critical writing, landscape, large format

Why not eco-photography?

February 4, 2022

Spending periods of time in nature (eg., the Alpine National Park) enabled Tatnall to photograph the before and after of the massive wildfire in 2003 that burnt for over 59 days and burned the majority of the 660,000 hectare national park. He says:

“The ferocity and intensity of recent wildfires have made going back to places very difficult for me. Although some plants and trees can survive and regrow after fires this may take decades. Some trees such as Alpine Ash, Mountain Ash (the tallest flowering plant in the world) and Snow Gums don’t survive fires. The frequency of fires has increased due to climate change and the regrowing trees have been burnt again before they could produce seed. Now the drive into the park is like driving into a cemetery of huge dead trees with no young trees to take their place.”

My interpretation of what Tatnall is saying is that this pyroscape –a landscape burnt with the savagery of a massive wildfire — is a landscape of the Anthropocene. It is represented by an ecologically informed photography of nature that stands counter to the traditional human-centered dualism, which sees nature as resource to be exploited for the benefit and self-preservation of human beings. This photography counters this dualism that devalues nature by working with a relational conception of humans in an ecosystem; a relationality that Christopher Houghton says defines the various entities in nature in terms of their constitutive relations with one another whilst retaining the difference and distinctness of each.

Heysen Trail, Waitpinga

Being in nature implies immersion rather standing outside looking on, and this in turn implies the photographer’s being is within a mesh of relations with other species and entities in an ecosystem. The large format photographer who spends time walking and dwelling in a place (eg., camping) is an ecological self who understands nature in a national park in terms of an ecological rationality.

Now this is photography under a philosophic interpretation. The two however, work hand in hand: art creates blocs of public “percepts” and “affects” that stand on their own, whilst philosophy creates concepts based on a pre-philosophical field of intuitions and sensibilities. An eco-photography is one that moves away from the older European ideas of the landscape to find new ways of looking at the Australian natural environment. It is very similar in orientation to that of John Wolseley, the Australian painter, in his search for a formal language to express the unique peculiarity of the Australian natural environment.

An eco-photography that is able to say something about our fragile environment by making an image that has an impact and an environmental meaning raises the issue of art and politics. In closing the interview Michéla Griffith says that “David would be disappointed if all you took away from this article is that his photography is about conservation. While his images have undoubtedly been a good and faithful servant to it, they are first and foremost about his relationship with the land, and the spirit of place.” Griffith implies that this kind of photography is neither politics or art, but both. In what way are Tatnall’s images of natural beauty both politics and art? Unfortunately, Griffith does not address the important issue that she raises.

Tatnall’s images of natural beauty need to be viewed in the cultural context where the notion of beauty has been pretty much disparaged for a century –this is the importance of the conceptual shift of Dada. Modernism either preferred the sublime to beauty or rejected beauty as being an atemporal and apolitical ideal. (Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just). Beauty which inspires desire, passion and pleasure – the beauty of people, clothes, popular art – was correlated with fashion, marketing and advertising. Beauty is consoling whilst art desires to provoke and critique. The result of this distrust of beauty — its exile in the last two decades of the 20th century– is that many people have either actively advocated a taboo on beauty, or passively omitted it from their vocabulary, even when thinking and writing about beautiful objects such as paintings and photographs. What remains is an access to a nature for us, which is to say that our notion of nature is mediated by a nature-dominating history and a nature-dominating society.

Copeville, Mallee, South Australia

One way to counter this rejection is to bring beauty back in by acknowledging that while art makes claims as a form of knowing, it presents us with insights that are not reducible to their conceptual equivalents. Artworks are sensuous, material, and particular; but they are not for that reason any less “true.” A minimal starting point to bring beauty back in was suggested by Arthur Danto in his The Abuse of Beauty (2003) with his idea of ‘internal beauty’; namely that beauty may be a necessary feature of some works of art insofar as it is ‘internal to’ their meaning. This would be the case when a work’s meaning requires a beautiful presentation, which must therefore figure in its interpretation as art. Many of Tatnall’s images do this.

Theodor Adorno in Aesthetic Theory highlights another possible counter to the rejection of beauty in that the images of natural beauty suggest a critique of the exploitative instrumental one of dominating nature for the sake of endless growth. The images of natural beauty present to humans what is not reducible to the human — we can gain a sense of otherness or what is unique in particular natural things. What then is this otherness? The images express the consequences of the domination of nature as nature’s past and ongoing suffering eg., Tatnall’s reference to the Snow Gums in the Alpine National Park unable to reshoot because of the frequency and intensity of the bush fires.

Talisker Conservation Park, Waitpinga

Nature’s suffering from being harmed is outside the identity language of neo-classical economics and the importance of artworks is that they show the appearances of this otherness in a non-conceptual way; by making us aware of the suffering these images implicitly criticize the values and language of our existing society that since colonization has seen nature as an adversary out of the anxiety for self-preservation. This is a form of thinking that sees itself as the opposite of nature. The natural beauty in an eco-photography gives voice to a mutilated nature, which is one way to distinguish it from landscape photography.

Adorno argues that that a further significance of natural beauty is that it is a manifestation of a non-instrumental relationship to nature, a result of contemplating nature as appearance as opposed to the control of nature for human purposes, such as the interests of self-preservation or profit. The experience of natural beauty and the aesthetic experience of a work of art are a perception of images of a beyond: that is, that which is beyond the exchange relations of instrumental reason. It is in art where humanity’s dependence on nature that has been repressed is remembered; it is art that bears witness to the kinship and affinity between human beings and nature. It suggests to us that there are other ways to view nature that are in opposition to the re-enchanting of nature that we see in TV adverts about 4 wheel drives in the “wilderness”.

The beauty of art now carries the burden of what nature once promised in the guise of natural beauty, and it takes the unwavering eye of the artist to picture it; a promise of a possible future reconciliation between humanity and nature not only for our own sake but also for the sake of non-human nature — if we acknowledge ourselves as part of nature.

Linhof Technika Vi
Creswick Regional Park, Victoria

The above remarks suggests that we need to think in terms of an eco-photography as a response to the entangled relations, the small local transformations and the species extinctions that we are experiencing living within the Anthropocene. It is a photography that accepts it cannot fully grasp the scale of the Anthropocene, but that it can offer us glimpses at what it does in breaking down the order of things that we once took for granted. A glimpse that could help us to reimagine Earth futures.

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