Biloxi Mississippi 2005 from American Power, copyright Mitch Epstein
From Roger Fenton’s calotypes of the Crimea to Ansel Adams’ iconic pictures of Yosemite,
the landscape has had a lasting hold on photographers. Traditional depictions still hold sway to the Pictorialist aesthetic, which in turn drew on the conventions of painting, tending towards the romanticisation of nature, focusing on its sheer physical beauty and avoiding human touch.
But in recent decades, a number of key photographers have taken a different approach,
and another Adams – Robert – helped frame a new, more critical direction, which gained impetus with the New Topographics exhibition he contributed to in 1975, in which man-made elements came to the fore, as did an implicit commentary on our use, and misuse, of the land.
Diane Smyth talks to seven photographers who, in their own way, continue logic in their own photographs of the landscape.
Michael Light’s projects range far and wide, from archive projects on the surface of the Moon and atomic bomb testing, to aerial shots of the American West. But to him they are united by two key factors – a sublime sense of scale, and the human race’s interaction with the environment.
“I have always been interested in aerial photography because there have been some very distinguished aviators in my family,” he says. “The Moon is just the logical extension of that. But going to the Moon also represents the first human moment of contact with a previously untouched landscape. 100 Suns [his project on atomic tests] is the moment humans first learnt to create their own stars, and it’s also a very theatrical, visual demonstration of American power.”
For Aerials, an ongoing project in the US, Light decided to shoot landscapes from above, shooting from a small light aircraft he flies himself. This approach allows him to show the relationship between different elements in the landscape, he says, as well as the interaction between nature and people.
“I shoot across the landscape – in aerial photography it’s called the oblique view,” he says. “I avoid shooting pointing straight down like Googlemaps because that just gives you patterns, which are very nice but don’t tease out the resonances.
“I want to approximate familiar landscape views and tableaux that unpicks our conception of the American West,” he adds. “The US is a vast country, and the West is a vast area, but even here there is no respite from the built environment. There is really no place that is untilled now. The aerial perspective gives the wholesale infrastructure of our environment, going behind the shopping malls and storefronts to show the underlying structure.”
He’s been working on these aerial images since 2003, and has shot nine separate areas so far, including cities such as Los Angeles and developments such as the enormous Bingham Canyon copper mine as well as the surrounding countryside.
Initially these series were published as either large artists’ books (at 36×44 inch) or pigment prints (at 24×30 or 40×50 inch), whose physical size emphasised both the vast nature of the landscapes involved and the connection with 19th century photographs and paintings.
They are now also being published at more conventional sizes by Radius Books, and Light is excited to be able to reach out to more people with his work. But he’s also keen not to proselytise.
“There is an environmental impetus to the work but I try not to be too overtly judgemental,” he says. “It’s more a sense that the more we know the better off we are. We all use electricity, so what does the mine that provides 9% of America’s electricity actually look like?
“I want to create environmental documents but I also want them to reflect complexity. Equally, I’m not interested in the cottage industry of Ansel Adams recreations. That’s what I term ‘nature porn’ – it serves a purpose, just like sexual porn, but it’s not a serious engagement with the environment.”
Michael Light has been shooting his Aerials series for eight years. Two projects from the series have just been published as Michael Light: Bingham Mine/Garfield Stack by Radius Books
(ISBN: 978 1 934435 20 5), priced $55
From minefields in Afghanistan to beauty spots in Northern Ireland once plagued by sectarian murders, when documentary photographer Paul Seawright trains his lens on landscapes, it always has a political edge.
“How can the photographic interrogation of landscape excavate narratives and histories not visible on the surface of the land?” he wrote about his 2007 project, UXB, for which he shot areas in northern Italy in which unexploded bombs remain undiscovered 66 years after being dropped by the Royal Air Force. “How can the post-conflict landscape offer revitalised insights into the narratives of war and the memorialising of history?”
He says he stumbled on the idea of “aftermath” photography early on because he grew up in Belfast when the Troubles were at their height. “The [press] photographs of the drama of the moment never seemed to me to represent the complexity of the situation,” he says. “I was taught by Paul Graham and his images of Northern Ireland were the first that I had seen that attempted a different visual strategy.
