The Phenomenal World
David Parker’s large-scale landscape projects have their origins in a study of the work of American photographer Carleton Watkins, famous for his mammoth-plate images of the early West. The limitations imposed by his cumbersome equipment and materials required Watkins to develop an aesthetic which embraced these constraints. In Yosemite in 1861-67 Watkins produced a seminal body of landscape photographs.
Seeking to follow in Watkins’ footsteps and rediscover the ‘monumental’ aesthetic in a contemporary way, Parker commissioned a special large-format rotating panoramic camera. With its broad spatial perspective and use of fine-grain military reconnaissance film, this camera has been a prime element in defining the characteristic appearance of his landscape work. Due to the way it functions, slit-scanning slowly left to right, through 180 degrees, exposures of around 8 minutes are the norm, time for figures to appear twice, or truncated, or leave only their shadow. Hence no need for Photoshop. For Parker this curious ‘time-dilation’ became a way of emphasising mankind’s fleeting presence in a world of deep geological time. 'The Phenomenal World' is the first fruit of this new approach.
Inspired by mythic references in classical literature, the project reflects Parker’s interest in the unfashionable genre of ‘monumental landscape’ and the related philosophical ideas of ‘the sublime’ that were explored by Burke and Kant in the 18th Century. A recurring motif of ‘The Phenomenal World’ is the natural rock arch. The arch as a transcendence motif is variously interpreted as a bridge between worlds, a threshold of transition and a gateway between the temporal and eternal. It is found in many traditions including North American Indian legend, Dante’s descent into Hell and the rainbow bridge to Valhalla in Wagner’s Ring Operas.
In this project Parker’s fundamental concern is the re-enchantment of the landscape by fashioning an austere beauty - beauty as a need rather than an empty adornment. In recent times many artists have been suspicious of beauty as a means of conveying serious ideas. However, as British artist Grayson Perry has observed, ‘beauty is the elephant in the room that many artists find difficult to ignore’. Philosopher Roger Scruton has also reaffirmed the centrality of beauty to our lives. For Parker the rhythm of beauty becomes a powerful means of engagement with ideas which explore the tension between the temporal and eternal in our secular age.
The Phenomenal World was published by Steidl Editions 7L in 2000 with an essay by Gerry Badger. It received the Photoeye 'Best Landscape' award in 2001.