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Documentary Photography Review | 28th November 2017

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EXHIBITION REVIEW: Landmark: The Field of Photography

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As a landscape photography exhibition part titled ‘Landmark’ and whose cover image is the iconic Edward Burtynsky ‘red river’ in ‘Nickel Tailings no. 34’ (1996), I entered this exhibition as a part (cultural) geographer, part photographer, keen to see an engaging and contemporary take on the concept of landscape photography and a search of images that moved away from the pristine (though wonderful) Ansell Adams style landscapes, untouched by human presence. I wanted to see images that re-imagined the genre of the landscape photograph, highlighting the varied human-environment interactions. In part I was not disappointed; it’s hugely diverse selection of images and styles, from realist, to abstract, to highly conceptual, certainly present a dynamic way of photographing and conceptualising the term ‘landscape’, and the rich and varied genre that is landscape photography today. It also showcases new and unseen works or images from recently completed projects. Its approach is interesting and novel, which I admire, and it certainly houses some fantastic images and important photographers, but its overall aim or message is unclear, the collection and its layout often felt disjointed, and it was simply ‘all too much’. Perhaps its aim is just to demonstrate and display a hugely varied set of landscape images, but this, I feel, was not quite enough and I was left a little lost.

Put together by the Positive View Foundation this exhibition aims to display the varied field of landscape photography, demonstrating the multitude of interests and agendas of the photographers; it displays images from the ‘normal’ everyday landscape, such as the Camel Canal in Padstow, to large prints of majestic glaciers, environmental destruction, and images from the moon. The curatorial approach is to categorise works under ten ‘signposts’, including Pastoral, Witness, Landmark, Scar, Datum and Hallucination. This is an interesting idea, with strong potential, but here it works to varying, and in some cases limited, effect.  The choice of images within each category is diverse, reflecting the various approaches that could be selected within a given ‘signpost’. This often felt confused, perhaps because of the ambitious scale of the exhibition and the huge array of images on display. The category ‘Witness’,  for example, displayed photos of industrial sites or cities, such as the interesting images from John Davis’s series We are English, particularly the contrasting images of the Easington Colliery, county Durham, 1983 and 2004. Here ‘witness’ is capturing a change to a place, or development over time. These stood alongside images of stormy cloudscapes and seascapes, whose choice under this signpost were, to me, less clear, and reflected an abstract take on the concept. Perhaps this confusion was in part due to the very limited contextualisation and information of all the images and the reasoning behind the selection of an image within a concept. The accompanying handout for the exhibition gives definitions of each of the ten signposts, but after this the viewer is left to interpret what they will. An aim of this was likely to the reflect the variety of images that a signpost can encompass, however by placing the photograph within a certain category or framework, this interpretive element is already being partly constrained or removed: on one level we are told how to interpret the image, yet there is also an element of ambiguity. The contrasting images often jarred, leaving me a little confused.