“I don’t want to be direct or very obvious, and landscapes open up a more metaphoric approach,” he adds. “In most of the work I have made I’ve avoided photographing people. I want to make photographs that make the viewer slow down and take a second look. I don’t just want to shock them. Photojournalism has its place, but I’m trying to do something very different.”
His latest project, which is still a work in progress, is similarly political and oblique in its approach. A study of American urban landscapes, it depicts the bleak and often economically deprived areas in which many of the country’s military recruitment centres are based, hinting at the poverty and lack of opportunity that helps persuade young men and women to sign up for active duty.
“Americans now get a $40,000 cheque for signing up and, if you are not a US citizen, your application is greatly accelerated,” he says. “That makes Texas a really big area for recruitment, because there are so many Mexicans in the region. New recruits are sent to Afghanistan or Iraq within eight weeks.
“The project just unfolded before me. These landscapes are so unlike those shoved at us all the time [in the media].”
Picturing broken-down store fronts among dirty, littered streets, they are, as Seawright himself points out, like Stephen Shore scenes gone horribly wrong. For him, landscape photography is simply a means to an end and, in fact, he has deliberately subverted some of the conventions of landscape photography in his work.
His images of Northern Ireland include little or no horizon, for example, a technique designed to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere of living among sectarian conflict zones, while his more recent pictures from Africa and America concentrate on the degraded, polluted areas that more romantically minded photographers choose to overlook.
“I’m not interested in regular landscape photography at all,” he says. “I’m interested in how we deal with politics. The content takes precedence – I’m always walking a fine line between form and content, because if they’re too beautiful they become crass.”
Olaf Otto Becker
German photographer Olaf Otto Becker has worked on one landscape for the last seven years – the Arctic. In his Broken Line series, 2003-2006, the German photographer followed Greenland’s vast coastline, documenting scenes that are undergoing rapid mutation through the effects of global warming.
For his most recent project, Above Zero, he focused on Greenland’s glaciers, tracing the turquoise rivers and deepening holes that signal their steady meltdown.
Despite the remote location of these melt zones, Becker travelled to them by foot, accompanied by just one guide and dragging his photographic and survival kit behind him on a sled. Most of the few visitors here travel by helicopter, but the photographer insists the hike is better, because he notices so many aspects of the terrain along the way.
He has made three expeditions of up to four weeks so far, camping on the ice shield alongside 90kg of equipment. Researching each trip also takes many weeks, using maps and satellite images produced by the University of Colorado to track the rivers in each glacier.
“I try to give a clear impression of landscape and the thousands of rivers you find there,” explains Becker. “They are increasing now, getting bigger and bigger.” Captured on a large format camera, he displays his images as very large prints, allowing every detail of the landscape and its rapid, though silent, destruction to be seen.
He also photographed the University of Colorado’s team of researchers working on the ice shield, deliberately waiting for overcast days and shooting them from a distance to emphasise how few and how small they are against this vast landscape and its even bigger problem.
His work is shown in art galleries and magazines rather than through NGOs but, he says, it’s no less political because of that. “My images are beautiful because the landscapes are beautiful. But what you see in my beautiful images will cause very ugly images [of suffering] elsewhere in the world. I’m interested landscape photography, but the kind that shows how our environment is changing. One of our major problems is climate change and photographers and artists have to communicate something about that.”
And his highly aesthetic approach helps him convey this message. Becker draws on 19th Century landscape painting, for example, because they leave the foreground empty, creating space for the viewer to explore what’s in front of them.
“Landscape photography is a kind of language I can use to communicate something important,” he says. “I’ve said everything I can say about the Arctic, but my next project will also consider the changing landscape and what we are doing to our planet. We must hurry to do something before it’s too late.”
Above Zero, is published as a book by Hatje Cantz (ISBN: 978 3 7757 2437 1), priced €58.
“In a nutshell, American Power looks at the landscape as a reflection of the society,” says Mitch Epstein. “It looks at how the choices society has made have manifested themselves in the environment.”
The book, published by Steidl, also takes energy as a loose starting point, whether that be the production of energy in wind farms or its conspicuous consumption on the Sunset Strip in Las Vegas. Shot on a 10×8 camera from elevated vantage points, the images have been exhibited as extremely large, 6×8.5-foot prints showing off every nook and cranny. “I wanted to see how much detail I could capture before losing the overall sense,” says Epstein. “But the details are very important.
