Alexander Lindsay: In conversation with Dr Julie Bonzon

Interviewed in September 2021

 

Julie: Looking at those pictures on the website and I also watched the video you did with Johnny which I think was very helpful. I was just thinking about this specific series in Scotland in particular, and why Scotland? Because you have been travelling everywhere and in so many different places and I was wondering how this series came to life and why Scotland in particular as a point of focus?

Alexander: well, I guess you know because of the Covid thing, I encouraged it and I have my personal connection with the country and my family came over to Scotland from just after the Norman invasion, so we’ve been here in this country for a long long time.

Alexander: But I often say wherever one can go in the world Scotland – I have never been to a place which is necessarily more magnificent, and what excites me with landscape photography – one thing is photographically, you’re capturing reality, you are having to deal with the subject matter in a more literal sense than perhaps any other art form. What really excites me is how photography can capture a slice of time so precisely, but if this slice of time is in a stage of transition, when one thing is moving to another, that is really what I’m after. It’s almost subliminal that looking at my photographs – I do see that, I do see states of transition, states of being moving from one to the other, and there is no place more – Well you know Iceland and I’m sure other places, but Scotland has this extraordinary energy changes, which are constantly happening, its location off the Atlantic, it’s the height, the latitude that occurs. I just find it an incredibly exciting place and it’s in ones back yard, I find it amazing how few people really do explore it, who live in London and go miles on their holidays or whatever. There are honestly, on this trip, there are times which I physically – I’m in the car and I come round the corner and see some situation which is physically impossible not to continue driving, you just have to stop and take stock of what’s happening around you. So, for all these reasons it’s not easy, it’s a very difficult country I find to photograph

Julie: In which way? Why do you think it’s more difficult than other places?

Alexander: Just because you’re in a constant state of not quite knowing where to stand, you’re always thinking should I be around the corner, or do I wait here, or do I go to another place, you have to maximise your time and many many times I’ve had a day, walking and walking up big mountains and nothing really happens, so its challenging in that way, especially because of the extent of time that it takes for me to do my photographs – the multiple imaging and all the processes I go through, you know, it’s much easier just to take one picture, so I make my life hard for myself. But I really do it because I’m always thinking of that end result, I’m always thinking of the print, and I visualise it– there are some walls that I always had in my head that are my standard for references as to how I see my photographs, it’s sort of a neutral canvas, but I picture these specific places and walls when I see the picture, so I’m reverse engineering from that instillation on the big scale.

Julie: And how do you choose your subject? What makes you stop and pick specific subjects in the landscape?

Alexander: It’s hard to say, it’s hard to describe ones aesthetics, but it is a slight attempt at the sense of fine balance. I was always incredibly inspired by the film Koyaanisqatsi by director Godfrey Reggio, Phillip glass did the music, and Ron Fricke who’s this incredible cameraman, he did the cinematography and it took the three of them 7 years to make this film – no narrative just incredible visuals but Koyaanisqatsi. I suppose I’m looking for when the elements of nature are in this fragile state of balance, is really what I’m looking for – so in terms of aesthetics it’s hard to describe in words

Julie: That’s something that I noticed as well when I compared this series to your older works, is that it seems to me that you focus more on individual trees or – Yeah I think what you mention about transition is very interesting here because – those are trees that are dying or are a bit dry, or a bit solitary – there is something that is a bit more melancholic, and a bit more nostalgic, in my mind to the other works that you are doing. I’m wondering if that’s the country you were in or if that was something you were looking for when you were walking around

Alexander: Rewind a bit

Julie: So, this nostalgic, melancholic aspect to the series – where does that come from? Is it something you had in mind when you walked around, was it something you were looking for? I’m just wondering if that comes from your state of mine or if that comes from the landscape you were in?

