Museum of Contemporary Art, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by the artist, 2010
silver gelatin photographs on board
H 84 W 104.5 D 4.3cm
H 62.5 W 80.8cm
H 60 W 76.4cm
H 59 W 75.4cm
David Stephenson has been taking photographs of the natural world and man-made environments for over thirty years: the night sky, arctic landscape, riverbeds, ecclesiastical ceilings, and global cityscapes. His works are marked by a sense of self-deliberation; they evoke notions of the sublime and man’s capacity to pass time.
Self portrait looking down a survey cut, proposed site of Gordon below Franklin Dam, Tasmania (1982) is a large-scale scene that uses a grid structure of separate photographs abutted against each other. Creating a panoramic mosaic, it references nineteenth-century panoramas as well as NASA composites of the surface of Mars and the Moon. This work is deliberately a-historical: Stephenson acknowledges that all photography is mediated. Aware of how it functions as a medium, he questions the conventional notion of photography as a form of pictorial ‘truth’. Stephenson has also chosen to depict a culturally and politically loaded site that, at the time, was as the centre of activism and political agitation in Tasmania. The work plays with the iconography and symbolism of ‘wilderness’, placing the photographer within the landscape in order to foreground the idea of ‘wilderness’ as an artificial construct.
Stephenson’s works, like those of Tasmanian photographer Peter Dombrovskis and his predecessor Olegas Truchanas, or the US photographer Eliot Porter who constructed new views of nature, are a celebration of the wild, intended to encourage others to care for it. Stephenson’s work expresses environmental concerns but is not produced as an instrument of social change. Instead, his role as a photographer is to make the viewer a witness to issues within our society; to represent a value system of exchange; and to offer an objective observation of nature, showing that man is intrinsically linked to his environment.
The use of a mosaic-like grid of photographs could be read in a number of ways − as a response to the desire to depict the surrounding canopy of the rainforest, as an attempt to expand the narrow single-point perspective of the camera, and as a metaphor for the human attempt to structure and control nature. My intention was to return to the site during and after construction of the dam, to rephotograph established views and produce a time record of this landscape development. This plan was negated by the Australian High Court decision on 1 July 1983 which halted the Gordon-below-Franklin project.
Isabel Hesketh (Assistant Curator, Collections), In the Balance: Art for a Changing World, (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Contemporary Art, 2010; Glenn Barkley (curator), Statement of significant, object file note, MCA, 10 November 2010
Quotation: David Stephenson, ‘Marks in the landscape: notes 1979-91’, in Jerry De Gryse and Andrew Sant (eds), Our Common Ground: a celebration of art, place, and environment, pp 36-47
The panoramic composite emphasises photographic framing, perhaps challenging the monocular window which can be seen as the central metaphor of photography and most Western two-dimensional art.
David Stephenson’s work has focussed on the aesthetics of environmental representation through the use of photography and video art. Through extended projects he has explored cosmological and technological manifestations of the sublime in subjects including the Tasmanian environment, Antarctica, star-filled skies, sacred architecture, hydroelectric developments, and the city at night.Learn more