An Interview with Liz Douglas

Liz Douglas is a contemporary artist who works in a variety of media, especially painting, but what I find really interesting about her work is the fact that she incorporates scientific techniques into her process to describe parts of the landscape.

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Fen Pools  © 2011 Liz Douglas                                                                                   Mixed media on canvas  820mm x 820mm

Liz began turning to science by looking at microscopical geological images when her art school tutor encouraged her to bring other disciplines into her work to enrich and inform her landscape painting. Since then, she has worked with ecologists and biologists on various projects including work which she produced for her‘Mire’ exhibition in 2011, which was the result of 3 years work at Whitlaw Mosses nature reserve near Selkirk. When I look deeply into this painting, I feel a floating sensation, unsure if I am above or under the water,  as if I am looking through a glass-bottomed boat. There is a shadowy image just below the centre, which is not unlike a mysterious ghostly figure standing over the pool, or perhaps we are looking down into the depths of the pool at objects lying below. The abstract shapes which float on or near the surface look like they have been inspired by microscopic views of the algae in the pond. The subtle monochromatic colour scheme has a calming and serene effect, broken only by the mysterious dark shapes which are carefully placed within it. Ettrick-Series---willowlines-slow-thaw-1.5mx1.5m-mm-on-canvas-large

Slow Thaw (2006) © 2012 Liz Douglas                                                                             Mixed media on canvas 1.5m x 1.5m

Slow Thaw, 2008 above shows three semi-transparent tube-like forms, which lie against a warm, lilac background. The ambiguous shapes may be slightly sinister, but the warm background reassures us against fear, and their transparency gives them a delicate and fragile beauty. For me, this is an example for the sublime – the uncanny attraction which we keep staring at despite an unsettling undertone.

 

I contacted Liz to find out more about her practice, and she kindly agreed to answer a questionnaire for me, as I find her work very relevant to what I am researching and writing about.

When and why did you begin to use the microscope as a method of studying the landscape?      I was encouraged by a tutor in my final Masters of Fine Art painting year to consider looking outside art to inform my landscape work. I began by looking at Geology in relation to a site of special scientific interest that I was working on where microscopic elements existed in the rocks which had a visual quality. I also work with Biologists and Ecologists.I find the collaborative element and the information that I get opens up whole new worlds.

Why do you think artists are collaborating more with scientists – what advantage does a scientific slant bring to a body of work on landscape?  The scientists bring another perspective to landscape. They offer particular expertise in their field which allows the artist to explore aspects of the landscape in depth and creates new possibilities for making work. Over the last twenty or so years there has been an increasing concern about the environment and the collaboration between artists and scientists has developed.

What do you enjoy about viewing the landscape/nature through glass? Why do you think it is a suitable tool for themes of environment or the natural world?   I find it exciting to look through an optical or scanning electron microscope at structures that are invisible to the eye.I like the whole investigative process of being in the landscape -collecting material (with permission) organising, selecting, editing, as well as dialoguing with scientists and others to inform and extend my ideas at the research and development stage. These tools reveal hidden aspects of the natural world and provide possible new visual metaphors.

Do you think that having a parochial view (not meaning to sound negative here, just considering a focus on a small element of a particular landscape or environment) of a particular landscape brings more interest to a work, rather than trying to capture a vast area?  I think that working on microscopic material from sites informs the wider landscape. The ‘place’, which is local, is the focus, where universal processes occur –e.g. seasonal change, global climate/geological change etc. It is a microcosm.

 Do you think that studying the species of a particular environment can help to capture its ‘spirit of place’? Each habitat has its own unique ecological characteristics. It takes time to work through material from a particular environment at the micro level to find metaphors that add a new element to the work and say something else about the place – e.g. spirit/essence or something new and surprising.

