Thoughts and opinions about the art of photography.
At the start of the 19th century, by means of the first photographs, mankind was discovering the face of the earth, an inexhaustible earth, uniform and continuous, consisting of seas, mountains valleys, caves, rivers... without boundaries.
Almost since the beginning, these landscapes were devoid of the human presence, quite the opposite of the near-permanent presence of nymphs, satyrs human beings and animals seen in painting.
Landscapes were uninhabited, wild, inaccessible, charged with a religious sense of worship of the primeval, the perpetual, of that not subject to human laws.
Beyond a God who determines and dominates human fate, there is Nature which has the special quality of existing independent of human existence, is eternal, self-sufficient, giving birth to and nurturing everything.
In almost all the early civilizations, the earth was the main deity, adored as the mother who gave birth to all other deities, the place of worship, the habitation of the Gods.
Man, over the last centuries, is becoming continuously more urbanized, with result that, enclosed in an artificial environment, he has forgotten his origins and expresses domineering propensities over the natural environment - initially threatened by the monstrous forces of nature and subsequently exploiting, to the very last, every natural source of energy or food. The earth, however, rejects every such infiltration. Each numeric disturbance it renders catastrophic. Even when such a disturbance takes on the veneer of scientific and technological progress, there remains an inherent inability of contemporary man to comprehend and maintain that which pre-exists and contains him in all its complexity.
With the discovery of photography, many were ushered into this visual exploration of the primordial world which had coexisted for thousands of years alongside our cities.. With the help of a photographic device - the camera - a window was opened unto nature.
One of the first issues to be resolved was which parts of the natural world were interesting to photograph, which were to be charged with a special content of meaning or, rather, which were already thus charged.. In the realm of ancient Greek thought, that which is 'par excellence' typified as becoming revealed, as emerging from obscurity and being brought back to light, is nature. It is known that this concept constitutes the center around which all forward-looking thinkers revolve, on account of which they were called natural philosophers. The fundamental meaning of nature is obscure, self-enclosed, inconspicuous. Art, in its attempt to pursue this meaning of nature, aspires to reveal it by plotting a course from obscurity to manifestation, from darkness into light.
The first landscape photographs became bearers of ideas and mental concepts. In the mid-19th century the photographer John Ruskin fanatically devoted himself to photographing the Alps, visualizing the presence of God along their ridges.. For him, mountains were superbly charged with spiritual awe, residences of the Olympian Gods. Ruskin's near-adoring devotion to mountain photography influenced many photographers, even subsequently, such as Minor White. This visual flight along the mountain tops, the passing of clouds between them seen as signs of a divine presence, is by now on the wane, in its metaphorical sense. Man has associated values and spiritual ideals with multi-faceted nature. Nature itself has become a source of art and art the intermediary between man and nature. Matter, the sum total of things comprehended by the senses, and especially that part of matter derived from natural processes as a result of ever-flowing being, became the primary cause of works of art.
The "Photography of Nature" imitates (in the Aristotelian sense of the term) natural things and, as such, reproduces reality with the assistance of sensual means. But art is not exactly imitation; it presupposes a need to comprehend the world surrounding us and one for essential knowledge. Through a work of art the truth is promoted and idealized as the essence of that particular truth. Natural phenomena might constitute the object and reason for art in the instance of being imbued with psychic content. Clouds can be symbols of rain, of the threat from a burdensome presence; the sea a symbol of life, trees symbols of transient appearances in life... Or might all these interchange and coexist in continuing relationships? Moreover, there isn't only one way for one to see, nor only one single message inside a picture.
In photography, the phenomenon was observed of a gradual absence of man from its subject matter, relative to its older sister, painting. Art has amply cultivated the ego. The photographer observes, inside nature, shapes and forms which contain, within their matter, an already transformed and enclosed life and essence. The creator stands outside himself, on a par with divine reality which, rid of those elements which distort and dissemble it, sees what is essential.
At this level the ego remains forgotten, and the process of hiding and reappearing (codification/decodification), through the act of giving form to ideas, turn a vision of the world into an ecstatic experience.
© 1998 Sofia Coucoulioti