Saturated In Neon

“Can there be a science fiction photography? This is not a question critics working in the field of the fantastic have ever asked, as far as I’m aware, even though the conception of the visual cultures of sf has been continually expanding, through comics, cinema, animation, and computer gaming. There has been some attention paid to painterly modes of fantasy, the kitsch art of the sf pulps, and the vernacular modes of futuristic architecture (from New York skyscrapers to streamline deco to space age design) , but I have found virtually no commentary on the relations of sf and photography…

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“The most science fictional of […] photographers, in my view, is the British artist Dan Holdsworth. Holdsworth openly deploys the traditional iconography of the sublime. The World in Itself is a series of images of the glacial landscapes of Iceland, territories of ice and rock that are aeons older than the first human settlements on Iceland and which come closest to alien landscapes on earth. Holdsworth has talked about these landscapes in the same sort of multi-temporal terms I’ve been outlining here: these images, he suggests, explore “the nature of the archaic in contemporary society and how that manifests itself” . But more typically, Holdsworth investigates the frontiers where the natural and the technological force a reconfiguring of the sublime. In one of the images for A Machine for Living, Holdsworth invokes the classic iconography of the sublime cliff, but replaces the lone Caspar David Friedrich figure at the summit with an electricity pylon, the power lines containing the chasm beneath. Elsewhere, in a series called At the Edge of Space, Holdsworth explored the strange territories of the European Space Station in French Guyana. He has also documented closed scientific environments that are baffled against the intrusion of sound and abolish echo. His most emblematic series, though, are the images he takes at night of human developments on the edges of cities. A Machine for Living includes night-time images of the empty networks of car-parks and roadways, saturated in neon. Megalith, an iconic Holdsworth image, is a long night-time exposure of a motorway advertising gantry – yet the title suggests some gnomic object of an advanced civilisation from a tale by Arthur C. Clarke. It stands over the terrain like a Wellsian tripod. Holdsworth never works inside cities, but at the suburban edges where develop- ments run into older, natural landscapes and create odd hybrid territories which feel deeply uncanny. He never photographs human beings in these images, and it is as if, at night, and through the magic of long exposures that reveal more than the unaided human eye, these new terrains reveal their truly alien nature.

“Given Holdsworth’s 1998 series Autopia, night scenes of empty motorway architectures, it is unsurprising to find critics reaching for J. G. Ballard’s title, Myths of the Near Future, when trying to explain the weirdness of these images. “The transformative mechanism of the camera allows Holdsworth to project those imprints into the near future, to the edges of our aspiration and into our unconscious ‘inner space”‘ . Ballard’s iconography is full of striking images of future ruins, rusting space technologies, and poisoned nuclear test grounds. Angus Carlyle has argued that Holdsworth is using the iconography of the sublime to photograph a second nature, places that are “dizzying grey zones [where] uncertainty opens up, the ideas of nature and culture find themselves suddenly stuck by provisionalising apostrophes” (43). We might also reach for Bruno La tour’s language of tangled objects or provisional assemblages to describe this sublime second nature.”

Text: Roger Luckhurst, “Contemporary Photography and the Technological Sublime, or, Can There Be a Science Fiction Photography?” Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. Pocatello: 2008. Vol. 19, Iss. 2; pg. 181.

Image: Dan Holdsworth, Autopia 01, 1996. C-type print, 121×101 cm

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