One of the visions of the Romantic artists was to capture the sublime, and often terrifying forces of nature. Do you get a sense of this when you look down the microscope, are you ever unsettled by what you see?  It can be quite unsettling looking at the amount of microscopic creatures to be found in e.g. a drop of water and imagining their part in the larger whole. These creatures can be x35,000 what the eye can see. That can be unnerving and amazing at the same time. I constantly tussle with notions of the sublime and underlying invisible elements when making work.

Is there ever a health and safety aspect to what you are doing, for instance, do you ever work with potentially toxic or harmful aspects of nature?  I am immensely cautious about the harmful and potentially toxic aspects that exist when working in the natural world. The process of collecting living material is safe, if you know the terrain well, although the people on any particular site of special scientific interest know that I am working there so there is an element of protection. Working with an optical microscope, looking at material in the studio at x80 has no risk attached to it. The preparation of collected material for the Scanning Electron Microscope involves a lengthy process using toxic chemicals. This part of the process has to take place in a laboratory because it is hazardous and appropriate safety procedures are used. I have to work with a technician because I am not a scientist!

Do you use a camera to photograph the microscopic images before rendering them, or do you work straight from the microscope, or from your memory of what you have seen through it? I have a camera attached to my optical microscope which is great because I can download images onto a pc to work further into them. These images are at a high resolution.The S.E.M images of prepared specimens are taken by an internal camera attached to the scanning electron microscope. They reveal a much higher magnification of minute structures. I work mainly from direct observation in the landscape, drawing and photographing and from SEM images, in the development of my visual ideas.

Any other comments you would like to make, or useful information? The scientist is rarely interested in art and finding a way to dialogue with the scientist is not easy. They are the ‘experts’ and the artist is not. It is important to be aware of the history of art when working in the scientific field as it can be a bit overwhelming at times.. I always focus on the intention of making a piece of artwork.

 

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Dazzling Diatoms

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One of Klaus Kemp’s wonderful diatom arrangements

I recently came across the work of Klaus Kemp, a dedicated scientist-cum-artist who spends his spare time collecting and mounting diatoms; single-celled organisms which form algae. These tiny organisms cannot be seen by the naked eye, but under a microscope they reveal their beautiful forms through their cell walls which are made of silica. According to Burgess, in Under the Microscope (1990, p.120 ) the sea is full of these creatures, with a litre of water continuing up to 15000 diatoms. Klaus who is well known in this field of art and science, is one of just a few practitioners who are trying to keep this dying art alive.

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Klaus at home with this microscope

Diatom arranging was popular in the Victorian era, when the art of amateur (as well as professional) microscopy was very fashionable. The diatoms, which were collected from far flung corners of the globe would be arranged into stunning kaleidoscopic patterns on glass slides, which were sealed and sold to collectors for amusement.

A recent film was made by Matthew Killip called The Diatomist, in which Kemp discusses his obsession with these tiny organisms. It also shows stunning displays of his work accompanied by a fitting soundtrack, which includes fairground organ music, evoking in me a sense of childhood nostalgia and wonder.

I found his number online, and gave him a ring, and we chatted to about 20 minutes about his work and our mutual respect for Ernst Haeckel, who he coincidently is basing a project on at the moment. I asked him if he would answer a short questionnaire, and he kindly agreed, returning it to me the very same afternoon.

When and why did you begin to use the microscope as a method of studying parts of the environment?   1954, aged 16 at Flatters and Garnetts Biological teaching material supplier.

Were you ever inspired by the works of the “Romantic” scientists/artists such as Ernst Haeckel?  Yes, by his plates which are I believe astounding for their accuracy and so much so that it is easy to identify all the species he has figured.

What type of microscope do you use/ what are its capabilities?  My main microscope for mounting type slides and arrangements is a Biolam, which in the main uses low power objectives, but also has a rare X100 objective configured to work on dry uncovered specimens, ideal for working out the species being dealt with. I use a Leitz Orthoplan for careful study of any species, which has a Heine condenser and phase, it also allows me to use oil on the minute forms of diatoms.

