In Domicile: Against the Fallacy of Exoticism | Karl HurstPosted: December 21, 2020
Many people would consider that they know the English landscape like the back of their hand, and that it remains, at its crux, unwavering. Many believe they hold its constituent parts as a truism, its wayside flowers, its arable crops, its domesticity. Yet, as I hope to show in this short essay, this surety is often predicated on ideas of conquest, elitism, and a disregard of history.
The dandelion is no less exotic than the rhododendron, yet the latter is treated with reverence, the former disdain. The line between feral and cultivated is often a blurred one, co-dependent on time or cultural norms. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than with the rise of botanical culture in Victorian England. The need to dissect, name, classify, and manage species is often at the heart of our understanding of nature. Yet what are considered native species often have much longer and tenuous histories. The rose and the poppy, for instance, are respectively Chinese and Sumerian in origin. Yet over time both have become quintessential in English national iconography. How and why certain species have gained their current classification and status says a great deal about how as a nation we treat nature. Non-cultivated species are often considered weeds. Simply escaping the confines of glasshouse or garden and adapting to a different climate can reduce a plant’s aesthetic or culinary status. In general, the stronger its ability to adapt to a wider setting, the less it is valued.
Before discussing In Domicile as a series of photographs, I want to analyze Victorian attitudes toward nature in a little more detail. It was during the Victorian period that botany began to proliferate as a scientific pursuit. This should not be confused with the simultaneous rise in horticulture. The difference between the two illuminates the gender-specific roles increasingly assigned within natural history in during this period. The proliferation of Victorian taxonomy in everything from the culinary arts to racial theory became a predominantly masculine pursuit. The following quotation makes clear the class, gender, and imperialist divisions of botanical culture:
‘Plant hunters such as Ernest Henry Wilson scoured the Chinese landscape for plants that would do well in the British climate. In Sichuan Province alone, there were thousands of new species to choose from. Rich Victorians couldn’t get enough of these botanical status symbols as they tried to outdo one another by filling their gardens and glasshouses with unique plants… Although the bounty of 19th century plant hunters benefited our gardens at home, they thought very little about the impact plant collecting had on the origin country. Expeditions to bring home exotic flora were intertwined with British imperialism and the expanding power of European empires.’ (source: Kew Gardens).
This, along with increasing urbanization and the optimal use of countryside for the purposes of production, clearly shows how the burgeoning middle classes came to view nature as something to objectify, display, and contain. The earthy, uncultivated or unclassified mass were seen as bawdy, crude, or vulgar. A side note here is that the words weed and wood have a singular Germanic etymological origin. The fear of woodland disseminated through fairytale and myth continues into the present, and increased exponentially during the Victorian period. Furthermore, the Latinate vocabulary of Victorian scholars would often relegate common anglicized names to a lower status. As is shown in this beautifully rendered drawing by Albrecht Dürer, this was not always the case.
Early Victorian photography is difficult to assign to convenient categories. The cumbersome and expensive nature of photographic equipment dictated how images were produced, and by whom. Extremely slow shutter speeds often gave rise to rather staid and lifeless images modelled on pictorial anachronisms or scientific realism. There were, of course, moments of greatness within these parameters and it is not my intention here to denigrate Victorian photography as being of historical interest only. The experimentation of William Henry Fox Talbot or Anna Atkins, for example, have a lasting power and an aesthetic vitality that continue into the present.
As the era progressed, the technology advanced, and by the turn of the century cameras had become both more widely accessible and portable. This in turn led to a transformation in photographic possibilities. The informality of the snapshot, photojournalism and street photography were all born to some extent through the camera becoming smaller, lighter and more affordable. An example of this shift from the end of the Victorian period throws an interesting light on the conceit of professionalism, science, and materiality fostered by the Victorians. The series of five photographs generally known as The Cottingley Fairies have raised debate almost since their inception. Taken by two young girls, they engender issues around authenticity, objectivity, and photography. The last photograph in the series (shown below), if taken as genuine, shows how the uses of photography had progressed during the period. By ‘genuine’, I mean that the photograph was straight out of the camera and not re-touched in a studio setting. That, indeed, is where confusion lies: if the photograph is ‘real’, it must therefore indicate that the fairies themselves are real. The underlying assumption is that photography is a wholly objective representation of its subject which, of course, we know now to be at best a falsehood. The ‘case’ was immediately wildly debated among varying pseudo-scientific bodies all looking to either discredit or legitimize the images.
