I have recently acquired a copy of Risaku Suzuki’s book Water Mirrors. It is not only a beautifully constructed book physically, but the imagery is very much related to recent work I have been undertaking. There are no introductions to the book and no captions, just photo after photo. At the end is an essay by art critic Yuri Mitsuda which I found equally interesting with regard to informing my work.
Mitsuda writes “What’s mirrored in the water are the trees surrounding lakes and marshes. The relaxed density of the branches extending toward the lakes form something like a nest that surrounds and protects the quiet water. Just as with a mirror, the trees are captured in the water that reflects them. In water, the leaves are shown in utter verisimilitude, making it impossible to distinguish the reflections from the actual trees standing in the soil and air. The result is a simulacral mime that exists only within the photographs. These scenes would not exist without the intervention of the camera and the lens.”
“When the photographer tosses a rock into the water, the rock creates rifts and turns the water inside out, rustling the surrounding trees. A fluid image resembling an abstract painting appears in the photograph…When the water surface is cut up by a fallen tree, moving water is juxtaposed against still water, bringing disparate temporalities of the material in contact with each other and producing details that fascinate endlessly.” (Suzuki, 2017)
While there is more that could be quoted, I think for now it is enough to show how my work has taken a similar turn.
Paul suggested I also look at the work of fellow Falmouth student Isabella Campbell and I discovered she too is pursuing similar subjects and aesthetics. An example of her work shows the link between Suzuki and my recent work.
I have also begun reading Setting Sun: Writings by Japanese Photographers and two different books on Wabi Sabi, one by Andrew Juniper (2003) and the other by Beth Kempton (2018). I have long held an affinity for Japanese culture, philosophy and aesthetics and I am finding as I research more how much my work and the subjects I photograph resemble what I am reading in the writings and observing in the photographs. I have mentioned before that the house I designed and built in 2006 contains a great deal of Japanese influence and features normally only found in Japanese houses. That influence runs strongly in everything I do.
Shigeo Gocho in his essay Photography as Another Reality, in Setting Sun writes: “Things that some people can see, other people cannot. Things that some people can hear, other people cannot. I once wondered if such a thing was possible, but now I understand it as a matter of distance between reality and fantasy. It is also a matter of how each specific person places himself in this temporal world, as the image of the world is dependent upon this relationship…No matter how much one might say that it presents pure fantasy or delusion, photography is about capturing an image of the outside world, which means that a photograph is only possible if it uses reality as a go-between.” (Vartanian, 2006: 52-53)
Setting Sun is filled with so many gems that absolutely find a home in my head and heart. I have found myself needing through the course of this module to be far more introspective about my photography and the reasons for than ever before. I truly never thought much about and just did what I did. Reading and researching has certainly provided a framework for examining what I do and why and while it is still evolving certain elements have begun to gel in my mind. I asked myself the question “Why do I photograph nature?”
Out amidst nature was always the place that I could go to be myself and exist without judgement. I look at Nature and Nature looks back at me and says “welcome, we are.” People on the other hand judge and seek to separate and categorise. They look at me and say “you are X.” All the people who have ever existed are a single mere speck of dust in geological time. It is very likely humans will not endure as a species and Nature will reclaim them as geological time moves on.
I suppose that this is one of those areas of difference in Western and Eastern philosophies. The West has long held a man versus nature philosophy where nature must be conquered and tamed. It for that matter extended to the idea that “civilised white” people were at the evolutionary pinnacle and anyone who did not fit in that box was just another animal to be conquered and tamed. In contrast, the Eastern philosophies address the art of being in the world beginning with Tao and flowing with the watercourse way and evolving in to Zen which teaches we are part of everything we perceive. There is something at my core that recognises the latter and that is part of what continually draws me away from most people and to the untamed places where I can best be my untamed self.
VARTANIAN, Ivan, Akihiro HATANAKA and Yutaka KAMBAYASHI. 2006. Setting Sun: Writing by Japanese Photographers. New York: Aperture.
JUNIPER, Andrew. 2003. Wabi Sabi – the Japanese Art of Impermanance. First. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing.
KEMPTON, Beth. 2018. Wabi Sabi – Japanese Wisdom for a Perfectly Imperfect Life. London: Piatkus.
