“The Tūrua forest between the lower Waihou and Piako rivers, in which kahikatea was the dominant tree, was almost entirely felled between 1865 and 1900. This stand of kahikatea in the Tūrua domain is one of the few which remain.” (1)
Photography has been seen as enabling a realm beyond natural vision, revealing visions previously unavailable to the human eye. Photographer Kate van der Drift similarly pictures what Walter Benjamin referred to as the “optical unconscious” (3). She does not snap to serve the heady aesthetics consumed by so many fans of trendy consumable landscape photography sold by the metre. Rather, these are careful depictions, truly shots of pure horror, of ghosts, of vanishing locations —stunning documents punching a forebodingly eerie warning.
Her lens is haunted.
van der Drift uses photography as a starting point for apparition. Given our ever increasing overexposure to photographic images (Instagram, Snapchat, Periscope, YouTube, Facebook… ) it could be argued we notice photography more. And less. Once photography was seen as embodying modernity and stillness. It is now more often characterised by its hustle and rapidity; so starkly that a myriad of image types have become globally accessible and hyper-real, at light-speed.
Roland Barthes proposed that the frozen temporality of a photograph has the effect of suggesting a past moment and that it’s therefore our belief in its reality which makes that moment permanently present (4). Van der Drift’s photographs create a powerful nostalgia, evoking the past within the present, but also cautioning the viewer of a potential future. Barthes further argued that the photograph acts as a “transparent envelope”, which we look through in order to engage with its content (5).
We are drawn to van der Drift’s images because of their physical properties, but also because of the potency she imbues into the subject. This unassuming quality allows van der Drift’s practice to adopt new forms and to insert itself into a wide variety of contexts. The invisibility of photography does not mark the end of the medium. van der Drift’s work instead evidences that the invisibility of photography is its very power.
The dominance of this form of perception engenders is also the context for Walter Benjamin’s discussion of ‘aura’(6). What is significant about her images in this regard is the way in which their forms of interaction with the contemporary foreclose earlier (more auratic) modalities of experience. Van der Drift’s images favour closeness over distance. The sites she selects are auratic; her likenesses vibrational. This penetrates through and around her works: we sense colonists triggering havoc and fingerprinting an ignorantly destructive ascendancy over sacred nature - taonga tuku iho. This smarts against Māori culture in which the intergenerational protection of highly valued taonga, including whenua (land) is passed on from one generation to the next, in a caring and respectful manner.
In Aotearoa, mauri is the life force derived from whakapapa. It is the essential essence sustaining all forms of life and provides life and energy to all living and non-living things. Consider that if all plants, animals, water and soil possess mauri, then damage or contamination to the environment is therefore damage to, or loss of, mauri.
van der Drift alerts us to the insult migrant industrialisation is rapidly tossing at notions of kaitiakitanga (the stewardship or guardianship of the environment) and shows us the whenua being stripped and shredded into a disjointed carnage. Of course, digital practices mean that photography itself has become more disembodied, often exchanged from screen to screen without ever taking physical form. Yet, certain photographs are still noticed, embodied, displayed and examined as if they were personified - the still and printed image continues to be influential within contemporary art.
However, the apparently neutral documentation of spaces and places can be deceptive. Because van der Drift's practice involves photographing seemingly overlooked environments she takes dozens of digital photographs of the same location from different angles — yellowed paddocks, metal drains, water streaming across barren broken terrain— making drawings and studies of place. Settling on an angle, a compelling hook by which to slip the message onto the walls that matter, she then creates a large format film image. Finally, she plays with the pictorial —she fogs and manipulates these pictures until she succeeds in making her photographs read with an unequivocal peculiarity.
“Two of Waikato’s climatic features - heavy fog and frost…Both are common in winter, but some say the fogs are not as bad as they were when they were made denser by smoke from frequent peat fires, which were a common occurrence up until the 1970s”. (9)
van der Drift’s photographs are in fact elaborate handmade creations, painterly digitised workings. Her work brings together two opposing tendencies in the use of photographs by contemporary artists: the documentation of the everyday, and the creation of elaborate scenarios for the camera.
With the somatosensation of a watercolour artist, van der Drift consistently channels poetic visuality (10) to raise urgent questions.
I observed that a photograph can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look. The Operator is the Photographer. The Spectator is ourselves, all of us who glance through collections of photographs - in magazines and newspapers, in books, albums, archives... And the person or thing photographed is the target, the referent, a kind of little simulacrum, any eidolon emitted by the object, which I should like to call the Spectrum of the Photograph, because this word retains, through its root, a relation to "spectacle" and adds to it that rather terrible thing which is there in every photograph: the return of the dead. (11)
As a plant is ripped from the ground it releases the most exquisite scent: freshly plucked handfuls of mint, grass slashed with a blade, ahh. (Here, the plant is screeching an urgent olfactory distress signal to its nearest and dearest.) The fragrance we gleefully inhale is an indication of the utmost panic.
By Maria Walls for 20/20 20 Artists and 20 Writers
(1) Paul Monin, 'Hauraki–Coromandel places - Hauraki Plains', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/30633/kahikatea-stand(Accessed: 20/06/2017)
(2) Augmented Reality / Virtual Reality / Mixed Reality
(3) Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), in Illuminations, London: Fontana, 1973, pp. 243.
(4) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. pp. 76-80.
(5) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. p.5
(6) Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’ (1936), in Illuminations, London: Fontana, 1973, pp. 219-253.
(8) https://creators.vice.com/en_au/article/black-mist-burnt-country-jd-mittman-maralinga(Accessed: 20/06/2017)
(9) Nancy Swarbrick, 'Waikato region - Landscape and climate', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/27055/fog-and-frost(Accessed: 19/06/2017)
(10) Thomas Carlyle coined the term “visuality” in 1841 as a response to what he saw as major changes in society, including the arrival of photography (Nicholas Mirzoeff, “On Visuality,” The Journal of Visual Culture 5, no.1 (2006): 53–79).
(11) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard, New York: Hill and Wang, 1981. p.9
(12) A play on the title of "New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape" an exhibition about a key moment in American landscape photography at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House (Rochester, New York), 1976.
Refer: Jenkins, William. New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape. Catalogue. Rochester, NY: International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House, 1975.