Why do you think artists are turning towards science – what advantage does a scientific slant bring to a body of work on the environment? Art!!!Nature has it by the handful, and the best we can do is create art around Nature, even at quantum physics stage or Nano technology  we have to admire the complexity of nature and stand in awe.

What do you enjoy about viewing the landscape/nature through glass? Why do you think it is a suitable tool for themes of environment or the natural world?  Difficult question, but think of the number who have been or are now on the planet, and have never seen this awesome world and yet we are surrounded not only by the microscopic world but astronomy opens up another world, which then makes humankind the “pimple on a fleas leg”.

Do you think that studying the species of a particular environment can help to capture its ‘spirit of place’? Yes Darwin was right, everything is in its rightful place and if not Nature will modify the species until it is – evolution is just magic.

Is there ever a health and safety aspect to what you are doing, for instance, do you ever work with potentially toxic or harmful aspects of nature? Only in the cleaning process in getting rid of the organic matter in diatoms so that the silica is all you are left with. The cleaning process uses boiled Hydrochloric Acid which deals with any calcium present in the sample, and fuming Sulphuric Acid which removes the organic matter. Both processes are carried out in a fume cupboard.

One of the visions of the Romantic artists was to capture the “sublime”- the beautiful yet often startling forces of nature. Do you get a sense of this when you look down the microscope, or are you ever unsettled by what you see?  Mankind has the ability to manipulate only to a degree, but we are powerless against the forces of nature. We will ultimately either destroy ourselves by war, fooling around with physics, messing around with genes,or be destroyed by forces we are unable to control, the environment, global warming (not new), mass extinction (not new). The flip side to this is that Nature abhors a vacuum, so something else will take our place, we are at least fortunate in beginning to understand our position in Nature.

I was really grateful for Klaus taking the time to chat with me and to answer my questionnaire. The study of diatoms is yet another interesting aspect to microbiology, which highlights the hidden and wonderful invisible elements of the world around us, and I found it especially interesting that it was an art practiced in the nineteenth century, the latter end of the Romantic era and the Age of the Enlightenment.

 

Menagerie of Microbes – Talks and Workshops

On Saturday (2 days ago) I went down to Edinburgh to attend workshops for a whole day  in the ASCUS lab at Summerhall.  I had booked to attend the  lecture at 11am by all of the workshop leaders, and also booked onto the Microgeography workshop in the afternoon, but was delighted to learn that there were more tickets available for the other two workshops on Infected Textiles and Creative Slime Mould so I decided to make a day of it and attend them all.

The first lecture was a presentation by the workshop leaders, who spoke for about 20 mins each on their practice. 3 people at the top of their game, all in the art + science field, names which I knew and respected through following their work on their blogs and twitter feeds;  artist Anna Dumitriu, molecular biologist Dr Simon Park (who I contacted last year for my research) and Heather Barnett, the “slime mould guru” and artist. So you can imagine my excitement at being in the same room as all of them at once…incredible!

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The first workshop, Infected Textiles was led by Anna Dumitriu, an artist whose work hovers between art and science, and questions the ethics of how emerging technologies can affect and impact upon our lives. She discussed her current body of work, The Romantic Disease, which traces the bizarre relationship between humans and ‘the Romantic Disease’ Tuberculosis (TB). In her research, Anna has explored the superstitions and myths regarding the disease – a condition which was believed by many to heighten creative genius, to the point that some ladies wore make up to feign the illness to make them look artistic. She also explores the development of cures, such as “resting” through to antibiotics, and finally research into whole genome sequencing of bacteria. I was interested in her inclusion of Romantic in the title of this body of work and research – this was someone see who had made a connection between microbiology and the Romantics, which made me even more convinced that my own line of enquiry was valid and interesting.

