Land art is nothing new but with the advent of photography it has become more accessible. We are now able to see not only contemporary works but those that were created hundreds of years ago such as the Nazca lines of Peru which can only be seen in their entirety from the air. This essay will attempt to explore the relationship between art and photography with specific reference to the ephemeral land art of Andy Goldsworthy .
I have chosen to focus on Goldsworthy because his work both fascinates and disturbs me. I am disturbed by his re-appropriation of natural elements forming an unnaturally perfect design or structure. For example covering a rock with hundreds of red leaves, all exactly the same colour and size may be visually unusual and attractive, but for me this feels like he is imposing some sort of mechanical order on an organic environment . Perhaps it is this very tension which fascinates. As unnatural as his ephemeral sculptures are, they are still vulnerable to the forces of nature, born away by the wind or water or melted in sunlight . These ephemeral works can only be known through Goldsworthy’s photographs.
In the 1970s and in the times before that, perhaps land artists were satisfied with their own experience and did not require the appreciation of others. Perhaps the act of creating and witnessing the artwork before its natural destruction would be enough for some people, however for an artist to be recognised as such (and remunerated) their work needs to be seen. In the words of Susan Sontag writing in On Photography, “ Now all art aspires to the condition of photography.”
In the documentary entitled Rivers and Tides (2001) Goldsworthy explains that he began taking photographs of his land art as an art student. He had to show his tutors what he had been doing since he worked mostly outside. He continues to take his own photographs of his work mostly because he prefers to work alone on the ephemeral sculptures. He photographs all of his work .“…good and bad…” saying that this record of his art helps him to learn more about the landscape. In 2015, in an interview on the American radio programme “Fresh Air” , when asked why he created ephemeral work he replied, “Everything dies. I need to work with leaves and wind and tides.” He explained that when a solid piece is finished that’s the beginning of its life. but with an ephemeral work when it is finished that is the end of its life.
Observing Goldsworthy through the documentary and the interview, I sense his great love of the land, particularly where he lives. He says he finds the landscape “..beautiful, dangerous and unnerving”. However, my experience of his sculptures feels ordered and inviting. Even the sharply pointed ice sculptures pictured in his book Wood are intriguing rather than dangerous. I feel that although his approach may be different to the land artists of the 1970’s, his motivation may be the same – to control the environment. Our conventional knowledge of natural landscape through direct experience and also through traditional images offers a contrast to that which Goldsworthy creates and photographs. Perhaps this is the purpose of his art.
On the last page of Goldsworthy’s book, Stone, there is a piece entitled The Photograph. Here he describes that photography is his way of talking, writing and thinking about art. He says that photography creates a space between the making of his work which he does privately or with people he knows, and then the public viewing of his work.. He describes how once it is done it requires a particular light or moment which then create the conditions for the photograph.
Examining the images in three of Goldsworthy’s books, Stone, Time and Wood, I do not find much artistry in the photographs and I am surprised to read of the care he has taken. Goldsworthy says that his work can only speak through the image and I wonder if my judgement of his photography is unfair. Although I feel the photographs would be more interesting in their own right if taken from different points of view, if the purpose is to display the artwork I can see that for Goldsworthy the medium becomes secondary and does not enhance the work but simply records it.
When comparing Goldsworthy to land artist Andrew Rogers, the latter’s can be seen from different angles including an aerial view. Rogers approach is to record the process and the final work. Looking particularly at the ephemeral piece created in the Antarctic, there is almost a filmed documentary of each piece whereas Goldsworthy seems to mainly create only one image for public viewing. The Rivers and Tides film showing the sculptures in context with the wider landscape feels more complete, portraying various angles of the work which a single, still photograph does not capture.
With computer technology it is possible to manipulate images which could improve on Goldsworthy’s photography. However, it would no longer be true to him or his work. How important is this? There is a strange paradox in that the origins of the Land Art movement in the 70’s were a response to the perceived elitism of the galleries of those times. Instead of creating art from what is available in the natural environment, it may now be possible to create land art from appropriated images. If land art can be described as conceptual, then perhaps that would be an organic development with contemporary land art eventually only existing in digital images.
Exploring Andy Goldsworthy’s photography, I conclude that it is integral to his work as without this record his art would obviously be unseen. Yet a still photograph or film that captures movement such as his balancing rocks in the waves, is a work of art itself and this might be a distraction from the original work. The uneasy relationship between art and photography seems to also exist in the photograph of the artwork itself.
Crump, J. (2015) Troublemakers: The story of land art. .
Goldsworthy, A. (1994) Stone. London: Viking.
Goldsworthy, A. (2015) Radio Interview : Sculptor turns rain, ice and trees into ‘ephemeral works’. http://www.npr.org/2015/10/08/446731282/sculptor-turns-rain-ice-and-trees-into-ephemeral-works (Accessed: 21 December 2016).
Goldsworthy, A. and Friedman, T. (1998) Wood. New York: Abrams, Harry N.
Goldsworthy, A. and Friedman, T. (2008a) Time: Andy Goldsworthy. London: Thames & Hudson.
Rogers, A. (2016) Rhythms of life Antarctica
http://www.andrewrogers.org/land-art/antarctica/rhythms-of-life-antarctica (Accessed: 21 December 2016).
Sontag, S. (1977) On photography. 3rd edition. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Riedelsheimer, T. (2001) Rivers and tides: Andy Goldsworthy working with time.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4ZASlHKsNF4&app=desktop (Accessed: 21 December 2016).
Researching and working through this section on photography I have become more aware of how photography can set a mood and convey information and emotion, or lack thereof, through film as well as a single image such as those in Michael Kenna’s work. His use of repetition of form within the landscape image, which could be poles, arches or windmills set against extraordinary light can only be seen as serious art.
Some years ago I saw an exhibition of Steve McCurry’s work and his ability to capture emotion, detail and in some cases, horror, is extraordinary. There is something so immediate about an image that is very different to reading or listening, and many of McCurry’s images have stayed with me.
I researched several different photographers in the course of this assignment, becoming much more aware of the variety of genres of photography.
Comparing the photojournalism of Dorothea Lange, particularly during the Great Depression, and the iPhoneography of today, specifically the Afghanistan war images by David Guttenfelder, I considered the accuracy of image. Guttenfelder used an app that gave his images the washed out look of an old polaroid picture, despite using an iPhone to take the photograph. This challenges my belief that journalism or any sort of reportage needs to be true to life.
On reflection I realise that from the beginning, still photography has often been used to enhance or exaggerate reality as a way of getting a message across. The Victorian images that I find so appealing are staged and designed. The London street life photography of John Thompson, while a social commentary and record, is in many cases posed and carefully considered “props” are included to add to the impact. I can see that the manipulation of the image is part of the creative process.
In some cases the image is not manipulated but relies on the context. Forty Portraits in Forty Years by Nicholas Nixon is more than a sociological record, it shows relationship. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I also sense the relationship between the photographer and the subjects, as a warmth that is conveyed.
Although I am not interested in using photography as a medium, I have become more engaged with the potential of this medium, particularly the ways in which images can be manipulated. I took the image below, of myself, using my computer. Within 10 minutes I was able to make it look like a black and white sketch, change the shape, lighting, clarity, warmth and add text. If this is possible with such limited experience and resources, I imagine that even I could create images of interest.
Working through this section has given me a greater understanding of how photography has evolved. On pages 204 and 205 of On Photography , there is a a list from Roget’s International Thesaurus naming the different fields of photography. There are several terms that I have not heard of, and of course since the list was created there are several more fields.