What this professionalism misses, however, is photography’s encounter with fantasy. Its truth is the partial turned worldly by the viewer’s desire to substantiate the real. What the photograph also reveals with its blurred over-exposure is that nature has more resonance than science can account for. The Victorian period saw a shift away from realism in the pictorial arts, in Turner’s impressionistic brush strokes or Samuel Palmer’s primitivism, for example. A rising interest in folklore and animism counterbalanced the mechanical and scientific base of photography. The Cottingley girls later described the photographs as ‘pranks’ and spoke of how their father banned them from using the camera, as it was in their hands, he said, akin to telling lies. The truth is the light falling on a tiny piece of ground and accidentally caught mid-flow, of how amateurism or accident might reveal an unintended, different kind of truth.
The dichotomy between ‘being there’ and objectivity is played out through photography more than through any other medium. Movies follow the moment from its inception to its close; painting at the point of its execution. Photography dares to represent its ‘being there’ as singular, limited, unique – a particular thing in a particular setting captured in an instant. The narrative aspect of a photograph often lies beyond its frame. That which came before and after is only a supposition. Distilling varying elements that occur simultaneously is perhaps the key to understanding the shift away from photographing nature as objective. The later abstract experimentation of Minor White in America or Bill Brandt’s starkly minimalistic approach to landscape disrupt both the presumption of naturalism and objectivity.
A good example of this shift in contemporary photography is the French-born artist Jean-Luc Mylayne. Mylayne’s singular subject matter is birds. However, his complex multi-layered images are not demarcated through an ornithological framework. His specially-made lenses capture multiple focal points of a given scene in a singular image. It is sometimes unclear where the point of interest in his photographs exists, and that’s the point. Instead of rendering nature as a static scientific tableau, Mylayne captures a brief swirl in an ever-fluctuating routine. The blurs and dashes seem more akin to the speed of bird life than slowing them to specimens trapped in cages or mounted in museums. Mylayne often takes days, weeks or even months to capture an image and this reliance on time before and after is something that Victorian botanical photography often eschewed, choosing rather to photograph plants in idealized perfect conditions.
I began the series In Domicile with the idea of photographing one tree over the course of a year. However, it didn’t quite turn out that way. As I began these early trysts, I realised that much of the subject matter had been supplanted through time and that many species co-existed with others not necessarily native to them. It was only then that I began to focus on the jostling of managed and feral spaces. I began to spread time equally between parks, scrubland, verges, woodland, etc. Most of the environments I visited lay within an urban setting and many of the species had all the characteristics that are often ascribed to weeds.
As much as time, the location of nature is often what defines it. Wild fennel tenuously clinging to the edges of a car park doesn’t quite have the resonance of the same herb growing on wild Italian slopes amongst olive and lemon. But its ability to adapt to its surroundings is what I find more fascinating. Following the light and seasons as plant life itself does, and learning also to acclimatize (physically, technically and emotionally), I found new and unexpected relationships in and between things. Most of what I photographed here barely registered prior to being amongst it. It appeared like the secret world of Cottingley directly to an instinct long buried under convenience and familiarity yet there all along hiding in plain sight. The space between things often seemed as interesting as the subject itself and I began to develop an aesthetic of tenuous balance between sky and fauna akin to what might be described as after the Japanese style. This was only one aspect of the decision-making process, however, and countless other influences (too many to detail here) were also at play. Many came about organically through a series of choices to tonally counterweigh each pictorial element. What the process reveals is that nature is not benign or passive and aesthetic choices are not simply dictated by the subject being rendered objectively. A myriad of minute decisions goes into distilling a tiny fragment in the life of the subject. The subject is not wholly defined by it.
Click here to view the full series of In Domicile.