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A New North

DISPATCHES FROM BEYOND THE 58°N PARALLEL

Some Notes For a Future Essay


IAN MCKAY

Ambiguity of scale in contemporary landscape photography can produce an unsettling effect that merits some discussion, I think – particularly in relation to the visual art of previous centuries. A photograph by the Scottish photographer Alex Boyd has me wanting to revisit themes that I have previously written about in terms of the Sublime in both art and photography.


I have recently come across an image made by photographer and writer Alex Boyd, whose work explores the remoteness of Northern landscapes. The subject of the image is Stac Lee, which is located in the North Atlantic and forms part of the St Kilda archipelago of the Outer Hebrides. As Alex tells me, the image was shot on a medium format camera some seven or eight years ago, at a time when he was "photographing sea stacks looming out of the mist" (a subject which still fascinates him, and to which he may return in the future). What interests me here is not the technical process by which the image came into being, however, but my initial reaction to it. To say that I am profoundly affected by Boyd's image is, I think, an understatement. On first seeing it, It drew me in, yet it also left me with a deep sense of foreboding, or, to put it another way, I found the photograph simultaneously beautiful and menacing in equal measure.

  Alex Boyd ,  Stac Lee  (Image: courtesy of the artist)

Alex Boyd, Stac Lee (Image: courtesy of the artist)

It is not the first time I have had such a response to a photograph, however. In 2007, I remember having a similar reaction to an image when preparing to write a catalogue essay for a publication to accompany an exhibition of work by the collaborative duo Boyd & Evans. Among the many works included in their exhibition at that time was Driftwood (2006), which similarly featured the ocean, although photographed from the shore at a point where it meets the the debris thrown up by the waves and strewn upon the sand at the high water mark. In the case of the Boyd & Evans photograph, I still recall that I found myself thinking, here is an image that unsettling dreams are made of. I won't call them 'nightmares' because that would be overcooking it somewhat, and that is certainly not what I allude to. What I refer to here are the kind of dreams that one feels compelled to recall, yet when one does they bring an unsettling feeling into the waking world, too. Like Alex Boyd's image (above) there was an ambiguity with regard scale in the Boyd & Evans image, but also a sense of much lying hidden too, out there in the mist. It was not so much about what was seen but what was not seen.

  Boyd & Evans ,  Driftwood  (2007)   (Image: courtesy of Flowers Gallery)

Boyd & EvansDriftwood (2007) (Image: courtesy of Flowers Gallery)

Referring back to my essay for the Boyd & Evans exhibition in preparation for writing this brief text here, today, I see that back in 2007 I had quoted from the writings of the the nineteenth century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, who once expressed the belief that "inorganic nature, provided it does not consist of water, produces a very melancholy, indeed oppressive impression upon us.” And yet, I'm now considering how relevant that reference really was. What Schopenhauer had in mind  was the long valley of rock near Toulon on the road to Marseilles, or the desert landscapes of North Africa, his thinking pretty much hinging on the opposition of the “inorganic mass” of desert landscapes and the "immediate pleasure" to be derived from the sight of vegetation, which directly proclaims “the phenomenon of life as a new and higher order of things.”

Even the casual reader will straight away note that there is an abundance of water in both Alex Boyd's photograph of Stac Lee, and Boyd & Evans' photograph of the Californian coastline, yet it is maybe in the absence of any immediate indication of life, too, that both images seem to fit with what Schopenhauer was getting at (if they do at all). I don't doubt that there would be a myriad of lifeforms apparent to anyone in the immediate vicinity of the locations where these photographs were taken but, for me, the viewer, any sense of that life is not revealed in a way that can reduce the sense of foreboding that I feel. Whether a photograph of a large sea stack in the North Atlantic, or of the silvered timbers thrown up onto the shore by the crashing waves of the Pacific, both images touch upon the sense of our smallness when measured against the natural world. Is that not, maybe, closer to what Schopenhauer was alluding to, I wonder.

Maybe it also has something to do with the absence of human scale or subject in these images that causes me to feel the way I do, but there is more going on here than just that, surely? If the issue was just about lack of human scale, then why would my mind connect Boyd & Evans' Driftwood and Alex Boyd's Stac Lee with what I associate, somewhat irreverently, with the generic term 'Nordic Noir' (a categorisation in my mind that is set aside for the cataloguing of a great many stills from Ingmar Bergman's arthouse classic The Seventh Seal of 1957, for example, or several paintings of northern coastlines by Caspar David Friedrich, too)? 

  The Seventh Seal  ( Det sjunde inseglet ) A still from the film by Ingmar Bergman (1957) (Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films)

The Seventh Seal (Det sjunde inseglet) A still from the film by Ingmar Bergman (1957) (Svensk Filmindustri/Janus Films)

Lately, I've been looking at the work of Paul Nash again, also. Nash was a painter (and photographer) whose work I've never felt fully comfortable with, yet it occurs to me that there are similarities in his work, too, that might merit me developing my thoughts on this just little bit further. Nash, after all, developed a whole body of work around what he referred to as megaliths and monoliths (from sea stacks to standing stones). He also developed a book on the English county of Dorset that featured one of his photographs of the sea stacks on England's south coast  as part of the Shell Guide series.

  Paul Nash ,  Black and white negative, Avebury stone (double exposure)  (1933) ©  Tate  {CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)]

Paul NashBlack and white negative, Avebury stone (double exposure) (1933) © Tate {CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)]

As a war artist, Nash painted one of his most celebrated and iconic images: a 'graveyard' of downed Luftwaffe aircraft titled Totes Meer (Dead Sea, 1940) that, for me, appears to possess some relationship with the Boyd & Evans image as well, albeit of quite a different nature. Additionally, there are crossovers between Nash's Totes Meer and Caspar David Friedrich's Wreck of Hope – sometimes alternatively titled The Sea of Ice (1823–1824): a painting that shows a wrecked sail ship, the HMS Griper, that took part in William Edward Parry's expeditions to the North Pole. In Friedrich's painting we see the ship crushed by colossal shards of arctic pack ice, and again there appears an ambiguity of of scale that can seem unsettling (menacing even). As Andrew Causey has written, Friedrich's painting had a direct influence on Nash in his development of Totes Meer.

  Paul Nash   Totes Meer (Dead Sea)  (1940–1) ©  Tate  {CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)] – said to be based upon the image, right.

Paul Nash Totes Meer (Dead Sea) (1940–1) © Tate {CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported)] – said to be based upon the image, right.

  Caspar David Friedrich   The Sea of Ice  (also known as  The Wreck of Hope ) (1823-4) © Kunsthalle Hamburg.

Caspar David Friedrich The Sea of Ice (also known as The Wreck of Hope) (1823-4) © Kunsthalle Hamburg.

I'm not sure where I'm going with this yet, but it's a topic that I'm sure I will return to. Certainly the sense of foreboding that I feel when studying all of the works mentioned here (most of all those by both Alex Boyd and Boyd & Evans) might justly merit some more detailed discussion in the future. None of the artworks that I refer to include human subjects, clearly (Bergman's film represents the obvious passing exception), but it is in the apparent 'bigness' of nature in most of these images that my interest really lies (even if, in the case of Nash's Totes Meer, the artist represented his 'dead sea' in the form of the carcasses of twisted aircraft parts). Schopenhauer's reference to water aside, then, certainly these images have something of the 'inorganic' about them, and it is this that I'm now thinking about in terms of what they have to say (somewhat ironically maybe), about what is often referred to as 'the human condition', and that in relation to what was once thought of as the call of the Sublime.