Photography as an ‘Environmental Practice’ @MuseumModernArt

Photographs in essence depict the effects of reflected light falling from the fragments of reality. Villem Flusser, considering the images a form of ‘mediations between the world and the human beings’, defends the view that photography is the most important human invention since the introduction of linear writing. Photographs are not real, in the sense that ‘The time and space peculiar to the image is none other than the world of magic, a world in which everything is repeated and in which everything participates in a significant context. Such a world is structurally different from that of the linear world of history in which nothing is repeated and in which everything has causes and will have consequences… The significance of images is magical’. (Flusser, 1983).

Photographs are indeed different from other forms of visual art in the sense that they require an ‘Apparatus’ (Flusser, 1983) to create a work of art, which can be mechanically reproduced (Benjamin, 1935). According to Marc Lenot, similarly to the introduction of photography in the nineteenth century, which liberated painting and set a new course for the less-figurative fauve, expressionist, cubist, dada, abstract and other forms of painting, the development of digital photography liberated photography (Lenot, 2017). As a result a new revival of alternative processes, film and camere-less photography emerged in response to the perfection of the digital form of image capture that made representational photography less exciting and ‘unusual’.

I find that my photographic practice resonates well with the works of Lenot and Flusser in a sense that specific and essentially photographic aspects start playing a central role in my work: the use of colour as a creative force, the magical aspect of photography as seen by Flusser but also a vibrant tradition of environmental photography, pioneered by Sebastiao Salgado, Yann Arthus Bertrand, James Balog, Edward Burtinsky, David Maisel and Richard Misrasch. I draw inspiration from the art of the early 20th century and especially the fauve artistst Matisse and Derain, who revolutionized modern art in 1905 at the Salon d’Automne in Paris. Their use of colour has inspired me to produce a similar effect in photography, where the ‘real’ scenes are transposed and brought into the realm of the ‘magical’. I often experiment with colour in my paintings too and for me painting and photography are mutually reinforcing media. The renewable energy of colour, understood so well by Matisse and Derain is powering my photographic works, creating an otherworldly representation of the real, tropical Colombia.

The geometry of the pictorial frame in the image chosen here plays a crucial role. Three iconic wax palms in the coffee-triangle of Colombia are positioned at an angle aimed to meet high above the edge of the picture plane, superimposed against intense magenta skies criss-crossed by the clouds barely capable to capture the high altitude UV-radiation above the 3000 m hills. The play of colour with high contrasts of light blue and magenta adds to the intensity of the viewer’s experience. What is essential here is the context in which these images should be viewed. The context is that of a looming environmental crisis, the rapid deterioration of the world’s ecosystems and the destruction of the world’s biodiversity and the resulting intense climatic change. Shot as if climate change ‘already happened’ these images are designed as a message to humanity and a call to focus on the restoration of our ecosystems.

The methods that are usually required to interpret and evaluate photography are indeed stemming from a rich art-historical tradition, which involves such approaches as formal analysis, semiotics, psychoanalysis and iconography, but increasingly new philosophical theories reflecting the state of the world we currently living in, including that of ecological economics. The additional and specifically photographic angle, stems from the reflection on the mechanical photographic process as such, which was not practiced in full (apart from the camera obscura) before the invention of photography by Daguerre and Fox Talbot. The important dimensions that often seem to be missing are the analysis of colour in photography, poetics of photography and the cinematic effects, which largely become essential during the development of the cinema as a separate art form and film criticism as a genre.

In the case of my photographic work, the important theoretical and philosophical foundation is indeed an interdisciplinary theory of ecological economics, which sees the economy as a subset of the environment, and studies the ecosystem-economy linkages to understand the causes of fundamental unsustainability of our economic practices. The images of pink skies and blue clouds seen from the point of view of the ecological-economic context take on a new meaning, that of a warning and a cry for attention. The context in which these images are intended to be seen is essential to their proper appreciation and understanding.  The ecological-economic theory that emerged through the works of the E.F. Schumacher, H. Daly and D. Meadows and the influential ‘Limits to Growth’ report to the Club of Rome is the appropriate starting point for the understanding and analysis of my Magical Realism series. It provides a vital connection between the visual art and sustainability and reinstates the role of culture in the global strive to achieve Sustainable Development Goals.

This could not be more topical today. Humanity lost half of the world’s biodiversity in the past 40 years according to the WWF Living Planet report and we need rapid and coordinated action globally to avert the crisis in this are, which is sadly not in the public consciousness apart from pandas and polar bears. Biodiversity is a difficult concept to grasp, it involves many types of species involved in constant interaction and exchange of matter and energy with their environment. What is most fascinating is that according to James Lovelock and his Gaia theory, biodiversity is one of the crucial and often neglected factors that stabilize climatic conditions on our planet. This means that there is a crucial link between biodiversity, ecosystems and climate change and that focusing on CO2 emissions alone without dealing with the ecosystems, we might find it difficult to avert the climate crisis.


Image (c) Dr Stanislav Shmelev



Benjamin, W. (1935) The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Daly, H. (1997) Beyond Growth, Beacon Press

Flusser, V. (1983) Towards a Philosophy of Photography. English translation by Reaktion Books, 2000, reprinted in 2016

Lenot, M. (2017) Jouer Contre les Appareils: De la photographie expérimentale, Editions Photosynthèses

Lovelock, J. (2016) Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Oxford Landmark Science)

Meadows D. et al (1972) Limits to Growth, Signet

Schumacher E.F. (1972) Small is Beautiful: a Study of Economics as if People Mattered

Shmelev S.E. (2012) Ecological Economics: Sustainability In Practice

WWF (2017) Living Planet Report 2016: WWF Living Planet Report 2016


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