Anna’s work for the exhibition was created by using bacteria to “dye” fabrics exhibition includes “Genius Germ”, “Blue Henry”, “Pneumothorax Machine”, “Where there’s dust there’s danger” and several framed works. As well as the “MRSA Quilt” and premieres the new work. A new film of Dumitriu’s own cells being infected in vitro with bovine TB was also being screened. These works were fascinating, yet at the same time unsettling, especially the medical apparatus on display of which I couldn’t bear to think of as actually being used on or by any human being.
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Above: Anna Dumitriu making up some agar using agar powder, skimmed milk, honey and marmite

After her presentation, we were given the opportunity to make some of our own infected textile experiments by swabbing any surface we wanted (within reason!) and then wiping it onto a petri dish filled with agar made from Dr Simon Park’s own recipe. We could also add various coloured additives such as safflower and walnut husks, which contained anti-microbial as well as dyeing properties.

Next up was a workshop by Dr Simon Park, who gave us a talk about his work on exploring the micro-geograpies in the environment around us. Although they are often invisible, or so small that they are overlooked, microbial ecologies thrive in the environments around us, as if in a sort of parallel world that with similar infrastructures to our own. These microbes are all around us, many are harmless although some can make us unwell.  Simon’s work, which crosses between art and science, explores a number of threads that emerge from microbiology when it is placed in the context of the built environment.

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Above: Dr Simon Park with his prized field microscope

In the workshop he demonstrated his homemade agar recipe which he cooked on a small portable stove, and even ate some of it to our horror!  He invited us to swab areas around the building and then wipe the residue onto pre-prepared agar in petri dishes which we were allowed to take home. He also made use of his  field microscope, and asked us to spit onto slides, which were then left to dry before we added Methylene Blue to stain them, and then observe them under the microscope.

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It was really inspirational to watch Simon at work, casually explaining all the processes and imparting his knowledge in a very modest way. In my opinion Simon is very much an artist, and I would like to see more of his work done on an individual basis which would give him full credit for it.

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Finally, at the end of a long yet enjoyable day, I met the slime mould guru Heather Barnett. As an artist, researcher and educator working at the intersections of art, science and technology, Heather has held research fellowships, and worked with many diverse organisations. I had come across Heather when I joined the Slime Mould Collective a few months ago, and I would guess she is probably the most knowledgeable artist on the intelligent slime mould, Physarum polycephalum.  She gave us an interesting presentation on her work with this mysterious single cell organism, and then invited us to make miniature habitats for it using filter papers, felt and food to lure it in various directions.We were all given a couple of small pieces to take away with us, so I’m hoping I have more luck with this batch than the previous one I tried to grow.

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The “intelligent” slime mould, Physarum polycephalum

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A “pet” slime mould to take home with me!

This event was thoroughly enjoyable, and I felt privileged to meet Anna, Simon and Heather, all scientific artists at the cutting edge of their practice. It made me want to go home and get started on my essay with a new enthusiasm, and also gave me a few creative ideas which I might toy with for the exhibition.

 

 

An Interview with Courtney Egan

I contacted New Orleans artist Courtney Egan recently, as I had come across her work during a google search. She too has an interest in looking through glass at nature, and has produced some beautiful and mesmerizing works, including large scale interactive video projections.

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Above is a still from her amazing Cluster piece, but you need to see it moving to get a full appreciation of it here:  http://arthurrogergallery.com/artists/courtney-egan/

