An Interview with Courtney Egan

I contacted New Orleans artist Courtney Egan recently, as I had come across her work during a google search. She too has an interest in looking through glass at nature, and has produced some beautiful and mesmerizing works, including large scale interactive video projections.

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Above is a still from her amazing Cluster piece, but you need to see it moving to get a full appreciation of it here:  http://arthurrogergallery.com/artists/courtney-egan/

She was kind enough to answer a questionnaire that I sent her.
Would you describe yourself as an environmental  or eco artist ?
I am personally an environmentalist, but I don’t consider myself an “eco artist,” in that the work does not directly advocate for specific change. It is more of an exploration of my interest in and awareness of seeing the world through a lens.  The lens or the glass distances us and brings us closer to nature at the same time. It’s an effect that I find uncanny but is becoming ubiquitous for consumers of media.
When did you first fall in love with the lens as a creative medium?
I started taking photos of my cat and the alligators on my parent’s property as a tween. We lived on a river in a tiny town – I was on a constant quest to photograph the alligators in the river. I had my first experience with photography in Girl Scouts. I fell in love with the darkroom process and the philosophical nature of photography- questions about how photography can be manipulated and how seeing is not always believing. This was pre-Adobe Photoshop.
I also fell in love with television at an early age, when unrestricted viewing in America was the norm for kids. My parents were fans of public television, which rubbed off on me, and nature documentaries were on almost every night.
What do you love about the lens, or viewing the landscape/nature through glass? Why do you think it is a suitable medium for themes of environment or
the natural world? Why, in your opinion, is it a preferred medium to painting or drawing, for example?
I see lens based work as the extension of painting and drawing, not necessarily in opposition to it. The lens brings a whole new range of considerations to bear, which are pretty much the same as drawing – close observation, patience, attention to light and color, and awareness of the “window” through which we are presented with a slice of the world, composition. The main difference (for me) is the addition of motion to the image, and the addition of manipulation of the photographic image, and the constant push and pull between what’s “real” and what’s “imaginary”, or you could say “altered by human desire.” But the thing about flowers is that they have been altered by human desire for centuries now, and author Michael Pollan suggest the flowers have been altering human behaviour for centuries as well.
Your work touches on environmental issues – yet I see a sort of mystical beauty and tranquillity in your images – am I correct in thinking that you try to
capture the spiritual aspect of nature within your work?
I work within the tradition of the botanical as a metaphor for spirituality, physicality, and imagination.
The Romantic artists often including a figure in their paintings to give this impression of vast, awe–inspiring landscapes, and the sublime and often
terrifying forces of nature. Do you feel that your projections trigger these emotions to the audience?
I like to think that a viewer looking at my work IS the figure, and is aware of themselves as the figure, in comparison to the pieces. They may have to deal with their memory of the images as they may know them from their reality, verses the alterations that I make in the images.
Do you think that the use of lens-based media/technology can connect this generation of youngsters to nature, or help to re-enchant the landscape?
As a teacher, I find the basics are to teach sensitivity to light, and from that, all follows. The sun as a phenomenon that our bodies are intimately connected to, as a vehicle for metaphor and a source of beauty – refining our vision to be aware of the qualities of light, I think. helps us conjure the enchantment that can be created by light. Also, the urge to share – “I saw that” – is very important in terms of connecting with other humans.
There’s often a discrepancy, when one sees a thing, one sees it again in a photo and sees different things in it. That gap between experiencing something, then seeing a representation of it, can be profound. I often find things that I wasn’t aware of in my photos. This enchants the process of vision for me, more than enchanting the landscape or any particular object.

Interview with Michel Varisco

I came across the work of New Orleans artist Michel Varisco, whose photographs, assemblages and site-specific installations are based on themes of loss and regeneration. Her photographs explore the complex relationship between the natural and the engineered environment which is carved out of a delicate delta system.

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Effervescent Pond, New Orleans, (copyright) Michel Varisco

Through her work she depicts her homeland to educate, inspire, transform and heal what is essentially an ecologically and culturally rich place which is struggling for its survival.

