Photographers Gallery

In Darkness Visible at The Photographers’ Gallery presents the new body of work by Nicholas Hughes. These dark brooding photographs combine an experience of pure aesthetic pleasure with an ambiguous discomfort: there is no denying the uncomplicated, flawless beauty of these works, however, lurking behind this beauty one can detect both sorrow and foreboding. The images stir up a sense of admiration and wonderment before the phenomenon of nature, however the imagination feels inadequate to comprehend the idea of nature as a whole, and so an uneasy mental agitation ensues.

The images are divided into two verses: Verse I, which presents forested spaces, and Verse II, which presents seascapes. Both verses have a sense of quiet removal. The complete lack of human presence reduces any notions of synthetic ‘noise’ and thus discloses a hushed contemplation.

Verse I was generated from numerous visits to green spaces in central London capturing images of what Hughes describes as the ‘ghosts of trees’. We are brought to consider what remains of nature within the city environment; of the effects of human development. Verse II, the series of seascapes has sensitive connections to the paintings of J.M.W Turner: the ocean provokes ideas concerning the magnitude and limitlessness of nature in comparison to the finitude of human presence. Rather than employing digital means, these photographs are captured using a traditional large format camera using only the natural light available. Although traditional methods of photography have much room for human intervention, this methodology appears to be more sympathetic to the complexion of Hughes’ work: the non-digital approach strikes one as being more organic.

Whereas the forested spaces are still and disquieting, the seascapes are overwhelming and unsettled. Both bodies of work are strong and yet intrinsically delicate. Although nature can be unruly, it is evident from Verse I that man has the ability to enforce his power over the landscape and to threaten nature. Conversely, the seascapes of Verse II remind one of how powerful nature can be in comparison to human capability. Both verses give rise to varied experiences, ranging from pure aesthetic contemplation, to a mental agitation familiar with the sublime, through to considerations regarding man’s impact on the environment, to introspection, and a sense of wonderment before nature.

When considering notions of the finitude and infinitude of nature, what is particularly interesting about these works are the decisions that Hughes has had to make regarding the inclusion and exclusion of information. There is, of course, the conscious decision to exclude all human presence, however there is also the decision of where the boundary of the image is drawn: the point at which Hughes allows the shutter to close and contain a moment of nature. By focusing on boundaries, Hughes is recognising the existence of limits – both human and natural.

One’s response to both verses is primarily emotional rather than analytical, resulting in a subjective comprehension. The ideas generated by Verse I are within human apprehension – there is a focal point upon which we can fix our ideas. The horizon offers space away from crowding, space for quiet contemplation, and one is reminded that nature holds something mystical that synthetic city life does not. In regarding Verse II we move beyond the concept of nature to find within our mind the inadequacy to comprehend the ideas brought forth. There is no focal point – purely the roaming, vast and mighty ocean. It is not so much the existence of nature, but rather what is done with the presentation of nature within one’s mind. One cognises oneself in the state of contemplation and reflects back within oneself: The mind feels it’s own state.

The paradox of these works is that they both deny and imply containment: a fundamental element of photography is the containment of an image, however, these works move far beyond their framed parameters.