Nature’s Self Portrait: The Photographic Art of the Australian Harry Nankin
Essay by Dr Jorge Calado published in Actual magazine (an Expresso magazine supplement), pp 50-52, Lisbon, Portugal, November 6, 2004
Photography’s original sin is to be machine made. As few did, Baudelaire sensed the cross between the Arts and the correspondence of the senses and he was not shy to condemn the contamination of technology. He believed that most material (industrial) progress inevitably led to the lack of artistic genius. Photography could be used as a humble service to the Arts & Science – just as the press serves literature. Such faithful copy of nature that is created by photography does not allow the artist to dream and the dream is always superior to the vision.
Only years later did we realize that photography suffered yet another limitation: the point of view. We photograph to see things, however the act of photographing, as any observation in an interference that modifies the object of interest. It is nearly always subjective; the objective truth could only be regained if the object in question would be shot by millions of photographers. There are curious examples of this method being applied onto icons such as the Pyramids of Egypt, the Eiffel Tower or the Flat Iron Building (the first skyscraper built in New York). What can be seen and photographed has always been determined by technology. Meanwhile in Europe, the great founders of photography pointed their cameras at still objects, well lit and generally close to home. In America and Australia the dissemination of photography coincides with the great technological revolutions (i.e., train tracks, telegraph pole, etc…) and the exploration and population of these continents. European nature was more intimate and domesticated, like a private garden. In America, as it slowly unfolded, it was graciously huge and sublime. As a result outdoor photography was born, from European parents, just like its immigrants.
Nevertheless, it was common to refer the magnitude of Nature to the nearly irrelevant smallness of the human figure. Men and women, often the artists themselves were secondary actors of amazing nature portraits: mountain climbing, close to the edge of a cliff, under a waterfall or beside a giant old tree. The subject was nature but the method was anthropocentric. Still nature is in transit; it moves and exists in time and space. So does the observer. How is it possible to conciliate these two binomial terms in a flat surface? Braque and Picasso were the creators of cubism. Seventy to eighty years later Hockney applied it to photography. The history of paint shows yet another way – the representation of the point of view of the represented. The East did not know of the ‘renaissance’ linear perspective. Throughout the eighteenth century they were capable of developing yet another model of transition of space – time, a more fluid and flexible model, where the narration is done by the object itself.
The most interesting applications of this model to photography were made by Harry Nankin (b.1953). His great quest is “how to evoke or communicate throughout photography the sacramental and biocentric relationship with nature?” To resolve this question, he modestly gave up the camera and made use of nature’s eye. He was celebrated in the early nineties as a nature photography (greatly impressive) on the same lines of Ansel Adams and Eliot Porter or the Australian Peter Dombrovskis (1945-96). However, contrary to his fellow photographers, Nankin was not interested in presenting nature as a desirable or adorable product (what some call green pornography). To photograph is to shoot (or to kill) or at least to steal. From an ethic point of view the photographer should dispense of the camera. So Baudelaire was right after all.
There is a respectable tradition of pictures taken with no camera, from the pioneers of photogenic drawings (simple digital impressions of flat objects, drawn through the light in sensitive paper) to the photograms and ray graphs from the modern days such as Man Ray or Moholy-Nagy. The camera is a barrier between the operator and the thing to be pictured. The scale, complexity and mutability of the natural world are far beyond any men or women made machines. Nankin himself confessed, “I started by eliminating the lenses, then the film and finally the camera itself. I then started making straight images of nature in large sized photographic paper using only light in order to shorten the optic and emotional distance between the emulsion, the artist and the ecosystem”.
The origins go back to 1993 when Nankin created ‘shadow grams’ out of Australian animal skeletons from a museum collection. So next came the confidence to be adventurous outdoors, making contact with the wild. The miracle then occurred: Nature turned into the camera and shot itself. The method was simple and traditional; exposure of the photographic paper, development and fixation. Nature used chemistry rather than electronic. The role of the photographer then is to simply provide the light. Baudelaire accused the photographers to be the new “sun lovers”. Nankin works at night, under moonlight, occasionally using a flashlight.
His work was first seen in Portugal in 1998, at CCB [Belem Cultural Centre]. The exposition “Waterproof” was integrated in the “100 Day Festival” where he presented his ambitious installation “The Wave”. The central work was gigantic (6.3 x 4 metre) triptych of shadow grams of a wave at its real size. Through 1996’s summer to 1997’s winter Nankin and his crew attempted five times to capture the impression of the wave and all its contents: foam, seaweed, sand, various time worn pieces, transient trails of fish, the water turbulence and underwater light refractions. An enormous fishing net backed the paper, stretched and framed by an iron frame (called the wave’s raft) that was able to support the impact of the sea movement. At night they seamed the net with nylon thread and adorned it with diagrams, texts and limestone from the beach. Then the raft was taken to the water’s edge (these experiments were conducted at Bushrangers Bay, Victoria), waited for the wave to break and shot the flash in the right moment.
Just as with science, not all experiments succeed as we expect. As Chemistry Noble Prize Sir Cyril Hishelwood once said, and experiment succeeds the moment it allows another experiment to take place. Nankin ended up with nearly two hundred paper fragments of various sizes, some of them cut over and over, in order to form aesthetically interesting units. The most recent exposition of this project, “Contact”, opened in May 2004 at the Mildura Arts Centre. An installation of shadow grams in translucid film (negative but also positive) in real size that were captured at night at Meringur Reserve, Mallee Bush. Here, instead of a horizontal raft, a system of scaffolds sustained the film. The result was what Nature sees when it looks at its own surroundings at nighttime. Trees and other type of vegetation, crawling and flying insects, dust, storm drops or a passing night animal. To emphasize, the artist attached inscriptions of texts by explorers who visited the same region in XIX and begging of the twentieth century.
Prior to “Contact”, there was also “Cathexis”. It was developed by Nankin in 1994 and it is a combination of shadow grams of trees in giant photographic paper – with orthodox pictures (gelatine-silver proofs) of paintings and traits of aboriginal culture.
Nankin also seems to carry in his art an umbilical connection to the big bang of creation, we become each on of us part of a whole. It is an art made up of, sometimes-ghostly memories as is the vegetation in “Contact” and other times so real as he adds documents and old pictures to the installations. Nankin’s Nature is primordial, based on the four elements. His next project, “Syzygy” (astronomic term that represents alignment of three or more celestial bodies) is centralized in the sky, above Lake Tyrrell, Victoria.
To some, these ‘mammothean’ shadow grams only show how Mother Nature is a dedicated practicing of the abstract impressionism. This accusation is nothing but an anthropocentric reaction. Nankin is an artist with a singular vision but he is also a responsible citizen, reverential to the nature he doe not wish to intrude. What he shoots is not his vision of the world but Nature’s incognito vision. As Einstein once said, “the most beautiful experience we might have is mystery: it is the fundamental emotion which is in the routes of true Art and Science. He who has not experienced it does not know of wonder (enjoyment), it is as if he was dead, with his eyes shut”. Nankin is able to make Science happen through photography.