SUZUKI, Risaku. 2017. Water Mirror. Tokyo: Case Publishing.
Since the beginning of the MA course, the Cromarty Cohort has had a very active and useful WhatsApp group that has been a great source of support and discussion. I have learned perhaps as much from the interactions with my cohort as I have from the formal coursework. It has been a place of inspiration, mutual support, friendship and quite often sanity preserving humour. I truly treasure these relationships.
Quite often, we have had extraordinary debates on wide ranging topics and just as often we lean on each other for advice, critique and the knowledge that comes with experience. I have not been particularly good yet at critiquing my own work and I attribute that in part to not yet being entirely certain of what I want to do. But the course, my independent reading, and the interactions with my peers has given me a new base of knowledge, a new vocabulary, and a basis for applying the critical thinking skills honed over 40 + years of working to begin better contextualising photographic work.
What follows is a discussion with Mick Yates about his work currently underway in Cambodia. We had talked a length before the trip about his goals and concerns. After his second day of shooting he posted a couple of photos from the day’s work on our WhatsApp forum. With Mick’s permission I am posting the main bits of our ‘conversation’ which proved useful for us both I think. I find it easier to have this discussion about someone else’s work than my own, but I know when it is time to talk about mine, I know my cohort will be there for me. In the meantime, it was enlightening to talk about Mick’s challenges all the while realising I needed to be thinking, not the same things, but in the same way.
At the very outset there were a few comments by others in the cohort, and there were a few asides that were not directly relevant to the thread that have been edited to enhance clarity. What follows though is the main conversation between Mick and me in its entirety. The photographs are all Mick’s work taken with an infrared camera today in Cambodia.
[01:49, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: May they rest peacefully
[01:49, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Cheoung Ek, the Killing Fields
[06:42, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Too pretty?
[08:42, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: It depends on whether your story is about the genocide or really about the people who survived it and what Cambodia is today. Are the Killing Fields sources of hope that horror can be overcome, or are they an ever present pall of death that no one in Cambodia can ever escape? These may not be the right questions, and they are certainly not the only questions, but I believe they may be the kind of questions you need to be asking before you exhaust yourself physically and emotionally taking photos that you that either do not meet your needs or actually work against them.
[08:43, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Very fair
[08:44, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I think it does depend on the audience. In Cambodia, it must be about hope. But in the West, whilst it is hope, it’s also fundamental education, with all the horror that entails
[08:54, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: It is hard to see horror in any of the landscapes you have taken. Nature has taken it back, covered it up and erased it from the possibility of discovery by anyone who hasn’t been through what happened there. There is horror inn the museums. You would perhaps have to go Jo Hedwig Teeuwisseor or Sergey Larenkov to convey what happened there to Western audiences
[08:54, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I don’t know them – will look. Thanks
[08:55, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I really don’t like the Museum stuff
[08:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Boring ..
[08:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Nature never gave it up so reclaiming is easy. Humans are just a temporary thing
[08:57, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Agree and it has all been seen before. Larenkov and Teeuwisseor both did Ghosts of WWII series superimposing old images on modern scenes to show what happened there
[08:57, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Though interesting how IR takes out shades and details
[09:00, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I think there may be more horror in the negatives
[09:00, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: The problem of aftermath
[09:07, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Even Sophie Ristelhueber, who I love and who ‘invented’ aftermath is almost forensic. No emotion
[09:11, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Yes, and that begs the question, where is Cambodia now, and where does what happened factor into today. Every day people who were there are dying. More and more of the population knows of it only second hand. Is the point to get past it or is the point to hang on to it or is the point that there are forces that want to shackle the younger generations to their inescapable past? Is there something in the Cambodian psyche that suggests this could happen again at any moment or is this something that people think can never happen again? Is there a shift in mindset between Sarath’s generation and his grandchildren’s? Is this an aftermath story that is far enough removed from the event that the horror can be treated lightly, almost in passing as you focus on Cambodia today, or are there dark forces still at work to whom the past is closely tied that are getting in the way of the current generations progress and escape from the past? So many questions, but all key to framing the story and guiding your shooting.
[09:11, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: All good Qs, Ash. Very good
[09:14, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: I guess a similar logic might apply to the Holocaust. Maybe we should all just forget it?
