“Experiencing Landscape Or Towards a Utopian View”. An essay by Yasmin Canvin about Tim Simmons’ art.
According to photographer Tim Simmons we are becoming increasingly immersed in global media networks, the virtual world and a new cyber-reality. Simmons is concerned that this level of saturation and our inclination to be absorbed by our ‘second-lives’ in the virtual world is ‘distracting us from concerns of the natural world and cultivates environmental apathy’. Through his work, Simmons provides us with a space to reflect on our place in the natural world and invites us to consider how we might re-engage with it.
The impact of our disengagement from the natural world has been well documented. In 2007, Natural England and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds commissioned a report that investigated the links between the natural environment, biodiversity and mental health. The report describes the changing relationship we have with the natural environment through the experiences of four generations of a family living in Sheffield. In 1926, when George Thomas was eight, he used to walk six miles to his favourite fishing haunt, in 2007, his eight year old great grandson is just allowed to walk to the end of his street. The report concludes that disconnection with the natural world is affecting the mental health of children and young people; stating that if they do not develop a relationship with the natural environment they are unable to use it to cope with stress later in life, and that people in general, when deprived of contact with nature are at a greater risk of depression and anxiety.
Alongside this, recent scientific evidence has shown how the urban environment impairs our mental processes. A recent study co-authored by Marc Berman, measured the cognitive deficits caused by taking a short urban walk. The brain is required to respond to multiple stimuli simultaneously, assimilating the data received from its senses and looking out for potential threats. In contrast, the natural environment requires the brain to respond to less external stimuli that do not trigger a negative emotional response, which allows the brain to relax. In one of the studies carried out by Berman, undergraduates who walked in an arboretum were compared with others who walked in the busy streets of Michigan, through a series of psychological tests, such as repeating a set of numbers backwards. The students who had walked through the city scored significantly lower on the tests for attention and working memory and were in a worse mood. Interestingly, just looking at pictures of nature, led to measureable improvements. Berman explained that when we see an image of a place “we automatically imagine what it is like to be there”.
Tim Simmons invites us to view images of landscapes from around the world and closer to home that he has photographed in high resolution on large format cameras. Simmons spends considerable time ‘exploring the hidden possibilities in each location’ before he takes any photographs. Some locations offer a constancy of subject, such as rock pools, quarries or snowdrifts, with their many, yet subtle distinctions, while others yield a more diverse range of dramatic views. The artist researches and then walks through an area until it has become familiar to him in order to reveal the unfamiliar, in order to ‘alter our perception’, which often involves visiting the site under different conditions, such as changes of light, or weather and at different times of the year until it feels right. This intimate level of engagement with the environment and knowledge of each place is contained within every image.
The artist’s intention is to ‘interpret the contours and textures of a particular landscape in a way that… alludes to its deeper, more elemental presence’, which he achieves through a highly developed conceptual and technical visual language. The exact lighting conditions are carefully controlled by photographing the landscape using studio still life disciplines, which enhance the colour, depth and form of each scene, revealing what is usually unseen. However, no shadows are formed and there is no sense of the movement of the sun, imparting an eerie stillness to the images and heightening the sense of drama. Rather than representing a moment in time, these photographs condense a period of time into a single image.
Through careful framing, composition and the omission of structures that might indicate a sense of scale, Simmons draws our attention to other sculptural and contrasting textural aspects of the landscape; highlighting the undulating forms, the cragged edges of rocks, the smooth surfaces of snowdrifts, flowing and still water, and emphasises the impact of natural lines of colour drawn through the terrain. It is often unclear whether the image is of a large cavern that we might enter, or a small crevice that we could only peer down into, and we are left with our own ‘space for personal contemplation’.
Although the photographs are devoid of people, abstracted traces of human activity appear throughout; tyre marks left in the snow, sawn off tree trunks, wire fences and pathways through trees all indicate humankind’s intervention on the landscape. The titles of the work often reveal places that may have become familiar to us through news reports, yet Simmons encourages the viewer to focus on the subtleties of our impact on the natural environment and our relationship to it, rather than what we may have heard or read, emphasising how strongly our view of the world is influenced and shaped by news and media reports.
Simmons has also presented his photographs through temporary interventions in rural and urban locations. One of the sites, in Fermyn Woods, required visitors to walk about a mile through Rockingham Forest to reach the installation. As we approached around dusk, we saw a glimpse of the large cinema screen through the trees, heard the sounds of a crackling fire and muffled voices. As the projection started, the voices became hushed and images from one place after another filled our view. Each new image invited a personal response and interpretation, and as we saw them again, we strived to take in every detail, to fully understand the scene before us. As the night settled, the sounds of owls hooting and animals foraging through the undergrowth reminded us of Simmons’ nightly explorations to capture these scenes. The images themselves seemed to stand out from the darkness, the forest acting as a literal and metaphorical frame and context; the tops of trees visible over the screen and their movement in the breeze contrasting with the stillness of the images and we were invited to contemplate our impact on the environment and its fragility.
An installation in Fermyn Woods.
The exploration of the ‘relationship between the human and natural worlds’ is a key element of Simmons’ work and is becoming increasingly significant. At a time when more people live in cities than in rural areas, we need to find ways for those living and working in urban areas to make sense of and relate to rural places. The often subconscious, links made between the viewers, Simmons’ photographs and the natural environment, can lead towards an increased sense of belonging, where open spaces become places with meaning and relevance. This, in turn leads to an increased feeling of connection, ownership and responsibility for our natural heritage, which is becoming more important as the world changes.
© Yasmin Canvin (Director, Fermynwoods Contemporary Art)
Artist’s personal website: www.timsimmons.co.uk
Click on any picture below to look at the project. Full screen mode is recommended.