to tell the story from different perspectives further down the line as the story and its significance develops. But the comment of potentially broader significance is not lost on me. The comment: “Perhaps you may explore more how you might introduce community to your work on landscape and wildlife.” strikes me as a desire to impose the tutor’s version of the story. I have discussed at length how I do not wish to do a different version of Sophie Gerrard’s, The Dunes in the north of Scotland. I am passionate about the place, not the people who may be associated with the story and therefor that is not the story I wish to tell.
And that then leads me to the recommendations made of other photographer’s work. First let me address Burtynsky. I wrote in my CRJ and made direct reference to his work as a key influencer in my OP. To have included him in the list of recommendations implies my OP and CRJ were not read or considered. Sternfeld’s work, rather than exploring the Anthropocene as was suggested, reminded me of Robert Frank’s “The Americans” and I can find no relevance to my work. Bialbowski’s work explored urban environments and while one might argue that as an exploration of the Anthropocene, they were more travel and social documentary in character.
The other three recommendations were photographers whose work was exploring community. I found the work of Pannack, Davey and Mitchell all to be fundamentally environmental portraiture and that of Davey and Mitchell to be oriented predominantly toward family and personal subjects. Pannack’s work explored a few topics, but only the Naturists project even remotely seemed to address community as I understand the term. I could again find little relevance to my work, nor could I take constructive lessons from reviewing their work.
I honestly feel once again this is an attempt to force my work in a particular direction that is consistent with the tastes of the tutors and which suits their sensibilities with regard to contemporary photography. I undertook this course to find my own voice and I certainly recognise I may well need guidance to find that voice, but I object to attempts to homogenise me into someone else’s view of what contemporary photography is or should be.
You also comment on the local nature of your issue and therefore conclude that it will have a rather small audience – we could encourage you to reflect more on the fact that this is a local matter but it reflects a greater one – a global issue of environmental protection, local community, rural landscape and the balance between man and nature, this is far from a local issue when you step back – it’s a fundamental and universal one. We feel with more thought put into contextualising your work and presenting it you may further explore these universal themes and make them prominent in your work. You may enjoy looking at the work of Joel sternfeld, Peter Bialobrezki, Ed Burtynski – who all explore the greater impact of the anthroposcene – and then to look closer to those photographers who explore community – such as Lauara Pannack, Sian Davey, Margaret Mitchell. Perhaps you may explore more how you might introduce community to your work on landscape and wildlife.
You identify your audience and address the concept of a book and also an exhibition. You would benefit from exploring further how the book would be made, how it would be designed, who you would be pitching it to and where it might be published. You might work to expand on this – and explore how you can take this from the local audience you describe to a larger one. Also in terms of presentation in an exhibition – more thought and exploration and research would be beneficial to you here. We do feel there is still room for exploring a more creative approach to this project as you move forward – do look to expand your ideas and think a little outside the box and see where it takes you. Best of luck with this project!
It would be interesting and useful to hear more on your reflections of your own work – you do include it but more would be helpful as you move forward. Your CRJ reflects well on your progress through this module, both in terms of process but also in terms of theoretical approach and metaphorical exploration of your subject.
The six pages that make up the introduction to John Szarkowski’s 1966 book, The Photographer’s Eye, are in my opinion the clearest, most concise, most accessible and for me, the most relatable description of the essential elements of photography and why they are significant. It may not in the end represent the only photographic philosophy I embrace, but it is one for which I am all in. My work is, has always been predominantly consistent with the Modernist and Formalist school of thought of which Szarkowski is a leading proponent and prominent voice.
Szarkowski ends his introduction with the following:
“The history of photography has been less a journey than a growth. Its movement has not been linear and consecutive, but centrifugal. Photography and our understanding of it, has spread from the center; it has, by infusion, penetrated our consciousness. Like and organism, photography was born whole. It is in our progressive discovery of it that its history lies.”
I think this is an interesting and important description. If one were to put an organism in a centrifuge it would separate into constituent components with the weightiest elements travelling through all the strata and ending up at the bottom of the test tube. While photography’s origins are rooted in Modernism and Formalism, as the centrifuge spun, and photography grew, many other forms (genres) of photography became visible. Yet traces of the Modernist origins trailed through those genres and even remained intact today in contemporary photography. I believe Modernism, the quest for reality and purity in photographic form and function, are the weightiest element of the photographic organism and that is why the principles that define it are still in force today.
The introduction begins with:
“This book is an investigation of what photographs look like, and why they look that way. It is concerned with photographic style and with photographic tradition: with the sense of possibilities that a photographer today takes to his work.”
“The invention of photography provided a radically new picture-making process – a process based not on synthesis but on selection. The difference was a basic one. Paintings were made – constructed from a storehouse of traditional schemes and skills and attitudes – but photographs, as the man on the street put it, were taken.”
“The difference raised a creative issue of a new order: how could this mechanical and mindless process be made to produce pictures meaningful in human terms – pictures with clarity and coherence and a point of view?”
He goes on to speak briefly about how quickly photography grew in popularity and how the change from wet to dry plate suddenly made photography accessible to many more people resulting in a deluge of new images many of which were “formless and accidental” and some that were “memorable and seemed significant beyond their limited intention.” If he could only imagine the world today.
Szarkowski goes on to point out:
“But it was not only the way that photography described things that was new; it was also the things it chose to describe. Photography was easy, cheap and ubiquitous, and it recorded anything: shop windows and sod houses and family pets and steam engines and unimportant people. And once made objective and permanent, immortalized in a picture, these trivial things took on importance.
This ‘revolution’ in the visual arts brought the world near and far to the doorstep of nearly everyone. As the medium was new and the technology evolving, photographers had to learn how to use their tools and materials and to adjust to the limitations of the early equipment and they had to learn from each other’s work.
Sarkowski chose the photos in The Photographer’s Eye, he claimed, not because they fit a particular aesthetic or school, or were made by renowned photographers, “that they shared little in common except their success and a shared vocabulary: these pictures were unmistakeably photographs.” He believed these photographs shared a vision of photography itself, and that “The character of this vision was discovered by photographers at work, as their awareness of photography’s potentials grew.”
Although Szarkowski claimed not, I find there are precious few photographs in the collection that do not fit into the basic model of Modernism. There is the odd modestly abstract photograph, but on the whole, they fit very neatly into the form with which Szarkowski was most familiar and most comfortable. He was in fact reportedly criticised late in his career for having failed to embrace Post-Modernist work. He continued to his death to champion the idea that the camera was a ‘window’ to the world and he wasn’t keen on those who chose to use the camera as a ‘mirror’.
