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Victoria Cooper+Doug Spowart Blog

LANDSCAPE PHOTOGRAPHS ARE HISTORY: A book forward

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The book 'Around the world in 14 days'

The book Around the world in 14 days

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Recently I was asked to write an introduction for a limited edition book to compliment an exhibition of landscape photography entitled, Around the World in 14 Days: how the landscape unites us. The project featured seven contemporary Australian and international photographers, and was coordinated by Dawne Fahey of the FIER Institute with Sandy Edwards contributing to the image selection. The assembled body of work presented insights into how photographers ‘read the landscape, both visually and psychologically through their images.’

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The photographs, created in Australia, Asia, New Zealand, USA and Colombia are intended to inspire viewers to consider how ‘elements effecting the landscape unite us, regardless of our differences or the distances that occur between us.’ Through the photographs there is also an intention that the ‘poetic fragments presented by the work will connect with the viewer’s own memories, experience, or sense of place.’

The exhibiting photographers are: Ann Vardanega (Australia), April Ward (Australia), Beatriz Vargas (Colombia), Gavin Brown (Australia), Michael Knapstein (USA), Robyn Hills (Australia) and Pauline Neilson (New Zealand) and the exhibition and book are on show at Pine Street Gallery, 64 Pine Street, Chippendale, Sydney until May 31, 2014.

See more at: http://www.pinestreet.com.au and http://fier.photium.com/around-the-world-in-14 – sthash.QPto0nz4.dpuf

The exhibition and book launch took place on May 20, 2014 at the gallery.

My essay discusses issues that relate to the premise of the exhibition as well as some personal observations of the idea of the photographer in the landscape. The essay is presented here and at the end of the post I have included a selection of images and installation photographs of the exhibition.

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All landscape photographs are history

 

It is vain to dream of a wildness

distant from ourselves. There is none such.

In the bog of our brains and bowels, the

primitive vigor of Nature is in us, that inspires

that dream.

 

Henry David Thoreau, journal, August 30, 1856 [i]

 

Around sunset, Northern Territory time, a gathering of photographers will assemble in the central Australian desert and witness the now iconic sunset at Uluru. What they encounter will be a lived experience and there can be no doubt that cameras, both with and without telephony capability, will record the moment. Their images will bear metadata of the shutter speed, aperture, camera brand and model, the time, date and perhaps even its geolocation. These images will be cast into the Internet as evidence for friends and family to see – a private experience shared and made transferrable by technology.

What then of the subject of their gaze and activity – the landscape? For this rock in the desert, the next day will be a repeat of this photo ritual, and each day after, it will be repeated again and again. Does Uluru wait for its activation at each sunset and each shutter’s click? This landscape has experienced a few hundred million years of sunsets and its current fame as a photo celebrity, is a mere blip in its history. Every day will be different and thousands of days, well, not much change. However, today’s photograph, even a split second after its capture, is history.

For a number of years I have cultured the belief which was informed by a statement attributed to photographer Minor White: ‘No matter how slow the film, Spirit always stands still long enough for the photographer it has chosen.’[ii] My variation is that that landscape reveals itself to the photographer of its choosing. Writer and critic John Berger adds to this discussion by proposing that there is a ‘modern illusion concerning painting … is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.’[iii] Could it be then that the landscape is the director and commissioner of the image that the painter or the photographer makes, and that the photographer – the right photographer – is merely the vehicle for the landscape’s transformation of itself into an image?

Like portraits that have been made since the beginning of photography, and the documents of human endeavour, commerce, existence and experience – time, or rather the passage of time, has granted then their relegation to past. Each photograph in this book is then a history image. The moment and space depicted wrenched from the continuum of time by whatever forces brought together the photographer and the landscape. A landscape image at that moment of capture is at once the subject photographed and also a time machine. Viewed on its own by its maker the photograph can be a comfortable aide memoir, and operate just as a photo of a loved one or a family wedding would do in its frame on the mantelpiece – the photo exists, and so too the remembrance of subject it represents.

