Throughout this course I have been trying to find my aesthetic home and place my photographic work within current practice. I have identified Ansel Adams, Sebastiao Salgado, Freeman Patterson, Bill Brandt and Fay Godwin in this context as providing me with inspiration. However, reading more about Olaf Becker and his aesthetic approach has led me to identify with his work. Here are a few images by Becker:
Peck argues that Becker’s work encompasses a sublime aesthetic, a concept inherited from nineteenth century landscape tradition. Although, Edmund Burke had described “sublime” even earlier, in the eighteenth century, as a mixture of “perverse pleasure, mixing both fear and delight.” In Becker’s Broken Line, Badger (2005) refers to Becker’s photography as “lyrical documentary” and positions it as part of the American lyrical documentary tradition, referencing similarities with the images of Stephen Shore and Eric Soth, both photographers I have featured in earlier blogs in this module.
Peck refers to the power in Becker’s images, such as his photographs of the Skaftfell Glacier, where overcast skies produce a brooding element to his work. Simon Morley suggests “lives are fashioned by forces beyond our control, which underpin and drive our acts of representation.” He goes on to ask whether the sublime aesthetic is a means of succumbing to the allure and accepting the domination of nature.
To me, this encapsulates my experience of, and the images I make, of the Black Cuillin Hills on The Road to Elgol. Whilst I am transfixed by the intense and overpowering beauty of the vistas I cannot get away from an overwhelming sense of foreboding when I am close to them. I find them intimidating and dominating but I am drawn to them. I like to depict the overpowering sense of scale in my work and demonstrate through the use of a small human trace the dominance of nature over man that Morley proposes.
For example in The Little House in the Cuillin, one of my own favourite images, I clearly depict not only the sense of scale of the hills behind the house, the vulnerability of the house against the forces of nature and also my feelings of fear and foreboding that I encounter when sitting under the black jagged rock:
Interestingly, I had a similar response when I spent a few days photographing Niagara Falls. Whilst feeling overwhelmed and fearful by the sheer scale and force of the water (and showing an unhealthy fascination with those who had taken on the Falls and lost) I was drawn to them. The image below is the result of a very wet boat ride where I stayed on deck throughout the whole trip getting closer and closer to the point where the Falls crashed into the river below. Although I was fearful I was also intent on getting the shot I wanted to capture the mystery and darkness of that place. Notwithstanding the power of the Falls, the birds provide evidence that life can withstand the forces of nature and also provide the sense of scale in the image:
Like Becker, I am drawn to travel to inhospitable places, cold places, and those only occupied by the bravest in nature.
We are both trying to relate these experiences and the underlying reality of our work. We both make the ontological assumption that there are causalities in place that may not be obvious to others.
I think my past photographic experience of providing evidence of what individuals do to themselves or others, drives my wish to photograph the inherent danger in the world in which we inhabit in a way that reflects that understanding, fascination and fear.
Badger, G (2007) Take Me Back to the Frozen North: The Greenland Photographs of Olaf Otto Becker in Olaf Otto Becker’s, Broken Line, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz
Becker, O, (2007) Broken Line, Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz
Goldie, C, White D (eds) (2018) Northern Light, Landscape, Photography and Evocations of the North,
Morley, S, (ed) (2010) The Sublime, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA