Landmark: The Fields of Photography

I can’t imagine anyone with a camera in their hand and confronted with one of nature’s majestic vistas, hasn’t wanted to capture it for posterity. This is the traditional notion of landscape photography; the style for which Ansel Adams is so well-known. This exhibition at Somerset House showed that landscape photography today means so much more. In the words of curator, William Ewing: “Landscape photographers have exposed the wounds and scars of the world, or shown regions that have so far escaped the heavy hand of man. Some photographers seek out the remotest parts of the world in search of the vanishing sublime, others travel to the most trodden and abused zones in search of the ridiculous. Some are content with the pastoral and the picturesque; others share nightmarish visions of a degraded and violated earth.” This, even without mentioning the photography of outer space, sums up the broad sweep of the exhibition’s intentions.

With 170 photographs from 70 photographers, the exhibition was big; too big to do justice to in a single visit and certainly too wide ranging to describe effectively here. But I can give a few short notes on the pieces and artists that had the most impact on me.

One photographer that stood out for me was Simon Roberts. His series, “We English” was the result of a journey across England in a motorhome with a pregnant wife and a two-year-old daughter. He favoured an elevated position, often using the roof of the motorhome to seek out the vantage point. These three examples can almost be considered Landscapes in the traditional sense. but they all contain people as significant compositional elements; they portray the people interacting with the landscape.

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South Downs Way, West Sussex, 8th October 2007

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Camel Estuary, Padstow, Cornwall, 27th September 2007

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Amerta Movement Workshop, Avebury Henge, Wiltshire, 2nd June 2008

This image, taken from “XXX Olympiad” seems to stretch the definition of landscape somewhat. Apart from the sky, there is nothing of nature here, everything is man-made.

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These two by Harry Cory Wright would rightly be called seascapes. They are from his series “A Place in Mind” which also includes more traditional landscapes, church interiors, cities, even the cockpit of Concorde.

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Lands End, 2010

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English Channel, 2010

There were some examples of more classic approach to landscape, one of which is “Trees-Clouds” by Mitch Dobrowner

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Trees-Clouds, 2009

One of the values of visiting exhibitions is seeing the prints as the artist intended. Colour and tonality in a printed book or the internet are only an approximation to the real picture. Size is also important. The pieces from Simon Roberts above lose a lot of their impact being reduced in size. Amrut Nagar #2 by Robert Polidori is another. This photograph of a ramshackle shanty town so typical of Mumbai is detailed enough to take the viewer into the lives of its inhabitants.

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Amrut Nagar #2, Mumbai,

Environmental damage is an important issue in today’s society so it is not surprising many photographers have turned their lenses towards it and it was an important topic in the exhibition. In some pictures, the message is obvious. Tailings is a series of pictures by Edward Burtinsky portraying the damage caused by uncontrolled effluents from industrial processes. This pair of nickel tailings pollution in Ontario is an attractive diptych, a photographically pleasing pair and their message is obvious.

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Nickel Tailings No 34 and 35, 1996

The message in the two examples from David Maisal’s Lake Project is not so obvious. Faced with this picture alone, you would wonder what it was; a martian landscape, an elaborately conceived abstract, an extreme magnification of some human tissue? It needs words alongside it to explain and to elaborate the meaning.

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The Lake Project, 2001

The exhibition also took a look at how photographers manipulate reality. Nasdaq 80-09 by Michael Najjar is a photograph of Mount Aconcagua in Argentina which has been digitally altered to mimic how stock markets move over time.

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Nasdaq 80-09, 2009

The last image in this short account brings me back almost to where I started. Ansel Adams is the icon of landscape photography and he created a lot of his work in Yosemite National Park. El Capitan is one of the park’s iconic peaks.

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El Capitan, 1999

This picture of it by German photographer, Thomas Struth, differs from something by Ansel Adams in two important respects. The mountain is overexposed (the highlights are blown) and there are cars and people in the foreground. Overexposing the mountain, the very subject of the picture, focusses our attention on the people.

At the exit of the exhibition is a quote from Guillaume Apollinaire: “Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature’s monotony. The sublime idea men have of the universe would collapse with dizzying speed. The order which we find in nature, and which is only an effect of art, would at once vanish. Everything would break up in chaos. There would be no seasons, no civilization, no thought, no humanity; even life would give way, and the impotent void would reign everywhere.”

This says two things; mankind needs artists to interpret nature and without mankind (and by inference the interpreting artists) there will be no nature.

Somerset House have produced an education pack which points out that a major shift in landscape photography is to include people in the imagery and asks why this shift has occurred. Much of the thrust of the exhibtion was not so much about landscape photography but about the photography of man’s interaction with the environment.

Pictures of environmental damage are a way of feeding our collective guilty conscience, a kind of self-abasement. Pictures focussing on our interaction with the environment are a way of saying that the environment only exists for our enjoyment. Either way, we are giving the message that the only important thing in the environment is mankind. We can do as much damage as we like and if we wiped ourselves off the planet tomorrow, the world would go on turning, life would continue. The damage we have done can be measured against the damage nature inflicts on herself; tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes, even the ice ages. But mankind only measures all of this with respect to its impact on mankind.

I have been considering a project based on this for a few months now. This exhibition has given me considerable food for thought as I continue to plan it.

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