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“Landscape photographs shape our perceptions of the natural world. Consider their ubiquity in all manner of contexts from decorative prints, to travel media and advertising, to countless selfies in beautiful natural surroundings.  These images often interpret nature in a manner that foreground beauty and wildness, while eschewing signs of human activity or presence, however human influence in nature has become so pervasive that there is no place on earth that hasn’t been altered in some way.” — Eugene Van Der Merwe

 

Eugene Van Der Merwe is the Head of Academics in the Photography Department at Orms Cape Town School of Photography. During 2019, Eugene committed himself to furthering his knowledge and honing his skill by way of a Post Graduate Diploma in Photography at Michaelis School of Fine Art, UCT. We took a moment to interview Eugene on his body of work.

Q

You photograph with a keen interest in the South African landscape, has this subject matter always appealed to you?

A

I have always enjoyed photographing beautiful, natural scenes, South African or not, but this body of work represents a departure from an approach concerned with the beauty of landscapes. While the project engages with an iconic South African landscape and seeks out some particularly photogenic human altered aspects of it, at the core it is concerned with how human intervention in nature influences a viewer’s perception of nature. So while Table Mountain and the evidence of human activity on it have steered the project in a particular direction it could potentially have explored any landscape with a long history of human intervention.

Q

You predominantly made use of your Larger Format camera for Un/Natural. What informed your decisions to make use of this equipment when capturing the initial photographs?

A

The large format camera requires a slow, considered, careful, and detail oriented approach to making photographs, and forces the photographer to make relatively few photographs. Because the project deals with subtle distinctions between natural and human intervention the approach engendered by the large format camera works very well to force me to study the scenes carefully to find those distinctions. The level of detail a large format image provides is also an advantage when so much of a viewer’s interpretation of a photographs relies on a careful study of its details. I did also use a panoramic rollfilm back, and a medium format camera for some of the work. These introduced a less rigid approach, and this along with the variation in image aspect and the potential to experiment more freely allowed the project greater range in its interpretation of the subject matter.

Q

Are there particular film stocks that you prefer shooting some scenes with over others?

A

I typically pick a film stock and stick with it, so the majority of the colour images were made with Kodak Ektar, while black and whites were exposed on Ilford FP4+. The main decision making involved which of those two to use, since I typically carry both with me. Mixing colour with black and white was important to this project since it allows juxtaposition of the romantic associations of beautiful, slightly abstracted black and white landscapes with the sometimes almost hyper-real large format colour image. Sticking to particular film stocks also allows me to learn their characteristics well enough to pre-visualise their responses to particular scenes, making it easier to achieve the results I intend.

Q

The research was not only about physically investigating spaces with your camera but also needing to enrich your vision with various theoretical lenses. Are there specific texts that became pivotal in distilling sequences of photographs that you had already been taking and perhaps lead you to approach your project with a completely new eye?

A

I read quite widely (though not always as in-depth as I should) while working on this project, and while these texts contributed greatly to my interpretation of the landscape and my understanding of the factors at play in shaping it there wasn’t one text I would single out, but rather complementary lines of reasoning that emerged in looking at a variety of texts. Bill Mckibben’s “The End of Nature” was important in understanding the context in which any contemporary project dealing with nature and ecology operates, and Robert Pogue Harrison’s “Forrests: the shadow of civilisation” helped me to understand how forest mythology could contribute to the reading of this landscape. I also drew heavily on texts that discuss recent and contemporary photography of altered landscapes, readings that deal with concepts rooted in environmental psychology, such as place attachment and landscape restorativeness, and interdisciplinary writing on the roots of contemporary western attitudes toward nature.

Q

Are there any creatives, not necessarily photographers, that inform your approach to landscape photography or the choices for your final aesthetics?