She was kind enough to answer a questionnaire that I sent her.
Would you describe yourself as an environmental  or eco artist ?
I am personally an environmentalist, but I don’t consider myself an “eco artist,” in that the work does not directly advocate for specific change. It is more of an exploration of my interest in and awareness of seeing the world through a lens.  The lens or the glass distances us and brings us closer to nature at the same time. It’s an effect that I find uncanny but is becoming ubiquitous for consumers of media.
When did you first fall in love with the lens as a creative medium?
I started taking photos of my cat and the alligators on my parent’s property as a tween. We lived on a river in a tiny town – I was on a constant quest to photograph the alligators in the river. I had my first experience with photography in Girl Scouts. I fell in love with the darkroom process and the philosophical nature of photography- questions about how photography can be manipulated and how seeing is not always believing. This was pre-Adobe Photoshop.
I also fell in love with television at an early age, when unrestricted viewing in America was the norm for kids. My parents were fans of public television, which rubbed off on me, and nature documentaries were on almost every night.
What do you love about the lens, or viewing the landscape/nature through glass? Why do you think it is a suitable medium for themes of environment or
the natural world? Why, in your opinion, is it a preferred medium to painting or drawing, for example?
I see lens based work as the extension of painting and drawing, not necessarily in opposition to it. The lens brings a whole new range of considerations to bear, which are pretty much the same as drawing – close observation, patience, attention to light and color, and awareness of the “window” through which we are presented with a slice of the world, composition. The main difference (for me) is the addition of motion to the image, and the addition of manipulation of the photographic image, and the constant push and pull between what’s “real” and what’s “imaginary”, or you could say “altered by human desire.” But the thing about flowers is that they have been altered by human desire for centuries now, and author Michael Pollan suggest the flowers have been altering human behaviour for centuries as well.
Your work touches on environmental issues – yet I see a sort of mystical beauty and tranquillity in your images – am I correct in thinking that you try to
capture the spiritual aspect of nature within your work?
I work within the tradition of the botanical as a metaphor for spirituality, physicality, and imagination.
The Romantic artists often including a figure in their paintings to give this impression of vast, awe–inspiring landscapes, and the sublime and often
terrifying forces of nature. Do you feel that your projections trigger these emotions to the audience?
I like to think that a viewer looking at my work IS the figure, and is aware of themselves as the figure, in comparison to the pieces. They may have to deal with their memory of the images as they may know them from their reality, verses the alterations that I make in the images.
Do you think that the use of lens-based media/technology can connect this generation of youngsters to nature, or help to re-enchant the landscape?
As a teacher, I find the basics are to teach sensitivity to light, and from that, all follows. The sun as a phenomenon that our bodies are intimately connected to, as a vehicle for metaphor and a source of beauty – refining our vision to be aware of the qualities of light, I think. helps us conjure the enchantment that can be created by light. Also, the urge to share – “I saw that” – is very important in terms of connecting with other humans.
There’s often a discrepancy, when one sees a thing, one sees it again in a photo and sees different things in it. That gap between experiencing something, then seeing a representation of it, can be profound. I often find things that I wasn’t aware of in my photos. This enchants the process of vision for me, more than enchanting the landscape or any particular object.

 

Interview with Michel Varisco

I came across the work of New Orleans artist Michel Varisco, whose photographs, assemblages and site-specific installations are based on themes of loss and regeneration. Her photographs explore the complex relationship between the natural and the engineered environment which is carved out of a delicate delta system.

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Effervescent Pond, New Orleans, (copyright) Michel Varisco

Through her work she depicts her homeland to educate, inspire, transform and heal what is essentially an ecologically and culturally rich place which is struggling for its survival.

She kindly agreed to answer some questions about her work.

Would you describe yourself as an environmental or eco artist ?  Yes, more and more I do. Often a theme arises, and I follow my interest through a simple question like: “as a species, how do we live with nature?” When humans see nature as a commodity to harvest, spoil, entrap, contaminate and so on, the outlook looks bleak for our future. If however we as a species used our intelligence to respect life and sustainability of resources, then my work would reflect that most likely. I title my work with adjectives that suggest a change is coming. “Shifting”, “Turning”, “Fluid States”. We need to be agile and see things as they are, without glorification or magical thinking. And we need to be ready to act- and be the change we want to see. I “act” through my art and through my purse. The natural world responds to our collective action for better and for worse. For instance, the melting of glaciers, the loss of lands due to engineering foibles, the climate changes underway, water scarcity and air and water pollution-for every action, there is a reaction. Unbridled capitalism is undoing the planet. I see environmental and social justice interwoven in many ways. In 2001, I studied housing issues in New Orleans in a series called “Displaced”. Little did I know at the time that the largest mass migration in the United States was just around the corner with Hurricane Katrina- and with it, a disproportionate displacement, larger than the Great Dust Bowl migration in the 1930’s.Going back even further, slavery in the U.S was the illicit “energy source” of its era. A war was fought over its end because the powerful couldn’t accept the inevitable. We are in another period of abuse, but this time towards the planet. What will happen now will be determined sooner than later- due to limited resources on a planet that’s facing the 6th greatest mass extinction in 65 million years-the Anthropocene extinction. What we do now matters, and to more than our own species. It’s about time to use every tool at our disposal to work towards a future worth its weight in gold- by leaving the gold in its place.

