Environmental photography is a field littered with tropes: smokestacks, polar bears, and icebergs are a few obvious examples frequently used as generalised photographic symbols of climate change and environmental degradation, often even when they have no direct connection with the problem. Of course, to some degree every photograph today has a connection with something as all-encompassing as climate change. The point is we’re no longer able to place these types of images outside the realm of climate change or environmental breakdown. Through constant and repeated use the individuality of every image of polar bear, smokestack, or iceberg has been lost, and can now be used and seen only as a blunt symbol of environmental breakdown and climate change. In this sense we’re unable to actually see these images, we see only what they’ve come to signify. Polar bear / iceberg / smokestack = climate change = bad = business as usual. The constant repetition of these images has had a naturalising effect over time. Climate change becomes an inevitable, albeit often distant, part of our daily lives, something we filter out and don’t need to engage with actively.
This is a problem for environmental photography and visual art that seeks to use imagery of the environment, landscape, and the natural world (of which we are a part). If the aim is to highlight environmental issues to affect the viewer or incite systemic change through photography, the visual artist and photographer must be wary of falling into this blind and numbing photographic language and instead employ new photographic strategies. This is of course easier said than done. To photograph is, fundamentally, to generalise and transform the specificity of any situation and place into a more symbolic and limited form. In connection with landscape, theorist Liz Wells talks of photography’s power in ‘specifying spaces as particular sorts of places’ – we have an innate tendency to generalise and categorise through photography. We compare and compartmentalise photographs, based on photographic aesthetics and image content. When we look at a photograph we automatically reference it against other photographs to try to understand it. Photographs are inherently symbolic as they always refer to something other than themselves, something out in the world. We have a tendency to see through photographs and forget they are two-dimensional representations of reality. Certain imagery, through repeated and monotonous use, becomes more symbolic and narrowly focused in meaning. This is particularly true for imagery that attempts to deal with climate change and other slow-moving and subtle environmental issues that are hard to photograph directly.
So how is it possible to move beyond symbolic representation in environmental and landscape photography? Representation that risks cementing the feeling of status quo and the inevitability of environmental breakdown? One strategy is to make the photographic process more visible within the work, to include a questioning of photography’s powers of representation, to move beyond the image itself.
Susan Derges’ cameraless photographs achieve this. She works in close contact with the landscape she depicts, often placing light-sensitive paper in the landscape at night, letting vegetation and flowing water imprint itself on the paper under moonlight. This creates a downward viewpoint, as if we the viewers are standing in a stream of swirling water, looking down at our feet. This is an unconventional way of depicting the landscape photographically. The details of seeing the water and vegetation in life-size scale create an immersive rather than a conceptual viewpoint. These deceptively simple photographs reference the land more than any conventional camera-based photograph can. By removing the camera from the photographic process it’s as if Susan Derges has erased herself from the photographic process, instead letting the environment record itself on her photographic paper. This allows us to contemplate not the resulting image so much as nature itself in all its intricate detail. Susan Derges is willingly letting go of control – the framing and resulting image becomes a fleeting chance encounter between light, landscape, and photographic paper, never to be repeated. Regardless of one’s knowledge of photographic technique or theory, I think this immersive photographic process shines through in the final images.
Susan Derges has moved beyond landscape photography as symbolic representation. The water and the vegetation in her photographs are perfect indexical representations that erase the need or, indeed, the possibility to hunt for symbolic meaning outside the photographs themselves. In this sense Susan Derges’ photographs are closer to a lived visual experience than they are to other photographs, making it impossible to cross-reference and compare them with other photographs, as we so often do. They are a uniquely visible antidote to the image of polar bear/iceberg/smokestack.
Derges, Susan. Susan Derges. http://susanderges.co.uk/ (Retrieved 2020-04-14).
Wells, Liz. Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.