Since photography was being discovered by photographers, Szarkowski thought the history of the medium could be defined by “photographer’s progressive awareness of characteristics and problems that have seemed inherent in the medium.” He posited five issues and said: “These issues do not define discrete categories of work; on the contrary they should be regarded as interdependent aspects of a single problem – as section views through the body of photographic tradition. As such, it is hoped that they may contribute to the formulation of a vocabulary and a critical perspective more fully responsive to the unique phenomena of photography.”
And it is these five things to which I was referring in my opening paragraphs that seem so clear, concise, relevant and accessible. With these, I don’t need the obtuse musings of Barthes, or the mad imaginings of a world about to be subsumed by automation of Flusser. Elements of the thinking of most of the other critical theorists can be incorporated into these five categories, and if they can’t, perhaps they don’t need to be because this a pretty good list and covers more than enough territory to handle a wide swath of the photographic universe.
The five categories are, The Thing Itself, The Detail, The Frame, Time, and Vantage Point. As Szarkowski said, they are not independent, and each element is important to ‘reading, decoding, interpreting, judging’ a photograph, or whatever other term of art you choose for the process of looking at and seeing photographic work.
Each of these categories is supported by several paragraphs of contextual explanation that can be easily read in The Photographer’s Eye so I am not going to quote them wholesale, but rather attempt to draw some of the most salient points associated with each to include as a summary of Szarkowski’s points.
The Thing Itself
Photography deals with the actual
The world itself is an artist of incomparable inventiveness and to recognise its best works and moments, to anticipate them, to clarify them and make them permanent, requires intelligence both acute and supple.
The factuality of pictures is different than reality itself; the subject and the picture were not the same thing even though they might appear so afterward.
People believe the photograph cannot lie and that what our eyes saw was illusion and the camera saw truth, but except for the fact that the image would survive the subject and become remembered reality. (Ed. However, as I have written before truth is illusory, the photograph was never and never can be truth in absolute terms.)
Photographers are tied to the facts of things, and it is the photographer’s problem to try to force the facts to tell the truth.
Outside the studio, the photographer can only record what was found; fragmented and unexplained elements – not a story, but scattered and suggestive clues.
The compelling clarity with which a photograph records the trivial suggested the subject hadn’t been properly seen before and was perhaps not trivial but filled with undiscovered meaning.
Photography has never been successful at narrative.
If photographs cannot be read as stories, they could be read as symbols.
Even the large body of Civil War and WWII photography could not without extensive captioning explain what was happening.
The function of these pictures was not to make the story clear, but to make it real.
He quotes Robert Capra’s comment that expressed both the narrative poverty and symbolic power of photography when he said, “If your pictures aren’t good, you are not close enough.”
A picture is not conceived but selected, therefore the subject is never truly discrete or wholly self-contained.
The edges of the frame mark the boundary of what the photographer thought was most important, even though the subject extended beyond inn all directions.
Choices create perceived relationships even where they do not actually exist
Choosing and eliminating, central acts of photography, forces a concentration on the pictures edge and the shapes that reside within.
All photographs are time exposures, and each describes a unique parcel of time. (Ed. Derrida – punctum is a duration)
Faster lenses and film revealed fascinating details about movement that could not be discerned with the naked eye.
Great pleasure and beauty can be derived from fragmenting time to reveal momentary patterns and shapes previously concealed in the flux of movement.
He refers to Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, which define HCB’s commitment to this new beauty, but clarified the oft misunderstood phrase by saying ‘the thing that happens at the decisive moment is not a dramatic climax, but a visual one; a picture not a story.’
Photography has taught is to see from the unexpected vantage point.
Pictures can give the sense of the scene while withholding its narrative meaning.
Necessity sometimes, and choice others puts the photographer in places providing unfamiliar perspectives.
If the photographer cannot move the subject the camera can be moved.
Altering vantage points reveals the world is richer and less simple than the mind might have guessed.
Aside from Szarkowski’s reference to the camera discovering truth, I find this to be a remarkably relevant text and set of guiding principles for both the photographer and the critic. Just to elaborate briefly on the issue of truth, the camera is not capable of revealing truth. Truth is at least a four-dimensional phenomenon and a two-dimensional medium cannot render it. Moving pictures can come closer, but they too at best are only able to work in three dimensions at any given moment. So, the idea absolute truth, aside from the fact that we will all someday die, can be discovered at all is dubious at best. Relative truth is somewhat more achievable, but never in a single frame. The best we as photographers can hope to achieve in my opinion is a reasonably faithful representation of facts and reality, bounded by the limitations of our equipment and our perspectives physically and politically.
SZARKOWSKI, John. n.d. The Photographer’s Eye. 7th printi. New York: The Museum of Modern Art.
DURDEN, Mark (ed.). 2013. 50 Key Writers on Photography. First. Milton Park: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group.
At the outset of this course of study, I was not sure how to categorise myself as a photographer or where my practice fit. I entered the course on the basis of my wildlife work, which while important to me, didn’t fully represent either who I was nor who I wanted to be as a photographer. After three terms, I can say with confidence that I am a documentary photographer whose practice is based out of doors. My subject matter generally ranges between wildlife and natural history, landscape (natural and cultural), and human activities relating to animals or the outdoors and sport. These all derive from my fundamental intent as a photographer to use my camera as a tool to capture things I see and find of interest, and to be able to share them with others who may not have had the opportunity to see those things, or for whom those things were otherwise unseen or unnoticed.
Below are examples of the range of work I do, have done and will likely continue to do. They all represent examples of things I find of great interest and to which I am drawn as they are representations of a my and others passions for excitement, adventure, and the beauty of the natural world.
While I always endeavour to make visually interesting and aesthetically pleasing photographs, I do not consider myself a ‘fine art’ photographer and instead hope to render what I see as realistically as I can because I believe there is more than enough inherent interest and beauty in the world around us and that additional manipulations and contrivances are not necessary. It is very much for me, first and foremost, about ‘the thing itself’.
My MA Project work is centred on a piece of land on the northeast coast of Scotland called Coul Links. I have chosen this particular project because it encompasses the range of subjects I described above as my primary interests. It is a dynamic natural environment that changes visibly and often dramatically in response to seasons and natural cycles. It is wild, but not pristine. It is protected by national and international designations and is home to some rare species of flora and fauna yet has been unmanaged for years and is being encroached upon by invasive species. It occupies the liminal space between the North Sea and the moorlands and as a low-lying coastal area could well see dramatic effects as result of the current trend of climate change. It has in the past, and in the present, hosted varied human activities and there is a current proposal to construct a golf course on part of the site. The balance between environmental concerns and the economic needs of the Northeast of Scotland have sparked controversy. These tensions, natural and anthropogenic, make this an interesting story. How this story will play out is yet to be determined as the final decision on the development has been delayed by nearly a year and the final stages of the Scottish Government formal enquiry will commence in late February 2019.