She kindly agreed to answer some questions about her work.

Would you describe yourself as an environmental or eco artist ?  Yes, more and more I do. Often a theme arises, and I follow my interest through a simple question like: “as a species, how do we live with nature?” When humans see nature as a commodity to harvest, spoil, entrap, contaminate and so on, the outlook looks bleak for our future. If however we as a species used our intelligence to respect life and sustainability of resources, then my work would reflect that most likely. I title my work with adjectives that suggest a change is coming. “Shifting”, “Turning”, “Fluid States”. We need to be agile and see things as they are, without glorification or magical thinking. And we need to be ready to act- and be the change we want to see. I “act” through my art and through my purse. The natural world responds to our collective action for better and for worse. For instance, the melting of glaciers, the loss of lands due to engineering foibles, the climate changes underway, water scarcity and air and water pollution-for every action, there is a reaction. Unbridled capitalism is undoing the planet. I see environmental and social justice interwoven in many ways. In 2001, I studied housing issues in New Orleans in a series called “Displaced”. Little did I know at the time that the largest mass migration in the United States was just around the corner with Hurricane Katrina- and with it, a disproportionate displacement, larger than the Great Dust Bowl migration in the 1930’s.Going back even further, slavery in the U.S was the illicit “energy source” of its era. A war was fought over its end because the powerful couldn’t accept the inevitable. We are in another period of abuse, but this time towards the planet. What will happen now will be determined sooner than later- due to limited resources on a planet that’s facing the 6th greatest mass extinction in 65 million years-the Anthropocene extinction. What we do now matters, and to more than our own species. It’s about time to use every tool at our disposal to work towards a future worth its weight in gold- by leaving the gold in its place.

When did you first fall in love with the lens as a creative medium?  I fell in love with photography looking at a “Time-life Book -30 years in pictures” (Or something to that effect). And the Family of Man catalogue from a traveling show, when I was about 7 studying those books. But I didn’t shoot until much, much later. I drew all the time, and painted, studied sculpture and printmaking and graphic arts, even music. Eventually I learned photography in college and I felt like it was a great honor. I still draw and make sculpture. Some of my favourite artists are those that use multiple mediums in their works.

What do you love about the lens, or viewing the landscape through glass?  It’s a meditation. When I shoot, I like to let life lead me although there’s a lot of conscious reflection in the process. To observe changes the observed. I treat the viewfinder as a way to appreciate and “feel” what I’m looking at in that moment with complete attention. Cartier Bresson said “it’s where the heart, the mind and the eye align”. When I’m excited about the subject I can shoot far longer than I probably should. I become almost like a hound dog in hot pursuit on a trail, or a cat that sits and watches the light change. It’s no fun to be with me when I’m shooting because I’m a terrible host to people. I have wonderful friends that understand this about me, and don’t mind the long, long silences. The ineffable comes in unexpected moments.

You describe your photographs as events – does the camera act as a personal diary for you?  The camera is like a journal or sketchbook of sorts- or a field notebook. I learn about something, through observing and returning, and moving through the landscape of experience. I do learn from photographing-almost like a scientist with an artist’s eye.

Your work touches on some serious environmental issues – yet I see a sort of mystical beauty and tranquillity in your images – am I correct in thinking that you try to capture the spiritual aspect of landscapes (genius loci) within your work?The land and rivers and waterways teach me about how to live amidst change. (“To bend and not break like bamboo” like the Tao Te Ching instructs). But when I see our damages to the lands and waters, it’s like returning to the bedside of a dying friend…too painful to mention, but too deep a love to walk away. It’s also about looking deeply. Just when I think it’s too late, the land teaches me that it’s not. I find refuge in deep time- and study how things change over millennia. This helps me to relax in the thought of the planet’s ability to self-correct. What’s alarming though is that humans may not be in the future equation though if we don’t self-correct around limited resources and the protection and sharing of replenishing resources.