When did you first fall in love with the lens as a creative medium?  I fell in love with photography looking at a “Time-life Book -30 years in pictures” (Or something to that effect). And the Family of Man catalogue from a traveling show, when I was about 7 studying those books. But I didn’t shoot until much, much later. I drew all the time, and painted, studied sculpture and printmaking and graphic arts, even music. Eventually I learned photography in college and I felt like it was a great honor. I still draw and make sculpture. Some of my favourite artists are those that use multiple mediums in their works.

What do you love about the lens, or viewing the landscape through glass?  It’s a meditation. When I shoot, I like to let life lead me although there’s a lot of conscious reflection in the process. To observe changes the observed. I treat the viewfinder as a way to appreciate and “feel” what I’m looking at in that moment with complete attention. Cartier Bresson said “it’s where the heart, the mind and the eye align”. When I’m excited about the subject I can shoot far longer than I probably should. I become almost like a hound dog in hot pursuit on a trail, or a cat that sits and watches the light change. It’s no fun to be with me when I’m shooting because I’m a terrible host to people. I have wonderful friends that understand this about me, and don’t mind the long, long silences. The ineffable comes in unexpected moments.

You describe your photographs as events – does the camera act as a personal diary for you?  The camera is like a journal or sketchbook of sorts- or a field notebook. I learn about something, through observing and returning, and moving through the landscape of experience. I do learn from photographing-almost like a scientist with an artist’s eye.

Your work touches on some serious environmental issues – yet I see a sort of mystical beauty and tranquillity in your images – am I correct in thinking that you try to capture the spiritual aspect of landscapes (genius loci) within your work?The land and rivers and waterways teach me about how to live amidst change. (“To bend and not break like bamboo” like the Tao Te Ching instructs). But when I see our damages to the lands and waters, it’s like returning to the bedside of a dying friend…too painful to mention, but too deep a love to walk away. It’s also about looking deeply. Just when I think it’s too late, the land teaches me that it’s not. I find refuge in deep time- and study how things change over millennia. This helps me to relax in the thought of the planet’s ability to self-correct. What’s alarming though is that humans may not be in the future equation though if we don’t self-correct around limited resources and the protection and sharing of replenishing resources.

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Ballet Trees, New Orleans, (copyright) Michel Varisco

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Marshland Bones, Lafourche Parish (copyright) Michel Varisco

The trees in your ‘Fragile Land’ photographs (above) seem to be trying to communicate with us – as if they are have their own “presence” or spirits within them, they remind me of some of the photographs of British Neo-Romantic artist Paul Nash. Have you come across his work, and if so, do you share a similar vision to him?  Thank you for reconnecting me to his work. I think one thing we had in common is that we both suffered from post-traumatic stress- World Wars 1 and 2 for him and Hurricane Katrina and BP oil spill disaster for me. We both retreated to nature in order to heal. Nature taught me about regeneration and grit. Yes, the trees seemed to be communicating to both of us, because we were paying attention to the intense changes around us at the time. I truly don’t know how he survived seeing what he saw. I couldn’t have walked the road he walked. After reinvestigating some of his writings about his process- I can relate to his despair. To be an artist during this century is a delicate tightrope walk between sensitivity and toughness. To foster the ability to bend and not break.

