Art Sets.

David Stephenson: human landscapes

By the Art Gallery of NSW

David Stephenson uses the camera to mediate and examine his long-standing affinity for the natural environment.

Balancing poetic sensitivity and political directness, Stephenson produces contemplative photographs that force us to contend with the vastness of the landscape and to re-evaluate our place within it. His work articulates a sense of the sublime and transmits the same state of awe and reverence that a landscape induces. Yet these sweeping panoramas and amorphous abstractions are not passive Romantic tributes. Stephenson is aware of the camera’s ability to shape perception and embeds ethical propositions in his work that affirm an environmentalist agenda. He also scrutinises and subverts our understanding of the photographic instant and the medium’s complex relationship to time.

American-born Stephenson’s fascination with landscape photography was shaped by his affiliation with the new topographics movement in the 1970s and its preoccupation with documenting human interference in the environment. Following his relocation to Australia, Stephenson renounced the strictures of straight representation in favour of a minimalist sensibility that enlisted suggestion – rather than spectacle – as a compositional principle. Whether he depicts landscapes pockmarked by industrial structures or unoccupied geographies, Stephenson’s photography counteracts an anthropocentric worldview and instead venerates the majesty of the natural world.

Entangled in controversy and opposed by environmental advocates, the Alaska oil pipeline was a subject that succinctly embodied the primary concerns of Stephenson’s early work. His commitment to documenting human presence in the landscape was fulfilled and extended in his sweeping portrait of this gargantuan structure.

The project, and the pipeline itself, would have a profound and lasting impact on Stephenson’s work. He adopted the panorama format in response to the pipeline’s severe linearity and then continued to deploy it as a compositional strategy in subsequent series. A panorama aptly translates the sensation of being overwhelmed by the immensity of the landscape but it also emphasises the fact that a photograph is an inherent construction. Such an acknowledgement of the camera’s ability to manipulate perception is implicit across Stephenson’s practice.

In 1982, Stephenson moved to Australia to take up a position at the University of Tasmania. While the particularities of the Tasmanian landscape would later influence his work, notably in the vertical panoramas of rainforest vegetation, the early material Stephenson produced in Australia expanded upon the thematic and aesthetic strategies he had pursued in America.

Stephenson arrived in Tasmania at the height of the Franklin Dam controversy and, against this highly politicised cultural context, continued to produce eloquent and incisive responses to environmental ruination. These two river scenes show the carnage – whether a result of flooding or draining – wrought by hydroelectric developments. Yet despite their topicality, Stephenson never presumed these works could possess political agency or effect change. As he himself admits, ‘I was more interested in being a historical witness and giving a testimony to the changes taking place’.

This mesmeric panorama of Mount Dove is punctuated by two figures: a man stands atop a rocky outcrop on the far left – a contemporary cousin of the subject in Caspar David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer above the sea of fog – and in the foreground the photographer’s shadow leaves a residual trace of the moment of capture. The discrepancy in scale between these diminutive figures and the horizon line augments and accentuates a sense of the sublime. Yet their presence within the landscape does more than effectively articulate scale. Rather, it performatively attests to (and harnesses) the emotional tenor that Stephenson’s work seeks to impart.

Stephenson was one of 23 photographers invited to participate in the CSR (Colonial Sugar Refinery) Photography Project that commenced in 1978. This was the first industrial initiative of its kind in Australia to employ photographers as artists. Participants were commissioned to document the company’s manufacturing operation and, as such, the proposal resonated with Stephenson’s broader thematic agenda.

For the project, Stephenson produced a suite of seven photographs that trace the sugar’s journey from plantation to refinery and beyond. This linear narrative also unfolds a perceptive study photographic temporality. A sequential panorama is a temporal aggregate that documents a passage through time as well as space. Stephenson accentuates the panorama’s temporal elasticity in the image of the moving cane train, where its spliced and segmented form shatters the notion of a singular photographic instant.

In the late 1980s, Stephenson began experimenting with the expressive possibilities of photographic abstraction to better capture and evoke the emotional experience triggered by a vast landscape. Legibility is deferred in both his extended exposures of clouds – an oblique homage to Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents series – and the seascapes taken with a pinhole camera, where identifiable geographic features fold into nebulous, spectral forms.

By using long exposure times, Stephenson has partially relinquished control over the composition. He also undermines the assumption that a photograph must faithfully transcribe the world in order to convey meaning. While we do not recognise the landscapes depicted, they coax an emotional response comparable to the sensation of being in the environment itself. In these works, Stephenson has strayed from sites of industrial intrusion in response to his disillusionment at increasing environmental degradation. Here, he allows the transcendent force of uninhabitable, fringe geographies (the sea and the sky) to inscribe itself in the image.

Shot in the Antarctic, these photographs skirt the outer perimeter of the known and inhabitable world. They are stark, horizonless scenes that confuse our expectations of conventional landscape photography. Here, scale is indeterminate and form appears almost erased from view as the differentiation between land, air and sea collapses. Subtle tonal shifts carry the faintest suggestion of topography, yet even this is deceptive. The ice-blue tone is fabricated, produced by printing black-and-white negatives on colour paper.

As they elude and disorient our gaze, these photographs serve as poignant reminders of the enormity and impenetrability of the land. Describing his excursion to the Antarctic, Stephenson has said, ‘I found a place that seemed so indifferent to humanity. But of course, we now realise how fragile that landscape really is’. Even as the landscape evades our perception, it is not invulnerable to our actions. With hindsight, these minimalist blue-hued photographs appear laced with melancholy.

By isolating the alien presence of a factory in an otherwise pristine landscape, Stephenson explicitly addresses the environmental impact of industrial processes on the land. A major pollutant of the Derwent River in Tasmania, the Zinc Works has irreparably altered the scenery against which it sits.

While the series from which this work derives marks a return to straight representation and the strategies of the documentary image, Stephenson has not drained all expressive features from the scene. Using a long exposure, he draws attention to the factory’s reflection in the water. The blurred, coloured lights read like a fragile mirage. This twilight scene seduces the viewer before persuading them to engage with the work’s latent, yet coercive, moral dimension.