One of the largest sections was the emotively termed ‘Scar’ and contained, to me, some of the strongest images from photographers whose work I hold in high regard, but also many points of contention. The definition of scar (as a noun and verb) as given in the hand-out, is three fold: A mark or blemish from a previous illness or injury, to a body or a landscape; Disfigurement; discolouration; A hurt, mark, track, or wound. The works in this section include Edward Burtynsky and Pieter Hugo. The former’s image Pivot Irrigation, and the two Nickel Tailings images (no. 34 and 35, Ontario, Cananda 1996) arguably show a certain ‘scar’ on the landscape, as does the wonderful triptych by Pieter Hugo, from The Series Permanent Error (2010) and the powerful, if a little clichéd, image of Amazonian deforestation by Daniel Beltra (Amazon no. 10, 2008). The section also shows an image of a golf course cutting through hillsides and an airplane landing site in the middle of the desert. But alongside these hangs the beautiful photograph (actually a series of images ‘stitched’ together and well worth seeing as the large print on display here) of Amrut Nagar #2 by Robert Polidori, of a packed shanty town in Mumbai, India. This colourful and over-crowded group of tin houses on a hillside is presumably seen as a ‘scar’ to the surrounding environment. This doesn’t sit well with me. Housing for the impoverished people of an over-populated Mumbai should not be compared to golf courses or landing pads when grouped together under the concept of a scar, which carries negative connotations. I am sure the residents would dispute their homes as a “mark, track or wound”; they have likely set up home wherever they could, possibly having been displaced by ‘development’. An image depicting the clearing of slums for the ‘modern’ and pricey complexes popping up all over the city would be more appropriate here. Perhaps I have missed a point, and again, contextualisation would help. Another image of contention within this section is that of a landscape populated by wind turbines. Arguably these could be considered a scar, certainly they cause much divisive opinion in the UK context, and the image, titled Windmills at Trehachapi Pass by Alex Maclean (1991) shows a landscape cut into and severely altered. However, by placing the images within the emotive and negative contention of the term scar, a certain position seems to be being taken. As with the slum in Mumbai, I wonder if an image of wind turbines, a source of renewable energy for a large number of people in an era of climate change, displayed alongside golf courses and deforestation is helpful. Perhaps the turbines have caused large environmental impacts and conflict for the community, a brief narrative accompanying the image seems necessary here.
Images within each ‘signpost’ vary from realistic pieces to the abstract, such as David Maiser’s wonderfully colourful Terminal Mirage, 2005 (from the Great Salt Lake), and some categories took a highly conceptual approach overall, including Datum, Hallucination and Delusion. The highly conceptual elements were often unconvincing within this exhibition, though with some strong pieces amongst them.  Whilst I found the category of Datum a little weak (why are these specific images considered ‘fact’?) this section does contain a beautiful image well worth taking some time over: a striking silver/blue mountain-scape in Likir, in the Himalayan region of Ladakh, northern India (Luca Campigotto, 2007).

I will end with two final thoughts. Firstly, looking at this exhibition through a critical, cultural geography lens I want to reflect on the anthropogenic view, which continues to be taken when thinking about the environment. Whilst many images give a representation of human-environment interactions, our destruction of the environment and the genre has come a long way in seeing nature as something untouched by humans, few images truly reflect upon the power that the environment has over us; the ability of nature to shape people in a variety of ways, at a variety of scales. Instead the focus remains how we influence the environment (though this is also important to represent) but nature remains passive. It was when looking at Thomas Struth’s El Capitan, (Yosemite National Park, 1999) that I reflected upon this (an example where an image moves you/sparks a thought). As the great monument towers in the background, the people look up in awe and they and their cars seem so small and insignificant. Perhaps some of the images do in fact show this, and it is the curation that does not draw it out, for examples Michael Light’s image of the Snake river canyon within the section ‘Scar’, with houses precariously balanced on the edge, or those of glaciers or of the Great Salt Lake, perhaps these are showing ‘nature as power’ but this was not a message I took away. There is a prolific and continually developing body of work within human geography that problematises the human-centred view of the environment and a landscape photography exhibition that goes some way to addressing this would be very powerful and interesting. As a final reflection I also wanted to comment on the (under-) representation of female photographers here, though this is by no means unique to this exhibition or un-flagged within photography. Within this exhibition there were fewer than ten female photographers out of 81 participants. I myself mentioned only one female photographer in this review (see below), as the images I wanted to discuss were all taken by men, as was likely, given the skewed ratio. This seems to be a trend across all things photography, the root of which needs to be addressed, challenged and changed.

Overall it is the lack of a clear narrative and a slightly disjointed layout that I believe are the downfalls of ‘Landmark: The Fields of Photography’, but criticism aside this exhibition displays an array of beautiful and powerful images, many of which simply must be seen in print. This includes Mitch Epstein’s, BP Carson Refinery (2007), Alexandra Catiere’s eerily beautiful image from her series Here Beyond The Mist,  and the works of Kander, Burtynsky and Struth, to name but a famous few.