The concept of the sublime emerged in the eighteenth century in relation to landscape painting and applied to such spectacles as mountains, waterfalls and stormy seas. Today the concept of sublime has shifted from nature to the power of technology and its impact and can include the excesses and destabilising effect of a global world. Simon Morley (Morley (ed) 2010) describes how it can affect us in everyday life:
“Awe and wonder can quickly blur into terror, giving rise to a darker aspect of the sublime experience, when the exhilarating feeling of delight metamorphoses into a flirtation with dissolution and ‘daemonic’.”
In the eighteenth century Edmund Burke, an Irish theorist and philosopher noted that certain experiences provide us not only with a sense of pleasure but also with fear. He recognised in his thinking that vast landscapes might transcend the boundary of being beautiful to creating a fearful response.
“The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature, when those causes operate most powerfully is Astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror . . . No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear. For fear, being an apprehension of pain or death, operates in a manner that resembles actual pain. Whatever therefore is terrible, with regard to sight, is sublime too . . . Indeed, terror is in all cases whatsoever, either more openly or latently, the ruling principle of the sublime.”
Implicit within these thoughts on the sublime lies the idea of its sudden and radical impact upon those who experience it. The Tate draws this out in its definition:
The word, of Latin origin, means something that is ‘set or raised aloft, high up’. The sublime is further defined as having the quality of such greatness, magnitude or intensity, whether physical, metaphysical, moral, aesthetic or spiritual, that our ability to perceive or comprehend it is temporarily overwhelmed.
(retrieved from: https://www.tate.org.uk/whats-on/tate-britain/display/art-and-sublime)
For me, and my current photographic practice, these descriptions of the sublime resonate with what I am trying to achieve in my photography. My wish to use the landscape of the Isle of Skye as a means to find out more about myself and lay the ghosts of my early photographic experience to rest are borne out of not only the breathtaking beauty of this landscape but also my sense of fear in being drawn under the spell of the Black Cuillin. These mountains lie at the dark heart of Skye that is as much a social and historical construct as it is a place with its distinct geography and climate. For me the journey into Skye and my encounter with the Black Cuillin is a journey into darkness, but a darkness that is wild and beautiful as opposed to the chaotic and the dead.
Burke was also interested in how “the self” reacted to this threat to survival and how it potentially strengthened the self as a result of the experience.
My research seeks to travel on this personal journey to not only strengthen but also understand and find closure for the experiences in my early photographic career.
Immanuel Kant explored the border where reason is lost too and preferred to characterise the sublime as a subjective concept rather than a quality of a natural phenomena. Simon Morley explains Kant’s approach as being “a negative experience of limits”. It was a way of talking about what happens when we are faced with something we do not have the capacity to understand or control – something excessive.
I was faced with this feeling as a young photographer with little experience of life let alone experience or understanding of the images I had to take. I feel that I need to come to terms with this by experiencing the sublime again in rather different circumstances. My hope is that I can let go of my experience and my guard, which has been in place for over thirty years, through my photography.
In the nineteenth century, Friedrich Schiller further extended the sense of the sublime and whilst acknowledging that beauty is valuable in relation to the human being, it is the sublime that reveals the “daemon”. In the twentieth century Sigmund Freud in his concept of “sublimation” refers to the human tendency to supress traumatic and unsettling memories. This is certainly my experience as I have never spoken to anyone about what I saw or how I felt, or indeed how I managed the experience in the way I approached my photography at that time.
Much of the twentieth century discourse on the sublime has been influenced by the social constructivist theories that we exist within a “life world” of cultural signs and systems. It is true to say that the social constructivist approach posed more questions than it answered and in this context Morley asks the following question about the sublime experience:
“What, for example, is happening psychologically within the force field of the sublime experience when formal and objectively ordered social time is destabilised by some unstructured, informal and subjective moment of heightened experience, a heightened time during which the self is radically altered by something that presses on us from our normal reality, challenging the assumptions upon which a reality is based.”
And, for me, what happens when you revisit that experience and feeling many years later in order to find solace and closure on the previous events? This is the journey I am currently on and I believe not only the sublime aesthetic, perhaps in its earlier form than the more modern definition, but also the philosophical and psychological thinking which underpins the concept of the sublime will be helpful to me, not only in developing my practice, but also in understanding my early memories and trauma.
Moving forward into the next module on the MA in Photography and in developing my Research Project there are some questions about the sublime I will need to ponder further:
- How do I convey that sublime moment in an image – how do I achieve the “impact factor”?
- How do I rekindle a sublime moment to take future images from similar viewpoints? Is it possible?
- If I keep revisiting the Road to Elgol, and I manage to convey the sublime moment, will there come a time when the sublime moments cease to exist?
Burke, E, (1757) A Philosophical Enquiry in to the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful Adam Phillips, Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York
Morley, S (ed) (2010), The Sublime, The Whitechapel Gallery and The MIT Press