Have you explored any other lens-based media, such as video/ film/ projection? If so, how do you rate using it compared to the medium of photography? I’m using video too now- and I am just as engrossed with it- although I previously preferred the darkroom to the computer. Now computer is an inevitable part of my practice- despite all resistance. My neck and back can tell you more about that. To heal from the tools of the trade, I swim, and then shoot video and stills of the beauty of water or its inhabitants. I tell you while I seem grim in some of my comments, I do find the world riddled with incredible beauty. Oftentimes beyond lens based anything!

Do you think that the use of lens-based media/technology can connect this generation of youngsters to nature, or help to re-enchant the landscape?  That’s a great question. It could go either way…but I don’t think it necessarily connects them- they can avoid nature because of or in spite of technology. Many in America complain that the harried life they live with all it’s technological advances has them on a short leach of time and they end up sacrificing some of their time in nature as a result. It’s with encouragement and guidance, inspiration and education that they venture into the wilderness. I take them there sometimes- into some muddy tangled woods and get their cool clothes all messed up-and they seem to like it in the end. I think they “remember to remember” when they enter into nature. (“Oh yeah, I forgot I liked nature” kind of thing). Sometimes they ask to shoot film instead of digital media- because they want the risk of messing up and the challenge of crafting a difficult print. But digital or analog, the important thing is that they encounter the landscape and come out of the experience enamoured even more by it. The important take away is that they will want to encourage, (and demand even) a cleaner more sane future that respects nature- that gives us life. And more than the medium used, and I think a great act of resistance, is the crafting of one’s time. Make time for nature, and it will payback those moments in infinite returns.

Any other comments you would like to make, or useful information?  Thank you for your interest in my work. I enjoyed looking at your blog and photographs very much as well. Your own sense of discovery and process is magical and inspiring. I love the way you blend science and art!

Some great resources in the form of books are:

  • Rachel Carson- The Sea around us
  • Naomi Klein- This changes Everything (book over film)
  • Kate Orff and Richard Misrach: Petrochemical America (the maps are incredible)
  • John Barry’s Rising Tide
  • Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest

Let me know if you have any further questions- and I hope your research paper turn out successful.

Glassworks

I received a beautiful little book in the post yesterday, a small and fairly rare book of photography by Fay Godwin – Glassworks and Secret Lives. Godwin began to take an interest in photography at 32 years old, and started out taking portrait photos of authors, who she met through her publisher husband Tony. When she split from her husband, she turned her back on portraiture and began to take an interest in landscape photography.

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She collaborated with author and poet Ted Hughes, and produced many works which responded to his poems and the English countryside. His vision of the landscape was not unlike that of Neo-Romantics, and although Godwin denied that her work was influenced by them, it has a loneliness and desolation to it, a haunting sadness and sensitivity which some would argue is in the style of the Neo-Romantics.

c13526-69Fence by Fay Godwin

But it is her later work which this small book shows – works which she made in colour using “fast and grainy colour film” to “…explore the detail in forgotten corners, behind glass, plastic and other materials.”

g02(p153)‘Untitled, from Pioneer Glassworks,’ 1989

I really love the subtle reflections in this piece, looking at what is in front of the camera, yet still being able to capture elements of what is behind. A haunting, ghostly layering, dreamlike and entrancing.

I decided to have a go today using some “props” which I could use to photograph the landscape through. I found cling film, perspex, a glass jar, petri dish and an old plastic carton.  I took them out into the woodland to have a play around.

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Various props to photograph though

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I began with the cling film, which was wrapped between branches to form a ‘window’.

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The cling film catches the sun and gives the impression of looking through scratched glass. Next I had a go using a clear plastic carton, which I found captured some interesting reflections…

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By chance I caught the light just at the right moment to reflect the branches and trunk of the tree onto a clump of lichen – an unexpected result as I moved the plastic carton over the lichen, but unfortunately I could have done with another pair of hands to get the photograph more in focus.

