Jacquie Maria Wessels, ‘Memory Master Tree Installation’ 2021, on view at CODA, photo: Sushilla Kouwen
Photographing nature – ‘Inside the Outside’ at CODA Apeldoorn – Art and ecology #5
For the fifth episode of his series on art and ecology, Joris van den Einden departs from the exhibition Inside the Outside – pioneers in lens-based media at CODA in Apeldoorn to think more broadly about the specific ways in which photography and other lens-based media can work to visualise a concept so diverse in its interpretation as ‘nature’.
Inside the Outside at CODA in Apeldoorn departs from the work of Richard Tepe, whose photographs of the Dutch natural landscape in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century contributed greatly to the first nature conservation efforts in the Netherlands. One of the first Dutch nature photographers, Tepe recently was included in the Gallery of Honour of Dutch Photography at the Nederlands Fotomuseum in Rotterdam. The exhibition at CODA includes the work of sixteen other artists that work with lens-based media, who are all dealing with the themes of the human connection and proximity to the natural world. How far is nature from our everyday lives, and what are the relations between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’, two concepts otherwise often so casually located as each other’s polar opposites?
In fact, the ways in which we see nature is inherently a cultural question. Definitions of wilderness, engagements with non-human animals and virtually anything else relating to our relations with our environments are all derived from our various socio-cultural histories. Rather than dealing with nature as if it is one and the same concept for any next person, Inside the Outside provides insights into the many forms and roles we may associate to the natural world. More specifically, it showcases the unique qualities that lens-based artistic practices carry in visualising those associations.
Inside the Outside departs from the work of Richard Tepe, whose photographs of the Dutch natural landscape contributed greatly to the first nature conservation efforts in the Netherlands
Naturally, any medium has its own specific virtues and obstacles in its modes of representation. For long, photography was haunted by a myth of truth: compared to painting, for example, the perceived immediate, indexical recording that characterised the photographic medium meant that a photograph was often considered to be a much more objective record, or even evidence, of a scene. However, with the increased public awareness of image manipulation – which has actually been around since the very first photographic technologies were developed – the subjectivity of photographs came to the forefront. While earlier questions of perspective and composition are still often located at the centre of discussion, broader questions about mediation and post-processing increasingly arose as photography expanded into what is now popularly referred to as lens-based media.
It is vital to contemplate the ways in which lens-based artistic practices can (fail to) create unique, striking, and original images with impact – what are the qualities of photography that can work to recognise, visualise, and criticise existing narratives surrounding our working relations with nature? It is in works like the ones presented in Inside the Outside that the cultural character of our conceptions of nature is relayed through the expansive methods that characterise contemporary photographic practices.
Throughout the exhibition, the idea of ‘untouched nature’ returns several times. Certainly not a new concept, the slightly utopian idea that there remains a type of original nature that has escaped the fatal touch of human activity is often defined as a type of ultimate end goal – it is this ‘real’ nature to which we must aim to return. Yet, the rates of global warming and the release of carbon dioxide of the last century has already led to ecological shifts all around the planet – to speak of untouched nature is to overlook the global reach of environmentally harmful phenomena.
In the black and white gelatin silver prints of mountains, woods, and waters of Awoiska van der Molen we can recognise the perpetuation of this narrative of origin and purity, but also its subtle subversion. Departing from the belief that the human body has a subconscious instinct that recognises a scene of untouched nature as its place of origin, van der Molen’s images become deeply intriguing and somewhat abstracted through the immediately recognisable use of darkness and subtle contrasts. While works like #558-16 and #560-1 of the series ‘The Living Mountain’ feel somewhat uncritical in their reference to this untouched nature, it is the inclusion of #382-14 in the exhibition that works to subvert that narrative. The long shutter speed of the camera captures the movement of the outermost branches of a lonesome tree to create an inherently photographic image that feels elusive and opaque. It evades undisturbed perception and reminds the viewer that something there is not as simple as it may first seem – a reminder communicated through the specific mechanical functioning of van der Molen’s camera.
In the black and white gelatin silver prints of mountains, woods, and waters of Awoiska van der Molen we can recognise the narrative of nature as ‘origin’ and ‘purity’, but also its subtle subversion
Thinking of composition and perspective, it appears that the most poignant works in the exhibition tend to focus on a specific element or highlight a set of defined characteristics in a scene. The wide, open landscapes of early landscape photography, often characterised by a top-down perspective of a dominating all-seeing eye, have made place for images that come closer. Natascha Libbert’s burning tree in her series Undermined and Daan Paans’ carefully lit photographs of individual trees in forests almost feel more like portraits of non-human subjects than anything else. Still, the intimate identity of these works varies enormously; while Paans’ images are simultaneously mystical and inviting, the intimacy of Libbert’s works can feel paradoxically violent in their proximity. Libbert and Paans reveal that the natural world should no longer be seen as something that stands apart from the human world. Instead, the two are wildly interlinked to the extent that they cannot (and should not!) be separated. It is this photographic depiction of nature as something inherently close to us, rather than as something far away that is to be discovered, conquered, or dominated, that may subtly contribute to the destabilisation and shifting of public consciousness of the natural world.
Simultaneously with the expansion of photography into various lens-based media, we can also recognise another shift, or expansion: the division of documentary and fiction (or staged) photography is blurred as documentary practices regularly dip their toes into speculative or performative means of image-creation. Rather than divide fact from fiction, it seems more fruitful to think about photography as potentially being a mode of documentation or a mode of creation in and of itself. In the works of melanie bonajo, for example, it appears that the photograph’s dominant function is to record a scene, a performance, or a movement, and consequently relay that documentation to the image’s viewer. In other works, like Anouk Kruithof’s Trans Human Nature and Alexandra Hunts’ AVES and PLANTAE, the meta-presence of photographic images within the works themselves characterises photography as a way to create something new – an artistic practice, proper, one might say. Though subtle, the mental shift of documentary versus fiction to documentation versus creation moves away from impossible discussions about truth and objectivity, and instead opens metaphorical doors to think about the actual functioning of the photographic image itself.
Inside the Outside does not only deal with the question of how we may relate to the natural world, but also with how photographers locate themselves within the discourses they conceptually engage with
All in all, Inside the Outside does not only deal with the question of how we may relate to the natural world, but also with how photographers locate themselves within the discourses they conceptually engage with. How may their presence in a scene disrupt it? How does their utilisation of materials or their travelling balance out against the impact of their photographs? What does their image actually do, how does it create its impact? Thinking about the roles of photographs and other lens-based media works, the exhibition reveals that images can be beautiful and painful, and perhaps should even be both, especially when they claim or aim to deal with subject matter relating to the natural world and its current climate of disruption and uncertainty.
Set against the backdrop of one of the first Dutch photographers to use their work to contribute to the protection of the natural environment, the exhibition confirms that we are now seeing more and more responsible modes of photographic image production, where introspection and critical perspectives thrive within a culture of accountability. Rounding off, when we look back at the work of Richard Tepe, persistence is a key word. His practice was systematic, precise, and self-aware. Consequently, his works provide a foundation on which all the other works of the exhibition lean; a photographic practice that is investigative, observational, and, mostly, deeply sincere in its care.
Inside The Outside remains on view at CODA until the 25th of September, 2022
Joris van den Einden
is an intern at Metropolis M