My thinking and approach to this project have evolved significantly over the past year. I have, however, remained constant in my attempt to take as neutral an approach as possible to the work and to not take public positions that favour one side or the other. There are fair arguments to be made on both sides and while there have been many instances of hyperbole and even some nastiness in the course of the debate by proponents of each side, the ultimate decision will be made on which side is able to present a more credible scientific argument and how that balances against the economic side of the equation for the communities which stand to benefit.
When I began, I approached the project from a purely natural history perspective and saw it primarily as a repeat photography project that would also document the flora and fauna that inhabited the site. Because of my foreknowledge of possible anthropogenic changes to the site, I also had the opportunity to ultimately present the work in a ‘Before and After’ context if the development did go ahead. The year of delay in approving the development and the remaining uncertainty as to whether that approval will be granted has also resulted in the certainty that the development would not be completed before the end of my MA course. So, while this remains a potential long-term project for me it may not be the subject of my FMP or at least not in the form originally envisioned. Additionally, as I moved through the months, I began to realize the limited appeal a predominantly scientific approach to this project was likely to have.
Coul Links North April 2018
Coul Links North June 2018
Coul Links North October 2018
Coul Links North December 2018
Shifting my editorial perspective to take one side or the other would have been a potential solution to framing a more compelling story, but I am of the opinion there may not be a ‘right’ answer and regardless which way the decision falls there will be costs and consequences, some of which may not be recognized for years. While there was science behind some of the debate, it is fair to say that a lot discussion was emotional especially on the side of those against the development. It began to become more apparent to me that the heart of the controversy about Coul Links was a fundamental difference in opinion about how that land should be used in the future and whether a place that already accommodated centuries of different uses by humans could continue to be used as it is today while accommodating one more new use. Consequently, I began to look more closely at and photograph how the land was currently be used by humans and the non-human species that inhabited Coul Links. I choose to photograph people in the landscape in much the same way I photograph wildlife; from a distance. While I do use very long lenses for much of the wildlife work in order to bring out detail, I decided after some experimentation with closer environmental portraits to maintain my stand off from people and instead try to show their activities in the context of the landscape around them.
Through the course I have experimented with different ways to capture aspects of the story that is evolving. I did some ‘supermacro’ work which is technically superb, but got quite consistently panned by tutors as being ‘out of context’.
I also experimented with ways of conveying how the land at Coul Links might have been used in the past as a means of foreshadowing its possible future and while the desaturated versions did work to a degree the attempts to create a ghost like appearance of the golfer were pretty abject failures.
With the development decision by the Scottish Government due to be made in the next few months, I believe my work will require another incremental evolution. Depending on the decision, the project will either become study of a place over time and how it moves through the seasons and years in response to the forces of nature or will set about to document what impacts the building of a golf course have on the place and how it adapts to anthropogenic alterations. The former, could be comparatively shorter term and could be packaged to suit an FMP, while the latter would fall outside the MA timeframe and would necessarily be a longer-term project not suited to an FMP.
Evolution as a Photographer
The technical and artistic aspects of my work have evolved, and both qualities have improved markedly. I find I am shooting fewer frames, getting a higher keep rate from those frames and doing less post processing. In my landscape work I have been doing more work with ND filters and using longer exposures. I am taking more control of my process, being more deliberate in the way I approach my work, and I am taking more control of the camera by shooting much more in manual mode instead of Aperture or Shutter priority modes. Because my project’s intent was principally about a place over time, almost all the landscape work was shot with a clear sense of place evident in every frame. Of late I have also found value in photographs that do not necessarily convey an exactness or certainty of place, but rather more of an emotional rendering of place. Eliminating tell-tale landmarks or working in a tighter frame allows the photo to carry more universality at times and convey the simple beauty or the detail within the frame. It complements the more contextualised work on one hand and can stand alone on the other.
Some examples from my work where the place is made more universal by excluding from the frame elements that could identify its actual location.
Rising Mist Nov 2018
Inspirations and Contextualisation
Edward Burtynsky’s work has become a key benchmark for me. He has spent more than 30 years focusing his work on how human activity has impacted the natural environment. What is perhaps most striking about Burtynsky’s work is the aesthetic beauty he achieves in his depictions of scenes of shocking environmental abuse that comes with industrialisation and exploitation of natural resources.
In Burtynsky’s book Manufactured Landscapes, an included essay by Kenneth Baker titled “Form versus Portent” elaborates on this and on Burtynsky’s positioning as a photographer.
“Aesthetics and conscience collide in photography as nowhere else in contemporary art. Edward Burtynsky’s work owes some of its power to his fearless embrace of this fact. More often than not, we find the beauty and the meaning of images to be in conflict. Burtynsky continually celebrates the beauty possible in photographs: richness of detail and colour, amazing chance felicities of framing and natural light, the opportunity to freeze and share moments of ecstatic observation. Yet his subjects, the sites and equipment of heavy industry, are in almost constant connotative conflict with his work’s aesthetic elegance. Is he an apologist for the industrial order and its new face, globalization? Is he a documentarian, a pictorial epicure, an ironist? Burtynsky’s refusal to stand fast in any of these positions explains the improbable emotional authority of his art.”
As I mentioned above, I find it uncomfortable to be too pigeon-holed into one taxonomic category of photography beyond the broad description of documentarian which is more a reference to style than specific content. Also, like Burtynsky, I spoke of trying to capture what I see as faithfully as my equipment and skill as a photographer will allow without excessive post processing manipulations of the images. In the same essay, Baker notes:
“From abstract painting, we have learned to admire the bold, simple surface design we find in Burtynsky’s Nickel Tailings #34. But such enjoyments depend on our not thinking too hard about a bright orange river as a chemical and ecological reality: we know intuitively that in nature a river of this colour must spell trouble. We might suppress this thought momentarily by wondering whether Burtynsky has somehow re-tuned his picture’s colour through some trick of digital or darkroom magic. But in the deep view a retrospective exhibition provides, we can see clearly that he is not given to aesthetic manipulations for their own sake, nor even for emotional effect… Burtynsky wants us to experience the shock of seeing as a fact a bright orange stream flowing through a leafless landscape, and to notice our own resistance to digesting this information… His pictures are unarguably striking and thoughtful enough to warrant description as art. But does appreciating, or merely accepting photographs as art preclude being stirred to action by them for, say, a conservationist cause?”
Mere categorisation as art certainly does not remove a photograph from the possibility of being useful in some greater good. In fact, one might argue that because it garners attention through its inherent beauty it has potentially more power to influence. Burtynsky is a master at achieving that tension that so distinguishes his work. It forces us as viewers to ask the question, ‘How can something so beautiful come from something so horrific, or perhaps how can something so horrific be so beautiful?’. It forces us to face the questions of ‘What costs are acceptable?’ and ‘Is progress truly progress, or is it really the planet’s and civilisation’s death by a thousand cuts?’ While the controversy associated with my project is around a recreational use of a landscape, there are parallels to Burtynsky’s work and the questions that are raised. What are appropriate land uses? Does one group have more rights than another to enjoyment of open space? Is a balance between economic interests of a community or region and environmental concerns possible? Are people clever enough to develop carefully and selectively to preserve and enhance natural heritage while expanding opportunities for people to use the land?
