May 23: The abundant transparency of the photographic medium prompts its practitioner to discover order where others see none.
Work by two Australian landscape photographers with quite different approaches are currently on exhibition, though Carolyn Young‘s Grassy Woodlands regrettably finishes today at Crawford Gallery Level 1, Dymocks Building, 428 George Street, Sydney 2000.
David Stephenson‘s is a survey of his pictures from holdings in their collection by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which can be found in the 20th & 21st century Australian art section until 23 Jul 2017.
Young’s photography crosses into science, in particular botany and ecology, and in fact before studying photography and art, in which she is currently completing a PhD, Carolyn completed an honours degree in Natural Resources, and worked professionally as an environmental scientist. At the same time these are aesthetic, attractive pictures.
Young makes systematic, longitudinal image surveys of the grassy woodlands of NSW and Victoria, ecosystems that have been reduced to remnant populations found in places on farmed land, along roadsides, across reserves and in the rarely visited cemeteries that dot the remote regions. Returning to the same sites every seasonal she photographs intact grassy woodlands, and woodlands that have been cleared and fertilised for sheep pasture. The diversity of native plants is threatened by the application of fertiliser and few return after such treatment and left alone and unmanaged, they are replaced by a mass of weeds.
This is landscape at its least noticed as we appreciate the distant view; it is at our very feet where some of us toss our paper takeaway cups. Using a repetitive grid pattern in the arrangement and composition of her photographs Young hopes to bring biodiversity as land management to our attention through representations of the past, present and future of these woodlands. The images prompt direct comparison whch discovers ironic coincidences, like the location in the grid of the two images above of the sheep skull and the paper cup.
The closest relative to Young’s work in art history is a 1503 watercolour Das große Rasenstück by German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer, a realist image that painstakingly details a clump of cock’s-foot, creeping bent, smooth meadow-grass, daisy, dandelion, germander speedwell, greater plantain, hound’s-tongue and yarrow.
Of these European plants, dandelion (Taraxacum officinale) is an environmental weed that ravages Australia’s southern states, likewise smooth meadow-grass (Poa annua), cock’s-foot (Dactylis glomerata) and greater plantain (Plantago major), and yarrow (Achillea millefolium) are rapacious in Victoria and the ACT, while creeping bent (Agrostis stolonifera) rates officially as a ‘significant environmental weed’ in Tasmania and Victoria. What is ‘natural’ in the northern hemisphere is a bane here.
Young presents her individual plants from the same worm’s-eye view, side-on for most, as does Dürer, but unlike him she does not attempt to show them as if in-situ; they do not constitute a landscape in the conventional sense but are uprooted samples from very specifically identified types landscapes.
Nor could they be regarded as of the still-life genre, arranged for domestic appreciation. They become a cabinet of evenly spaced specimens, as one might find them on a laboratory bench, and it is this scientific view that she clearly wishes conveyed. Yet there is a warm touch in the arrangement of each. Her lighting is broad and flat, like that of an overcast day: undramatic, and extracting every detail, but soft and gentle.
Such artistic attributes have promoted Young twice to the ranks of finalists of the rich Bowness Photography Award, this year and in 2015, as well as attracting the attention of scientific researchers with inclusion in collections of the Goulburn-Broken Catchment Management Authority and the Murray-Darling Basin Authority, Canberra.
That David Stephenson (*1955) was also a finalist in the Award (2012) was slight recognition of a distinguished practice extending back to his days in his native USA where he embraced the New Topographics. It is evident in the AGNSW’s display of two works, one made in Alaska, the other in Queensland, in which the large-format view camera images create a continuous image across triptychs through the precise alignment of man-made forms like the train track as well along with the horizon.
Since his migration to Australia in 1982 to take up a position at the University of Tasmania his imagery has responded and evolved in the new environment with a mellowing of sentiment to be less concerned with the objective recording of human environmental interventions and much more with the experience of landscape. That is a recognised effect on artists of this most ancient of lands!
The New South Wales public gallery also shows his pinhole images:
In an account he gave of this one from the pinhole series he related how he set up the camera at dusk and walked into the shot to sit on the rocks as waves rolled in during a long exposure, in reference, or even homage, to the German Romantic painting of David Caspar Friedrich.
The Gallery also shows his minimalist, near-abstract The Ice series made in the Antarctic which are still further removed from the New Topographics in their affinity with Stieglitz’s Equivalents.
The sublime inspired both Stieglitz and Friedrich, but oddly the Gallery does not show his Starlight and Dome series which I first saw exhibited together as part of a stunning mid-career retrospective Sublime Space: David Stephenson Photographs 1989-98 at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Stephenson’s choice of titles for his exhibitions including Vast (1991), Dark Nature (1994), Transfigurations (1995), Heaven (2000), and so on, are a confirmation of the metaphysical intent of his imagery, a yearning for the sublime.
The Starlight (a.k.a Stars) series were metre-square prints. Their content, all arcs and curves and spirals, could seem to be the product of an obsessive geometer, and this impression was reinforced by the edge-to-edge grid-pattern presentation of these prints in that exhibition, along with their companions, the symmetrical kaleidoscopes of the Dome series.
The appearance of the grid, and an interest in geometry, may also trace Stephenson’s association with the Hobart School of Art, where Executive Dean for the Faculty of Visual and Performing Arts (1995-7) Professor Geoff Parr collaboratively investigated digital modelling of lattice and framework structures in 2D images. The effect of Stephenson’s imagery however is entirely original, as the viewer comprehends that these images are the recorded passage of stars. He eschews the digital manipulation promoted by Parr, and here transformed the simple ‘star-trail pic’, the concentric arcs which are familiar from astronomy books and camera clubs; what is seen here is much more complex. The arcs intersect with others, inscribing the blackness with hairbreadth curving lines that in the colour prints are of astonishing prismatic hues (so clear clear are the stars in the pristine Tasmanian air).
Sometimes the arcs are broken into steadily increasing intervals and angles, arrayed to form concentrated hatchings while in others the thatch of short strokes and dots models, in white relief against deep space, a contracting spiral. It is not a galaxy but the abstract for one.
To produce such images Stephenson has had to section his nocturnal exposures systematically, in some cases also repeatedly reorienting the camera and tripod to subdivide angles relative to the passage of the stars across the sky. The vortex form emerges from the interaction of two time frames, that of the camera and that of the stars and earth. While it is experimental, experience would make the results foreseeable, the outcomes are mathematically and aesthetically transformational, not mechanical.
Ultimately the ethereal predominates over the trigonometric in the product of these complex geometrical harmonisations, and they are more like mandalas, a meditational orrery with a lineage that can be traced from Descartes’ concept of the heavenly orchestration of the vortices, to a transformational modernist torque.
Through his process, the original star trails and their underlying logic do not entirely vanish, but they become abstractions evoking intimations of the infinite in a re-ordered constellation. These meditational devices are indeed made with traces of the stars themselves, but mediated by Stephenson’s calculated re-configuration, so that a design emerges where before there was the chaos of the heavens overlaid with the simple motion of the earth.
The roots of photography draw on both science and art, and to consider these two Australian photographers is to comprehend an amalgamation of these often too-separate disciplines.