DAVID GEORGE’S NIGHTSCAPES : REVEALING THROUGH THE DARK
« A qui est-il demandé de traverser les ténèbres si ce n’est au porteur de lumière » ?
Much contemporary landscape photography may be broadly connected with « the spatial turn », a phrase designating a new interdisciplinary interest in space and the landscape emphasising layeredness. Ever since Henri Lefebvre’s seminal studies on the interconnectedness of nature and culture, the landscape has been investigated as a symbolical representation –often a visual one—premised on sight ; but also as intersecting with affects –one may consider the development of psychogeography ; as shaping and being shaped by social practices ; or as being contaminated by and reflecting power-relations. Admittedly, the landscape results from the entanglement of observable realities, lived experiences and collective or individual imagination. It is « a hybrid term expressing the continual and inescapable symbolic shaping of the material world.
In a famous essay on landscape photography , Robert Adams argued : « landscape pictures can offer us, I think, three verities –geography, autobiography, and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together […] the three kinds of information strengthen each other ». These three verities underlie much of contemporary landscape photography, among others the photographic series by David George, a London-based photographer whose work is currently exhibited at the Sid Motion Gallery. However, because all his landscapes are shot at night and allude to films or literary works, the places that he pictures become sanctuaries for the imagination. As a matter of fact David George reveals the poetics of ordinary cityscapes. To him, « photography sees the world in ways the human eye never can. », an echo to Edward Weston’s claim that « photography as a creative expression […] must be seeing plus » . Yet, in his works, this « seeing plus » is paradoxically predicated on intense darkness.
In David George’s photographic series, night seems to have suspended time, freed deeply-buried fears and disclosed multiple stories. At night the landscape is unfurled to make imagination and emotions come to light. Bearing the imprint of collective history and individual stories, the landscapes which the artist captures perfectly illustrate the statement made in the call for papers of this conference : « The space we inhabit is a lived space inscribed with the cultural traces of a collective imaginary itself informed by the art of landscape painting and writing ». Indeed, his landscapes articulate subjective memory and cultural representations ; they blend literal perceptions of space and emotive affects.
The photographer’s sources of inspiration are multiple ranging from the romantic landscape endowed with sublimity to documentary photography and its fascination with banal landscapes ; from gothic literary cityscapes to the film noir and its highly contrasted urban imagery. All the series hinge on intericonicity and intermediality. Shadows of Doubt seeks to recreate the atmosphere of Hitchcock’s films in photography ; Hackney by Night (2014-2015) juxtaposes photographic landscapes with a short story by Karen Falconer ; the images from the Backwater series inevitably bring to mind Arnold Böcklin’s paintings ; Enclosures, Badlands and Borders, showing industrial ruins, conjures up 19th century literary representations of industrial Britain.
All the series result from long and meticulous explorations. The photographer, a solitary flâneur, uses large-scale maps and google earth to establish areas he might like to work in, then walks these places during daylight to explore the districts before photographing them by night. Time and space intermingle in the process. Different stories are woven together. « Artists collect, log and sift through a diversity of information about places in order to deepen the insights that will inform photographic methods and processes. […] They are story tellers whose depth of research and analysis is reflected in the philosophic perceptions and visual rhethorical strategies which characterize their picture-making », Liz Wells explains . Such methods leave room for unpredictability. « I set off with an idea of what I might like to photograph but inevitably end up photographing something completely different » the artist confesses, thereby suggesting that both the act of walking and the enchantement of night time add something unexpected to the perception of space and its representation. Night has long irrigated the artists’ imagination . The heightened responsiveness induced by night walks enables David George to reveal traces of the collective unconscious lying dormant in the landscape. As Pierre Taminiaux suggests in The Paradox of Photography, « to reveal is to demonstrate in a poetic manner the mental closeness of the material reality that surrounds us », adding : « what is photography, if not a medium that sheds light on objects, places, people to make the world more visible through a process of sheer revelation » . The paradox in David George’s landscapes is that such photographic and poetic revelation is achieved not through transparency or light but through the opacity of darkness. If, as Jacqueline Kelen observes in a book devoted to night , any masking or covering leads to an unmasking or uncovering, then night and light are in fact consubstantial. While a strand of contemporary photography focuses on brightly lit environments and and probes space with acute neatness, George’s works are imbued with anachronistic darkness and ominous spectrality. His fascination with tenebrous environments evokes Bill Brandt’s highly contrasted cityscapes or Don McCullin’s dimly-lit photographs of the English countryside.
