Dan Holdsworth’s Transmission: New Remote Earth Views
In Transmission: New Remote Earth Views, Dan Holdsworth appropriates topographical data to document the ideologically and politically loaded spaces of the American West in an entirely new way. In his images of the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Mount Shasta, Salt Lake City (Park City) and Mount St. Helens, we see stark, uninterrupted terrains where meaning is made through what it is absent, as much as what is seen. What at first appear to be pure white snow-capped mountains or perhaps the surface of the moon are in fact digitally rendered laser scans of the earth appropriated from U.S Geological Survey data, ‘terrain models’ used to measure climate and land change - to measure the earth and man’s effect upon it. Stripped of surface detail there are no signifiers of a natural wilderness or picturesque aesthetic, no invoking of the Romantic Sublime; and yet at the same time what is antithetical to these visual tropes - the man-made, the artificial, the vernacular of the New Topographics photographers-is also absent.1With neither the schema of the Romantic nor the everyday to guide us, Holdsworth absorbs us into a vision of the unknown; a space that is unequivocally, transcendentally, Other.
Whether dealing with natural or built environments, man’s relationship to earth is central to Holdsworth’s work. Looking at the world as though from space, Transmission evokes a sense of capturing something that has never been seen before; something especially powerful as these landscapes have been so visually reproduced throughout history as to become embedded in the popular conscience. This sense of seeing anew is key to the series, constructing within the images the element of discovery long associated with these terrains. It is these landscapes, the then unknown areas of so-called wilderness, where in the nineteenth century the USGS undertook expeditions to survey and classify American land, the parties comprising not only geologists but photographers and artists who documented the landscapes to record findings and create visual impressions to promote to the public. Echoing this, Holdsworth’s collaboration with the Geomorphologist Dr. Stuart Dunning to capture and interpret the data that underpins Transmission highlights the history of collaboration between the act of mapping and its visualisation by artists and photographers. In particular, the importance of this to how we comprehend, and even value, particular geographies.
Countering the (relatively recent) perception that these two facets of art and science are mutually exclusive, Transmission can therefore be seen as an exploration of the feedback between culture and science in our perception of place: between a rational approach to information, its communication through artistic medium, and subsequent consumption
1 New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, (Exhibition), International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, 1975. Cur. William Jenkins.
through the public conscience. This, it becomes clear, is a concept especially relevant to the landscapes in question.
When the first important photographic record of Yosemite Valley was captured in 1861 by Carleton Watkins - later to become a USGS photographer - or the Grand Canyon painted by Thomas Moran in his fantastical, awe-inspiring style as he accompanied the first USGS expedition to Yellowstone in 1871, they attested to an unspoiled landscape, a mythical wilderness, a “place we can turn for escape from our own too-muchness.”2 It was this aesthetic that supported the campaigning of conservationist John Muir, whose accounts of an Eden-like territory contributed to the preservation of these spaces and supported legislation for the creation of the U.S National Park Service in 1916. Free of man’s sullying touch, these sanctified areas were where God could be found and thus, for the poets, philosophers and artists of this time, so too could the sublime. Their version of this quality was a divine and pleasurable one; in Muir’s accounts he invoked a “late romantic sense of a domesticated sublime...[his] descriptions of Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada reflect none of the anxiety or terror one finds in earlier writers.”3 Tackling this new frontier, Watkins’ stereoscopes embodied the public perception of an idealised, almost mythical West, a place of wonder. Here, all three of Edmund Burke’s categories of the sublime could seemingly be found: vastness, obscurity and the terror of the unknown, subsumed into awe when seen from the safe distance of the viewer’s perspective.4 Now working with the same terrains, it is precisely this sense of phenomenological overwhelming as a result of the new that Transmission alludes to. Bringing the artistic and the empirical into close proximity, Holdsworth’s appropriation of data manifests as an intense new perception of the world we live in.
