There was a time that photography was an individual struggle with light and matter.
Nicéphore Niépce, William Henry Fox Talbot, Frederick Scott Archer, Theodore Lilianthal, Louis Daguerre. Heros in their own right. Their sophisticated and often fascinating experiments would permanently change our relationship with the world.
From the first time I saw the “view from the window at Le Gras” I was deeply affected by the obscure and profound attempts these giants made at trying to bridge our realms of understanding, awareness and possibilty. For me, they never get old. Deeply personal and deeply committed. Purposeful fumblings in the dark that would underpin an age that has since again been completely lost. Only their shadows, fixed on paper and glass remain.
I always like to think there were three things I could spend my life photographing …Well actually it’s only two, and I only really take pictures of one.
First and foremost I was always struck by trees. They’re everywhere you go. Intricately complex. And full of allegorical power. From the delicate shades of color when they’re bunched together in the distance to the hyper-realist detail when viewed up close. I know from long experience that trees are the most difficult subject to draw well. Perhaps even more complex and demanding than drapery and the human form.
It was the challenge of drawing drapes and humans and trees that made me shift from painting and drawing to photography. I set out to compile reference material so that I could study undisturbed for hours, the details of how physics, light and optics renders a subject in two dimensions.
I’m not sure I got very far with my giant book of trees and my eye began to stray towards other ideas. Other things began to jolt and occupy my mind. Like the basilica as a structure and a plan for experiencing space. An idea that deeply impressed on me and still colors my view of light, theater and architecture to this day. In short even though I keep them constantly in the corner of my eye, the trees were relegated to the sidelines.
My second subject was high tension transmission towers and pylons, and to some extent just poles. A fascinating visual story of structure and necessity, simplicity and balance.
From the first time I climbed a tower above a sea of rhubarb to Sam Miller’s 1998 film ‘Among Giants’ – they have never been far from my heart. The thinness of the steel laced together against the sky. Hydro towers more than anything else hum to me the music of the modern age. They’ve got my attention.
I look at them like crazy stick figures created by wedding Giacometti’s shadows and existential panic to Lissitzky’s revolutionary idea of “das zielbewußte Schaffen” where the artist is an agent for change .
Lone majestic giants marching over every corner of the earth, hydro towers as the 20th C structure of worship -always on the move.
Like the mosque, temple, synagogue and church that once strung every community together through faith. These 20th C sentinels stretch well beyond the age of reason and past the heavy industrial rails of the 19th. Mischievous electricity as the atomic age of transformation. Reaching right into our homes and held aloft by structural sculptures of progress that are always by our side …but then, I digress.
For in the end, it was the sky, and in particular clouds that held my gaze. A constant backdrop connecting us through time to a world that existed even before man.
The daylight contemplation of the heavens just like those who contemplate at night, not only seems proper but also necessary in adjusting our sense of scale.
It places us not at the centre of the universe, but embedded deeply in it. While small and insignificant, we become capable of sharing in incomprehensible grandeur. It allows us to connect with the vast forces we feel but cannot see.
It was Kenneth Clark who said that each new birth of civilization was welcomed by a new understanding and experiencing of space. Clouds can do for me as can art and faith. I suppose it’s how you look at them in the end that matters.
I can’t say where my visual interest in representing clouds comes from. How it moved from carefully watching for breaks in the sky that revealed “enough blue to make a sailors pants” as my grandmother put it (which meant it would turn out to be a fine day, sunny and full of wind) to the lavish visual creations of Albert Bierstadt and the westward expansion.
Undeniably the Western Plains and Eastern Slopes of the North American Rockies produce some of the finest clouds and skies. But one look at the work of the wonderful Russian painter Isaac Levitan leads me to believe planet is filled with limitless opportunity for shared creation.
In fact, studying art through history has been the largest influence on my work. And frankly it’s a two-way street. As a photographer I’ve taken many cues from the paintings of Vermeer and many Dutch painters of the early 17th C.
And when I discovered Kodachrome 64 I truly felt that I (and photography) finally belonged to the world of art. This film gave me a new and immense respect for Canaletto who seemed to travelling down a similar road. His clouds like Vermeer’s and countless others were free and unencumbered, unfettered and alive as a someone would later sing.
I was once told the definitive error in western painting was when Giotto painted the sky blue. And while I am in sympathy and agree – in less than 200 years Giorgione’s Tempest would introduce a more powerful, nuanced complex possibility to the question of representation in art.
It was lecture on Giorgione’s painting that first made me aware of the concept of clouds and landscape as legitimate dramatic subjects on their own.
While many consider the Tempest as the western world’s first ‘landscape’ painting I know that it’s brooding ability to perplex and confound us makes it more than that.
And while I appreciate Constable’s lithe and rapid depictions of early 19th C clouds before the age of steam …today I’m more interested in rediscovering the Baroque and Ultra-Baroque. Those towering masses of clouds capable of holding angels, saints and putti aloft no matter how light they should be.