The works under scrutiny revisit the poetic motif of the nocturnal which John Donne keyed to spiritual contemplation. The voices that float through the trees in Hackney by night (« Voices float through the trees. ») echo the voices of many poets celebrating night as the « mother of gods and men » . The flâneur visiting places at night penetrates the secrets of the sites as, to quote Jacqueline Kelen again, « the nakedness of the night offers a true light which very few individuals have beheld. For daylight –which has become ordinary and expected—differs from nightlight, which cannot be reduced to the glow of the stars or the paleness of moonlight. As light shines at night, veils and screens are lifted and one is led beyond appearances. Night light incites us not to step back but to remember ». In David George’s works, night disrupts the temporality of space as the landscape is fraught with biographical, cultural or archetypal images resurfacing from the past.
An interartial project, Hackney by Night blends Robert Adams’ three verities : geography, autobiography and metaphor. The series was shot in Hackney, East London, an area that is familiar to the photographer. Although the images document the history of the district and its diversity– showing the banks of the Thames and surrounding parks, old brick houses and residential units, industrial buildings and modern amenities, empty alleyways and the cemetery—no caption identifies the places. The images are neither topographic nor elegiac ; the sites are apparently banal without being « non-places ». Electric light signals human presence although, as is the case in all the photographs by David George, no one is to be seen. The text, written by Karen Falconer, is a first person narrative which introduces autobiographical elements. Although the photographs never simply illustrate the text or vice-versa, the reader may connect the fictional narrator with the subjective view provided by the photographs. « As soon as I take my first steps outside, I am on a journey through time and place ; in an open park, I am again a boy, my younger sister at my side » the narrator confesses. The fictional and the photographic landscapes are suffused with personal reminiscences. Walking at night, the character delves into the past and remembers his last moments with his sister who mysteriously vanished. The landscapes he roams at night, as well as the ones that are photographed, also bear the traces of our collective imagination : « I sit at the edge, the narrator remembers, and look across to the island. A number of Ophelias, cats and carcasses might sleep there. » The autobiographical drifts toward the metaphorical as night unveils the hidden cultural and emotional strata constituting the cityscape. As Liz Wells acknowledges « the real, perceptions of the real, the imaginary, the symbolic, memory and experience, form a complex tapestry at the heart of our response to our environment, and, by extension, to landscape imagery » . David George explores the interstice between real and imagined geographies : « I discovered that at night Hackney is a different world. What I wanted was to take the reader on a gentle meander through the night, to feel like they’d have a bit of a dream. » In Hackney by Night, night enables the narrator to acknowledge loss but is also propitious to encounters with the dead. Consequently, the bridges which often feature in the compositions may be metaphors for this double experience of loss and bonding. In Hackney by Night, as is the case in other series, the stifling darkness induces a sense of both protection and danger. Natural or artificial light slightly brightens up the background, thereby transforming the shadowy foreground into a hide-out. Shrouded in darkness, the observer can see without being seen but the feeling of loneliness, heightened by the impression of silence which permeates the images, makes him vulnerable. At night, the banality of these banal landscapes is transcended : the unoccupied sites mutate into metaphorical spaces harbouring our sorrow, ours fears and anxieties, welcoming psychological projections. Whether they are untilled natural spaces, brownfiled areas (in Enclosures, Badlands and Borders) or deserted parks and desolate streets, David George’s landscapes seem to be « uncentered », to quote from J. G. Ballard, who holds that « in the suburbs you find uncentered lives. The normal civic structures are not there. So that people have more freedom to explore their own imaginations, their own obsessions. »Most photographs foster indeterminacy and liminality : the vacant spaces in the foreground –a stretch of lawn, a road, a pond—create a feeling of suspension and estrangement. In other photographs, footpaths or bridges invite the viewer to cross a threshold. Space is therefore made interstitial and liminal, that is to say « familiar yet unknown ; […] secure, and yet intimidating » .