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Ballet Trees, New Orleans, (copyright) Michel Varisco

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Marshland Bones, Lafourche Parish (copyright) Michel Varisco

The trees in your ‘Fragile Land’ photographs (above) seem to be trying to communicate with us – as if they are have their own “presence” or spirits within them, they remind me of some of the photographs of British Neo-Romantic artist Paul Nash. Have you come across his work, and if so, do you share a similar vision to him?  Thank you for reconnecting me to his work. I think one thing we had in common is that we both suffered from post-traumatic stress- World Wars 1 and 2 for him and Hurricane Katrina and BP oil spill disaster for me. We both retreated to nature in order to heal. Nature taught me about regeneration and grit. Yes, the trees seemed to be communicating to both of us, because we were paying attention to the intense changes around us at the time. I truly don’t know how he survived seeing what he saw. I couldn’t have walked the road he walked. After reinvestigating some of his writings about his process- I can relate to his despair. To be an artist during this century is a delicate tightrope walk between sensitivity and toughness. To foster the ability to bend and not break.

Have you explored any other lens-based media, such as video/ film/ projection? If so, how do you rate using it compared to the medium of photography? I’m using video too now- and I am just as engrossed with it- although I previously preferred the darkroom to the computer. Now computer is an inevitable part of my practice- despite all resistance. My neck and back can tell you more about that. To heal from the tools of the trade, I swim, and then shoot video and stills of the beauty of water or its inhabitants. I tell you while I seem grim in some of my comments, I do find the world riddled with incredible beauty. Oftentimes beyond lens based anything!

Do you think that the use of lens-based media/technology can connect this generation of youngsters to nature, or help to re-enchant the landscape?  That’s a great question. It could go either way…but I don’t think it necessarily connects them- they can avoid nature because of or in spite of technology. Many in America complain that the harried life they live with all it’s technological advances has them on a short leach of time and they end up sacrificing some of their time in nature as a result. It’s with encouragement and guidance, inspiration and education that they venture into the wilderness. I take them there sometimes- into some muddy tangled woods and get their cool clothes all messed up-and they seem to like it in the end. I think they “remember to remember” when they enter into nature. (“Oh yeah, I forgot I liked nature” kind of thing). Sometimes they ask to shoot film instead of digital media- because they want the risk of messing up and the challenge of crafting a difficult print. But digital or analog, the important thing is that they encounter the landscape and come out of the experience enamoured even more by it. The important take away is that they will want to encourage, (and demand even) a cleaner more sane future that respects nature- that gives us life. And more than the medium used, and I think a great act of resistance, is the crafting of one’s time. Make time for nature, and it will payback those moments in infinite returns.

Any other comments you would like to make, or useful information?  Thank you for your interest in my work. I enjoyed looking at your blog and photographs very much as well. Your own sense of discovery and process is magical and inspiring. I love the way you blend science and art!

Some great resources in the form of books are:

  • Rachel Carson- The Sea around us
  • Naomi Klein- This changes Everything (book over film)
  • Kate Orff and Richard Misrach: Petrochemical America (the maps are incredible)
  • John Barry’s Rising Tide
  • Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest

Let me know if you have any further questions- and I hope your research paper turn out successful.

Glassworks

I received a beautiful little book in the post yesterday, a small and fairly rare book of photography by Fay Godwin – Glassworks and Secret Lives. Godwin began to take an interest in photography at 32 years old, and started out taking portrait photos of authors, who she met through her publisher husband Tony. When she split from her husband, she turned her back on portraiture and began to take an interest in landscape photography.

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She collaborated with author and poet Ted Hughes, and produced many works which responded to his poems and the English countryside. His vision of the landscape was not unlike that of Neo-Romantics, and although Godwin denied that her work was influenced by them, it has a loneliness and desolation to it, a haunting sadness and sensitivity which some would argue is in the style of the Neo-Romantics.

c13526-69Fence by Fay Godwin

But it is her later work which this small book shows – works which she made in colour using “fast and grainy colour film” to “…explore the detail in forgotten corners, behind glass, plastic and other materials.”

g02(p153)‘Untitled, from Pioneer Glassworks,’ 1989

I really love the subtle reflections in this piece, looking at what is in front of the camera, yet still being able to capture elements of what is behind. A haunting, ghostly layering, dreamlike and entrancing.

