18th April 2013
Over 70 photographic artists from around the world have had more than 130 pieces of their work collected and displayed through a number of rooms at the Somerset House Gallery. The overall exhibition has been curated in halves, the first half being ‘Fact’ the second being ‘Fictional’; each room has a theme for the images to follow, but there is no set order for their display or any order that each ‘mini-gallery’ should be visited. By the time I’d completed the visit and enjoyed all there was to offer I was in information overload, and for this reason I’d say that it really requires more than one visit to fully enjoy all there is to see.
What impressed me most about this collection was the fact that as someone who considered landscape in the traditionalist genre, where images depict possibly unseen or unlikely to be seen views of the natural world, that along with all other aspects of art modern art, landscape now has a much wider gamut than that and it came as quite a shock in some instances to see what is classified as landscape. By that I mean an image of the North Sea on a foggy day presented subtly varying shades of grey without any discernable detail; or the interior of a partially demolished building showing piles of rubble shaped like a row of hills with a partially intact brick wall behind, these I wouldn’t have normally considered as landscape. The more traditionally recognised versions of landscape artistry follow on from the historical genre created by painters throughout the centuries and quite often considered to have been exemplified in photography by Ansel Adams with his imposing images from his seminal works in Yosemite Valley and the Grand Canyon. I believe this sea-change was heralded in 1975 by Robert Adams with ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man Altered Landscape’ where for the first time an entire collection was dedicated to the man-made changes to the landscape.
Clearly there has been a big shift in the depiction of landscapes, probably brought about by various factors, but without doubt one of the most probable is the fact that our world is changing faster now than ever before, glacier shrinkage, pollution, global warming, and it perhaps behoves artists to depict more of actually what is taking place rather than the previously idealised, blinkered view. Interestingly more figures tend to appear in images these days than perhaps previously. I would suggest that this is due to the fact that all landscape has been affected in some way by man and his actions and their inclusion is a metaphor for the changes wrought no matter how remote they may at first seem to be from human habitation. For instance, the landscape so often thought of as the original and ideal countryside of Suffolk as depicted by Constable was not like it appears in his images prior to the arrival of man, and particularly the Romans. Man has sought to ‘manage’ the environment since his arrival and in fact the National Parks Services attempted to intervene in the management of Yellowstone Park, similar to the way native American did, with disastrous results. They wiped out the timber wolf, the top predator, and so unbalanced the food chain, they failed to control certain types of tree and brush growth and created vegetation deserts. Pieter Hugo has some very interesting images displayed, and his use of the human form helps us to understand how the desecration of the landscape has direct consequences on people particularly in Africa, Asia and China where the electronic waste of western society ends up to scar their lives and surroundings to the detriment of their health and our shame.
Although Robert Adams probably started this shift from traditional to modern depiction of landscape there are significant differences between the two exhibitions. Adams’s work shows industrial constructions and other constructed bodies where clear evidence of mans intrusion into nature is clearly visible. ‘Landmark’ I think has a different message and is much more subtle. Certainly Burtynsky and others show similar ideas to Adams with their depiction of man-made disasters and waste, but the majority of artists in ‘Landmark’ are attempting to show similar, but different aspects, presenting change and hope for the future combined.
Aerial photography seems to be becoming the preferred way to show topographical landscape, probably brought about by the success of Burtynsky where his point of view is either from the air or very elevated positions. The low-cost of technology available to even the amateur these days to be able to enter this field will also have an impact for some time to come, until the fad wears out that is.
This brings into question the scenes of disaster in the natural world and the beauty that they clearly display. Burtynsky and David Maisel feature predominantly in this area and there can be no doubt that these images need to be seen to highlight the damage that’s done to the environment. The question that I’ve heard raised though, is the depiction of the scene with such beauty justified when there is clearly a disaster taking place? My response to that would be yes. To show an image of the same scene in black-and-white would certainly show the necessary details of what’s occurring, but would it have the same impact? Would it arrest a passer-by and make them look? Doesn’t the colour also impart information, information about what it is that is actually affecting the planet, coloured substances normally denote toxicity, at least to me anyway; take the yellow of sulphur for instance, chromium is blue-green, Vanadium is lavender, none of which is good in large doses. So yes, the use of colour and beauty is justified if it helps to highlight the problems.
I came away with a new slant on landscape and hopefully better informed.