At the end of the eighteenth century an amateur astronomer named William Herschel set about exploring outer space. Staring into the unknown using a telescope that he had painstakingly constructed with a complex apparatus of lenses and mirrors, and tracing constellations of the night sky using only beads and lengths of string, his journey revolutionised knowledge of the universe.1 In a typical example of the dichotomy in Romantic-era quests for discovery, the new information thrilled and terrified in equal measure – prompting questions about the earth, and the self, to which we are still seeking answers.
Depicting vast and seemingly unpeopled spaces, it is precisely this dual sense of awe and trepidation felt in the face of the unknown that is conjured in Dan Holdsworth’s photographs. Since he emerged in the mid-nineties, his work has taken us to the
awe-inspiring natural sites that induce an awareness of our fragility, as well as the built spaces of industry and technology that signify man’s attempt to control that fact. Shooting at night using hours-long exposures, working with imposing, uninhabited terrains that expose the ravages of time upon their surface, and appropriating technology that provides a stark new picture of the changing planet, what we see when looking at one of his images is not a fleeting, snatched, moment, but the passing of time: duration. Viewing the earth through this lens, just as the solar system was viewed through the lens of the telescope many centuries ago, we are confronted with a stark reminder of our own position in the universe.
It is a difficult position to comprehend, one that challenges our deeply individual perceptions of space and time in a manner that perhaps only the poetic language of the sublime can attempt to convey, encompassing as it does the impulse to seek out the new through scientific discovery, as well as the powerful existential impact of the information that such discovery unleashes. When Kant, for example, said of the newly-sighted Milky Way that faced with ‘no end but an abyss of real immensity … all the capability of human conception sinks exhausted,’ he articulated the overawing sensation which we see elicited from the spaces that Holdsworth explores.2 Taking us to places that are on the edge of the known, his images thus invite us to consider this position, the frontier, as a site from which the mind is expanded and perception altered as we seek to discover and to develop. By engaging with place in this way, Holdsworth calls forth a legacy that spans from Herschel and his contemporaries in the excitement, and emotion, of ‘Romantic science’; to nineteenth-century survey photographers such as Carleton Watkins and Timothy O’Sullivan whose images of the American West helped circulate the idea of a mythic, untrammelled wilderness; to the photographers of the New Topographics that portrayed its undoing a century later; to today, and the satellite images that continually renew our knowledge of the universe.3 It is a rich legacy, one that not only highlights the history of collaboration between the act of mapping and its visualisation by artists and photographers, but the importance of mapping as a mechanic of the sublime: how the logic and science of charting the new manifests in images that dramatically shift how we read and respond to place, often in a manner that transcends all rationale. As Kant addressed when he went on to describe as the overwhelmed mind as being ‘supported by the aid of mathematics’, the abstract and the empirical do not operate entirely separately but rather, as we see in the focus of Holdsworth’s images, man’s application of the empirical is a means of quantifying the unknown – of fathoming the unfathomable.
It is in both in choice of subject matter and his increasingly data-driven working method that Holdsworth explores the various ways and means in which this process reveals itself. Time and again we see in his practice how man’s impulse to map out is evidenced through what Burke, in his treatise on the sublime, described as the actions of humanity being driven by the need for power and self-preservation.4 Often this is articulated in sites of scientific study: research centres lighting up otherwise barren landscapes in White Noise (2006) or, in The Gregorian (2005) and The Edge of Space (1999) respectively, the eerie grace of space telescopes and rockets whose magnificent presence signify not only a desire to know and to conquer, but the intra-national race to do so first. In works such as Megalith (2000–2002) and A Machine for Living (1999–2000), however, man’s impression upon nature is explored through differently territory entirely. Photographing freeways, billboards, and edge-of-town shopping centres, places that suggest a sense of movement or searching, a separateness from the metropolitan centre, he casts them in an acidic light so brilliant as to conjure a sense of hallowed divinity upon what are otherwise banal spaces. Achieved by shooting at night using hours-long exposures and available light, it is a virtual look which has become characteristic of his work, and it has a startlingly de-familiarising effect. Illustrating the effects that seeing the world anew has on the imagination, this futuristic light permeates the images with a sense of otherness which is often described in terms of outer space – and therefore all of the connotations of wonder and the sublime that this implies. For as culture has evolved to find the sublime in the industrial, the atomic, even the digital, it is outer space which has remained a constant feature in this otherwise fluid concept; the idea of the ‘ultimate frontier’ equipping us with a vocabulary and reference point with which to comprehend the unfamiliar.
In recent years, Holdsworth has distilled this approach to focus on places that are (or appear to be) even more remote and inscrutable, presented with a flatness and all-over quality that floods our field of vision. In Blackout (2010), for example, we see the colours of Iceland’s already alien-looking black glaciers inverted into crystalline, glassy, forms that rise up into an unnaturally black sky. Leaving us stumbling in the dark without navigational cues, he manufactures a kind of phenomenological encounter within the image, thus exposing the awe and vulnerability felt in the face of new terrain, and how this can be felt just as strongly when apprehended with images of our own planet as it can with those of outer space. Questioning the structures that inform how we apprehend our environment, and how we see the world in their absence, it is a line of enquiry he has developed in his latest series Transmission: New Remote Earth Views (2012). Appropriating United States Geological Survey data collated from laser scans of the earth’s surface (in a quantity itself barely comprehensible) he worked with a geomorphologist to formulate this data into terrain models of the kind normally used to map geological changes. Stripped of all surface detail, their lunar look invites us to engage with them as we might with images of Mars or the moon – an impression which is all the more confounding when we realise that these are in fact scans of largely inhabited and industrialised US landscape. Extending the technique of the earlier series where a virtual look is rendered from a perception of landscapes as they can actually be experienced, in these digitally reworked terrain models Holdsworth presents us with an entirely new vision of the world. 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.
At the heart of this is the feedback between scientific recording, its communication through artistic medium, and subsequent consumption in the collective conscience. As an expression of wonder and the sublime its examples trace back to Herschel’s era and the symphonies for which he was originally known, expressing the raptures of astronomical discovery through music; up to the contemporary age and NASA’s colouring of Hubble images in the chiaroscuro style of Thomas Moran – as a painter whose depictions of the American West communicated a fantastical land to a public unfamiliar with the terrain, the act of re-appropriating his work in this way emphasises the continuing centrality of wonder in the relationship between art and science. It is a relationship in which photography has, since its creation, played an increasingly important role, and which Holdsworth makes us aware of both through the spaces he depicts and the technology he utilises to do so – an approach to image-making that is illustrative of the current shifts in attitudes towards, and perceptions of, the medium. As if creating a typology of the relationship between the act of mapping, photography, and shifting perceptions of place, Holdsworth depicts the changing earth in a manner that is sympathetic without being sentimental and, in doing so, he opens our eyes to a reality that would otherwise remain unseen.