[09:27, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: I did not mean to suggest the past should be forgotten, but in fact many have. It begs the question of where is the balance between remembering the past and how it affected where we are today and dwelling in it? Does that balance shift over time? I am not naïve enough to think genocide can’t happen again, but I would like also to think that it couldn’t go on for the length of time the Nazis did without the world knowing and reacting.
[09:28, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Ironically, as I have discovered in reading, the world actually did know, but the UK and US governments chose not to believe the Soviet/Polish propaganda. Another story
[09:29, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Your point stands, though
[09:30, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: One of the Cambodian challenges is that there was no ‘other’ so it was like the Chinese Cultural Revolution
[09:31, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Self-Genocide in fact
[09:35, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And I can’t imagine that isn’t a bit frightening at least to the older folk who experienced it. The thought that your neighbour was involved in slaughtering thousands for no good reason. Zealots and ideologues are scary people. And that undercurrent is resurfacing in many places in the world. Does this suggest a cautionary tale? Does the current flavour of KR harbour any allusions of the past?
[09:37, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Agree. The vast majority just want to move on. But as I have discovered time and again, a simple conversation leads to all kinds of memories and questions. Every day I am here
[09:38, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Maybe I am the one that needs to let this go
[09:43, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Is there an element of outsider gaze tied to your history that affects your current perceptions and has the fact that you had a wee break from the heavy involvement meant that you missed a subtle shift in where Cambodia is today compared to say 15 years ago? Not meant to be in any way disrespectful, just a question.
[09:48, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: It’s a great question. I think that when we started this, 20 years ago, there was def an outsider gaze. I mean, we paid for schools that the country couldn’t afford. Imperial, what? But we never saw it that way ofc. We did try to learn and be part of the whole, though it was hard.
Now, I find myself deeper. When the people I am working with no longer know all the answers – and in fact find new things because of this activity, it’s become even more personal.
Is there a shift here? Sadly, no. This is all buried and has been for a long time. The closest parallel is China I think
[09:52, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: Is that parallel to China in some way an angle from which to approach the story? And if so, why does that similarity exist? Is it political, deeper cultural similarities, etc? Sorry if I am droning on too long. I am sure you must be exhausted, and my day is only beginning. Lots to do before I get on a plane Monday morning.
[09:55, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: The parallel is the Cultural Revolution – The KR executed it on steroids. The disconnect is that Deng Xiaoping saw that prosperity for all was key – and consigned the Gang of Four to the trash can of history. Neither have really happened here, so no release
[09:56, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: No closure and a very uncertain future in other words
[09:59, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And that perhaps is the heart of the story and how today is affected by the past. That comparison to China may be useful as a foil to show how Cambodia has become mired.
[10:03, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Well, yes, though this is an MA not a PhD
[10:03, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Not making light of your comment – it’s totally right
[10:37, 2/16/2019] Ashley Rose: And it is a practical degree not a dissertation project.
[10:37, 2/16/2019] Yates, Mick: Also true
Thank you to Mick for the conversation, and for permission to post it and his work to my CRJ. This is merely one example in a year’s worth of great conversations, debates, and discussion between us that has made my experience on the MA all the richer.
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.
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?
I first read Flusser’s Toward a Philosophy of Photography during the Surfaces and Strategies module and after reading a synopsis in Durden’s book, Fifty Key Writers on Photography, I felt the need to reread Flusser. A few more months of coursework, much more reading and becoming readjusted to critical thinking in an academic sense has put me in a better position to absorb, understand and challenge Flusser’s hypotheses.
I realise though Flusser is regarded as one of the key critical theorists on photography, he interestingly and by his own admission, just made it all up. His thoughts didn’t derive from someone else’s prior work and he make no references and has no bibliography. So, while it is a fine piece of original thinking and easy at first to buy into the logical train of thought he establishes, on further examination there are, in my opinion, some fatal flaws that derail his train.
