Beyond Documentary – a lecture by Liz Wells

The first talk to be given at the recently refurbished Photographer’s Gallery in London is by Liz Wells. I have read her encyclopaedic “A Critical Introduction to Photography” in which various authors write about the main genres of photography and have just started her “A Photography Reader” which is a series of essays about photography by modern critics.

Her talk is subtitled “currencies of the post-industrial sublime”, a title which reminds one of the complexity of Liz Well’s writing which does however succeed in making the finer points clearer. Without such critics, one would be less able to understand and read a photograph, finding oneself instead rather lost amongst the myriad of photographic images that we constantly come into contact with. Nevertheless, I found her talk which she read from notes, to be difficult to understand even though I made notes.

Her talk was not directly about the Burtinsky exhibition presently showing at The Photographer’s Gallery but it did relate to it’s theme of contemporary landscape; Liz Well’s most recent book is Land Matters that considers the nature of landscape and it’s relation to photography, culture and identity.

She has recently been involved in editing a book about The Antartic entitled Landscapes of Exploration : the role of contemporary art in Antartica through which a sense of the romantic and the sublime are evident; another body of work she has commented on is A Sense of Place : European Landscape Photography which is being exhibited in Bruxelles this year. She also mentions another book Moments Before the Flood by Carl de Keyzer in which photography is being used to capture the disaster before it happens, examining how well Europe is prepared for a probable rise in the sea level.

While these accomplishments help to establish Liz Wells as more than just a compiler of writings suitable for photography graduates, she also talks about the general drift of such work in which the photographer becomes a researcher of place, looks at transformed land as well as toxic landscapes. The viewer may be lured by the beauty of the images into paying some attention to the message inherent in the work which in the case of Burtinsky, is about the massive effect of oil on contemporary civilisation and various issues surrounding it.

There is a sublimity to work such as this and Liz Wells mentions Edmund Burke’s classic work A Philosphical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful and that the sublime causes delight; passions act for self-preservation. Wells also mention Immanuel Kant and his systematic reasoning; for Kant sublimity implies incomprehension. Descartes sees a seperation between the mind and the senses. Liz Wells says that the “sublime is threatened by the possibility of nothing else happening”.

Al Gore has said of Burtinsky’s work that it is “beautiful, insightful, thought provoking”; he is responsible for a number of photographic projects such as the Three Gorges Dam Project, Yangtse River as well as Quarries from around the world. topographic work can be very beautiful and the scale and colour plays an important part. Burtinsky searches for subjects that are rich in detail and scale. He is not a teacher merely an artist.

Liz Wells talks about the work of one of her students, Yan Preston who is Chinese and has been photographing around the Yangtse River.

Landscape photography of the American west corresponded with the expansion into that area; a similar event is happening in the photography of the Antartica.

I have not covered all of what Liz Wells says (there is a little more on my experience of the Burtinsky Oil exhibition) but as Gareth points out, she is careful not to give a personal view. The photographs are stunning but what can the individual do to combat the Oil situation that Burtinsky so graphically covers !?

A video of Liz Wells taking is at …

3 thoughts on “Beyond Documentary – a lecture by Liz Wells

  1. Hi I was wanting to watch the Liz Wells talk but a password is required, are you able to tell me the pass word so that I can watch it? I would be extremely grateful! Thanks and best wishes Simone

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