From the same Baker essay, he notes:
“Once we have confronted the foreboding and helplessness that arise from thinking about the reality of a deadly orange river, for example, or the tundra of toxic sludge in Uranium Tailings, or the unstoppable drive tracked in the ‘Railcuts’, we recognize restraint as the true mark of Burtynsky’s art. How easily he could have turned didactic, considering the themes he takes on: humanity’s heedless treatment of the earth, photography’s potential complicity in narcotizing society’s uncomfortable self-awareness, the conflict of irreconcilable values as an inescapable human condition. Yet he trusts his art to work upon us, and us to respond appropriately, without being told what that might mean.”
Baker is suggesting there is power in photography to influence societal behaviour and that it can be achieved without necessarily being overt in its intention. I aspire to explore the questions I posed above and like Burtynsky, perhaps create work that is strong enough to take viewers on that journey of discovery with me.
In an interview with Michael Torosian also published in Manufactured Landscapes, Edward Burtynsky addressed a question about how he came to one of his favourite mantras while studying at university.
“Winogrand stated that he felt an image succeeded when form and content were on an equal footing – one did not dominate the other. In photography if you go too far one way it becomes reportage, too far the other way it just becomes a formalist exercise. I found this dictum to be a really useful tool. It was clear and concise, and it made sense. It gave me an orientation not just for approaching my work, but any work. I started to look at art as a balance. Can the artist put an image together? That is the form side. What is he talking about, what position is he coming from, what are the ideas at work here? That is the content side. And when those things are equally interesting, I find you have a lot more substance in the image. They play off each other.”
It seems to me Burtynsky is saying while what one photographs is important and the overall theme of his work is his departure point, that it is the how that theme is captured that is the artistic element, and when one is able to get the composition to be as strong as the content the photograph has more weight. Achieving the correct composition is a matter of perspective, positioning, but most importantly ‘seeing’; something Burtynsky describes as the
“essential element, something he would see which only occurs from one spot, from one height, with one particular lens. If I walk two paces back, there is nothing there. If I walk two paces forward, there’s nothing there. The essential element is in that one spot. It might be the coincidence of a thousand twigs creating something as simple as a wave pattern or a vortex, a form only discernible at that particular moment, at that particular point of view, under that particular light and time of year.”
Another technique Burtynsky uses to good advantage is elevation. He seeks out high ground and when that is not available, shoots using a tall mast, drones, or helicopters. I have found in my MA project work that generally elevated perspectives are essential to capturing a sense of the landscape. I regularly use the highest points of elevation around the 800 hectare plot and have been using a drone on a fixed 42 waypoint mission profile to survey the site on a monthly basis.
Mark Haworth-Booth in his essay, Edward Burtynsky: Traditions and Affinities, which is also included in Manufactured Landscapes, refers to the 18th Century philosopher Edmund Burke’s views on the differences between the sublime and the beautiful. Burke suggested both the beautiful and the sublime stir emotion, but while beauty stimulates emotion in a pleasant way, the sublime is associated with vastness at the limits of comprehension and terror.
I would argue that Burtynsky’s work strikes the viewer on both these levels. At first glance, Burtynsky’s landscapes are beautiful; well lit, well composed, rich in colour and texture, and because of the frequent use of elevated perspectives and no horizon they often take on a degree of abstraction. Only after being able to work through the abstraction on one’s own, or with the help of a caption or some other explanation of what one is looking at does the sublime of Burke’s definition kick in. The realisation of the vastness of the environmental impact caused by humans and the effluent and scars that result is indeed terrifying. It should stir strong emotional reactions and make us realise the price being paid for the “progress” mankind has achieved in the past two centuries.
The Anthropocene Project
The second body of visual work I intend to discuss is The Anthropocene Project which is another project led by Edward Burtynsky and in collaboration with film makers Jennifer Baichwal and Nicholas de Pencier. It is a massive 5 year project that covered the globe to look for evidence in support of a theory put forth by geologists that we have left the 11,700 year old Holocene epoch which began when the glaciers of the last Ice Age receded and entered an age where human activity is now the defining geological force on the planet, the Anthropocene epoch. “Terraforming of the earth through mining, urbanization, industrialization and agriculture; the proliferation of dams and diverting of waterways; CO2 and acidification of oceans due to climate change; the pervasive presence around the globe of plastics, concrete, and other technofossils; unprecedented rates of deforestation and extinction: these human incursions, they argue, are so massive in scope that they have already entered, and will endure in, geological time.”
Murray Whyte, Visual Arts Critic for the Toronto Star, in a 30 September 2018 review writes:
“That built-in sense of feeling tiny and insignificant in the face of nature’s grandeur has been turned thoroughly upside-down. As the scene makes clear, the dominant force shaping the planet at is most colossal scale is now us… For some 30 years, Burtynsky’s images of the ravages of industry, taken from afar, have highlighted the dizzying disconnect of our industrious species’ ability to transform things far beyond our own scale, like a colony of ants gnawing an ancient tree to dust…Burtynsky’s pictures have always held a terrible beauty. His compositions veer close to the abstract in their capturing of horrendous damage: the shimmering purple-blue of an oil-slicked tailing pond, pooled in the golden earth of an Arizona mine, or the silvery plume of phosphor tailings ballooning into bronze-coloured water in Florida. They’re gorgeous first, horrendous later, and that’s surely the point.”
Burtynsky’s work over the past 30 years has always attempted to walk the fine line of making a visual impact without being overtly didactic or polemic. He wanted the viewer to come to their own conclusions. This is a choice I made at the outset of my Coul Links project and one which I have maintained despite strong urgings by some tutors to force me to a point of view. I believe complex issues rarely have clear black or white, right or wrong answers. They are inevitably shrouded in shades of grey and which shade of grey, which view of right or wrong is largely a matter of the viewer’s perspective. In Burtynsky’s work, a viewer with an environmentalist’s perspective will see the work one way while someone with an industrialist’s perspective would likely see it another way. It is in the end not necessarily a question of right or wrong, but one of delicate balance. It is the same in my project and I believe the longer I can maintain the neutral perspective, showing as much as possible an objective perspective, the more weight my work can carry. This not an easy task however, as Whyte notes in his interview with de Pencier and Baichwal having observed that it was in the inclusion of moving images in addition to Burtynsky’s still images that the view may have changed.