His initial premise in the introduction about how the written word and then the photograph are significant events that altered who and how information is shared among societies is certainly worthy of recognition and supportable based on a review of history and current events. I believe Flusser is also spot on in his assertion that images are ambiguous and open to interpretation, but he starts to get sketchy when he begins his discussion on decoding images. He claims images are needed to make the world comprehensible because the world is not accessible to human beings. I find this premise completely off target. Human beings exist as an integral part of the world and that which surrounds each of us is not only directly accessible, but also comprehensible without need of images if one takes the time to look and understand what surrounds us. Images can help with communicating to others things with which they are not in direct contact, but those images are unlikely to be able to stand alone. I quite agree, however, that humans can be lazy or malign by malappropriating or misappropriating images and sending them out into the world. One need only look at the spate of social media platforms and the millions of memes that are taken by the gullible or naïve to be representations of reality. There is a necessary relationship between images and text.
To suggest as Flusser does that there are distinct breaks between idolatry, textolatry, and technical images is to ignore they are a continuum unique to humans and completely dependent on each other. We as humans see, we ascribe labels to the things we see either as pictorial representations or words that conjure the pictorial representation or the actual thing. When we read we visualise the meaning of the words. We read the “the large grey stone house set at the edge of the wood” and our mind’s eye conjures a picture. My picture will look different than the next person’s but there will be an image nonetheless that holds significance for that individual. When we are first presented with an image, our ‘decoding’ begins with assigning words to what we see. Our attempt to decipher a technical image is not really any different than our need to decipher what we see in real time with our eyes except that the image is static, and we are afforded more time with which to undertake that decoding. And just as when we read, that decoding will be unique to each person doing the decoding.
I cannot find the distinction Flusser makes in his notion that traditional “prehistoric” images represent phenomena and technical “post-historic” images represent concepts. Both periods are rife with examples that represent phenomenological and conceptual images. It is a distinction without a difference in my view. In fact a stronger argument might be made for the opposite and that most Renaissance art was based in religion and far more conceptual than phenomenological, while Impressionist, Pointillist, Dada are equally so conceptual. Technical images on the other hand are more likely to show what is (was) or what happened at a particular time and place and therefore are not representing concepts but rather phenomena.
The lack of criticism of technical images is not an inherent characteristic, but rather an indictment of human laziness, education systems which have stopped emphasising critical thinking and perhaps also the relentless onslaught of imagery that now perhaps even exceeds that which can be experienced by a human in real time with their own eyes. Just as we process what we see around us quickly to avoid danger and find our way we often haven’t time to linger over the significance of any particular instant. The inundation of images we face in modern society leaves most with inadequate time to process and therefore criticise those images. It is too easy to accept the images at their superficial face value or just disregard them and move on.
Flusser argues in first order images the painter puts themselves between the significance and the image and that to understand the image we must decode the encoding that took place in the painter’s head. I ask is that not an even more mysterious ‘black box’ than an apparatus? The painter makes choices of which they may or may not be aware to include or exclude or enhance aspects of the subject seen or imagined. This is abstraction of the highest order and a product of the imagination of the artist.
The technical image Flusser asserts is encoded in a ‘black box’, but I would argue the ‘black box’is far more easily decoded than the human brain of the painter. We can look with complete objectivity at the capabilities and limitations of an optical sensor (film or digital) and wee can understand how the photons that stimulate that sensor are subsequently translated into an image chemically or digitally. It is far less magical, and more predictable than the brain. Furthermore, the unaltered technical image cannot exclude anything from the image that was within the technical limitations of the device, so it is in every sense a purer representation of its significance.
The consequence realised, to which Flusser alludes, is that humans have allowed images to displace text (a picture is worth thousand words) thereby believing the necessity of conceptual thinking has been eliminated, or perhaps more correctly as an excuse for the lazy to avoid conceptual thinking. Flusser stretches way too far when he states technical images were invented to prevent culture from breaking up as a code valid for all of society. This may have been a consequence, just as the printing press ultimately increased literacy among the masses, but neither was an intent of the invention.
Flusser is consistently anthropomorphic and ascribes to inanimate objects, images, apparatuses, etc attributes of power and action they do not inherently hold. He tries to bestow up a thing, the technical image, powers only held by the makers and the viewers (users). How and why images are made and used are not inherent in the image, but in the humans make choices in what to make and how to use them. Photographs are a tool and a fool with a tool is still a fool. A photograph has no more or less significance than a screwdriver which can be used to poke out someone’s eye or used to remove a fastener as intended. Both are choices made by the user of the tool. A photograph can reintroduce traditional images to daily life and make hermetic text comprehensible or not.
