In describing the freeways of Los Angeles as its “grandest and most exciting artefacts” the writer Jan Morris has suggested that the roads, rather than invoking an image of urban chaos, are the key to the architectural logic of the city. Not only this, the generally elevated freeways help to “locate” the city, opening up its position for drivers in relation to the surrounding mountains and the ocean, so much so that the roads allow the city to unfold as part of that geography. Morris talks of mastering the freeway’s “tribal or ritual forms” she describes them in organic, animal terms, as “snaky, sinuous” “like so many concrete tentacles, winding themselves around each block” “burrowing, evading, clambering, clasping every corner of the metropolis”.1 From Morris’s persuasive analysis we are left with the strong impression of LA as embedded in the nature of its west coast site, the freeways expressing a kind of material and spatial hybridity in its sense of place.
This accommodation between nature and culture, and the production of new, hybrid forms and spaces – increasingly prevalent as the twentieth-century has given way to the twenty-first – has been an abiding preoccupation of British artist Dan Holdsworth in his photographic work of the last ten years. In Holdsworth’s photographs, the intertwining of natural conditions with cultural imperatives – by turns beautiful, startling and disturbing – is often made more dramatic, and more strangely unreal, by the artist’s consistent approach of working at night and in places where artificial light produces new spaces and new sights of its own, attaining materiality on the shining surface of the photographic print. That Holdsworth’s photographs do not contain people adds to that sense of drama, giving his work the look of film stills or empty stages and setting them apart from any real connection with everyday experience.
Dan Holdsworth emerged as an artist in the mid-1990s, at a time when the epic and the spectacular had become common characteristics in that genre of photography ever more loosely defined as “landscape”. This work, by artists as disparate in their approaches as Richard Misrach in the US and Andreas Gursky in Germany, had also helped create a new dynamic presence for photography on art gallery walls throughout the world. After twenty years in which many of the romantic and pictorial traditions associated with landscape art had been reshaped by new aesthetic, political and environmental concerns, the new predilection for broad sweeping vistas, allied to a truly monumental scale of presentation in the gallery, had in some ways revived aspects of the awe-inspired imagery that had long been the staple of magazines such as National Geographic. However, this new photography was cooler and more measured. Often serial in nature and – as with Misrach’s Desert Cantos – richly programmatic, the work was either strongly allied to rigorous schemes of observation and description, or adopted a deliberately quizzical view, underpinned by layers of irony and ambiguity. And in some cases, as in the work of Gursky, the most important influence for many young photographers at the time, these two tendencies were combined to bravura effect. As Holdsworth has said: “Gursky was determined to make the fullest use of the lens and the photographic print itself. It was when I looked at my first Gursky book and understood the scale and depth of the photograph that I felt a strong kinship of sorts. There was this sense of a particular clarity of seeing, of somehow looking at vision itself. In a Gursky photograph the world suddenly reveals itself for the first time.”2
By 1998, Dan Holdsworth had found his own distinctive voice in this context, sharing an affinity with work that, despite its emphasis on detached observation, nevertheless embraced a new kind of wonder at the complexities of late twentieth-century civilisation; a photography enthralled, it seemed, at the sheer extent of what might be surveyed by the camera and at what drama might accrue from this process of transcription. As well as fitting seamlessly into this emerging international style, and unlike much of the more localised British landscape photography of the previous decade, Holdsworth’s work was immediately global in its reach. His work is in some ways, like the photographs of any tourist, a product of his travels, but by constantly moving from place to place, and by not linking his photographs too closely to any particular named sites, Holdsworth has been able to build a body of work that conjures a deliberately unspecific but powerfully contemporary condition.
To suggest just what that contemporary condition is in Holdsworth’s work, we might look no further,for example, than at the photograph on the cover of this book. One of his most well known works, Megalith (2000) has become a signature image for the artist, one that stands as a kind of emblem not only of his essential interests but also of a certain ambiguity towards our changing world that lies at the very heart of his work. The structure that dominates the picture is at once familiar and alien. It might be an airport control tower (in fact it is the back of an electric advertising hoarding at the side of a motorway in Holland) but its function, as Holdsworth has photographed it, is unimportant. Animated and energised by light, the structure appears almost as a living thing. Straining at its earth bound state and forging a kind of energy-field communion with the heavens, the tower seems to be powering-up for some form of levitation. Although, had we been standing alongside Holdsworth, we would not have seen things in this way. His camera, through the necessary long exposure, has transformed this scene into an hallucination, a fantastical vision that skews the spirit of William Blake into the space age.
Megalith draws out the dramatic possibilities of the artificially lit roadside at night, transforming that light through time into dynamic matter, an electric vapour that carves out space and creates the animate tension that fires the image. In one sense, like so many of Holdsworth’s photographs, this is an euphoric picture, a dream of some heavenly technology come into being, one that reflects the boundless drive of the human imagination and becomes a beacon for our future.