“In motion, the balance can fall the other way.
‘Someone called us the three horsemen of the apocalypse,’ said de Pencier, a little glumly. ‘I really hope that’s not the case. But we can’t claim neutrality anymore. We used to say this is not a polemic, and you can draw your own conclusions—’
‘It’s still not a polemic,’ says Baichwal, interrupting, maybe a little defensive. Baichwal and de Pencier had made a first film about Burtynsky, not with him, in 2006. It was called Manufactured Landscapes, after the artist’s National Gallery show, and it adopted his ambivalent approach.
“Because (the film) was so non-didactic and experiential, it had this enormous impact around the world — it surprised all of us. We realized that experiential approach had a place — especially in an environmentalist’s world which is often polemic and preaches to a choir.”
This, I believe make an interesting and quite relevant point. Photography, like diplomacy, has the power to influence, to change hearts and minds. It is perhaps less likely to be successful if it is so overtly in the viewer’s face so as to scream, ‘your current point of view is wrong’ because most will become defensive and further retrench in their already held positions. So, like effective diplomacy, a more measured and subtle approach that looks for common ground and moves people to come to their own conclusions maybe is more effective in the end.
In the Dec 2018-Feb 2019 issue of Photo Review magazine, Nicholas de Pencier is quoted supporting this point;
“We all believe that this is the important issue of our day. It’s actually a crisis. If you engage in the environmental rant, I think people turn off. But if you open up a place for discourse, for understanding – through photographs, through things that are open to a personal interpretation, hopefully that’s a more profound transformative experience.”
In an article in Hyperallergenic on December 4, 2018 author Lev Feigin wrote:
“If we view ourselves from a great height, it is frightening to realize how little we know about our species, our purpose and our end,” wrote the novelist W.G. Sebald in Rings of Saturn. From the window of a plane above an urban sprawl, we witness among geometries of rooftops, factories, and highways “infinite networks of complexity that goes far beyond the power of any one individual to imagine.”
“Photographing such complex, large-scale networks from the air has been the career-spanning pursuit of the Canadian artist Edward Burtynsky. For more than three decades, his work has focused on the impact of human activity on the environment from a God’s-eye view, prompting us to think about our species, our purpose, and our end.”
Burtynsky uses drones, camera masts, and helicopters to achieve the bird’s eye perspectives that make his work so striking and at to a lesser extent somewhat abstract initially. I have also found in my work that a drone is invaluable for its ability to cover the large site on which I am working and for the massive advantage the elevated perspective provides in depicting the character of the land as it changes through both the seasons and in response to anthropogenic activity.
Feigin also comments on the scale of Burtynsky’s photos in exhibition and how in contrast to Cartier-Bresson’s notion of a decisive moment Burtynsky’s are different.
“These immense image composites are not about “decisive moments” — split-seconds when the universe arranges itself into a perfect shot. The “now” of each photograph is not about the captured instant, since humankind’s destructive activity never pauses. Instead, it’s about intuiting the future from our present gaze: the landscape’s inevitable demise promised by our inaction.
Burtynsky’s photographs are glimpses into the vastness of industrial and technological systems of global capitalism that elicit both awe and unease; they can feel like encounters with the postmodern sublime. The Anthropocene Project — with its encyclopaedic reach and factual rigor — transmutes the unsettling, otherworldly appeal of his aesthetic into ecological conscience and a grave call for change.”
The type of work Burtynsky produces requires great planning and patience, and technical expertise and excellence. I understood the need for planning, patience and persistence explicitly from my wildlife work, but I don’t think I fully appreciated how true those same factors are for landscape photography as well. This past year has taught me much and these are among the most important lessons.
In the 26 September 2018 issue of Now Magazine, author Keven Ritchie’s article ‘Anthropocene reveals the scale of Earth’s existential crisis’ he makes a very relevant observation that bears also on my project.
“Getting audiences to grasp the existential implications of climate change – one of the topics covered in the film, along with technofossils (congealed human-made materials), terraforming (altering the atmosphere)* and species extinction – is a challenge many documentary filmmakers have taken up. It’s often dismissed as a “ratings killer,” but environmental journalists have countered it’s not the topic that’s unpopular but the way it is presented.”*[should be altering the Earth’s surface]
“We are trying to take people to places they are connected to but would never normally see,” says Baichwal. “To convey the scale of [human] impact by going to these places and witnessing rather than preaching.”
I will need to continue to be mindful about how my work will ultimately be presented and that requires considering what and how I capture work along the way. It reinforces my belief that I should continue with the ‘objective’ neutral observer approach and not adopt a pro or con point of view. That may become necessary after the fact when the true outcomes of the development (if it occurs) are known, but that is a matter for editing and curation and my capture plan should support a variety of outcomes. In my project, Coul Links is a place to which many people are connected, but which few have really seen other than from the margins. My work has already begun to show people Coul Links in ways they never had seen before. Even one woman who with her husband lived on and managed Coul Farm for 25 years was quite astounded when she saw the aerial videos of Coul Links.
The third body of work I wish to discuss is that of German photographer Axel Hütte. As with Burtynsky, I have found Hütte’s work inspirational and instructive despite how different the work they each create is. In an interview with Camilla Boemio titled ‘A Dynamically Sublime’ and published in Landscape Stories, Hütte talks about his work. When asked why he focuses on a particular topic he responded;
“To focus on a topic is a method of working to avoid the kaleidoscopic idea that everything is possible, and everything works as an image. This is only correct if you are working on the topic of banality. Working on a topic means that you look sometimes up to 500 possibilities, but you only choose one or two views for a photo. Selection is only possible by experience – learning by doing- but sometimes you fail, and the image is not as good as you have thought as your eyes look different than the camera lens.”
I have to agree with the point that practice is essential and can note with certainty that the quality of my work has improved in the past year as I have mentioned earlier in this essay. Hütte also speaks to what I think David Hurn was referring to when Hurn said “too many photographers look but do not see.” Hütte’s comment about one’s eyes looking differently than the camera lens strikes me as part of what distinguishes a really good photographer from a mediocre one; the ability to see a scene as the camera will see it and this is not an easy thing. Our eyes are extraordinary instruments that see like a fish-eye lens and telephoto simultaneously. To control the at vision and imagine how the completely different field of view afforded by the camera and lens selection is key to getting consistently good photographs.
When asked about what characterises his landscape work, Hütte replied;
“In my landscape work I am working with the emptiness, avoiding any signs of civilisation or narrative indication, so in best case you are lost in time and space. It is always difficult to reconstruct the point of view, where precisely the camera had been placed and sometimes like in the water reflection even the landscape seems to be drowned. Irritation of the perception and awakening the fantasy or imagination of the beholder is my aim, as whatever you see is not produced by digital technique and It is not leading into a virtual world but the fantasmi- phantasm of reality you can discover yourself.”