I think Flusser is quite cynical and that he must have loved the Star Trek Next Generation portrayal of the Borg as they intoned ‘resistance is futile’ as that seems to represent the essence of his fears with regards to modern technology in general and photography in particular. His notion that we are all embroiled in a heated battle against various apparatuses, programs and metaprograms seems to me a pretty pessimistic view on the future of humanity, but then again perhaps we are all going to hell in the proverbial handbasket and his concern about humans abdicating their role in the world to technology is warranted.
My worldview developed in large measure from my education as a scientist and my work in engineering and technology is based in the concept of systems and systems of systems. It is in some ways analogous to Flusser’s ideas of programs and metaprograms. But unlike Flusser I think humans are still very much engaged and that what he goes to great length to describe as apparatuses are in fact nothing more than tools. At one point he declares the intention of the camera as a tool to produce a photograph. The camera tears the light from the world to bring a photo that humans can see and use. His comparison to an apple or a shoe is in my opinion is specious because whether it informs a little or a lot is entirely dependent on the viewer and is not fixed. To a hungry man the apple may inform far more than the shoe.
I think Flusser again gets overly anthropomorphic when he states “if an apparatus is neither a tool or a machine and its purpose is to change the meaning of the world by creating symbols, their intention is symbolic.” The apparatus has no inherent ability to act on its own. Yes its ‘program’ which is both known and knowable may do something with the confines of a ‘black box’, but it carries no independent inherent intention merely by virtue of its existence. I maintain that it is still a tool in the hands of a human who must convey intention with its use.
Flusser agrues each photograph is a realisation of one possibility resident within the program of the apparatus, and that photographers are trying to exhaust the full range of possibilities in search of information. He says any photograph that does not achieve a new possibility is not informative and therefore redundant. On the contrary, every photograph is unique. It occupies a unique temporal space. The differences may be beyond human perception but that makes them no less unique. And as to what is informative, that too is unique, but totally in the purview of the viewer. What is informative to me may be old hat to someone else. Furthermore, all the possible photographs are not resident in the program, they are resident in the world which is undergoing constant and inevitable change and in time, and they require a photographer with a tool to realise them.
Flusser says no photographer can understand the black box. While most don’t bother, it is in fact completely explicable. It is far more transparent and discoverable than the brain of the painter or a photographer’s artistic choices for that matter. I completely disagree with Flusser’s position that a photographer is a functionary controlling a game over which they have no competence and I will return to this in a moment.
Quite ironically, Flusser asserts photographers, after the statement in paragraph above, have power over those who look at their photographs and that the camera has power over the photographer. Misplaced assignation again. I don’t think the photographer actually has any influence let alone power over the viewer. How a photograph is interpreted is totally and uniquely in the realm of each viewer. And I don’t buy into the notion the camera is a complex apparatus, particularly in the context of 1983 when this treatise was first published. There is little mystery to the analogue camera; the mystery if there is any is in the chemistry of the film. In a digital camera, the camera is no more complex in its basic function than the analogue and it is the sensor and the subsequent processing that replaces the mystery of the film, but which is entirely comprehensible if one wished to take the time to understand the physics and programming logic. But that is no more necessary to a photographer than was understanding film chemistry.
Flusser then says the starting point for any consideration of the act of photography is that the apparatuses play and function better than the human beings that operate them. Szarkowski is spinning in his grave! The camera cannot take itself to a particular place at a particular time and it cannot imagine an output associated with a particular perspective or compositional choice, nor can it choose the precise moment to open and close the shutter. The ‘power’ remains with the photographer always and the camera remains a tool; albeit one with limitation that must be recognised. Flusser is correct in saying the camera can only photograph what can be photographed with a particular tool, but neither can I screw a fastener with a saw. Also true is that the photograph is a representation of states of things. The camera cannot photograph emotion, but it can discern representations or evidence of emotion.
Flusser claims the camera has more imagination than all the photographers in the world combined. Once again Flusser is anthropomorphising. The camera has no more imagination than a chisel. Put a chisel in front of a block of marble and it will never in a million years imagine or create as statue of David until it is in the hands of a Michelangelo.
