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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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COOPER SCROLLS @ Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery

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Victoria in the 'Off The Wall' installation

Victoria Cooper in the Off The Wall installation of three scrolls from the series of five

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ABOUT ‘THE STORIES OF THE GORGE’ ON SHOW @ TRAG

Victoria Cooper’s digital montage Stories from the Gorge scrolls, made over ten years ago were included in Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery show. The exhibition was entitled Off the wall and was on show in Gallery 2 and Amos Gallery in May 2013.

The information about the exhibition that follows comes from the exhibition room sheet prepared at the time by Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery Exhibitions Officer, Ashleigh Bunter:

The works in the exhibition have been selected from the Toowoomba Regional Art Gallery’s City Collection. They have been placed simply together due to their three-dimensional nature and to highlight their derivation from the traditional two-dimensional picture plane.

This exhibition demonstrates the way that artists manipulate physical depth within their works which can often create a greater engagement between the object and the viewer. Interestingly, many of the works in this exhibition focus upon environment, whether it is the natural, public or the domestic environment. Materiality is also a common consideration. Throughout this exhibition one can see the influence of ‘the collector’, artists who gather images or common materials, reusing and reinterpreting them to create their art.

Victoria Cooper’s Stories from the Gorge: Order, chaos and the story of the hillside is a Chinese-landscape-scroll inspired series that represents “the last bastion of a natural chaos and order, an anti-culture, occurring on the fringes of agriculture.”[i] Human effects on the natural environment are central to Cooper’s practice and her prints and artists’ books in various formations lead the view from a flat two dimensional plane into the landscapes she investigates. These printed scrolls rise up from handmade acrylic boxes like the tall gum trees on their surfaces.

Other artists in the Off The Wall show include; Michael Schlitz, Marieke Dench, Tiffany Shafran, Judith Kentish, and Brigid Cole-Adams and the exhibition will be on the wall until May 26, 2013.


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PRIZES AND AWARDS

2001 The Gorge was purchased by Australian Library of Art at the State Library of Queensland

2001 – Photographer and gallery director Sandy Edwards awarded The Gorge, First Prize in the Muswellbrook Photography Award

2001 – MCA Director Elizabeth Ann Macgregor awarded The Cliff, First Prize for Works on Paper, Martin Hanson Memorial Art Awards, Gladstone Regional Art Gallery and Museum

2002 – Five Stories from the Gorge was a Finalist in the 2002 Josephine Ulrick & Win Schubert Foundation for the Arts Photography Award at the Gold Coast City Art Gallery was selected by Isobel Crombie Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria

2002 –The triptych was acquired during its showing in the Toowoomba Biennial Acquisitive Award selected by Julie Ewington, then Curator at the Queensland Art Gallery..

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Stories From the Gorge triptych as presented @TRAG

Three images of the Stories from the Gorge triptych as presented @TRAG

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THE BACKSTORY OF THE SCROLLS AND THE SERIES OF 5 WORKS

Cooper’s scrolls were presented for the TRAG exhibition as a triptych, however in the original exhibition, entitled Searching for the Sublime, there were five scrolls. Searching for the Sublime was a collaborative project with sculptor Jim Roberts, fellow artist Doug Spowart and curator Deborah Godfrey. The inspiration for the project was a wilderness area in the Helidon Hills a mere 20 kilometres north-east of Toowoomba. Supported by an RADF Grant, the show featured Roberts’ sculptures, Spowart’s abstract water photographs, and Cooper’s scrolls and was shown at 62 Robertson Gallery in Brisbane in August 2001.

Searching for the Sublime @ Gallery 62 Robinson

Searching for the Sublime @ Gallery 62 Robinson   PHOTO: Courtesy of 62 Robertson

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Five Stories Fom the Gorge installation at SQIT Gallery

Five Stories from the Gorge installation at SQIT Gallery

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The images were assembled as a photomontage in the tiny, by current sizes, Blueberry iMac computer. At times Victoria juggled 200 layers in one Adobe Photoshop document to create the fiction panoramas. Seeing the whole image was a problem as most of the time Cooper’s view was no bigger than the iMac screen requiring her to ‘scroll’ the image up and down–just as you will do in looking at the images in this post. Saving the files took 20-30 minutes and the system often crashed. The images were printed in pigment inks on an Ilford Novajet printer onto Hahnemühle Japan ‘rice paper’ by IMT on the Gold Coast. Victoria worked with artist Wim de Vos to design the bespoke handmade acrylic boxes. The design featured the ability for the box to not only serve as a container, but also act as a device to display the scrolls.

The complete set of scrolls, Five Stories from the Gorge, was shown in many venues and awards (see prize list at the end of this post), including Photospace at National Art School, Australian National University, Canberra. Canberra Times arts reviewer Myra McIntyre commented that Cooper’s works are:

Most elegant and fascinating photographic objects are Landscape stories, a series of five Asian-inspired scrolls. Cooper crawls, wanders and flies through the Australian landscape gathering hundreds of objects, patterns, and perspectives that she digitally intertwines, creating a continuum of almost imperceptibly diverse perspectives and a physical sense of vertigo in the viewer.

Review, Canberra Times, May 10, 2002

In 2002 the triptych was acquired during its showing in the Toowoomba Biennial Acquisitive Award selected by Julie Ewington, then Curator at the Queensland Art Gallery. Interestingly the rules of the competition at the time restricted entries to work that had not previously won an art award–as such only the three scrolls The Story of the Hillside, Chaos and Order were entered. When purchased the two other scrolls were orphaned from the set.

So here in this blog, we reunite the Five Stories from the Gorge presented in a form for you to scroll/stroll through …  Enjoy.

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By Doug Spowart

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Story of the Cliff

Story of the Cliff

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Story of the Gorge

Story of the Gorge

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Story of the Hillside

Story of the Hillside

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Creative Commons-by-nc-nd.eu

 

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

 

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