This Romantic version of the West, the myth of the frontier as an untouched wilderness, and the significance of its later undoing by a group of photographers brought together in the 1975 exhibition New Topographics, endures even today in discourses of environmentalism and preservation, discourses that Holdsworth has long entered into.5 Though the avant-garde photographers apprehended an entirely different, ‘man-altered’ landscape than their nineteenth century predecessors, they, like Holdsworth, are aligned in their embrace of new techniques to survey the changing world around them. As Britt Salvesen’s catalogue essay asserts, these photographers (Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe
2 William Cronon, The Trouble with Wilderness; or, Getting Back to the Wrong Nature, (1995), <http://www.williamcronon.net/writing/Trouble_with_Wilderness_Main.html> [accessed 25 January 2012]
4 Edmund Burke, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful, (London: T & F Books UK, 2009)
5 Preservation is discussed by William Cronon with regard to Henry Thoreau’s assertion that “In Wildness is the preservation of the World.” See Henry David Thoreau, ‘Walking’ in Henry S. Canby, ed. The Works of Thoreau, (Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin, 1937),
p. 672. See also Peter Haynes’ observation of the irony that Burke’s theory of the sublime, which emphasised the universal need for preservation, “provided the basis for Romanticism’s exultation of the individual and the validity of the individual’s response to the grandeur and irregularity of the natural world.” Peter Haynes, ‘From Pictures to Politics: In Eighteenth Century Theories of the Sublime and the Picturesque’, in Ann Hamblin, ed. Visions of Future Landscapes: Proceedings of 1999 Australian Academy of Science Fenner Conference on the Environment, 2–5 May 1999, (Canberra: Bureau of Rural Sciences, 2000), pp. 54-58, (p.55)
Deal, Frank Gohlke, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Stephen Shore, Henry Wessel Jnr, and Bernd and Hilla Becher) captured the landscape as it existed at a time when “no real models existed for treating the built environment as a subject in and of itself...available precedents portrayed untrammelled wilderness [or] emphasised human despoliation.”6 This treatment of the American West portrayed not one of outstanding natural beauty but one that worked in the language of the everyday, executed in a survey style that purged the landscape of sentimentality and subjectivity.7 Unlike the exalted Romanticism found in the work of Waktins and, later, Ansel Adams, the New Topographics photographers adopted a minimal aesthetic and artistic detachment that paralleled Conceptual artists of the time such as Ed Ruscha and Carl Andre. Their portfolios, though ostensibly neutral in intent, were consumed as though political: the defiantly un-picturesque presence of man invoking paradigms of environmentalism that posited the Romantic against the real, and read the changing of the landscape as hostility to modernity.8
It is these changing methods of seeing the world, new mechanics of looking that allow us to see in a fresh light, which have long illuminated Holdsworth’s practice and are brought to the fore in Transmission. As Angus Carlyle observes with regard to Holdsworth’s earlier work, “Lewis Baltz’s Park City project resonates with aspects of some of Holdsworth’s own explorations of the interfaces between transient human inhabitation and its impact on the more durable ecology.”9 Expanding his interest in mapping out man’s shifting perceptions of the earth, the significance of this group of photographers to Transmission is made explicit in Holdsworth’s decision to work with imagery of Salt Lake City (to which Park City is a ski station) as it exists today. In these images, landscape is stripped of the detritus of human life - no people, no cars, and no buildings - while the lasting effects of man’s presence such as climate change are exposed, embedded like scars upon its surface. Here, smooth, sparse, terrains portray neither the ideal of an unspoiled terrain nor a lamenting of its loss, and though working with signifiers of man’s presence on the landscape, his series does not reproduce the same meaning as the photographs in New Topographics: the aforementioned hostility, aligned with the malaise that Jimmy Carter ascribed to the 1970s, has passed.10 Instead, what we see is a territory laid completely bare through scientific, data driven treatment.
Perhaps the most surprising element of this series, particularly to a contemporary audience, is what a reduction of superficial information in the photographic frame can reveal. Belying the apparent purity of bright white terrains is the cultural complexity of these spaces,
6 Britt Salvesen, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape, (London: Steidl, 2009), pp.11-67, (p.18)
7 Salvesen (op. cit.), p.13
8 See Cronon (op. cit.), “This nostalgia for a passing frontier way of life inevitably implied ambivalence, if not downright hostility, toward modernity and all that it represented. If one saw the wild lands of the frontier as freer, truer, and more natural than other, more modern places, then one was also inclined to see the cities and factories of urban-industrial civilization as confining, false, and artificial.”
