Philippe Pleasants has for some time made work in and about the British Landscape. At its core it is about an encounter with the natural world, that seeks to show the landscape afresh. This series has evolved over a number of years and grew from his own experience spending long hours walking in the area of Suffolk he was familiar with as a child. He seeks to convey that almost revelatory sensation of being immersed in, and overwhelmed by, the wonder and awe of the natural landscape. The scale and photographic techniques he employs seek to re-create that emotional response from the viewer. His work is intentionally disorientating as we struggle to recognise what we are looking at. This is the natural world but not as we are used to seeing it.
His process is time consuming and strenuous and involves a team of people, usually family and friends, persuaded to help carry heavy equipment. Often waiting until night falls, his way of working has similarities to environmental and land artists such as Richard Long. The dark facilitates a sense of being engulfed and it can also disorientate. Making his images using a large format plate camera which can absorb a huge amount of detail, each negative being produced by a sequence of exposures. He picks as his subject the hedgerows and trees that are not shaped by man but left to grow in their natural way. Fascinated by the chaos and order that is present in nature his photographs intensely scrutinise elements of the landscape that would otherwise be overlooked.
Printing work in both negative and positive form – producing prints which are either bathed in radiant white light or shrouded in black – his series of work plays with rhythms of contrast. His negative printing technique creates images which almost look like pencil drawings of nature referring back to early descriptions of photographs being drawings made with light. But this also relates his work to the landscape artists and painters who have continued to influence him. All the images require us to carefully look and study them. We have to focus our minds and rationalise through our own knowledge of photography what are we looking at. Is that a branch or a brush stroke? There is a vibrant movement to the images as the branches and twigs hover between being static and moving.
As Richard Long said ‘Nature has more affect on me than I on it’ and this work in so many ways encapsulates that. By challenging and pushing the media of photography in his technique Pleasants is able to make us look afresh at landscape. Most of us are detached from nature with the majority living in large cities and urban hubs. Our encounter with and relationship to nature is more remote. Spending time looking at things is again no longer common in a society where everything is a sound bite and we are bombarded by hundreds of images through computer screens and on our mobile phones. This work demands contemplation and needs to be absorbed, akin to the time that is spent looking at the paintings of Mark Rothko. Similarly, if we give our eyes the time to adjust and the work the attention it requires we can experience that metaphysical reverie only art can provide to us. This is not work to consume but to savour and reflect on and to spend time with.
From Nature is an ongoing body of work.
Text by Camilla Brown, photography curator, writer and lecturer on contemporary art.