I take exception again to the Flusser assertion that the traditional distinction between realism and idealism is overturned in the case of photography and that neither the world or the camera’s program is real; only the photograph is real. The world is always real, and a photograph is real only in the sense it is a tangible physical entity. The image it contains is not real but rather a two-dimensional representation of a reality that occurred in some specific time and place that is limited further in its ability to represent reality by the capabilities of the film or sensor.
Then in what almost seems a turnabout, Flusser summarises: “The act of photography is like going on a hunt in which the photographer and camera merge into one indivisible function. This is a hunt for new states of things, situations never seen before, for the improbable, for information. The structure of the act of photography is a quantum one: a doubt made up of points of hesitation and points of decision-making. We are dealing here with a typically post-industrial act: It is post-ideological and programmed, and acct for which reality is information, not the significance of this information.”
So where heretofore I find Flusser’s thinking frequently flawed, he starts to get interesting when he begins discussing the photograph. His proposal that black and white photographs are more conceptual as they are less real is intriguing. I confess to becoming lost again though when he claims that the more genuine the colours are, the less truthful they become. He makes this point in the context of black and white being closer to the theoretical origins of optics and yet farther away from reality while colour is closer to reality but farther from the theoretical origins. I cannot see the point of this line of enquiry and in doing so it seems he obfuscates the concept of decoding unnecessarily. This is especially so when he concludes that to follow this path leads down a bottomless rabbit hole and the whole thing can be avoided by not going there. He says in essence that a photograph is decoded when one has determined how the cooperation and conflict between the photographer and the camera have been resolved. Has the photographer succeeded in achieving his/her intentions and overcoming the limitations of the camera? He goes on to argue the camera is imposing its intentions on the photographer and here again I take issue with the idea the camera can have intentions. It has technical limitations, but not intentions which in my mind implies a sentience the camera does not possess. In any case he concludes this thought with the notion the best photographs are when the photographer’s intentions win out over the (my words) the limitations of the tool used to capture the image. I believe herein lies a significant part of the photographer’s skill; knowing the tools at hand and their capabilities and limitations so that the correct set of tools can be pulled from the kit bag to compliment the planning, positioning, light and other compositional considerations.
Flusser continues to be interesting in his discussion on distribution of photographs and of particular significance is his discourse on how the distribution channel has an impact on the meaning of a photograph and how that meaning is altered each time it enters a new channel. I believe this further supports my earlier contention that each viewing of a photograph is unique and in the hands of the viewer who is also influenced by where the photograph is viewed.
His observation that we are so overly exposed to photographs that we have come to regard them as fixtures and fittings in our lives and as a result hardly take notice of most of them. This helps to explain why most are not looked at in any critical way or attempt to decode them. And the truth is that to do so with most would be a waste of time. Unfortunately, that introduces the very real risk that photographs that deserve attention will go unnoticed. It also presents an additional challenge for the photographer who produces, in Flussers terms, “informative” work, work that breaks the program and is new and unique, because it will be even more difficult to be ‘heard’ amidst the noise of the millions of less worthy photographs being produced every day around the world.
So while I find it hard to agree with many aspects of Flusser’s essays, in large part because of the semantics and his sometimes fatalistic and pessimistic view of the world, in the end he comes nearly full circle and very early disavows the whole train of thought that preceded by saying: “The time is therefore not far off when one will have to concentrate one’s criticism of the apparatuses on the human intention that willed and created them. Such a critical approach is enticing for two reasons. First, it absolves the critics f the necessity of delving into the interior of the black boxes: they can concentrate on their output, human intention. And second, it absolves critics of the necessity of developing new categories of criticism: Human intention can be criticized using traditional criteria.”
He also sounds a warning that we are at risk of being automated out of existence and that it is necessary to fight against that automation to regain freedom of intention. And there are indicators that Flusser isn’t too far from the mark. One needs only to walk down the street to see how enslaved people have become to their mobile phones.