9 Angus Carlyle, ‘Becoming Second Nature: Dan Holdsworth and the Sublime’, in Angus Carlyle, David Chandler and Dan Holdsworth, Dan Holdsworth (A Photoworks Monograph), (London: Steidl, 2005), p.45
10 Christy Lange makes the point that “most of the ‘New Topographics’ work was made...during what Jimmy Carter referred to as the ‘national malaise’ of the 1970s” in ‘New Topographics’ (review), Frieze, Issue 130, April 2010
rooted as they are in differing ideologies. Reyner Banham’s observation that “the false consciousness exposed by the New Topographics’ irony is that the West was ever pristine, ever uninhabited: Even the nineteenth-century photographer, to get his view, left footprints” points both to the myth of the West as an unspoiled wilderness, and to the ideological legacy embedded within it.11 As such, it becomes clear that not only does Transmission work with physical maps of the American West, but it functions as a mapping of the many artistic visions that have claimed this territory as their own: a conceptual, as well as literal, overview of the land. Fundamentally, Holdsworth is working outside of the wilderness myths that render the photographic avant-garde the ‘after’ to Watkins and Ansel Adams’ ‘before.’
By displacing this anachronistic model, Holdsworth opens up a working territory that is open to the ambiguous and ethereal, oscillating between spheres of art and science, the familiar and the alien, the industrial and the natural. Here, amongst the discontents of these polarities, he adopts a binary approach where the exaltation of discovery can still exist because the man-made and the sublime are not mutually exclusive. Evolving from earlier work such as A Machine for Living (2000), Holdsworth demonstrates that they can, and do, occupy a shared territory: just as the Romantic sublime saw the mountain replace the cathedral, so utopian ideology has replaced the mountain with the shopping precinct as the new place of discovery and self-preservation.12 Transcending the deadpan everyday, he imbues natural and industrial landscapes with a sense of the virtual, a digital alchemy that even when applied to the impassive urban landscape works beyond our realms of immediate comprehension to enter something akin to what Patti Ellis has described as “inklings of a new apocalyptic frontier.”13 Analogous to Blackout (2010) and indeed to the photographs exhibited in New Topographics, the irony of Transmission is that today this ‘apocalyptic frontier’ is not the territory of the unknown but a space we know seen though a different lens. Extending the technique of his earlier series where a virtual look is rendered from a perception of a landscape as it can actually be experienced, in these digitally reworked terrain models Holdsworth opens our eyes to a reality that would otherwise remain unseen. Here, in what we might call this ‘hyper-reality’, is a conjuring of an electric, technological, sublime, the powerful reckoning of science, and the unsettling experience of seeing, moreover of feeling, the world anew.
As we read this sense of discovery in the legacy of the nineteenth century Romantic aesthetic and the New Topographics’ objectivity, the idea that we “live in a biosphere completely altered by our own activity, a planet in which the human and the natural can no longer be distinguished, because the one has overwhelmed the other” is a reminder that
11 Reyner Banham, Introduction, in Richard Misrach, Desert Cantos, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1987), p.5, cited in Kelly Dennis, ‘Landscape and the West: Irony and Critique in New Topographic Photography’, presented at Cultural Landscapes in the 21st Century, UNESCO University and Heritage 10th International Seminar, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 11-16 April 2005 <http://conferences.ncl.ac.uk/unescolandscapes/files/DENNISKelly.pdf> [accessed 25 January 2012]
12 Cronon (op. cit.) discusses how John Muir, Henry Thoreau and William Wordsworth “are participating in the same cultural tradition and contributing to the same myth - the mountain as cathedral.”
13 Patti Ellis, Dan Holdsworth, <http://www.danholdsworth.com/information/introduction/> [accessed 25 January 2012]
Holdsworth is not only treating the American West with a different aesthetic to his predecessors, but the American West is itself irrevocably changed.14 Photography’s ‘frontier space’ is therefore no longer the depiction of a landscape altered by man through the presence of objects at its surface but something deeper, wherein human presence has changed the very structure of the earth. It is here, in this sense of unfathomable change and discovery, where Transmission articulates the historical link between the scientific act of mapping and the artistic connotations of the sublime.