In this aspect, Hütte’s work is in stark contrast to Burtynsky’s. While much of Burtynsky’s work is also absent humans, the marks of their activity are unmistakeable and very much the focus of Burtynsky’s work. Where Burtynsky is seeking the sublime, Hütte is seeking the beautiful. Interestingly, Hütte was asked about his interpretation of the sublime.
“To follow the track of the sublime one should have in mind the statement of Lawrence Weiner “Turned as the world turns.” Edmund Burke wrote his “Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful” 1757, (and) only seven years Immanuel Kant wrote “Kritik der Urteilskraft.” For Burke the sublime is linked to fear and fright caused by darkness, obscurity, vastness, gigantic, eternity or certain colours as e.g. black. Sometimes this horror is tamed e.g. in art, and then he speaks of “delightful horror.” Kant also describes the sublime as a feeling caused by the encounter and confrontation of large and over powerful nature. Limitless ocean, huge mountains, lightning flashes, drums of thunder, all this natural phenomena appear beyond all measure and the synthesizing power of imagination is led to its limitations. But thanks to “reason” human beings have a tool to encounter those phenomena. Barnett Newmans essay “The sublime is now” brings up a new frame of reference to the sublime. It is not linked to the experience of overwhelming nature, but to the confrontation standing in front of a large monochrome painting, that leads to a breakdown of form synthesis. Thus creating the experience of something “unrepresentable / inconsummatable.” This short summary indicates the change of meaning, as the references have changed.”
As this interview was originally in Italian and the photographer is German, there are some issues with the translation in the above. But Hütte does correctly take us through the evolution of the understanding of the term ‘sublime’ and in the end argues in favour of his work falling into that category by the latest definitions. I think though that this interpretation of sublime does not stand against the prior statements by Hütte in which he claimed to seeking emptiness, pure beauty, and ambiguity that must be resolved by the viewer and which is intended to stimulate the imagination. I don’t see Hütte attempting to capture the unrepresentable, but rather he captures scenes to which most of us can relate in some way through our own experiences and he thereby creates a universality that is independent of the actual place and time the photo was taken. He creates scenes, whether urban or rural, which are absent people and into which we can each place ourselves. It is very much like the guidance estate agents in the U.S. give their clients when preparing a house for sale. They ask the client to remove clutter and all personal artefacts so that when a potential buyer visits the property, they imagine their own things in that space.
In the introduction and biographical section of works by Axel Hütte for an exhibition at the Deutsche Bourse Photography Foundation the following paragraphs were written. I find quite interesting the distinction they make between nature and landscape, and as importantly how the perceptions of humans have altered over the centuries and what motivates humans to seek unspoiled places. It is perhaps here where the essential difference between Hütte’s landscapes and Burtynsky’s are most evident. Burtynsky’s leave room for the viewer to become aware of the destruction mankind leaves in the wake of progress while Hütte provides the escape for those who have already come to the realisation or those who refuse to see acknowledge it.
“Heaven, earth, water, and forests are the natural ingredients in Axel Hütte’s landscapes. The photographs stage a subtle play on the difference between nature and landscape. Here, ‘nature’ is the physical world which surrounds us while ‘landscape’ is nature as it appears to the observer.
Nature has always been the subject of participatory interest, and man’s view of it is as ever subjective. Arcadia, for example, is a region in Greece you could visit – and likewise a spiritual landscape in which the earth is more fertile, the sky brighter, and life full of milk and honey. How nature appears to man – be it georgic, heroic, pleasant or fearful – depends on his own sorrow or yearning informing his gaze. As civilization advances, our vision has become more sentimental. As inner harmony became lost, people have sought an environment that was intact. A wider horizon and a view of unspoiled places which manifest no evidence of the destructive hand of man promise flight from urban claustrophobia.
Axel Hütte’s photographs are void of people: man has no place in these barren landscapes. They follow the concept of ‘soulscapes’ – an integral notion in European culture. But the artist’s vision is not satisfied with the level of the figurative, for he elects to show us geometrical structures: a dune formation that dissolves into horizontal lines, a bamboo forest in which the vertical thrust predominates, treetops that appear as abstract surfaces. Axel Hütte’s landscapes are not snapshots, but meticulous compositions and their beauty, too, lies in the eye of the beholder.”
I have often said and continue to hold firm to the idea that every photograph is uniquely viewed. It is impossible to divorce the experiences and education of any individual that form the bases for their personal versions of objectivity and subjectivity. Every photograph is ultimately in the eyes of the beholder.
In a 1996 review by Katerina Gregos published in Zing Magazine of a series of photographs taken in Greece and exhibited at the Eleni Koroneou Gallery in Athens, the author provides yet more insight into the work of Axel Hütte. There is a great deal to unpack in this review.
“Hütte’s work is based on a strict visual language which is optically accurate and evidently neutral. Devoid of narrative and overt sentimentality, it seems to adhere to an ideal of photographic “objectivity” and veracity. His series of photographs of the untamed Greek landscape are not prone to “artistic” editing, but rendered in a sincere straightforward manner that perfectly capture the precise physicality of the location depicted. Hütte’s vision is one of precision and clarity. He approaches his subjects with a disciplined restraint that truthfulness of representation is never prone to doubt. In addition, he responds to the landscape with an unflinching respect for its morphological identity.
Hütte’s is a sober reconstruction of the world based on rigorous organizing principles and a systematic approach to image-making, that transcends questions of taste. All details in the picture space are rendered with alarming equality meaning that no part of it appears more important than another, even features that recede and gradually dissolve into the background.
Hütte comes from a country with an influential tradition in radical naturalism. Similar to much of German romantic landscape painting, his photographs rely on the use of compositional and structural devices to create an intense atmosphere that evokes feelings such as solitude and loneliness. His vast expanses of space in the natural environment possess the meditative quality and air of detachment so typical of 19th century German landscape painting, and recall the concerns of artists such as Caspar David Friedrich. Yet at the same time, Hütte’s unmediated observation is reminiscent of the quasi-scientific objectivity that also characterizes the German naturalist tradition. His direct rendering of the landscape avoids the trappings of emotional excess and entirely refutes the self-conscious pathos of the romantic tradition. Furthermore, the absence of anecdote and narration creates a neutral pictorial space that encourages a sense of individual empathy. One may have never actually visited any of his locations, but they do appear peculiarly familiar.
Within the landscape, itself, however, it is the point of view chosen that is of primary importance, as it is that through which the viewer is prompted to “enter” the scene. Because there is no story told, there is no directed way of receiving the photographs; people can wander freely in the landscape and interpret it according to their own sensibility. By choosing uncomplicated yet dramatic vistas, Hütte also places an emphasis on the sublime value of the landscape, itself, and its inherent ability to stir the emotions and evoke feelings of awe.