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Another go with the carton in a different location…

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This is my favourite piece using the carton…it reminds me of the sweeping blurry skies of a Tuner painting, yet I love the way that the tiny fronds of fire moss can be clearly seen.

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Shadow of brach cast on scratched surface

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Hollow in a tree reflecting the bright landscape behind it

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Abstract reflections
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The shots of the leaves above (and one below) were taken through perspex, making a more layered reflected effect

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Below; Perspex over frogspawn, with water droplet on top

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Finally, I took a few shots through a jam jar…lichenjar1

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This technique creates a vortex effect similar to some of the landscape paintings from the romantic era, a blurred vignette which draws the eye into the central point of focus.

I want to experiment more with photographing elements of the landscape through transparent surfaces which have different thicknesses and discrepancies or patterns. I’m going to continue collecting old cartons, bottles and jars to see what results they give. The reflections in the glass give mysterious effects which give the images a kind of spiritual quality – one method of capturing the ‘spirit of place.’

Through the Looking Glass

Over the past year, a common theme has been emerging within my work, which I have become increasingly aware of, especially over the last couple of months. The common denominator – glass….gazing at nature through glass, be it a type of lens (camera, microscope, microscopic video, iPhone, sunglasses), a glass petri dish, a glass cloche or a computer or phone screen.

This has been a helpful realisation in the context of my research, as it has helped me to narrow down my field of enquiry into Romantic and Neo-Romantic art (which is a potentially HUGE area) much more easily.

I feel that my work has rotated 360degrees – having dabbled with video projection in the Frame Form and Fracture project in first year of the course I have arrived back at it, this time with a more solid context and a sense of direction which I lacked back then.

Throughout the Romantic and Neo-Romantic eras, evidence can be found of artists looking at the landscape through glass in an attempt to capture the picturesque or sublime vision of their surroundings. I recently purchased a very interesting book ;’The Claude Glass. Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art’ by Arnaud Maillet, which is a fascinating gem of a book, containing very interesting and informative information about Claude mirrors also known as Claude glasses ; devices used by 18th and 19th century artists to create an effect similar to the paintings of Claude Lorraine.

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The mirror was generally a small, black convex piece of glass which altered the tonal values in the landscape, its shape giving a slightly distorted view which nevertheless allowed more of the landscape into a single focal point. Some Claude Glasses were made of glass with coloured tints such as blue or grey, which could give the illusion of a moonlit evening, sometimes multicoloured tints, to give a kind of filtered effect, allowing the viewer to see a “luminous” landscape.

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An instagram picture I took in Birnam Wood – notice how the filter blurs the edges and brings the central point into focus, whilst also giving a soft, warm light – effects which were achieved by using a Claude Glass in the 18th and 19th centuries.  

 I suppose it could be considered as an equivalent to an image adjusting app which we might use on our smartphone today, such as instagram or Hipstamatic, so if you think about it in that context, it was a really clever little avante-garde invention. It also bears a curious resemblance to the obsidian scrying mirror of Dr John Dee, which I mentioned in this blog a few months ago.

In 2006, artist Alex McKay and historian CS Matheson created a claude mirror installation by placing a webcam opposite a 40-inch Claude mirror that was reflecting the Tintern Abbey. The streaming/IP service was interrupted in November 2007, but the camera went back online in May 2008. Unfortunately the webcam is offline now, but the gallery of pictures captured by the camera at different times of day and in different lighting situations really shows off the qualities of the mirror and the fact that, in many cases, the glass really does make a scene look like it’s had an Instagram filter applied. You can see more about this project here:

http://web2.uwindsor.ca/hrg/amckay/Claudemirror.com/Claudemirror.com/Claude_Mirror_Introduction.html

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A view of Tintern Abbey through the Claude mirror

I recently ordered an antique convex clock glass, which I hope to use to make my own Claude Glass. I want to see how it changes my perception of Birnam Wood and also try to make some photographs of the reflections within it. I will post my making of it and images when my glass arrives.