This position is a poignant one. Challenging the received understanding of these fields as working in isolation, Holdsworth’s interest in the sublime arising from scientific discovery highlights his position in the legacy of a period Richard Holmes terms ‘The Age of Wonder’ in the early nineteenth century, where the “beauty and terror” of the “second scientific revolution” - in astronomy, chemistry, and exploratory voyages to undiscovered lands - united science and the arts through the pursuit of wonder, discovery and the betterment of the mind.15 Experiential by nature, one of the few certainties about the sublime is that it works at the edge of comprehension, a response to finding wonder in that which transcends our existing knowledge of the world. From the ‘Age of Wonder’, the USGS expeditions that took place in its immediate aftermath, to man walking on the moon a century later, it follows that as culture has evolved to find the sublime in the electrical, the technological, even the atomic, a constant feature in the discussion and representation of this fluid concept is the ultimate frontier: outer space.16
Through the lunar look of Transmission, we are therefore exposed not only to the seeming unfamiliarity of the subject, but also to the sublime’s various guises throughout a history of scientific development in space and the mapping of new terrain; allowing the work to function not as a catalyst of the sublime, but as a study of its typologies. Looking to the images of the Grand Canyon, for example, our reaction echoes how Moran’s 1872 painting of this landscape appeared to an East Coast audience at the time; “as thrillingly alien as the first photos from the moon would a century later”17, and the neat symmetry of NASA now colouring Hubble Space Telescope photographs in Moran’s chiaroscuro style in order to provoke awe, wonder, and ultimately an interest in this scientific field.18 Further demonstrating the importance of the language of outer space to our comprehension of the new, even the photographs in New Topographics have been described in this manner. Discussing Joe Deal’s portfolio, Britt Salvesen’s observation that “with their allover texture, otherworldly sheen, and retinal precision, these photographs bear a strong resemblance to
14 Cronon (op.cit.) in discussion of Bill McKibben, The End of Nature, (New York: Random House, 1989)
15 Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science, (London: HarperPress, 2009), pp.xv-xxi, (p.xv)
16 The various forms of the sublime as regards how the public respond to new technologies are outlined by David E. Nye in American Technological Sublime, (Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1994)
17 Robert Hughes, American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America, (New York: Alfred A.Knopf, 1997), p.199
18 This observation was made by Elizabeth Kessler in ‘Hubble’s Vision: Imaging, Aesthetics and Public Reception’, presented at The Significance of the Hubble Space Telescope: Space Science Past, Present and Future, annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), Washington DC, 18 February 2011
those captured by the Ranger moon lander just ten years earlier”, crystallises the notion that even in the most empirical of pursuits and the most rational of methodologies, our experience of the results cannot always be quantified.19
And so, while discovery may be mapped through charts, graphs and advanced technology, it becomes apparent that it is the feedback of this information through the individual circuit where meaning is made. John Schott, speaking about his portfolio Route 66 Motels exhibited in the New Topographics exhibition, noted the following:
“The issue of the phenomenology of the image is very important. You can dry out the image, so to speak, but you are still looking at this hallucinatingly interesting thing you have to confront – the absolute print itself. It is a confrontation, looking at something, and your vision is transformed.”20
Noting the rise of the emotive from the objective, this could quite easily be a reference to the seriality of Watkins’ stereoscopes, or the empirical detachment of Transmission; articulating the sense that despite the logical conformity of the grid structure, the specific time denoted by the coordinates and the specific place denoted by the lasers, it is the sense of discovery that engages. Spending time in Holdsworth’s images of landscapes that exist just beyond the parameters of our understanding, the typological non-privileging of space and total absence of scale lose us in the unfamiliar, forcing us to confront our own fragility and limits of perception. Appropriated from a scientific technique borne of man’s need to understand and preserve the world, and himself, Transmission presents our uninitiated gaze with a new frontier of discovery, of wonder, and of a gradual, overwhelming, sublime.
19 Salvesen (op. cit.) p.43
20 John Schott in conversation with Britt Salvesen, 6 December 2006, in Salvesen (op. cit.) p.46