But photographs are more than things; they are experiences. Photographer Ansel Adams attributed special values and meaning to his landscape photographs and sought to represent the landscape as being more than what it was physically. Simon Schama in his book Landscape and Memory cites Adams as commenting that: ‘Half Dome [in Yosemite National Park] is just a piece of rock … There is some deep personal distillation of spirit and concept which moulds these earthy facts into some transcendental emotional and spiritual experience.’[iv] Adams inspired the American nation and created a tradition of environmentalism and black and white photography that continues today.

For Australian wilderness photographers Adams’ ‘emotion and spiritual’ connection with the landscape is salient. In the book Photography in Australia Helen Ennis discusses how photographers of this genre engage with their landscape subjects. She quotes Tasmanian photographer Peter Dombrovskis entering a ‘state of grace’ on bushwalks when, ‘days away from “civilization”, he felt what he described as, “a sense of spiritual connection with all around – from widest landscape to the smallest detail”’.[v] Ennis also comments that wilderness photographers use a range of techniques to ‘lift the experiences of viewing the photographs into a realm that goes beyond the human exigencies of normal daily life.’[vi]

In a book such as this, as we turn the pages, what is presented to us is the photographer’s concept or story encoded in visual form. As with Berger this may constitute the next generation of ‘giving and receiving’. They may have made the photograph/s with a specific objective in mind – a narrative angle, the idea of showing something that stirred them that they wanted to share – or – from the earlier discussion, what the subject wanted revealed. But in the space between the giver (the photographer and this book), and the receiver (you, the viewer), another hybrid narrative emerges. The photograph acts as a stimulus on the viewer and an idiosyncratic response is generated. Roland Barthes uses the term ‘detonate’ to describe being in front of a photograph. In Camera Lucida he comments that: ‘The photograph itself is no way animated, … but it animates me: this is what creates every adventure.’[vii]

In photographs we are not so much connected or united with the landscape, but rather the experience of the landscape and the trees, rivers, blades of grass and rocks that are represented in images. In effect we are united by the landscape of photography and the gift that we can share through it. We can then, through photographs enter into a Barthesian adventure. Perhaps these landscape photographs are more than history – they are: an experience shared, an unexpected encounter, an adventure. In your turning the pages – then pausing to view each group of images, to contemplate and consider the communiqué stimulated by them, these photographs become part of your history, your experience, and your adventure as well …

 

Dr Doug Spowart   April 17, 2014

[i] Schama, S. (1995). Landscape and Memory. London, HarperCollins, epigraph, n.p.
[ii] http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/12041/22-quotes-by-photographer-minor-white/
[iii] Berger, J. (2002). The Shape of a Pocket. London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, p.18.
[iv] Schama, S. (1995). Landscape and Memory. London, HarperCollins, p.9.
[v] Ennis, H. (2007). Exposures: Photography and Australia. London UK, Reaktion Books Ltd, p.68.
[vi] ibid.
[vii] Barthes, R. (1984). Camera Lucida. London, UK, Fontana Paperbacks, p.20.

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The exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days' invitation

The exhibition invitation

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The exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days' in the Pine Street Gallery

The exhibition in the Pine Street Gallery

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A photograph by Pauline Neilsen from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

A photograph by Pauline Neilsen

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Four photographs by Michael Knapstein from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

Four photographs by Michael Knapstein

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Two photographs by Gavin Brown from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

Two photographs by Gavin Brown

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Two photographs by Robyn Hills from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

Four photographs by Robyn Hills

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A photograph by Ann Vardanega from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

A photograph by Ann Vardanega

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Two photographs by April Ward from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

Two photographs by April Ward

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A photograph by Beatriz Vargas from the exhibition 'Around the world in 14 days'

A photograph by Beatriz Vargas

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Doug Spowart with Ann Vardanegra, Dawne Fahey and Pauline Neilsen

Doug Spowart with Ann Vardanega, Dawne Fahey and Pauline Neilsen

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Screen Shot 2014-05-27 at 1.34.23 PM

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The photographers retain all copyright in their photographs. Some texts are derived from exhibition documents. Text and installation photographs © 2014 Doug Spowart and Victoria Cooper

 

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