Flusser his treatise to conclusion with some profound thoughts. “The task of the philosophy of photography is to question photographers about freedom, to probe their practice in the pursuit of freedom. This was the intention of the foregoing study, and in the course of it a few answers have come to light. First, one can outwit the camera’s rigidity. Second, one can smuggle human intentions into its program that are not predicted by it. Third, one can force the camera to create the unpredictable, the improbable, the informative. Fourth, one can show contempt for the camera and its creations and turn one’s interest away from the thing in general in order to concentrate on information. In short: Freedom is the strategy of making chance and necessity subordinate to human intention. Freedom is playing against the camera.” “A philosophy of photography must reveal the fact that there is no place for human freedom within the area of the automated, programmed and programming apparatuses, in order to finally show a way in which it is nevertheless possible to open up a space for freedom.”
Towards a Philosophy of Photography is an important text and while I found the train of logic Flusser followed to be full of twists and turns, a few sidings and a couple of derailments, the end of the journey led to a destination I generally find quite agreeable. More importantly the journey through this book provoked thought, made me question and challenge my own beliefs and in the writing of my essay take positions even if they were contrary to the popular accepted thought of photography’s academic world. It was well worth reading this book a second and third time, and I think it can really only be appreciated in its entirety.
FLUSSER, Vilém. 1983. Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.
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.
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.
Axel Hütte, a German photographer born in 1951, and a student of the Becher’s at the Dusseldorf School of Art, is recognised for his land and cityscape work. He works in large format film.
Hütte’s landscape work is based in emptiness. All evidence of humans is absent. His work isn’t intended to convey any story and in fact seeks to blur time and space in order to revel in the sheer beauty of the scene. Hütte also seems to eschew detail preferring his landscapes to be viewed and considered as a whole without any particular emphasis in the frame. Though he has photographed around the world, it is quite often impossible to discern from the photo itself where it was taken. Even after reading a caption one doesn’t truly have a sense of place in most instances.
Terra Incognita, Axel Hütte
This approach is quite the opposite of the direction I have generally taken in trying to achieve detail and clearly depict time and space in context. And yet I am drawn to Hütte’s work. I have done quite a lot of past work that is more like Hütte’s, though even in my recent work there are examples. It seems in those cases, I find myself less concerned with showing a particular place in a way that it can be recognized than I am with depicting a mood or a texture that observe in that place. Where it is and even when becomes unimportant.
Lichen and Gorse, Ashley Rose 2018
Over the past 9 months, I have been so focused on the project work in which time and place are essential elements that I have not done as much of this sort of work. However, these photos would have broader commercial appeal precisely because of their universality and a succumbing to the idea of simple beauty for its own sake. There is total ambiguity about the place in the above photo. While it happens to have been taken in Scotland and the yellow flowers are gorse, it could have just as easily been taken in a wetland in South Carolina in the USA and the flowers forsythia or wild honeysuckle. This scene might be found in many places around the temperate zones of the world and that is why it acquires a universality to which viewers can relate.
Therein lies the appeal and success of Hütte’s landscape work.
Paris Photo is an expansive show almost to the point of being overwhelming for a one-day visit. Should I attend in future I shall be sure to schedule at least two if not three days to take it in properly. It was thankfully far more diverse in its offering than Unseen Amsterdam, and there was a pleasant mix of old and contemporary work. Even at that, there was very little representation in the genres in which I work, either in the photos displayed or in the books offered at Paris Photo or Polycopies. I found the contemporary work to be strongly weighted to the “fine art” end of the spectrum which is clearly where money is as that is what the galleries chose to represent. There is probably a lesson in that.
That is not to say there wasn’t plenty of inspiration to be had. The quality of printing was something to behold and it was interesting to see the different choices in mounting,framing and display. There was a lot of very good work displaying excellent technique and creativity. A fair bit of the contemporary work wasn’t to my taste or was beyond my ability to comprehend without further explanation. I really enjoyed seeing work of the some of the arguably most significant and influential photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Andres Kertesz, Joel Meyerowitz and women who defied the stereotypes and limitations of their time such as Dorothea Lange and Martine Franck. They all had great influence on photography, yet it is interesting to contrast their work in terms of composition and technical quality with current standards of excellence. Clearly each has brilliant work that has stood and will continue to stand the test of time, but many also had work that would likely today be considered poor work. I reckon though that resulted in large measure from the limitations of the equipment they were using.