And yet there is something unsettling here, too. The flaring central position of the structure gives the photograph its iconic strength, but also emphasises the sense of this tower presiding aggressively over its surroundings, and hints at other kinds of power and control not entirely celestial or benign in their historical formations. As is frequently the case with Holdsworth’s work, this photograph places the viewer in ambiguous relation to its subject, especially when we confront the work at its full size in a gallery setting.
The drama of Megalith draws the viewer into a dialogue within which it is difficult not to imagine or speculate on the very act of photographing.As Charlotte Cotton has observed of another Holdsworth picture: “Rather than asking who took this photograph, one might reasonably ask what took it, the sense being that the unsettling contamination of the night is being recorded mechanically...”3 Holdsworth has referred to his work in the context of the “industrialisation of vision” – citing Paul Virilio’s writing as an influence – and his own role as a recording “machine” a product of the culture he documents. But he is also acutely aware of the performative aspects of his practice, the way in which his photographs always embody an event: “In one of Italo Calvino’s short stories,Mr Palomar, a man is on a beach at night looking at the stars. At first he thinks he is alone but soon becomes aware that there are many other people on the beach, too. He wonders what they are looking at and as his eyes adjust he realises that they are all staring at him. Sometimes photography has this self-consciousness. Unlike a painter who has the privilege of retreating into a studio to work, “we photographers have to really engage with our subjects in a way that sometimes takes on the air of a performance. Although I would say I am a reluctant performer.”4
It is significant that Holdsworth has never been an urban artist, always preferring to work outside the city – and ironically away from the site that has prompted so many twentieth-century visions of night-time transcendence. For Holdsworth, even those new, rapidly expanding and fiercely irradiated cities of South East Asia may be too chaotic and too heavily sedimented. For under the city’s layers of history nature lies buried; as Robert Smithson once said: “cities give the illusion that the earth does not exist”.5 Rather, Holdsworth is drawn to more peripheral and newly minted places motorways, out of town shopping centres, car parks – where that accommodation between nature and the spreading forms of culture is more visible but is also apt to evolve. Importantly, gazing at his work and into such provisional places – places in the process of being invented – we begin to imagine our own changing experience and identity in relation to the newly configured spaces we inhabit.
As a counterpoint to, and perhaps a respite from, those sites where pristine patterns of landscaped concrete and sodium light imply lives remodelled around the ease of mobility and endless consumer gratification, Holdsworth has, since 2000, also explored the extraordinary, other-worldly landscape of Iceland.At first sight, Holdsworth’s Icelandic work represents a journey into the past, and into a landscape cleansed of human ingenuity and progress: a base world stripped of colour – colossal, barren and ancient. But even here, Holdsworth’s attention gravitates to those places where the landscape is intruded upon by human development, and where a kind of frontier spirit is played out. It is no surprise, in this respect, that Holdsworth’s photographs from Iceland often recall those of Timothy O’Sullivan and others who accompanied government survey expeditions of the American West in the 1860s.6 The paradox for photographer pioneers such as O’Sullivan was that as they gazed across an unsullied land – at something they would have thought of as wilderness – they were also encountering the raw topography of the future; a future to an extent already mapped out by that compelling narrative of overcoming, taming and possessing space, and of contemplating new frontiers, that has become so ingrained in the American psyche and popular mythology. Part of the strangeness of Holdsworth’s Iceland photographs is how, especially in the context of his other work, they seem to suggest something of the future as much as the past, even something eerily postapocalyptic. It is as though the artist were using the Icelandic wastes to ponder the “before” and “after” gazing into a landscape against which the human experiment is but a brief blip in its long, and for us, barely imaginable history.
From the primordial gloom of the Black Mountains in Iceland to the modular, techno-spaces of the anechoic chambers he photographed in 2003, the question of our destiny lingers in the background of Dan Holdsworth’s photographic work. Despite their seductive beauty, he thinks of his pictures, fundamentally, as questions; “questions about the human psyche...” The places and the forms he is attracted to are also the sites of our imagination, “the physical manifestation of thought put into action... the imprint of the mind on the landscape”.7 But the transformative mechanisms of the camera allow Holdsworth to project those imprints into the near future, to the edges of our aspiration and into our unconscious “inner space”. As J G Ballard once called it, into the near future that exists in “the submerged realm of our hopes and dreams”8 Travelling near and far, creating his possible fictions, Holdsworth finds hopeful signs; a world full of potential wonders. But with those hopes and dreams come anxieties and the thought that at the core of a possible dystopian future – as our grip on reality slips away among the motorway intersections, supermarkets and retail parks – there might be just a dangerous terminal boredom.