Moreover, what is most remarkable in Hütte’s work is that despite the lack of photographic effects, the systematic composition of each picture, and the sparseness and economy of his language, his landscapes manage to transcend the mundane. Despite his matter-of-fact pragmatism, Hütte’s images possess that sense of metaphysical realism that overwhelms the viewer. This is also emphasized by the fact that he abstains from including people, and, thus, not only avoids the trappings of overt narrative, but also manages to eliminate any sense of time and any sense of decay.
Hütte’s capacity for understatement is what enables him to capture the essence of his subjects. His strength lies in his refusal to impose a forced aesthetic, or to provide a comforting sense of the picturesque. Above all, he never denies the landscape its integrity. Refraining from nostalgic cliche or sentimental narrative, he is prone neither to idealizing, nor to romanticizing the landscape. He does not allow himself any excesses except that which the character of the landscape allows. Yet his images possess a discreet meditative charm and, at the same time, retain that quality which Kant has termed the ‘dynamically sublime’.”
Gregos described Hütte’s work as “optically accurate and evidently neutral. Devoid of narrative and overt sentimentality, it seems to adhere to an ideal of photographic “objectivity” and veracity.” This is a place where there is perfect convergence between the works of Burtynsky and Hütte and it is this space I wish to occupy. Another striking similarity between the two is reflected in this observation: “All details in the picture space are rendered with alarming equality meaning that no part of it appears more important than another, even features that recede and gradually dissolve into the background.”
However, distinctions between Burtynsky and Hütte are evident in the following: “… the absence of anecdote and narration creates a neutral pictorial space that encourages a sense of individual empathy. One may have never actually visited any of his locations, but they do appear peculiarly familiar. Hütte’s work has that universality inherent in the sense of déjà vu he creates, while Burtynsky depicts places that few have been, and which are shockingly unfamiliar. Both are effective though and I believe there is a place for both approaches in my work. Another interesting point is illustrated by Gregos with this observation about Hütte: “Within the landscape, itself, however, it is the point of view chosen that is of primary importance, as it is that through which the viewer is prompted to “enter” the scene.” Here again I see a distinction and a similarity because Hütte varies his point of view markedly from photograph to photograph and he uses high, low and mid perspectives as the situation dictates while Burtynsky is very consistent in his use of elevated perspectives with minimal to no horizon, yet both leave the viewer with no ambiguity as to where they are to enter the scene.
Axel Hütte High Perspective
Axel Hütte Low Perspective
Above are three examples of how Hütte chooses very different perspectives and how the scenes depicted are not only absent people, but also any reference to where these photos were taken and as a consequence anyone who has been to the mountains in the winter could feel they have been there.
Further Development and the Road Ahead
Through the course of this next module, I intend to continue pursing my project work at Coul Links. Since there is no chance that the development approval will be granted in time to see any work begin, I will be continuing to look at how the landscape changes in response to seasons and weather, and observe the interactions of people and wildlife with the place as I have in the past three modules.
I will continue to experiment with perspectives and points of view to capture the unique aspects of this place over time and continue the vector of pushing my skills to new levels. At the same time, I need to be looking for alternatives for the FMP. I am confident the work I have done and will do in the coming module will have informed my practice sufficiently well to allow me to transfer the acquired skills to another project which is realistically achievable in the time frame allotted to FMP. I will use some of the time during the PH702 module to investigate possibilities, do some practice shoots to help judge the viability of those possibilities, a narrow the range of possibilities to one or two viable options.
There are many landscape photographers in Scotland and there are thousands of photographs of all the iconic places. I would like to pursue subjects less well recognised and taking inspiration from both the likes of Burtynsky and Hütte find a way to capture those subjects in both the beautiful and the sublime.
BURTYNSKY, Edward, Jennifer BAICHWAL and Nicholas DE PENCIER. 2018. Anthropocene. Gottingen: Steidl.
PAULI, Lori. 2003. Manufactured Landscapes: The Photographs of Edward Burtynsky. 7th (2014. Ottawa: National Gallery of Canada.
In the intro to Informing Contexts, Dr. Cosgrove referenced Deleuze and mentioned very briefly the idea that there is no unified theory in photographic critique and that we should therefore pick the one that suits us best. That statement, that there is no unified theory, stood out for me for a few reasons. First, that it is statement of the patently obvious as there are practically no unifying theories of anything that are considered immutable so why would anyone expect there to be one in photographic critique which is by its very nature subjective. Second, thinking about the various “icons” of the critical world and how divergent some of their ideas are, unification isn’t likely anytime soon and I would argue ever. After all, people cannot unify on whether the loo roll should go on flap up or flap down for heaven’s sake. Third, it seemed a practical bit of advice to use whichever theory fit best. But the question remains; Which one? And lastly, who is Deleuze and what might his writing have to offer.
Given that scholars have spent a lifetime studying philosophers such as Gilles Deleuze, and that his thinking is in some ways quite different than other philosophers, it is not possible to even remotely do anything but scratch the surface and in reading scholarly summaries of his work hope to find some sense of his teachings that could be applied.
Deleuze wrote “If philosophy has a positive and direct relation to things, it is only insofar as philosophy claims to grasp the thing itself, according to what it is, in its difference from everything it is not, in other words, in its internal difference.” (Desert Islands, p32) He makes the assertion that no two things are the same, and that even things in the same genus are in fact different. It is from these differences that identity is derived which a departure from other philosophical thought that argued difference is derived from identity, from the categories assigned. I agree with Deleuze. There are 7 or so billion humans on this planet and all are unquestionably human, but each is an individual unique in their own right though they may share many similarities. It is in the digging for the differences that they emerge as individuals. Similarly, no two photographs are the same, even of the same subject in the same place and proximal in time. There is at minimum at temporal displacement of the shutter opening on two occasions. The differences may not be easily discernible, yet they are always there. This perhaps is the first clue applicable to the question of photographic critique.
I have written before how David Hurn talked about our goals as humans and photographers was to achieve our maximum potential. Deleuze writes of something similar in his 1993 Essays Critical and Clinical in which he claims:
“standards of value are internal: to live well is to fully express one’s power, to go to the limits of one’s potential, rather than to judge what exists by non-empirical, transcendent standards. Modern society still suppresses difference and alienates persons from what they can do. To affirm reality, which is a flux of change and difference, we must overturn established identities and so become all that we can become—though we cannot know what that is in advance.”“Herein, perhaps, lies the secret: to bring into existence and not to judge. If it is so disgusting to judge, it is not because everything is of equal value, but on the contrary because what has value can be made or distinguished only by defying judgment. What expert judgment, in art, could ever bear on the work to come?” (Essays Critical and Clinical (1997). p135)
In other words, creativity is the pinnacle and critique is not constructive. Critique is retrospective and itself has no part in creation of the next thing, and I think Deleuze is making the point that if a creator is responding to critique when embarking on the next creative episode then perhaps it is not the creator who is creating.