From Shakespeare to contemporary fiction night has been ambiguously perceived in literature : keyed to sleep, dreams and the realm of the supernatural, it has also been associated with lawlessness, criminality or archaïc drives. While, in British culture, pastoral and picturesque representations have contributed to « constructing a simplified and benign rural imaginary, to picturing countryside as safe », David George’s landscapes, which revisit the pastoral, are unsettling : his take on the landscape is shaped by the uncanny and gothic atmosphere of literary fiction, whether it be fairy tales or contemporary novels by Peter Ackroyd, J.G. Ballard or Ian Sinclair. One recent influence is Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London . Aware of Freud’s definition of the uncanny, the artist endows the landscapes of The Gingerbread House Series (2010) with a sense of homeliness and danger. Through images of houses, dens or shelters of different types and sizes shrouded in darkness, the photographer investigates the limit between the known and the unknown.
The work, entitled after the German fairy tale, blends the collective unconscious fear of abandonment and the gothic aesthetics of the film noir and thrillers. Electric lighting and flashlight bestow a forensic atmosphere to some of the scenes. Some extremely dark photographs suggest that « every dwelling is a fortress built to defend its human occupants against the elements ; it is a constant reminder of human vulnerability. […] Every human-made boundary on the earth’s surface –garden hedge, city wall, or ‘radar’ fence—is an attempt to keep inimical forces at bay. Boundaries are everywhere because threats are ubiquitous » . The changing light throughout the series invites us to imagine a night walk and induces various moods ranging from fear to hope at twilight. We may therefore consider our ambiguous experience of night and darkness. In images of intense darkness, the impenetrability of blackness absorbs us into the unknown. The sense of mystery emanating from the images also flows from the ubiquitous presence of water : marshes, ponds or rivers trigger Bachelardian reveries. In Backwater (2012), a series of images showing damp areas on the fringe of urbanized environments, dark water evokes both the dead waters of Edgar Allan Poe’s short stories (which Bachelard scrutinizes) and the possibility of survival in times of environmental threats. In Land Matters, Liz Wells argues that « water represents human survival, cleansing, renewal, flow, fluidity » . The presence of dark, murky water brings to mind Böcklin’s paintings (Island of the Dead, 1883, or Tombstone). Owing to long exposures, the surface of the water becomes almost painterly and the reflections onto these onereic surfaces troubling. In L’Eau et les Rêves, Bachelard notes that the reflection induced by the surface of the water creates strange reversals and visual thresholds as in a dream . Looking at some photographs one cannot help having the lines from Wordsworth’s Prelude in mind :
With trembling oars I turned,
And through the silent water stole my way
Back to the covert of the willow tree;
There in her mooring-place I left my bark,
-And through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.
Like visual echoes to the poet’s run-on-lines, the discrepancies induced by long exposures in David George’s photographs create a dream-like atmosphere. « In a long exposure, the artist explains, the man made is static whereas the natural is organic and has movement with a timed exposure creating an aesthetic difference (and therefore tension) between the natural and the man made. » Two different times are therefore conflated through long exposures : the stillness of the inanimate collides with the slight movement of the animated world that is recorded. Hence, the photographs display what the artist terms « a malleable, elastic narrative ». This disjointed time gives some aura to the pictures as it introduces what Georges Didi-Huberman calls a double distance (« la double distance »). The French critic reminds us that, according to Walter Benjamin, the aura of an image is not solely a visual hallucination but « un regard œuvré par le temps », « un regard qui laisserait à l’apparition le temps de se déployer comme pensée, c’est-à-dire qui laisserait à l’espace le temps de se retramer autrement, de redevenir du temps. » The combined effect of long exposures and nightly atmospheres endows David George’s landscapes with a romantic aura. As Jacqueline Kelen notes, night is « space stripped of temporal boundaries » ; it makes our thoughts and sensations shift towards an alternative time and space .
