A conversation between Lucy Gallun and Nanna Debois Buhl
Published in intervals and forms of stones of stars, Humboldt Books, 2017
We are here, via Skype connection between New York and Copenhagen, to think together about your photographic registrations of a Nordic man-made beach landscape, the environment around the ARKEN Museum of Modern Art. Why did you choose to work with cameraless photography in this context?
Nanna Debois Buhl:
It is characteristic for a cameraless photograph that it, unlike a traditional landscape photograph, is a photograph without a perspective and a vanishing point, a photograph where the photographer is touching the motif, is entangled with it. Due to the theme of this project, I wanted to stress the notions of a field study, of the entanglement between photographer and subject matter, and I therefore chose to work with cameraless techniques.
This project has specific photo-historical references. You are in dialogue with different types of photographs and processes: First, you’re looking at William Henry Fox Talbot’s botanical photograms (what he called photogenic drawings), which are contact images of plants placed on the light-sensitive surface, and are thus 1:1 in scale. Then there are also Talbot’s solar micrographs, in which his subject—say, an insect wing—is seen through a microscopic lens, thereby greatly enlarged. And lastly, you’ve considered August Strindberg’s celestographs, exposed outdoors at night, which are strewn with small, irregular spots that he believed to represent the stars above, but may in fact be particles of dust, dew, or soil that collected on the plates during the process of exposure or development (and understood in this way, these too would be 1:1 photograms). What are your concerns about scale in your project, which materializes both as a series of smaller photographs, and as wall-sized outdoor murals?
The notion of scale is often brought up in discussions around the Anthropocene. In classical scientific work, different scales are handled by different disciplines; the scales used by the particle physicist are different from the scale of the geographer, obviously. But, it is said, because of the complexities of the problems of our age—from climate change to decreasing biodiversity—it is necessary to work across disciplines, and thereby also across scales. It is an idea that I have had in the back of my mind when working with my photographic material for this project. Strindberg’s celestographs were a starting point for me when thinking visually about scale, as the confusion of different scales in his images seems to speak to these current discussions.
In looking at your images, I’m struck by your choice of specimens (leaves and grasses, insects, grains of sand) and their relationships to some of the subjects that Talbot and Strindberg photographed. All the depicted elements in your series are, we could say, “of the natural world.” Yet, the borders between the natural world and the man-made are hazy, certainly. Indeed, in our current moment, they are deeply entangled. But I do notice that you haven’t depicted anything machine-made, for example, like Talbot’s lace photograms. Are you purposefully leaving the “man-made” aspects out of the imagery?
Yes and no. What I am trying to do is to look at the basic elements of the particular landscape that I am studying, namely its particles, flora, and fauna. These elements are simultaneously elements of nature and elements of a cultural framework. We find these specific elements in this landscape due to the way it has been planned aesthetically and botanically, and due to the political visions behind creating that landscape in the first place. I think there is an interesting tension here in a cultural landscape that is highly constructed and yet composed of elements that have an agency of their own. In my selections, I have aimed at choosing components that are significant for the landscape. For instance, the marram grass depicted in one of my images is highly significant for the area of Køge Bay Beach Park. When the landscape—on the Danish East Coast—was established around 1980, it was meant to look like the West Coast of Denmark. This specific type of grass was collected from the West Coast and planted in the new landscape. 2.6 million marram grass plants were planted; it was a huge undertaking.
As for the celestographs, I made them on site at night. The area can be quite windy due to its coastal location. What looks like cloud formations in my celestographs is caused by sand particles drifting over the paper during the nightly exposures. That is why the images have a sense of movement or drift. So, specific factors of the landscape (sand, strong wind) determine the way those images look.
Photography, as a medium, has been said to separate the world into separate units or fragments. It has an ability to call attention to its subject by dissociating one entity from the elements that surround it. Seeing a specimen isolated on a blank ground exemplifies that description. Yet in your project, it seems like you also want to gesture towards a network between the particular specimen and its larger context.
I have seen Talbot’s botanical images described as “temporal diagrams that unfold through variation and expansion.” In many of his images—for instance, A Cascade of Spruce Needles (1839)—you get a sense that the visual motif could continue outside of the frame of the picture. I was thinking a lot about Talbot’s compositions when composing my photographs in the darkroom. Like him, I didn’t try to keep the plants from continuing over the edges of the paper. It was a way to visually point to that the singular component depicted is part of a larger context, as opposed to a self-contained unit.
