For the last fifteen years, British photographer Dan Holdsworth has been blending nature, science, and technology into large-scale photographs and digital art. Much of his work focuses on glacial landscapes.
Holdsworth’s major solo exhibition, “Dan Holdsworth: A Future Archaeology,” is currently premiering at the Scheublein + Bak Gallery in Zurich as part of his Continuous Topography series through September 2. Using high-end 3D imaging software ordinarily only used in scientific or military capacities, Holdsworth renders glacial landscapes in the Alps with extraordinary, unprecedented 3D precision.
Holdsworth spoke with GlacierHub about his early childhood influences, “the sublime,” and his efforts to capture Icelandic glaciers.
GlacierHub: What fieldwork did you conduct to create the images featured in this exhibit?
Dan Holdsworth: For the last three years, I’ve been working with a PhD researcher named Mark Allen from Northumbria University in Newcastle [in the United Kingdom]. The first fieldwork we undertook together, three years ago now, was in the Mont Blanc massif, working on glaciers around Mont Blanc, on both the French and Italian sides. I spent initially two months there, surveying both terrestrially, with drones and by a helicopter using GPS recordings on the ground and data sampling, [and using] a huge sampling of photography surveying–usually several hundred photographs for each location.
GH: What drew you to glaciers as a subject?
DH: My interest in landscape and interest in technology and human impacts on our environment. I’ve always been drawn to areas that have a tension, an edge. In my very early work, it was focused on city edges, where you see this view of humanity and nature kind of hitting each other. For me, obviously glacial landscapes have a similar aspect in terms of this edge of the human traction on glaciers. The images of glaciers are transmitted all around the globe as a symbol of climate change.
In 2000, I went to Iceland for the first time, and I visited glacial landscapes in Iceland. In 2001, I started photographing a glacier called Solheimajökull, which was predominately, at that time, black, with volcanic debris melting out from the glacier. It appeared to have a very interesting tension with the industrial. This object is a byproduct of the Industrial Revolution.
I went back every year for almost ten years and photographed the same location, not to document it exactly that precisely, but to more explore my relationship with it and my responses as it was changing and melting. I then subsequently made prints, which I made digital inversions of. When I made the photographs, I would always make them on a completely white-out day, and you’d see this black object in this white space. In the final work, I made this circular realization by inverting the photograph and restoring the glacier to white. The sky becomes the black of space, so you have this immediate planetary transformation in the image.
GH: Your art blends technology with nature and science very seamlessly. What inspired this connection in your work?
DH: My father was a physicist who studied in Bristol and then at the Max Planck Institute. He was a polymer physicist, and developed processes to metalize plastics. One of the companies he worked with was based in the States and he was developing coatings for space shuttles. So there were always these interesting sides of technology that I was being brought up with. Often you’d see these kinds of developments of technology, like a ghost of my dad’s work [like] some kind of metalized plastic in some food packaging, and back in the 1980s, you’d think, ‘There’s no way this is going to catch on.’ But everything is made with this stuff now, in terms of packaging, like CDs, laser storage, lots of things.
My mother is a ceramicist and a fanatical gardener. My father was also really into mountain walking and climbing, as well. So we always liked going to the middle of nowhere in nature, in Scotland mostly, sometimes Switzerland.
The area where I was born is a very industrial area – it’s a kind of industrial heartland in Britain. I was brought up on the edge of a natural park. So if you look one way, you’re looking across the park, across nature. If you look the other way, it’s just pure industry. I was always brought up with all these tensions and kinds of relationships throughout both my family and the landscapes around me. It was always something that was always very, very present. I was always drawn to exploring these ideas through a kind of landscape.
GH: How would you describe the relationship of your work to climate change?
DH: My interest in [my] work is centrally dealing with perception, and obviously photography is key to this cybernetic extension of our visual perceptions. We’re communicating so much more to each other almost using pure imagery, and I think in my work I’ve felt that we really need to deal with how we mediate the world through these cybernetic extensions through our photographic eyes. We need to deal with that while dealing with our relationship to nature. Our relationship to nature is always mediated by our relationship to technology. So we need to really understand our relationship to technology to understand our relationship to nature. My work is about trying to deal with that.
I’ve always had this feeling that the “sublime” – which is this feeling of this archaic or this “other” aspect of our human emotion, which is a kind of irrational response to a certain encounter in the world, and perhaps an encounter with nature…with technology, is fundamentally driven by our experiences of science. Science is broadening and deepening our understanding of the world, and it continually challenges our perception of the world. That cements itself and finds itself expressed through this emotion, this feeling of the sublime. [It] is either an archaic response, and …something that we have no use for, but is somehow still there, so we have this kind of irrational response, or we have this human response that is actually developing as science develops.
GH: How do you hope that your work is going to impact the human perception of climate change?
DH: I really concur with the artist Robert Irwin when he says that “Perception is political.” What he means by that is, I think, that at a base level we really need to fundamentally understand what defines our perceptual senses in order to organize our relationship to the world. With our new digitally mediated perceptual senses, this perhaps becomes more complex. We need to understand and feel comfortable with our newly developing perceptual capabilities in order to make the correct decisions about the way that we move forward with, just to give one example, issues around developments of future energy production..
GH: Could you briefly explain the concept behind “A Future Archaeology?”
DH: The idea of “A Future Archaeology” is this sense of both looking at the nature of the landscape and the nature of technology. It’s looking at the substructures of technologies, which are basically underpinning much of the virtual infrastructure that we’re interfacing with in our daily lives now, like, for example, Google Maps.
In a sense, “A Future Archeology” is exploring those materials in their raw form, in their data, in the models I’m working with. There’s also a sense of “A Future Archaeology” in the nature of this recording of geological formations over a period of time. It’s a digital archive of this particular moment. Of course, the materials of the digital are underpinned by the geological, so there’s a kind of interwoven history and trajectory [between the materials of the digital and the materials of the geological]. It’s very elemental, both in in its material and geological nature, in terms of the resources that underpin physically the technology we’re using and the machines we’re using.
There’s also an aspect of a digital archive. There are two depths throughout space: there’s a depth to the digital space and there’s a depth to the geological space, and they kind of mirror each other.
We’re obviously now documenting ourselves and are aware of the human nature of our own physical archive and material archive in terms of our sense of the emergence of this new era of the Anthropocene, where we see human activity defining it. It’s certainly a new geological epoch. It’s about all of those things.