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In 1858, Gaspard-Felix Tournachon - known with a flourish as ‘Nadar’ - mounted a wet-plate camera to a giant gas-powered balloon becoming the first to take photography aerial. Jules Verne called Nadar “an Icarus with replaceable wings.” As it had been in the classical era, the spirit of the age was once more animated by the potential for height. But the noted caricaturist Honore Daumier - typically the century’s most incisive social chronicler - doubted that there was anything aesthetically beneficial to be gained from such a lofty perspective. Daumier’s famously satirical lithograph, Nadar Raising Photography to the Height of Art, was intended as a mockery of aerial photography’s artistic pretense and as a warning against its surveillance purpose. Daumier’s print shows Nadar rising high above Paris with his camera pointed down and every building below target-marked by the word “PHOTOGRAPHIE”. Already, the utility of panoptic vision was thought to trump its sublime allure or transcendental opportunity. And it would take another 50 years before this fundamentally new visual perspective would upend artistic representation of space.
That tension between utilitarian purpose and artistic inspiration is the unexpectedly compelling strength of David Burdeny’s mesmerizing series of aerial abstractions called Salt. His large-format and luminously intriguing photographs of salterns occupy the hazy borderzone between the prosaic and the poetic. In our hyper-connected age of GPS, Google maps and instant information, the instinctual reaction to these scenes might first be to determine the where and the why of them - their ground-level location or biological fact. To see first the service roads and draining ditches or to puzzle out how the chemical balance in the salt ponds creates these particular blooms of colour. Such readings serve to root vision in the commonplace and the established order - the here and now - and downgrade the sublimity in the aerial experience. But Burdeny’s Salt photographs aim to be more evocative and exalted than pedestrian. They seek to elevate our knowledge and experience of the world in more ways than one.
From the start of his fine art photography career - certainly aided by his earlier architectural practice - Burdeny has always had a deft appreciation for the artistic potential of pure space and how it can be purposefully structured to appeal to the senses. He has become a master of the photographic moment made in service of a sublime sensibility. His early black-and-white long-exposure work created a minimalist monumentality out of spare landscapes that felt privately spiritual and seemed to exist outside time. And the stark awesome force of the icebergs in his North/South series crackled with a similar terrifying majesty as the Romantic poets and artists of the nineteenth century regarded them. Even the docents sitting alone and attentively in the Hermitage in Burdeny’s recent Bright Future series seem to be keenly aware of the profound privilege of sensuous perception.
What Salt adds to this conversation is its cunning use of the artistic heritage and sublime intrigue of abstract art to further Burdeny’s interest in liminal spaces. In their use of amorphous shapes, elongated fields of colour and vertical, jagged and sinuous lines, Burdeny’s images suggest the painterly expressiveness of Rothko, Still, Newman, Diebenkorn and late career Willem de Kooning. The effect is less intentional than it is available - Modernism’s abstracted reordering of the visual landscape (which essentially got going in pre-WWI Paris with Robert Delaunay and his aerial scenes of the Eiffel Tower) permits a non-objective reading of these compositions. But why bother? What do we gain by seeing landscape as a non-objective experience or colour as an “instrument” (as Rothko termed it) to explore subconscious emotions? In his 1948 essay, The Sublime is Now, Barnett Newman provided the essential answer -”the image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation”. And that power of personal revelation remains an active concern in contemporary art. A recent 3-year scholarly survey by the Tate revealed how actively engaged is the field of artists presenting new ways to consider the sublime and the potential for “immanent transcendence,...a transformative experience”.
With Burdeny’s Salt series, once you let go of the map, you take hold of the opportunity in the work. Then the immensity of the view, the expressive power of light and colour, and complex feelings of solitude and release take over, take flight. Burdeny manages to render into visual form the ineffable experience of drifting, of floating above it all, of being lost out beyond the humanly order of things (a clever conceit given how humans have definitely ordered these working salt fields). In some of the images - such as Saltern Study 15 - there is the sense of the transfigurative potential of expansion, a longing for the infinite. Whereas Red Water, Hut Lagoon reveals the awesome beauty of the abyss as a roiled cauldron of red. In their abstracted glory, Burdeny’s images play to the psyche and have powerful emotional force.
The legend of Icarus is often told as a parable of hubris defeated but it can equally be read as a transformational text - as the triumph, however temporary, of emotion over reason. Once airborne, up and away from the regular order of life, Icarus experienced exhilaration and the ecstasy of an altered perspective. While cultural tradition duly notes that Icarus fell back to earth, perhaps we should make more of how amazing it must have been while he was up there. Fortunately, Burdeny has used his camera to give witness to the continuing resonance of such transcendental revelations.