Huberman also highlights the critical melancholy which underlies Benjamin’s text : modernity would have deprived the world of its aura and undermined sensory experience . David George’s emotional landscapes are pervaded with melancholy. The brown hues of his images are redolent of Henry Fox Talbot’s early photographs while the choice of the pastoral aesthetics with its trees and rivers tap into the pictorialist tradition in photography even though the electric poles, the electric light or metal fences in the images often introduce a discrepancy. In some compositions the halo of electric light seems a pale reminder of the beauty of moonlight. While the trees stand for a romantic pastoral ideal, the poles and electric wire signal rampant colonization of natural spaces as well as industrialization. The conflation of these two symbols within the photographs as well as the presence of fences, roads, barriers inscribing straight lines in an otherwise boundless space sensitizes the viewers to man’s impact on the environment. It is Haberman and Keller’s contention that the current poetics of entanglement and embededness stems from our awareness of pollution, global warming and social violence : sentimentality collides with sensitivity. The edginess that springs from David George’s series echoes the liminality of the overlooked and unloved landscapes that drew the attention of Marion Shoard, whose essay Landscapes suggested that edgelands could be beautiful, and Michael Symmons Roberts among others. Yet, what is yearned for is not merely the reassuring pastoral ideal but the possibility of experiencing melancholy.
David George’s series are emotional landscapes and in this respect they are part of the « affective turn » in landscape representation which Ina Haberman and Daniela Keller define as a « focus on embodiment and the senses, on the constant trade between material objects and the imagination » . In Melancholy and the Landscape, Jack Bowring notes that landscape is « the place from which we draw meaning, feeling ; it is the armature of existence, the realm in which place and culture co-exist, and where the self dwells. » He puts to the fore melancholic landscapes displaying « a loving regard for what is lost, or for impending loss, of an object, a landscape, a moment ». His interpretation of melancholy as spirited sadness or tristitia utilis, resonates with David George’s Tristitia series. « I like melancholy, the photographer says, because it's a choice. It's not like depression. You can choose to be melancholy » . Tristitia is dedicated to « cultural ideas of melancholy, especially those that involve the notion of melancholy as an aesthetic emotion or ideal ». As the artist notes, melancholy encompasses nostalgia and mourning as well as sadness and grief.
Bowring asserts the need for melancholia in societies pursuing happiness relentlessly : « the landscape holds within it the natural habitat for melancholy, as the locus of places of contemplation, memory, death, sadness ». Melancholy, Bowring holds, has been marginalised. It is literally marginalized in Enclosures, Badlands & Borders, a series that shows isolated and deserted industrial buildings. Although the eerie light in the photographs endows these buildings with an uncanny halo, their towering figures are ominous.
Since « the landscape has a role in proffering places of escape, of rebuilding the capacity for contemplation » , David George’s landscapes may be viewed as sanctuaries for melancholy. The vacant space often occupying the foreground is a visual translation of loss and contemplative emptiness. Geographer Tim Edensor also argues that the « monumental banishment of the dark and mysterious within such a modern topography [limelighting visibility and transparency] leaves little room for gloom and the disordered yet evocative matter which might lurk there. » David George’s liminal landscapes compensate our severance from the realms of imagination and introspection. The presence of organic land and water in the landscapes drives us back to times when space was perceived through myths and imagination. The photographs are inevitably perceived as intermedial. Edgelands harbour stories of crimes and the unsettling lighting of the sites heightens this narrative edge.
