Yoshihiko Ueda, Michael Hoppen Gallery, London; Marcus Doyle, Diemar/Noble, London; Steve Macleod, Atlas, London

By Francis Hodgson

Published: April 13 2010 23:05 | Last updated: April 13 2010 23:05

Parody of landscape: Marcus Doyle’s ‘Wallpaper (Cumbria)’  (2001)
People respond ever more warmly to the land. Rambling and other outdoor pursuits are more popular year after year. Governments do what they can to help with sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty and the rest of the armoury of modern protective measures.

A lot of this excitement about the land is rendered through photographs. Cameras are now pretty good, even on a mobile phone, and the simplest digital box can do a great job in Hardy country or the Lake District. Does this make landscape photography ever so slightly vulgar? Too popular, we know, shades ever so easily into populist and won’t-be-touched-with-a-fine-art-barge-pole.

For the high-art crowd over the past few years, the only way to avoid the vulgarity of straight landscape photography has been to make it an exercise in political commentary. There is nothing new about that, of course. Ansel Adams himself, the great fount of modern landscape practice, was an active campaigner for the preservation of wilderness areas by statute. Fay Godwin, the British landscape champion, was concerned with access to the land and became overtly political towards the end of her life, although she had always rejoiced in the multiple social and historical readings of her photographs.

Now three exhibitions in London show the other way to enjoy the landscape. Each artist wants to enjoy the land in a fairly neutral way, for what it is, and each feels obliged to cook up a signature photographic device to identify his approach. They strive to find a way to make the photograph non-neutral, so as to insist to their viewers that the vision presented is that of an artist, not merely that of a camera.

The Michael Hoppen Gallery continues its fruitful determination to bring the best Japanese photography to London with an eerie show by distinguished photographer Yoshihiko Ueda, his first in Europe. Ueda visited Quinault (a rainforest in Washington state) and photographed the bases of trees with tungsten film – a rather arcane product rarely used outside the studio – deliberately not correcting the images for daylight.

Ueda’s book of the Quinault series is a prized collectors’ item, and these large, beautifully handmade prints are no disappointment. His tungsten gives him a blue light on foliage that reminds me of nothing so much as the lovely way green dyes in old tapestries fade to blue, giving a distinctive haunted-woodland colour. In Ueda’s woods, light filters down through trees almost as a solid element of the forest, equal to the sturdy boles or squidgy mosses. The visual effect is as of musical notation, with rhythmic patterns of trees interrupted by strong gaps of light. The psychological effect is to give the light its due as maker of the woods. Without sunlight, these solid stools of trees would not exist.

Marcus Doyle made his reputation with Night Vision, a book whose principal mannerism was the combination of large-format camera and very long exposure. His Diemar/Noble show, a little retrospective, is the widest ranging of these three exhibitions and many of the pictures are not landscapes. But when you see how his purpley-blue carpeted corridor in a modern cinema sucks atmosphere and light out of its dingy original to give back a picture on a monumental scale, you sense the slow contemplation of landscape at the core of his practice.

A field of purple broccoli in front of a nuclear power station strikes a tremulously uncomfortable balance between romantic beauty and sinister reportage. It looks like a surveillance shot of a building that Doyle was not allowed to approach, seen over acres of vegetables that would seem innocent if their colour were not so strikingly “wrong”. Doyle’s pictures are often brilliant, with plenty of delight in the pleasures of slow seeing. One lovely parody of landscape is just a view of the William Morris-style wallpaper at his parents’ house in Cumbria, an aching arts-and-crafts swirl of jungle under a very plain wall-sconce. It makes me feel as if the exposure was a whole childhood long, as though he had stared at that wallpaper and burned every waving frond and tendril into his memory for life.

Steve Macleod, a distinguished printer, clearly knows his technical onions at least as well as the preceding two photographers. The technical tic with which he stamps his pictures is the tilt-shift mechanism, which gives a floating uncertainty to focus and is more normally seen in views where cities are made to seem like models.

Macleod’s study of the little Blackwater river in Essex is a meditation on the way changes in the landscape seem to mirror changes in his own mood. It is self-avowedly therapeutic photography, walking through the woods and making technically demanding 5in x 4in pictures as a calming ritual. To that extent, these pictures are perhaps not wholly aimed at viewers beyond the artist himself, and a certain diffidence results. The best of them – though too many here are far less interesting than the few best – give a lurching heave to the ground like a stumble, a momentary sickening loss of balance.

The challenge for all three photographers has been to find a way to make their views their own. In this they have largely succeeded. The subject is still landscape; but each has developed a technical lexicon that is a long way from the straight recording of the millions of us who point cameras at trees.

Yoshihiko Ueda, ‘Quinault’, to May 1, www.michaelhoppengallery.com; Marcus Doyle, ‘The House Martin and the Cinema’, to April 17, www.diemarnoblephotography.com; Steve Macleod, ‘Blackwater’, to April 24, www.atlasgallery.com


mark page said...

Great review our kid! I heard him speak in Manchester last year he knows his onions and in this case his broccoli....

Reid said...

Thats a cracking review my boy! To think I knew you as a youngster with a full head of Brad pitt hair and Miranda Slr.