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David Stephenson

Self portrait looking down a survey cut, proposed site of Gordon below Franklin Dam, Tasmania  1982

gelatin silver photographs on board, frame

image 62.5 × 80.8cm; frame 83.8 × 104.8 × 4.3cm

Museum of Contemporary Art, donated through the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Program by the artist, 2010

2010.43

About the Artwork

In Self-Portrait Looking Down a Survey Cut, Proposed Site of Gordon Below Franklin Dam, Tasmania, the artist can be seen in the lower section of the work, dwarfed by the majesty of nature around him. This is a large-scale scene that uses a grid structure of separate photographs abutting each other. Creating a panoramic mosaic, it references nineteenth-century panoramas as well as NASA composites of the surface of Mars and the moon. For Stephenson, the use of the mosaic-like grid was a response to the desire to depict the surrounding canopy of the rainforest, an attempt to expand the narrow single-point perspective of the camera, and a metaphor for the human attempt to structure and control nature. 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 has chosen a culturally and politically loaded site that, in 1982, was the focus of environmental activism and political agitation in Tasmania, opposed to the damming of the Franklin River. His intention was to return to the site during and after construction of the proposed dam, to re-photograph established views and produce a time record of this landscape development. This plan was negated by the 1983 High Court decision to cancel the Gordon-below-Franklin project.

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, n.d.

David Stephenson

– About the artist

Born 1955, Washington DC, United States. Lives and works Hobart, Tasmania.


David Stephenson emigrated from the USA to Tasmania to take up a teaching position at the University of Tasmania School of Art in 1982. He continues to live and work in Hobart. Stephenson’s work has focused 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, the Antarctic landscape, star-filled skies, sacred architecture, hydro-electric developments 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.

In 1982 the largest conservation battle ever fought in Australia took place over the damming of the Franklin River. This was also the year that Stephenson emigrated from Washington, USA, to Hobart, Tasmania. A year earlier, as a recent art-school graduate, Stephenson produced a photographic series called New Monuments. In these works, industrial structures invaded the natural world; they depict controversial oil pipelines, the Californian Hetch Hetchy hydro scheme and the Stanislaus River being flooded. Stephenson used the word ‘monument’ in the series title to suggest that these manmade structures stand today as man’s equivalent to monuments of the ancient world. Following his arrival in Australia, Stephenson depicted the endangered coast of Tasmania, its rivers and hydro-electric schemes.

In a career spanning four decades, Stephenson’s art has been exhibited extensively nationally and internationally. Solo exhibitions include Transcendence: Photographs by David Stephenson, Monash Gallery of Art and regional tour (2011-15); Light Cities, Julie Saul, New York (2011); Vaults, Julie Saul, New York (2007); and Sublime Space: photographs by David Stephenson, National Gallery of Victoria (1998). Group exhibitions include Lost in Landscape, Museo de Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto, Italy (2014); Australia: Land and Landscape, Royal Academy of Arts, London (2013); Geomorphometries: Contemporary Terrain, Queensland Centre for Photography, Brisbane (2012); In the Balance, MCA, Sydney (2010); Shared Sky, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne (2009); and Ingenuidades: Fotografia e Engenharia 1846–2006, Galeria de Exposições Temporårias da Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon and Centre for Fine Arts, Brussels (2007).

Stephenson’s work is represented in many public and private collections including all major Australian institutions and many international museums, such as the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Three monographs have been published on Stephenson’s work. Of these, two are authored by Stephenson with Princeton Architectural Press: Visions of Heaven: The Dome in European Architecture (2005) and Heavenly Vaults: From Romanesque to Gothic in European Architecture (2009). David Stephenson: Sublime Symmetries, a French/English-language monograph on Stephenson’s work by Jorge Calado, accompanied Stephenson’s retrospective at the Gulbenkian Cultural Centre in Paris in 2006.

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