Alexander: I’m not sure, in a way the transition I’m really talking about is more light based, it really is. I have a feeling that the next show I have – I would love it to be titled the light as I saw it, because essentially that is what one is after, it’s how is light effecting you, and where you place yourself to see the light and at what time and all of that – who was that quote ‘what is the nature of this invisible thing called light that yields view to everything except itself’ – it’s extraordinary, its invisible, light is invisible in itself and yet we see it only through its reflection, or the way it lights the atmosphere, or the way it drops through the mist or whatever it is – I suppose to me, the light in Scotland is really fantastic, when it’s good, a lot of the time it can be very overcast and difficult to work with.

Julie: And regarding the panoramic view that you are working with, why do you choose this specific format in your photographs?

Alexander: one thing, its sounds very strange but the house I live in is a mid 60’s modernist, glass, Richard Neutra type glass pavilion, and the view out onto the nature – there’s one photograph taken of a park in front of us, it’s the very white one, with the big white sycamore and the trees are very in the mist – that is the view. I love panoramas, I love panoramic shape and it just resounds with me very forcefully, I also love panoramic movies, it’s the way I grew up seeing movies as a kid in cinemascope, and David Lee and all those great epic films of my childhood, and they were shot in cinemascope or panoramic formats and to me, I love panoramics, they’re not so easy to accommodate – they’re wide, they’re big

Julie: There’s something more immersive, you find?

Alexander: A particular technique works well, stitching photographs across – actually there are problems doing this digital stitching to do it in just sky and there’s nothing for the computer to grab on to. So yes, I am very happy with panoramics.

Julie: And that’s something I wanted to ask you about as well, is the technique you’re using – because the amount of detail is just extraordinary, so how –

Alexander: There’s a sort of genesis to it because I was the head of photography on two expeditions to the titanic, the shipwreck, and I was going to go back – it’s a sort of project which is incomplete, and I hope one day to do it, but essentially the shipwreck has never been photographed anywhere near as well as it could be photographed, and while it disintegrates this incredibly – well the thing itself looks incredible but it’s also so famous, the story is so famous around the world. Basically, I wanted to go and photograph it using this digital stitching technique – not hundreds of pictures but thousands of pictures, of the wreck – very expensive operation and I worked with a brilliant German photographer who’s the worlds best underwater and he’s done incredible projects photographing vast areas underwater. Essentially when you’re in water it becomes green and murky and water physically absorbs light and so all of these problems are countered by going close to the subject, but then you can’t see this big shipwreck, its enormous and therefore you multiply these close images and you will have something amazing. So that’s where the genesis came and when I put that project to the side, I was thinking I want to continue this but I want a large underwater ocean floor, out of the ocean, and I went to the Atacama desert and photographed there for seven or eight months, and that’s how I entered this type of photography, and I guess sort of aesthetically the reason being is that when you’re looking at the titanic or when you’re looking at an extraordinary desert or whatever – it’s so magnificent, the scale of it is so huge, the detail that you can pursue with your mind when you look at it is so enormous – how do you deal with it photographically, and if you pick up a smart phone you’d be disappointed, so I was looking for imagery of enormous power, and I realised that to satisfy my ambitions to photograph it, that I needed to think of a way to do it to print it, to show it, with the sort of power and sense of scale that confronts you when you look at it with your eyes.

Alexander: …….. with the stitching technique – I like to make big prints, and I like them to be extremely sharp and what I’ve been doing as well for this show, some of the images not only have I been taking pictures side by side but I’m also taking each picture, lots of pictures, with slices of focus, going from extreme foreground to extreme background, so some of these pictures took up to 250 separate images to make.

Julie: I’m trying to understand a bit better, because when you’re talking about the titanic, it is very clear to me that you need to be very close to the object, take one photograph after the next, but for landscape how do you do that? Do you go close to a tree then go back? How do you take all those pictures side by side?