Photographic critique seems to have always been very much about putting things into categories; Modernist, Post-Modernist, Abstract, etc. and the lens through which the critic chooses to look; Sontagian indexicality, Bartheian studium and punctum, Cartier-Bressonian decisive moment, Flusserian examination of the programme of the apparatus. All of these are narrow perspectives like looking at the world through a soda straw and when the prejudgements of what category a photo fits in are made a priori it is stifling. Delueze challenges the Kantian thought and says,
“experience exceeds our concepts by presenting novelty, and this raw experience of difference actualizes an idea, unfettered by our prior categories, forcing us to invent new ways of thinking.” (Desert Islands, p 262)
Furthermore, any viewer, but most certainly a critic, brings with them armloads of baggage; the collective sum of their culture and their personal experience. A photograph that to one person is abhorrent, pornographic, stirring of intense emotional response is to the next person none of those things. In his paper, Negotiations, Deleuze addresses this idea with regard to philosophy, but again I think it relates to viewers of photographs and again critics in particular.
“Philosophers introduce new concepts, they explain them, but they don’t tell us, not completely anyway, the problems to which those concepts are a response. […] The history of philosophy, rather than repeating what a philosopher says, has to say what he must have taken for granted, what he didn’t say but is nonetheless present in what he did say.”
Walker Evans, and perhaps John Szarkowski as well, are perfect examples of critics whose perspective was entrenched in a love for the Modernist aesthetic and anything created in other than that style was deemed less worthy and insignificant. To be fair Evans was unequivocal about it and it should have been no secret if he wrote a scathing criticism of your work that it needed to be taken with the understanding that his soda straw looked only in one direction. I confess to being somewhat guilty of falling into a similar trap at times and I have been trying to “see” better when I look at work that is outside genres with which I am most comfortable and in which I work. The point, however, remains and it would be useful to know through biases and filters a critic is examining and critiquing one’s work.
Deleuze departs from the traditional image of thought espoused by Aristotle, Descartes and Husserl and believes they misconceive thinking as easy and straightforward. In their view;
“Truth may be hard to discover—it may require a life of pure theorizing, or rigorous computation, or systematic doubt—but thinking is able, at least in principle, to correctly grasp facts, forms, ideas, etc. It may be practically impossible to attain a God’s-eye, neutral point of view, but that is the ideal to approximate: a disinterested pursuit that results in a determinate, fixed truth; an orderly extension of common sense.” (Desert Islands, p 262)
Is this not what is seen in photographic critical theory? Flusser is a prime example of us being led down a chapter by chapter garden path of “logical argument” each seemingly leading to a conclusion and then, just like the infomercials of American television, “but wait there is more.” And in the end, he wants us to believe, because he took us through a step by step progression, that his is the definitive answer to the problem of a philosophy of photographic criticism.
Deleuze instead argues;
“Truth changes what we think; it alters what we think is possible. By setting aside the assumption that thinking has a natural ability to recognize the truth we attain a ‘thought without image’, a thought always determined by problems rather than solving them. Reason is always a region carved out of the irrational—not sheltered from the irrational at all, but traversed by it and only defined by a particular kind of relationship among irrational factors.” (Desert Islands, p 262)
From the Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, I was able to find this on Deleuze’s writing on the arts.
“For Deleuze, the task of art is to produce “signs” that will push us out of our habits of perception into the conditions of creation. When we perceive via the re-cognition of the properties of substances, we see with a stale eye pre-loaded with clichés; we order the world in what Deleuze calls “representation.” In this regard, Deleuze cites Francis Bacon: we’re after an artwork that produces an effect on the nervous system, not on the brain. What he means by this figure of speech is that in an art encounter we are forced to experience the “being of the sensible.” We get something that we cannot re-cognize, something that is “imperceptible”—it doesn’t fit the hylomorphic production model of perception in which sense data, the “matter” or hyle of sensation, is ordered by submission to conceptual form. Art however cannot be re-cognized, but can only be sensed; in other words, art splits perceptual processing, forbidding the move to conceptual ordering. This is exactly what Kant in the Third Critique called reflective judgment: when the concept is not immediately given in the presentation of art. With art we reach “sensation,” or the “being of the sensible,” the sentiendum. You have to be forced to think, starting with an art encounter in which intensity is transmitted in signs or sensation.”
This strikes a somewhat familiar chord with me and evokes something of Barthes ‘punctum’, just as other writings speak to Sontag’s ‘the thing itself’, Cartier-Bresson’s ‘decisive moment’, and Szarkowski’s ‘window’. It also suggests we cannot enter an encounter with art full of preconceived ideas or burdened with a conceptual construct that prevents from sensing the almost imperceptible.
What is one to take from this very cursory review of Deleuze? I take that none of the key writers on photography is right, and none of them is wrong. They are all just incomplete. To look only through a single lens is oversimplification of an infinitely complex and multiplicitous problem, and it ignores the possibility that other interpretations are possible if one changes perspective. If every photograph is unique and every viewer is unique then the possible combinations in interpretation are theoretically infinite. Deleuze’s work address the significance of the “thing itself” which is found its differences from other things. It challenges us to accept new experience as a novelty that forces us to think in different ways and implies that the search for absolute truths are futile efforts. We are also to realise that creativity is at the centre of achieving human potential and that judgement does nothing to further creativity. And lastly, that art needs to be first sensed with all the senses and only then can we forced to think.
To bring this to a close substituting the term “Photographic critical theorist” for the term “Philosopher” in the following quote seems to be a perfect statement about the challenges of critical theory in photography.
“To read a philosopher is no longer to aim at finding a single, correct interpretation, but is instead to present a philosopher’s attempt to grapple with the problematic nature of reality.” (Negotiations, p 136)
DELEUZE, Gilles. 1997. Essays Critical and Clinical. University of Minnesota Press.
DELEUZE, Gilles. 1997. Negotiations. NYC: Columbia University Press.
DELEUZE, Gilles. 2002. Desert Islands: And Other Texts, 1953-1974. Los Angeles: Semiotexte.
STANFORD UNIVERSITY. and CENTER FOR THE STUDY OF LANGUAGE AND INFORMATION (U.S.). 1997. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Stanford University. Available at: https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/deleuze/ [accessed 21 Dec 2018].
HURN, David and Bill JAY. 2009. On Being a Photographer. Third. Anacortes, WA: LensWork Publishing.
SONTAG, Susan. 1977. On Photography. Penguin Books.
BARTHES, Roland. 1981. ‘Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography’. New York Hill and Wang
FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
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.
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.