The attempts of early photographers to organize and classify nature through their images were, in fact, highly influential for a contemporary understanding of our relationship to the natural world. We can think about how Talbot and Strindberg’s different approaches may have shaped what followed. What does it mean for you to use their methods as a ref-erence in your considerations of this contemporary man-made landscape?
Talbot’s approach to depicting nature was scientific and systematic. He named his book The Pencil of Nature (1840) as he defined the new images included in it as “sun-pictures … impressed by the agency of Light alone.” Strindberg, on the contrary, was working with a chemical-naturalist approach combined with a mystical mindset, when in the 1890s he produced his series of celestographs. Insisting that art should try to “imitate […] nature’s way of creating,” Strindberg’s idea was to not just depict nature, but also to emulate it. His aim was to achieve a more truthful representation of the night sky than could be created using a camera, of which he was highly skeptical. Strindberg was, by the way, experimenting with making gold in the same period. What Talbot and Strindberg’s images have in common is that they are cameraless photographic depictions of the natural world based on systems of nature. Both photographers used elements of nature in their process of production (as their images were exposed in sunlight or moonlight), which thus introduces an element of unpredictability.
In my project, I am borrowing these historical methods to depict a contemporary landscape and to discuss its embedded paradoxes that are signi-ficant for central events in our time. By combining historical methods with the technologies and photographic paper that I have at hand today, my project is a registration of the specific landscape, and a reflection on how landscapes (and the ways in which we interact with them, register, and depict them) have changed dramatically since the early days of photography.
In your quote of Talbot, I’m struck by the word “agency”—he attributes the power in making these pictures to “light alone” and not to himself, the artist. Photographs like Talbot and Strindberg’s have also sometimes been described as “images created by nature” or “self-generating images,” phrases that convey passivity on the part of the artist. Here, the maker of the images has, in effect, been removed from responsibility or power in the process of producing them. The idea of a work made without human involvement, in the absence of the practitioner, seems almost antithetical to the wider themes behind your project, which emphasizes how human actions are implicated in every element of the environment that you are working in, how human actions have impacted the natural world in a broader sense.
I understand what you are getting at; it can indeed seem antithetical to make use of these “self-generating” processes, but that is also the point. Because we live in a world where humans have made their imprint almost everywhere, I find it interesting to work with a material and a subject matter that somehow “speak back.”
I recently read another quote by Talbot in which he says: “It would hardly be believed how different an effect is produced by a longer or shorter exposure to the light, and, also, by mere variation in the fixing process, by means of which almost any tint, cold or warm, may be thrown over the picture, and the effect of bright or gloomy weather may be imitated at pleasure. All this falls within the artist’s province to combine and to regulate.” So, when these types of images are described as “created by the forces of nature,” I read it polemically. They are not pictures that make themselves, but, as Talbot points to, pictures made in the interplay between the person setting up the framework for the images to happen, and elements outside of his or her control.
Although Talbot hoped that his images would be used as scientific botanical illustrations, they were not immediately acceptable as such. (They did not provide all the necessary information of a traditional botanical engraving, as they did not represent plants at distinct phases of their development, nor could viewers clearly identify all the precise components of the plants). As a result, Talbot’s botanical photographs have been described by some art historians as “failures” in this sense. By utilizing a technique that has been deemed a failure in its urge to classify, to understand, and to have a certain command over nature, you are also gesturing toward our own failures in controlling nature.
At the same time, there is a lack of control in your working process (and indeed, in Talbot’s) that seems to mirror a larger perspective on human failures in controlling nature as well as the immense impact that human actions have had upon nature, and to underscore this duality. In the process of making your analogue images, you can’t go back and “correct” your mistakes. You are left with the traces that appear on the paper. This is a poignant metaphor for human actions upon nature; the leaving of indelible traces that have a long-lasting—and dire—impact on the environment.
That duality is crucial. The tension between impact and lack of control on a larger level is indeed mirrored in my project on a methodological level: My process of creating these images has been a balancing act between setting up systems and allowing elements of chance. I think it also speaks to the character of the landscape that I am studying; how it at the same time is very constructed, but also contains elements and processes that are highly unpredictable.
Lucy Gallun is an art historian and Assistant Curator in the Department of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.