Alexander: No but its – what the technique also allows is great freedom because in my mind I choose the format, I choose the corners of the photograph, I’m not limited to what the camera is giving me, and so it gives great flexibility as to the format and shape, and that’s why my prints all tend to be different shapes. They’re created in my mind and the process is rather laborious, but its – yes you don’t’ have the problems of underwater, it’s simply a matter of scale and affect and I really want people to experience the photograph, and to experience the subject of the photograph, in a way which is way beyond a way people normally look at things. Your mind, if you take your little finger out and just look at it – all ones sight can focus on is the size of your small fingernail at arm’s length, and the rest the brain is interpolating, its scanning what you see but all it can really focus on is something incredibly small, well the camera doesn’t have that, it doesn’t interpolate in its brain, it just basically – it shows everything, equally. I think happens is that people see the resolution in everything, and its all there, its focused. I think it has kind of a magnetic affect to what you’re looking at.

Julie: And you’re printing yourself?

Alexander: Yes, I don’t know if you can see but this is my workshop, I do the laminating and everything, the big printer is just down there next to me – yeah, I love printing, I absolutely love it and it’s so amazing what that machine is doing, and I’m pretty good at it now, and I have great printers do my work and it’s not their fault, but it’s impossible to explain exactly the colours you want with words – how can you do that? Everybody’s system is different, everybody’s machines create different things, so it’s very important for me to do that myself, because in a way the photograph is an object, it’s a thing that exists on your wall and every aspect of that physical thing I like to control, it’s very important for me, it’s one thing to take a picture – that’s half the battle, it’s the creation, because there are so many times you think you’ve got something wonderful and it doesn’t pan out, the reality of putting it on paper – it isn’t what you expect, and the opposite can happen but my work I think it’s very important I do it myself. Some great photographers, the prints they made were not as good as other printers made for them, and that’s just the way it is, but for me it’s very important to make the prints myself.

Julie: And I guess they’re inkjet prints, right?

Alexander: Yes, they’re inkjets, exactly, and the beauty of it is photographers couldn’t print their own colour until very recently, so this is a revolutionary technology in terms of the scale that things can happen – in the old days of dark rooms, a big print, anything bigger than that was really tough, so our concept of scale has changed with the technology and what’s also so amazing is how long these colours will last, without dissipating, at least a hundred years without any change, so that’s incredible and important for collectors, if they’re going to buy colour.

Julie: I was also very intrigued by the poem on the website that was written, where does this poem come from and how does it relate to this series?

Alexander: There’s a very important character up here in Scotland called Richard Demarco, and he is 91 now, I saw him just the other day, and he was instrumental in bringing modern art to the Edinburgh scene, he had the first modern, contemporary art gallery – Richard Demarco gallery, he discovered Joseph Beuys who caught the attention of the world. He’s been a major influencer in the art scene and the Edinburgh festival and all of that in Scotland and a few years ago, five or so years ago, I went to show him my work to get his opinion on it and I just rolled out these big three meter prints on his office floor- these huge roll of prints and I started throwing them on the floor and he just muttered this poem and actually I was in a bit of a hurry because I had to go to another meeting, but I quizzed him afterwards on what it was, and it was this Hugh MacDiarmid, who was a very influential poet in the 20th century in Scotland. Hugh MacDiarmid actually had an old Scots dictionary, that these wonderful kind of old scots – the older language of the Scots and he would pluck out words which just sounded wonderful and create poetry with these beautiful words, and so it’s just a very simple poem about the fragility of earth and the wonder of it – it’s to do really with the other planets boasting about how proud they are, they’re full of and earth is meek and mild – and as they tease her she cries and as she cries one drop washes away the wonders of the rest of the universe. He wrote this in the 1920’s so it was prescient, he was an environmentalist. If my pictures remind of that, that’s good enough for me, and it occurred to me that it would be nice to call the show the name of the poem.

Julie: There is something about conservation in your work as well in you work?

Alexander: Yes, my motivation , and what makes me really take the photograph the way I do, or what I’m after is something to satisfy my need, but that’s the direct drive I suppose, and ultimately that one is aware the you photographing something that will be different in the future, and so there is that sort of sadness really, of preserving something – nothing lasts forever, nothings stays the same forever, everything changes and lets hope the younger generations, they do a better job of looking after all of this, than the current leadership and whatever. Yeah, there was that sort of euphoria and the bliss – is a very close cousin to destruction and despair really.