I decided to have a go today using some “props” which I could use to photograph the landscape through. I found cling film, perspex, a glass jar, petri dish and an old plastic carton.  I took them out into the woodland to have a play around.

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Various props to photograph though

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I began with the cling film, which was wrapped between branches to form a ‘window’.

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The cling film catches the sun and gives the impression of looking through scratched glass. Next I had a go using a clear plastic carton, which I found captured some interesting reflections…

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By chance I caught the light just at the right moment to reflect the branches and trunk of the tree onto a clump of lichen – an unexpected result as I moved the plastic carton over the lichen, but unfortunately I could have done with another pair of hands to get the photograph more in focus.

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Another go with the carton in a different location…

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This is my favourite piece using the carton…it reminds me of the sweeping blurry skies of a Tuner painting, yet I love the way that the tiny fronds of fire moss can be clearly seen.

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Shadow of brach cast on scratched surface

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Hollow in a tree reflecting the bright landscape behind it

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Abstract reflections
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The shots of the leaves above (and one below) were taken through perspex, making a more layered reflected effect

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Below; Perspex over frogspawn, with water droplet on top

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Finally, I took a few shots through a jam jar…lichenjar1

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This technique creates a vortex effect similar to some of the landscape paintings from the romantic era, a blurred vignette which draws the eye into the central point of focus.

I want to experiment more with photographing elements of the landscape through transparent surfaces which have different thicknesses and discrepancies or patterns. I’m going to continue collecting old cartons, bottles and jars to see what results they give. The reflections in the glass give mysterious effects which give the images a kind of spiritual quality – one method of capturing the ‘spirit of place.’

Through the Looking Glass

Throughout the Romantic and Neo-Romantic eras, evidence can be found of artists looking at the landscape through glass in an attempt to capture the picturesque or sublime vision of their surroundings. I recently purchased a very interesting book ;’The Claude Glass. Use and Meaning of the Black Mirror in Western Art’ by Arnaud Maillet, which is a fascinating gem of a book, containing very interesting and informative information about Claude mirrors also known as Claude glasses ; devices used by 18th and 19th century artists to create an effect similar to the paintings of Claude Lorraine.

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The mirror was generally a small, black convex piece of glass which altered the tonal values in the landscape, its shape giving a slightly distorted view which nevertheless allowed more of the landscape into a single focal point. Some Claude Glasses were made of glass with coloured tints such as blue or grey, which could give the illusion of a moonlit evening, sometimes multicoloured tints, to give a kind of filtered effect, allowing the viewer to see a “luminous” landscape.

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An instagram picture I took in Birnam Wood – notice how the filter blurs the edges and brings the central point into focus, whilst also giving a soft, warm light – effects which were achieved by using a Claude Glass in the 18th and 19th centuries.  

 I suppose it could be considered as an equivalent to an image adjusting app which we might use on our smartphone today, such as instagram or Hipstamatic, so if you think about it in that context, it was a really clever little avante-garde invention. It also bears a curious resemblance to the obsidian scrying mirror of Dr John Dee, which I mentioned in this blog a few months ago.

In 2006, artist Alex McKay and historian CS Matheson created a claude mirror installation by placing a webcam opposite a 40-inch Claude mirror that was reflecting the Tintern Abbey. The streaming/IP service was interrupted in November 2007, but the camera went back online in May 2008. Unfortunately the webcam is offline now, but the gallery of pictures captured by the camera at different times of day and in different lighting situations really shows off the qualities of the mirror and the fact that, in many cases, the glass really does make a scene look like it’s had an Instagram filter applied. You can see more about this project here:

http://web2.uwindsor.ca/hrg/amckay/Claudemirror.com/Claudemirror.com/Claude_Mirror_Introduction.html

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A view of Tintern Abbey through the Claude mirror

I recently ordered an antique convex clock glass, which I hope to use to make my own Claude Glass. I want to see how it changes my perception of Birnam Wood and also try to make some photographs of the reflections within it. I will post my making of it and images when my glass arrives.