A

I have been photographing landscapes for nearly two decades, and over that time I have looked at a vast array of work all of which has had some influence on the way in which I make photographs, but for this project I felt it was necessary to take an organic approach to developing the aesthetic, which is why that aesthetic and its presentation is quite varied. Essentially I tried to allow each photograph to be a stand alone piece with the common aesthetic developing in retrospect, rather than being deliberately constructed. This also allowed me a range of options in how the final aesthetic manifested. Where i did draw inspiration from other creative work is in developing and understanding of the ways in which artists respond to changes to the environment. In this respect I spent time with the work of Robert Adams, Jem Southam, Edward Burtynsky, Helene Schmitz, and Leah Schretenthaler among many others.

Q

One of the first pieces you are met with on the exhibition is an intimate selection of Silver Gelatin Handprints. The landscape begins to shift between mediums of large colour prints, segmented photographs, projection, print overlays and sound. How does this variation in display devices compliment the conceptual concerns of the work?

A

The choice of medium is informed by two major concerns. Firstly, I feel a significant sense of unease or disquiet in trying to understand the  impact of the scale and scope of human intervention in nature on my understanding of it, and the interventions I employ in presenting the photographs are intended to disrupt the viewing of the image in some way to evoke that unease. Secondly, the ubiquity of landscape photographs in contemporary visual culture means they have a significant impact on how nature is viewed and understood. Unfortunately a preponderance of pristine, beautiful images of apparently untouched landscape could be said to skew perceptions of human relationships to the environment. The modes of display used are intended to foreground the differences between these scenes and the pristine landscape photographs we encounter on a daily basis.

Q

What was your biggest challenge over the course of the project?

A

Completing a year of study while working full time is very challenging, but fortunately my colleagues were understanding and accommodating enough to make this manageable. Working with a large format camera is unfortunately an expensive exercise and getting colour images processed also proved difficult, so these factors limited the volume of work I was able to produce. It should also be noted that the safety situation on Table Mountain is not ideal and played a significant role in the places and times I chose to head out to photograph.

Un/Natural: The curated landscape of Table Mountain

Landscape photographs shape our perceptions of the natural world. Consider their ubiquity in all manner of contexts from decorative prints, to travel media and advertising, to countless selfies in beautiful natural surroundings.  These images often interpret nature in a manner that foreground beauty and wildness, while eschewing signs of human activity or presence, however human influence in nature has become so pervasive that there is no place on earth that hasn’t been altered in some way.

This body of work interprets Table Mountain and adjoining parks and green spaces as a living curated landscape, where centuries of human presence and intervention have left the landscape fundamentally changed from its pre-colonial state.  It responds to nature not as something separate from the human, but rather intends to prompt the viewer to consider how the presence and extent of human intervention influences their understanding of nature. In making the work I have sought out places where human activity has altered nature in some way. I have also used interventions in the photographic process and presentation, such as segmented photographs, layering, and overlays. These interventions disrupt engagement with the images and require the viewer to interact with the work and study it carefully.

While the mountain superficially holds the promise of nature, it is difficult to find any part of it where  human presence has not left visible marks. The introduction of alien plant species, for instance, have left large tracts resembling European woodland, complete with oaks, poplars, pines, and plane trees, the tall fescue grasses below them covered in snowdrops and narcissus. In certain areas it seems more a simulacra of the Lake District or the New Forest than what one might expect to find on a mountain in Africa. While some interventions are obvious, such as tourist facilities, quarries, roads, plantations, and extensive water infrastructure, others are less so. Changes in indigenous vegetation distribution, naturalised alien species, displaced watercourses, ponds and a multitude other subtle marks of human presence may be subtle enough to escape notice.

My approach to making the work has been a slow and considered exploration of the landscape, being still and looking carefully to find meeting points between nature and human intervention. The viewer is encouraged to engage with the work in a similar way, slowly and with attention to detail, and to question their understanding of what this nature is, their place in it, and to look critically at the way our collective and individual actions and attitudes manifest in the world around us.

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