Intermediality and narrativity are at the very core of Shadows of Doubt, a series which pays a tribute to Hitchcock. Examining works which respond or recycle Hitchcock’s cinema, Christine Sprengler has argued that myths about Hitchcok are just as vital as truths for what they reveal about our present moment, fears and desires » . The photographs focus on Hitchcock’s Edwardian East End but do not reconstitute the film maker’s native city : David George invites the viewers to « re-imagine [my emphasis] the geographic, topographic, and architectural elements that constituted his childhood environment, elements that were feeding everyday, covertly, into his psyche and expanding aesthetic. » Faced with a landscape devoid of human presence and breeding a network of associations, the viewer may project his own fantasies or anxiety : « I tend towards the dionian /romantic/subjective with my work as I think it allows the viewer more space to create their own , personal, stories when viewing the work, » the artist states. The deliberate absence of protagonists leaves room for imagination » . The night scenes, the vivid contrast between light and shadow, the low points of view and the suggestion of a perambulation at night evoke Hitchock’s films without mapping out a clear intrigue. As Lewis Baltz once said « It is possibly useful to think of creative photography as a narrow but deep area lying between the cinema and the novel » . David George creates some generic in-betweenness as his photographic geographical imagination intersects with literature, painting, and the cinema. We inevitably interpret these photographs through the generic conventions of these art forms, which also shape our perception of the real landscape .
Despite the absence of protagonists and the impossibility of a transformation occuring, the series regularly play on the narrative potentialities of the photographic image. While, unlike texts, images cannot provide assertions on the real world and remain « equivalents of visual perception (or, possibly, of visual imagination, like images in a dream) » , the making and reception of photographic images may entail forms of narrativity. This is all the more true when images are « perceptively and hermeneutically unstaurated and when what is showed must be transcended by representational extrapolation » . What is not clearly recorded in the image as well as what is beyond the frame are triggers for story building. The subjective point of view in David George’s images also incites the viewer to weave a story out of the landscapes. Once could say that photographic images are the emerged tip of the narrative iceberg or that they display latent forms of centrifuge narrativity
Seriality introduces something crucial to narrativity, namely coherence and ellipses . According to Jörg M. Colberg, photographs never are closed entities ; they always intersect with something other, either a story, a feeling, or the photographer’s presence. Photography, to him sparks associations, a phenomenon that is heightened by sequential practices : « Dès l’instant que l’on associe deux photographies, que ce soit à côté ou consécutivement, d’entre elles nait un dialogue » . What prevails in David George’s photographs is a sense of absence and enigma. The viewer resorts to the conventions of other media to fill in the blanks and restore a narrativity that is only latent in the images. In the process, the viewers become aware of the specificity of the photographic medium. « Looking at an image, Jean Pierre Meunier argues, is holding the real at a distance, being freed from it, denying it » . « L’image tendrait à « capturer » le spectateur dans l’espace envoûtant quoique paradoxal de sa totalité parcellaire, où il peut s’abîmer sans assumer les risques d’une confrontation au réel. L’image jouirait ainsi d’un pouvoir d’absorption dans une « plénitude sensible » qui résiste à l’analyse ». Bearing in mind the unusual importance of empty foregrounds in David George’s compositions we may stress their semiotic latency as specific to photography. This observation leads us back to the notion of « double distance » which George Didi-Huberman develops : « Peut-être ne faisons-nous rien d’autre, lorsque nous voyons quelque chose et que tout à coup nous en sommes touchés, que nous ouvrir à une dimension essentielle du regard, selon laquelle regarder deviendrait ce jeu asymptotique du proche (jusqu’au contact, réel ou fantasmé) et du lointain (jusqu’à la disparition et la perte, réelles ou fantasmées) . » The spaces –rather than landscapes-- photographed by David George, are haunted by such phenomenological discrepancy, a discrepancy that turns the banal landscape into an auratic one and confirms Robert Adams’ claim that « art asserts that nothing is banal ».