Produce a series of 8 photographs that convey your own interpretation of beauty and/or the sublime within the context of landscape. You may choose to support, question or subvert accepted definitions of these terms. Your images don’t necessarily have to be made in the same place or type of location; however, they should complement one another and attempt to function as a cohesive series.
– LPE Coursebook, p.57
Beauty is a concept encoded in the way a picture is put together and presented to the viewer. A moment can be extended to hold something timeless, possibly even to contain an element of truth (that’s what Keats thought, anyway). The sublime is quicker, hotter somehow, bypassing the head to communicate with our darker emotions. Beauty is stable, existing outside of time and history; the Sublime is evanescent, speaking to our fears even as we struggle to work out exactly what it is that confronts us. Beauty endures, but the Sublime dissipates, like the weakening potency of a radioactive element whose half-life has passed.
The Orkney pictures were selected (from almost as many pictures as the number that – in Krauss’s view – disqualified Atget’s from forming an oeuvre) either because they rhymed with things I could photograph in London – the Old Man of Hoy and the 50s clock tower, the Rackwick cliffs and the sheer walls of a block of nearly-completed flats – or because, while ‘typical’ of rural beauty, they were generic enough for their equivalent to be found in the city – sunsets, or symmetry arranged around a vanishing point.
The process of picture-taking was leisurely and considered. Four of the city pictures were taken with my camera on a tripod and three using an old, fully manual Nikkor shift lens to correct perspectives in camera. I took my time working out exposures (not quite using the zone system, but certainly aiming to get a raw file containing a wide range of tonal information).
I was able to wait for people to clear the scene before – now! – triggering the camera with an IR remote. The remaining three pictures were taken with a smaller digital camera, and are closer to capturing something more transient – the reflections in the window of a pub on the High Street; a cow, grazing among scrubby trees by the side of the River Lea – but are still a long way from being spontaneous. they were of locations I had identified earlier, to be returned to when the conditions and time of day were right. If the tripod pictures could be seen as being equivalent to easel paintings, these are closer to watercolour sketches – quick, transient, catching a moment, but not made in one.
The rhyming of the paired pictures works to make links. Looking at them, you can see something of what I think (and you can see that I have a decided fondness for triangles) but you can’t tell much about how I feel about the places pictured. It’s all a bit cerebral, somehow. The pictures that directly involve features of lockdown – the shrouded exercise equipment; the dark emptiness glimpsed inside a pub – invoke something of the sublime, and they all repay a good, long look. But are any of them actually beautiful? I don’t know.
(An earlier version of this post (with different, though similar text) was made available for critiquing at the beginning of March.)