“I believe in beauty. I believe in stones and water, air and soil, people and their future and their fate.”
– Ansel Adams
The idea of nature as the ultimate canvas, upon which unfathomable beauty is etched, is one that has engaged the interest and exercised the imagination of numerous artists over the centuries. From Grecian and Roman frescoes, to Chinese ink painting conventions, through the lineage of Western landscape painting to photography – the depiction of natural scenery, with all its varieties and in all its splendour, has a long tradition.
The Romantic movement of the nineteenth century brought nature and its picturesque qualities to the forefront on debates surrounding aesthetics. The Romantics believed that nature, especially untamed and wild landscapes, brought forth subliminal emotions ranging from awe and joy to terror and horror – and that such intense emotions were an authentic source of aesthetic experience. It must be noted that the ideologies that shaped Romanticism as a movement, and its influences upon many fields and spheres, are complex – but at its root lay the importance of an artist’s expression of his feelings, in contrast to the prevailing climate of scientific reasoning and emphasis on the rational mind, a product of the Industrial and Enlightenment period. Imagination, spontaneity and genius – the hallmarks of Romanticism, were often linked to a belief in the importance of nature and its affect on the (especially solitary) artist.
In his work on the history of ideas and philosophies, Isaiah Berlin writes of Romanticism as embodying “a new and restless spirit, seeking violently to burst through old and cramping forms, a nervous preoccupation with perpetually changing inner states of consciousness, a longing for the unbounded and the indefinable, for perpetual movement and change, an effort to return to the forgotten sources of life, a passionate effort at self-assertion both individual and collective, a search after means of expressing an unappeasable yearning for unattainable goals.”
Much of this can be read into Unni Krishnan Pullikal’s early nature photographs; these are primarily of unpopulated landscapes, with the viewer only occasionally encountering a figure or two in the distance. From Kerela to Kashmir, these photographs feature forests, fields, mountains, streams, and snowscapes – and seem to embrace the idea of escaping quotidian life to commune with nature, highlighting the quixotic appeal of landscape photography.
Landscape photography as a category is both broad and sparsely defined, and though in the twenty first century largely descriptive of a National Geographic archive, within a larger historical narrative, first evokes the works of Ansel Adams. Adams was an environmentalist and pioneering twentieth century American photographer whose black and white landscapes of the American West, especially the Yosemite National Park, propelled him into fame.
Adams’ photographs were not only distinguished by his technical expertise and craftsmanship with which he achieved great clarity, a wide range of depth, perceptive compositions and tonal variations, but also by their conceptual underpinnings – visualisation or ‘previsualisation’ as he termed it, and later, pure or straight photography. Previsualisation was the term Adams used to describe the idea that a photographer ought to imagine what his final print should look like, even before he took a shot – and control the variable elements of light, contrast and exposure to achieve the same.
Pure or straight photography, is however not a term, but a school of photography first espoused by Group f/64 (they referred to themselves as f.64 – the use of the slash being a later convention). This was a group of primarily seven photographers from San Francisco, though today there is recognition of the fact that the notion of membership within the group was rather fluid and ambiguous. The group was founded by Williard Van Dyke and Ansel Adams, principally on the basis of a shared aesthetic, largely in opposition to the Pictorialist style that dominated much of early 20th century photography. They positioned themselves as champions of a new Modernist aesthetic, with a declared manifesto at their first exhibition in 1932 where they defined pure photography “as possessing no qualities of technique, composition or idea, derivative of any other art form…photography as an art form, must develop along lines defined by the actualities and limitations of the photographic medium, and must always remain independent of ideological conventions of art and aesthetics that are reminiscent of a period and culture antedating the growth of the medium itself.”
They were characterised further by a certain Western point of view, seen post the Great Depression as possessing a certain inspirational energy, and included well known names such as Edward Weston, John Paul Edwards, Imogen Cunningham. Much like Romanticism, though nature wasn’t a necessary defining quality of the straight school of photography, it played an important part in the oeuvres of most of the photographers associated with f/64.
Pulikkal names Ansel Adams as one of the photographers whose work was most influential in his initial approach to photography. The photographs showcased here clearly are clearly reminiscent of Adams’ aesthetic and further fall squarely within the label of straight photography endorsed by the f/64.
Contemporary photographic theory and practice has largely moved past and beyond the aesthetics of pure photography that are exemplified by these landscape photographs. In a postmodern post-Duchamp universe, with conceptual art at the forefront of artistic praxis; with the boundaries between art-forms continuously blurring and photography no longer defined entirely by its material medium alone, straight photography is rarely observed within fine art circles today. Though there are a fair number of straight photography supporters and photography purists – current theories and practices for the most part lean toward not only conceptual frameworks for the physical photographs produced, but also more experimentation in the visual form of photography that includes montage, pastiche, staging and digital manipulation.
And yet, the centrality of formal principles that underline this school of thought within the medium’s praxis, are still associated with a larger lay understanding of the aesthetics of beauty. At a moment when the ownership of a camera is ubiquitous, one can observe its realisation in the millions of landscapes images that flood the internet (and fill personal hard drives), taken by travelers all over the world.
Unni Pulikkal himself focuses on a more contemporary style now, mainly experimenting with the form of the collage. Yet, these landscape photographs of his, speak to certain notions of the importance of ‘seeing’ in the study of aesthetics.
In as much as they stress the value of formal engagement and technical skill in photography, they also emphasise the importance of the material object – the value of the printed photograph as artefact. Pulikkal, further accents this by working with, the now hardly seen, archival Platinum print making process. In his introduction to ‘Evolution – A Concise Catalogue of Photography’ a book that compiles a range of work produced by him between 1999 and 2013, Pulikkal states that his limited edition prints, due to the use of a variety of printing techniques, are each unique. This incidentally shadows Adams’ practice, whose later years were mostly spent making multiple prints of his famous photographs under different conditions to produce a number of singular and non-identical prints.
What makes these photographs tick? What combination of light and shadow, of wind and stillness speaks to us as viewers? What notions of beauty do we impose on these landscapes; what ideas of beauty that we carry do these landscapes tear down? What is it about an endless horizon that appeals to our sense of poetry, even as it makes us conscious of our insignificance in the boundless cosmos, that try as we do, we can’t quite grasp in its entirety?
Fine art may have moved beyond form, proved the shaky logic of indexicality originally considered intrinsic to photography, but there is still beauty to be found in these old-school landscape photographs that move us through their elegiac language as much as their otherworldly idyllic views, underscoring a universality embedded within the specificities of their context.
In conclusion, we may invoke the master of this aesthetic, Ansel Adams (from The Portfolios Of Ansel Adams) on the subject:
“Yosemite Valley, to me, is always a sunrise, a glitter of green and golden wonder in a vast edifice of stone and space. I know of no sculpture, painting or music that exceeds the compelling spiritual command of the soaring shape of granite cliff and dome, of patina of light on rock and forest, and of the thunder and whispering of the falling, flowing waters. At first the colossal aspect may dominate; then we perceive and respond to the delicate and persuasive complex of nature.”
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
*Title from Wordsworth’s Lines Written in Early Spring, 1798.
Unni Pulikkal is a trained doctor, who began taking photographs in 1998 and has experimented over the years with both form and content. He has been exhibited widely in India, and has also been featured in international shows. He has won awards from the India International Photographic Council and the Royal Photographic Society. He is also the founder-director of the Butterfly Art Foundation, India, a not-for-profit that works for the promotion of visual arts and the conservation of nature.