“For example, a shot of Las Vegas shows the connections that go into making the city – you can see the Sunset Strip, but also the car park and freeway behind it, and the desert and mountains beyond the city. A shot of a glacier looks like it’s been taken in an un-peopled landscape at first, but if you look more closely you can see the footsteps of tourists who have walked up to it. It’s also quite dirty, with a texture that looks like asphalt. There are lots of suggestions of this soiling of nature.”
Epstein doesn’t consider himself a landscape photographer. Primarily a documentary photographer, he also shoots still lifes and portraits. But landscape photography seemed the right approach this time, allowing him to comment on excess energy consumption without resorting to tub-thumping. A shot of Biloxi, a town on the Mississippi Sound devastated by Hurricane Katrina, shows both the destruction wrecked by global warming and the ”beauty of late afternoon sunlight in the Gulf of Mexico”.
“It’s not a photojournalistic shot, I arrived six weeks after the hurricane had passed,” he says. “I’m not interested in disaster pornography. [My image] shows that nature has the power to upend a seaside town or come back and make it look glorious, and that we should respect it.
“Even when I’m shooting in natural parks, I don’t run any risk of falling under [Ansel] Adams’ spell because there is a Romanticism at the core of his practice that is not present in mine,” he adds. “Life is not about the isolated perfection of nature, but nor is it just about humanity.”
Mitch Epstein’s recent book American Power (published by Steidl, ISBN: 978-3-86521-924-4, priced £45) explores energy in the US, and how it is produced and consumed.
“All of my work is a hybrid between photographic and computer-generated elements,” says German artist Michael Najjar, who is perhaps best known for Nexus project part I (1999-2000), in which he created a vision of future generations of cyborgs.
In Netropolis (2003-2006) he used multiple perspectives to illustrate the unseen but increasingly prevalent information networks that underpin our megacities. And for his latest project, High Altitude (on show at Studio La Citta in Verona from 14 May until 03 July), he’s taken on the financial indices that track our economy, mapping charts taken from Nasdaq, the Dow Jones, Nikkei and five other sources, including a graph that charts the Lehman Brothers’ fate, onto Mount Aconcagua in Argentina, which at 700m is the highest mountain outside the Himalayas.
He shot the mountain views himself, training for six months to be fit enough to climb and spending three weeks on the expedition. “The performative aspect of the project was very important,” he says.
“I was interested in the similarities between large mountains and the financial markets, and one of those similarities is the element of risk. When you’re climbing a mountain you are very focused on going forward, but you have to consider the possibility of falling. The higher you go, the less oxygen there is. The body starts to fail. That corresponds to liquidity in the financial markets. If liquidity flows out of the markets, they start to collapse.”
The indices he used chart financial market movements over the last 20 to 30 years, while the mountain ranges were created over tens of thousands of years, yet both are so large and complex they are almost beyond human comprehension.
“Financial models are the most virtual and complex systems we have,” says Najjar. “French philospher Jean Baudrillard said in the 1990s that if all virtual assets were one day to flow back into the production economy, they would trigger a catastrophe. That’s exactly what happened. My idea was to materialise something completely invisible, the virtual data mountains of the stock market charts are resublimated in the craggy materiality of the Argentinean mountainscape.”
Ironically Najjar, who got interested in photography in the 1990s “because it was clear that digital technology would change the medium so much”, shot the images on medium format using film, as digital cameras are too sensitive to work in sub-zero temperatures.
Having memorised each chart he looked out for sections of the mountain range that approximated their shape, then worked on the images digitally in minute detail back in the studio, reshaping them to fit rock by rock. The look and feel of the images was inspired by the work of Romantic artist Caspar David Friedrich, and although Najjar didn’t include a figure looking out over the mountain range (as the German painter did in his 1818 painting, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog), he did make 2m-wide exhibition prints to absorb the viewer in the scenes.
He followed the tradition of landscape painting and photography, he says, but also pointed the way to the future. “The next generation has an extremely interesting approach because they are used to interactive, simulated environments,” he says. “Computer games will change their perception of real nature.”