Julie: Is that a reason why in general there are now human figures or not many in your work, or at least not in this series?

Alexander: yeah, I guess so, I tend to be on the edge of where people live, essentially, whether it’s in Africa or South America or here, I’m interested in edges of wilderness, yeah – it’s not that I’m less interested in people because most of my life I have been doing documentaries very much

about people in war zones and things like that, and the titanic is also about the story of the people on the ship. This series I’m looking at decimation and emptiness.

Julie: And I guess in the context of Covid as well and what was going on – the news was saturated, so I guess looking to find empty and peaceful places might also have been impacted by what we were all going through.

Alexander: I went to empty places which were emptier than they’d ever been really, and often times I wouldn’t see anybody for a whole day, which was interesting, lucky enough it was my job, but nobody ever tried to stop me – I was able to travel around but yeah it was interesting.

Julie: was it a solitary practice, were you driving on you own, and spending a few days on your own in those landscapes, or were you with friends? I mean it looks like a very solitary exercise.

Alexander: Yeah it is, I’m fine with that – I mean in other regions in, South America, Africa, I often have to go with guides for your own safety and to be shown the way around – it’s always the number of presence, which it’s nice not to have that presence really, but if you need a guide you need a guide, that’s the way it is. Also, I am quite able to spend many hours – there’s a picture in the show, I think I waited on that spot for several hours for the thing to become what I wanted to photograph. Having somebody around you whether you’re paying them or whatever – you know, it’s easier to do that on your own, when there’s nobody else whose day you’re taking up.

Julie: I was thinking about this exhibition now and visitors coming to see it, and what do you hope visitors will get from those pictures, what is the message that you would like to transmit?

Alexander:  I’ve given a lot of thought, you know, sitting on a mountain top for several hours gives you plenty of time to think, and what is one trying to do by representing the landscape.

…Have been to extraordinary places, and its universal that people appreciate the landscape, what is it that an artist can bring to it if it’s to be successful, and I think it’s – it’s the fact that everything is changing, everything moves and yet a photograph makes a statement at a particular time, and it’s a chosen and conscious effort to do the photograph, print it, mount it, present it, and all of that. In a way its illuminating (this is bit is all a bit incoherent) it makes it understandable, a landscape, it doesn’t just move you, it actually arrests the thing, and makes one observe it perhaps in a different way – so I think there is that I think everyone loves wonderful landscapes and nature and whatever.

…And everything does move, I mean a lot of Scotland was covered 15,000 years ago by ice, in the last ice age – and everything moves, they just move at different speeds, and most human beings move at a terrific amount of speed – thousands of images every day, and life is fast and is moving far faster than it ever has before and maybe the act of photographing is a way to arrest the whole motion of life, to contemplate where we are, but certainly for me, the camera is the thing which puts me into those situations or when I was a combat photographer, it’s the camera and your job, which makes you go to these places and experience them, and so the photograph is a way to address the motion of life and to arrest it and to contemplate it, and see where we are in it – to somehow comprehend the unimaginable, we can’t really get our heads around the scale of nature, what this universe is, the scale of our landscapes, our mountains, what are the forces that created them, so the camera to me is a way to confront that, the photograph is a way to share it

It’s really interesting hearing you talk about those photographs, is there anything you would like to add to this? Is there anything we should definitely highlight?

Alexander: One thing is the word beauty, and how it fits in, in contemporary art, it’s not entirely in fashion, wouldn’t you agree?

Julie: I’m not sure I agree, what makes you think that?

Alexander: It’s just, what is beauty? Is beauty derived entirely from nature? You know, our sense of comfort with symmetry is essentially, maybe that because nature is pretty symmetrical – I just think considering these concepts of what is beauty and where do the origins of it come from, as we see things, and I think that is something that, nature, landscape, photography does bring to ones being. Is truth ultimately the purest form of beauty?

Julie: It’s a good question, and I can see how informs your practice in a way.