“I never want to see another picture of ________.” Industry veterans share their pet peeves on themes in contemporary photography. In this series they present their “rule” along with five photographs that break the rule in an effort to show that great work is the exception to the rule.
I never want to see another picture of a “loaded” landscape. By “loaded” landscape I mean an often banal image, or collection of banal images, lent weight and meaning by virtue of something having happened at the site of their capture. Said meaning is rarely apparent within the photographs themselves, but requires additional text to make clear to the viewer just how meaningful the images are. Let me nuance; I love banality, often enjoy urban landscapes (they are often of the city) and am devoted to the idea of “Absence,” but the pictures need to work before the text tells me that they do. If they work, meaningful is a bonus. “Late Photography” is an interesting movement, but too often for late, read lazy. I especially object to post-tragedy “loaded” landscapes, scenes of murders and disasters for example, with which a photographer will further his or her career by exploiting the memories of those grieving to forget.
I admire Tm Sullivan’s work because he both challenges and reinforces my prejudice. In his project Woanders, Sullivan photographs the territory in which Casper David Friedrich, the patriarch of Romanticism, had once wondered himself. This territory is now transnational, resting somewhere between Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic. When I saw the work at Sullivan’s graduate show at the Royal College of Art, the work was presented as an installation comprised of framed images, images on screens, video and literary props.
It’s a great idea on many levels, but, more importantly for me, the photographs are also strong. The images are suffused with a melancholy power that is only enriched by the fact they were formerly the epic backdrops to Friedrich’s sublime. Small human interventions within the landscapes, like a guardrail, or a bench affixed to stone, are both humorous and poignant expressions of the diminished relationship to the natural world in a post, or post-postmodern climate. Nature loses its thrill once accessorized. The photos would have made this meaning regardless of their specific location however, so the fact that they are Friedrich’s spaces reinforces the point rather than legitimize it.
On a conceptual level, the project engages with the romantic notion of the lone artist wondering to find inspiration. What is there to be found, Sullivan seems to suggest, except that which has been not only been charted, but also made safe and an “experience,” or, worse still, just used. Furthermore, now that these places have also become “liminal,” as Sullivan calls them, the project is prescient in its exploration of now fragile notions contemporary European nationhood. Through Sullivan’s images, Friedrich’s romanticism is presented as of the past, but it’s also harked after, as if the “factuality” of the present is a loss in some way. Maybe it’s still worth wo(a)ndering even if there’s nothing left to find...
I very much enjoyed the challenge Sullivan presented to my “rule” and look forward to what he does next.