Cultural Identities

I grew some more samples from fungi in the lab last week, and some of them proved to be really interesting. I took them back to Birnam Wood to photograph them within the landscape where they were found, as I did previously with the jelly fungi. The results are below.. it was a lovely, sunny (yet cold) afternoon and I had to play around with the positioning of the petri dishes and the camera angles to try to get the best possible clarity of the culture and of the landscape.

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Lichen Landscape

Today I decided to have a go at making a diorama, as it is one way of presenting the miniature, overlooked specimens which would allow them to be viewed from a different perspective.  I have a collection of lichens which I have collected from the floor of Birnam Wood over the last few months, some of them are really quite spectacular, and are not unlike something one might see under the sea in a coral reef.  I have a few that have been drying out, as well as some oakmoss and usnea lichens which have been pressed, so I gathered them together and began to plan how I might display them underneath a large glass cloche.

I used a brick of oasis and pieced it together to form a circle of the desired size.  I began by covering the surface and sides with pressed usnea, which is a pale green hairy lichenas this gives good coverage and seems like an appropriate base on which to add further specimens.

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I glued the usnea down with florists glue, and also used a few pins to keep it in place. When it was all covered, I inserted the larger pieces of lichen, and also included a twig which I had picked which was covered in crotal (yellow lichen).
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To finish it off neatly, I glued the pressed oak moss right around the sides of the circle, allowing it to stand proud around the edge to add a further layer of interest for the viewer.

diorama19The finished diorama reminded me a bit of a decorated cake, although it would be certainly fatal if consumed!  Below is an aerial view of the miniature landscape…

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I placed it inside the cloche to see how it would look on display. I was quite happy with the result, and it reminded me of some of the exhibits of coral that I had seen in books about wunderkammern that I had been reading.

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I took a lot of photos from different angles both with and without the glass, and was surprised at the “alien” landscape which emerged through the lens. The camera really magnifies the texture and form of the lichens which I hadn’t realised were so amazing. The two photos below are taken through the glass cloche, giving a distorted and surreal effect in some areas.

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The blurred foreground against the crisp texture of the yellow Croat lichen gives a ghostly, otherworldly effect.

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Without the glass, I feel like I am looking into a strange and sinister yet intriguing landscape – almost certainly a sublime landscape where trees and plants have evolved into threatening monsters, a bit like the photographs of Paul Nash.

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Making this piece has allowed me not only to display an unusual collection of lichens, but also to take a digital walk through a miniature landscape, where the weird and wonderful details that lie under our feet become menacing and monstrous when we enlarge them. By magnifying the details, we notice the strange suckers, cups, wrinkles and veins on these specimens which would feel at home in the movie Avatar. The lens is a great tool to illustrate the sublime aspects of the world around us.

Are you ready for this jelly?

I came across a few blobs of what appeared to be clear jelly growing on an unidentified fallen log in an open area within Birnam Wood a few weeks ago. I assumed that they were some kind of fungus, so I took a sample home with me to see what might happen if I grew it in the lab.

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I later found out it is Exidia nucleata or crystal brain fungus, a translucent/opaque jelly cell-like formation, which is quite tough and rubberyI took it into the lab last week, and as it was quite hard, I held it with a pair of tweezers and rubbed it around on the agar jelly, before sealing it up to incubate.

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I decided to try a new approach in photographing the growth; instead of taking the picture in the lab, or at the window, I went into the wood near to where I had found the specimen, wedged the petri dish between a small branch and tree trunk, and photographed the result with a bit of light behind it.

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I cropped and sharpened the image and altered the brightness and contrast to give the result below.

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I’m really excited by this result, and feel it is a great way of photographing the hidden aspects of a particular part of the landscape. I used the same approach in photographing another less vigorous result which I had grown this week also, again from a jelly like fungus, Tremella Mesenterica or Yellow Brain Fungus.

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Above :Tremella Mesenterica or Yellow Brain Fungus.

I really love the photo of the first growth that I took, as it is more abstract and less obvious. I want to experiment more with this approach and need to get back into the lab as soon as it is free so that I can cultivate some more growths.