Puna, or altitude in the language of the Inca. A high plateau locked inside the Andes mountain range, in the heart of South America. Ancient, eternal, dangerous. At 16,000 feet oxygen is in debilitating short supply. Proximity to the sun means radiation exposure reaches perilous levels. Desert temperatures oscillate wildly between the scorching blaze of the midday sun and plummeting well below freezing as soon as darkness falls. Winds approaching speeds of 100 miles per hour tear across the plains, rendering all activity futile. This is a twilight zone. Desolate, at the edge of the known world, an expanse the human body cannot withstand and the human mind struggles to comprehend. Alexander Lindsay’s photographic series ALTITUDE captures in extraordinary detail across vast panoramic prints the exhilarating spectacle of these uninhabitable, primordial landscapes.
Uniting Lindsay’s journalistic background filming war reportage for documentary films in Iraq and Afghanistan, with his pioneering technological developments to film the Titanic wreck at ocean depths of 13,000 feet with his formal training at Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, Lindsay seeks to reveal, as he terms it, “reality at its most stark”. This is our earthly paradise at its most astonishing, laying bare the multitude of unimaginable wonders of the natural world. These are, Lindsay continues, “places where imagination is rendered futile”. In Jungle Glacier an extraordinary glacier wall l is suspended in volatile solidity. A lone upright stone, the Guardian of Tara, withstands elemental assaults of wind and snow. Thousands of pink flamingos congregating on a far-off lake are rendered in overwhelming precision in Distant Flamingos on Salar de Tara. A city sprawls below the looming watchful presence of the vast sand dune of Dragon Hill. Iridescent jewel-like colours of rock and water sparkle across the subaquatic Marble Caves I.
The hypnotic appeal of the elemental power and infinite variations of nature is perpetual, ceaseless. As with so many before him, Lindsay is magnetically impelled to seek out the extremes of human sensation of awe, terror and fear, provoked by natural environments that so effortlessly overwhelm human attempts at subjugation. The comparative feebleness of the human body and the narrow limits of imagination are exposed for their vulnerability and fragility. Within the silence and across the vastness of the photographic expanse, our mind traverses, simultaneously astounded and horrified. Perception of the eye across the extreme expanse of the photograph translates into visceral experience. The sublime stillness of the photograph reveals with sustained attention the eventual entropic oblivion of human existence.
Following in the footsteps of his photographic influences, Sebastiao Salgado and Andreas Gursky, Lindsay drives the documentary photographic practice forward, into fresh territory of revelation, astounding knowledge and sensorial experience. Without studio manipulation of the raw photograph, Lindsay confounds any previous grasp on our earthly existence through a subject matter rendered in vast format. Immense and detailed precision of representation is accomplished through cutting-edge technology. Multiple photographs are painstakingly digitally compiled and rendered through a highly technical, extremely physical printing process undertaken by the artist himself.
Density of detail and the monumental panoramic width of the photographs preclude an instantaneous understanding of the view before us. Instead an experience more closely aligned with a cinematic epic unfolds as we peruse the rise and fall of rocky mountain ranges, fleeting clouds darkening the smooth surface of a lake, the setting sun illuminating distant snow, intricate formations of broken trees. The immediacy of photography and the temporality of film are frequently posited as polarities in our experience of time, but in Lindsay’s work time becomes an unpredictable entity. The silent stillness of the landscapes belies the powerful elements moving within the view. The ‘snapshot’ of the photograph results from exposures of up to thirty seconds. The vividness of the photographs magnifies our sense of being physically situated in the immediate present, and yet these landscapes are the very birthplace of ancient Patagonia.
The influence of Minimalist composer Philip Glass upon Lindsay’s vision and temporal experimentation is palpable, particularly the collaborative film Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (1975-1982) by Glass and Godfrey Reggio, with cinematographer Ron Fricke. Koyaanisqatsi balances durational and eternal times by altering our perception. Its acceleration and deceleration, where musical rhythm and the flow of images are so closely allied, makes our experience of the film spatial as much as temporal, expanding our sensorial consciousness, muted and dulled by the mundane of the day-to-day. This disorienting effect has led Glass to say ‘This is music that might conceivably have been written at any period in history… I find this sort of ‘ahistory’ very interesting. The harmonies are spare and consonant, the arrangement is starkly simple. And yet it’s new, don’t you think?’ Lindsay’s photographs have a similar effect: showing something that in a deep sense we seem to know already, calling to our primordial, raw instincts, and yet stimulating us to encounter the photographs as if for the first time. These landscapes endure from a prehistoric past, yet in this geologically unstable volcanic region, are constantly changing.
Extremes of sensation and emotion are played out across the cinematic scope of vast panoramic photographs, engulfing the body of the spectator across the space of the exhibition in a pantheistic unity of human and environment fused through the photographic lens. Attracted to what the mind cannot comprehend, senses and experiences are heightened, magnified, as we are enticed and repulsed by our own oblivion. Rather than re- stating a cavernous dichotomy between the natural world and contemporary technology, ALTITUDE reveals the potential of a new unified sphere of sensorial experience: a modern-day sublime.
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Visit Alexander Lindsay's website here.