Michael Najjar uses digital to explore the immaterial, in a wide variety of topics. In his latest project, High Altitude, he mapped financial indices onto shots of Mount Aconcagua. The project is on show at Studio La Citta, Verona, Italy from 14 May – 03 July.
Best known for his black-and-white documentary work on Apartheid-era South Africa, David Goldblatt has also continually focused on the psychological impact of his homeland’s power structures and how they are imparted through its landscape.
But in the two decades since the end of white rule, he has felt free to take more lyrical photographs, working in colour and taking off in a camper van into the country’s vast and beautiful landscape. “During Apartheid I used to envy people like Edward Weston who could take photographs without asking themselves what they would say,” he says. “It was something I lusted after.”
Even under Apartheid, Goldblatt never shot straight photojournalism and his work is still underlined by what’s he’s described as his primary concern – “the land, its division, possession, use and misuse; how we have shaped it and how it has shaped us”. A recent picture of a verdant rugby pitch situated in an arid desert area speaks both of the country’s lack of water, for example, and the resources pumped into its national sport.
Another image from the same project shows an area of flat scrubland foregrounded by a plain sign that reads, “Boorgat is die Antwoord”, conveying both the lack of water and the government’s inability to provide basic utilities.
“That sign made me laugh and laugh,” says Goldblatt, who was born in 1930. “I was laughing at myself – I’d seen so many signs like that and never properly looked at them. “It means, ‘Borehole is the answer’ – farmers don’t have enough water, so private contractors drill boreholes for them. Water is a major problem in the whole of Africa, and one of the promises made by the ANC government was that they would ensure a good water supply and sewers. So far they have only partly met that commitment. The signs sum all that up in an extraordinarily eloquent and efficient way.”
Goldblatt bought a camper van in 1999, after deciding to shoot all the intersections of latitude and longitude in South Africa. Many of these intersections were in extremely remote places, and he realised he would have to be able to travel to them self-sufficiently, with enough equipment to keep his camera going.
He got an appropriately sturdy pick-up truck for the job then had it specially modified to allow him, and sometimes his wife, to live in it for weeks at a time. The roof has been strengthened to allow Goldblatt to stand on it to capture a more panoramic perspective, and he had it fitted out with GPS years before most other vehicles. “It’s a workhorse,” he says.
Goldblatt shoots on a 5×4 view camera, waiting until he’s got back from his trips to develop his images and living with the negatives for a while before deciding what to print. But despite the length of time between taking a shot and seeing it, he says he never has any problem deciding what to photograph. “I’m quite disciplined – I frame the landscape between my fingers and I don’t take many shots,” he says. “I just photograph what makes me itch.”
“I am exploring landscape from the perspectives of matter, myth and metaphysics,” says Jem Southam. “I’m interested in the intersection between the imagination and that which we see. Children who grow up on 21st century intensive farms still draw pictures of farms with ponds with ducks and geese wandering around, because that’s what farms are like in many picture books.”
His ongoing project on coastal erosion tackles a peculiarly English obsession – our emotional investment in our “green and pleasant land”, and the places in which it abruptly falls apart. Southam has photographed coastal erosion for the last 15 years, going back to the same beaches to reshoot the same cliffs once or twice a year. He often shoots the “Jurassic Coast” of Dorset and East Devon close to his home, but he also works in Normandy and has shot a similar project on commission in Cumbria.
He’s particularly interested in landslides both because he likes the way that they look and because they embody the ever-changing nature of our supposedly timeless landscape. “None of us can really comprehend the vast scale of geological change, but using a large plate camera I can track the tiny alterations and get some sense of the duration,” he says.
Unlike geologists, however, Southam’s art is inexact, designed to create beautiful images rather than scientific data. He describes his work as landscape photography, but often opts for atypical subjects such as mines or abandoned ponds, as well as coastal erosion.
“Neatly made gardens aren’t what I am drawn to,” he says. “I like mining landscapes because they are inadvertently created by the processes of mineral extraction. They are challenging places where our desire for aesthetic order and our need for resources are in conflict.”
“I’m part of a generation that has followed photography through university and college,” he continues. “It’s made an enormous difference. When you study photography you start to question what it is to take a picture. People have realised that through pictures of place you can ask questions.”
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