A minor digression is required to lay the basis for what follows. While in Paris and in addition to visiting photography galleries and the Paris Photo exhibition, I visited several art museums; Musee D’Orsay, Musee de L’Orangerie, the Louvre, and the “OnAir” installation at Palais de Tokyo. It prompted me to think more about the similarities between traditional art and photography and the evolution of each. While greatly accelerated in the case of photography, there are similarities in the trajectories of their respective histories and parallels to the trajectories in music history as well. Recognising this has caused me to look upon contemporary photographic trends with a little less aversion than I have tended to in the past.
HCB and the others mentioned above along with many of their contemporaries not mentioned endure because they, to use an Art History analogy, were members of the school of Realism. Their subjects while being specific carry a universality to which viewers can readily relate. Contemporary practitioners like Susan Meiselas, James Nachtwey, Lynsey Addario and LauraHenno carry on those traditions and I believe their work will endure as well.
Just as art evolved from Romanticism and Realism to Impressionism,Dada and Surrealism, photography has followed similar trajectories, but on a less unified path: i.e. many genres are still being produced simultaneously even though they may have been under-represented at Paris Photo. As I walked around the Paris show, and it was even more pronounced at Unseen Amsterdam, that a lot of contemporary “fine art” photographers have moved into (again using Art History terms) the realm of Magic Realism and in some cases Surrealism. I do wonder how many or which of them will be recognised as Picasso or Dali in the world of photography, or whether the work will just be a footnote somewhere in the archives of Photographic History. Only time will tell.
There was so much to see at Paris Photo and it is impossible to sort out and write about everything I experienced there. It has helped to have waited a week and reflected on what I saw and how I reacted to it. There were a few photographers, none of whom of which I was previously aware, whose work stopped me in my tracks; Lynn Davis, Jean-Baptiste Huyhn and Axel Hutte. Lynn’s extraordinary cultural landscapes, Huynh’s stunning portraits, and Hutte’s utterly unique prints on glass were for me “best in show.” In further investigating Axel Hutte I discovered his landscape work and how some of his philosophies are very similar to approaches I have been taking. But more about that in another post.
Edward Burtynsky’s aerial environmental work resonated strongly with me and the aesthetic captured in some of Todd Hido’s work, particularly Rivers at Night, made me think about how some of that technique might be applied to my practice.
Visits to other galleries and museums also proved helpful. I was struck by how differently I looked at art and photos. I was particularly intrigued at the Musee D’Orsay by how many of the landscapes included indistinct images of people going about their days in harmony with the landscape. This also resonated with me as it is what I have been trying to do during this module.
In the end it was a week well spent seeing things that are not readily available to me in NE Scotland or in South Carolina when I am in the US, interacting with cohort mates, exchanging ideas, deepening friendships and being thankful for the opportunities that life has brought me.
I belong to a local camera club which has some excellent and highly knowledgeable members and which has been a good resource over the past few years. Guest speakers, technical workshops, and peer and outside judged competitions have been helpful in increasing my knowledge, inspiring work in different subject areas, and learning about how others see photographs. Monthly competitions, some with specific themes and others open to all subjects, are conducted with colour, monochrome and creative categories. The latter requires manipulating a photo in a way to create an image that could not be seen in the real world and have been useful in increasing my skills with Photoshop. This month’s topic was “Road Vehicles” and while in Rotterdam a couple of week’s ago, I spotted this row of “hire bikes” inside an architecturally unique building. The scene caught my eye and lent itself to a really interesting composition. It is one of the best photos I have ever taken. The photograph below titled “Geometry Lesson” was selected as the winning photograph in the Colour category.
In the Creative category I entered a heavily manipulated photo of a Sunbeam Supreme taken at a Classic Car Rally stopover in Dornoch, titled “Smile for the Camera”, which placed second a close one point behind the winning photo.
Smile for the Camera
While neither of these photos have anything to do with my project work, they actually speak volumes about me as a photographer and the diverse interests I bring to my practise. Yes I do a lot of natural history work and I do really like photographing wildlife, but when I have a camera in my hand I am drawn to interesting movement, colours, shapes and light like a moth to a flame. Even in my wildlife work, it is these same underlying factors that draw me to trigger the shutter. And I want to have fun with my photography, even if it brings income, it can never be a drudge or I won’t take the work.