Photography Regarding Nature: An Interview with Chrystel Lebas

Above image: Chrystel Lebas, Re-visiting Colonisation of boulder by Mosses & Oxalis acetosella.Plate n°1254, Arrochar, May 2012. 56°13.041’ N 4°44.146’ W

Chrystel Lebas (b.1966, France) uses photography and moving image to explore and illuminate the often complex relationships between human beings and nature. Preferring to photograph during twilight hours, she exploits the magical effects of the particular dipped light to accentuate the “sublime” and draw attention to our place within the natural world. Here, Daniel C. Blight interviews Lebas about her work, currently on view in our Print Sales Gallery.

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Daniel C. Blight: Your exhibition Regarding Nature is concerned with the interesting way in which photography documents ecological change, specifically with respect to Edward James Salisbury’s travels through Britain in the first half of the twentieth century, which you have responded to in your own contemporary work that retraces his footsteps. Focussing on Salisbury’s landscape images to begin with, how do these photographs speak of nature in a historical sense? How do you think Salisbury regarded nature, visually and conceptually?

Chrystel Lebas: This is an interesting question about the act of looking for scientific purposes: what are we looking at? Is it of any importance? How does looking inform research? I concluded, during my research, that Salisbury photographed mainly for scientific purposes; he used his photographs as a document to illustrate his writings and records his experiments. The notebooks and papers archived at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Library Art & Archives (after he died someone donated them all to Kew) didn’t reveal anything from his photographic past and how he came to use the medium. I know that he was from a wealthy family of 9 children, and they all studied or worked in the Arts, Science or Architecture. I presume they had a darkroom in the house (in Harpenden), so I guess they must have picked up on the beginning of photography together, and Salisbury then carried on using it for his own research.

Photography was used widely by ecologists at the beginning of the 20th century, often Salisbury’s contemporaries would use the newest processes such as cameras loaded with roll film, instead of glass plate negatives that they would previously have been familiar with. Francis Wall Oliver, botanist, and Salisbury’s professor and colleague at University College London, used a panorama box camera loaded with gelatin film and together with Salisbury they photographed and researched Blakeney in Norfolk. If Salisbury’s images are most of the time overexposed and don’t pay much attention to composition – “the view” – Oliver’s panoramas are well composed and exposed, showing a topographic view of the landscape. I also suspected that Salisbury used very old batches of glass plates, as I found some sort of pattern on the negatives whilst I was printing from them in my darkroom. So, in short, I think that Salisbury regarded nature as a scientist would, looking for clues and studying it to understand how plants grow in specific locations and in specific climate conditions. Observing the effects human beings have on ecology was his main focus. 

Edward James Salisbury. From box 231-242-Shingle Beaches I. Shingle mobility between Suaeda bushes, Blakeney, 27/3/13. Plate n°237

Chrystel Lebas: Re-visiting Shingle mobility between Suæda bushes, Blakeney. 27/3/13 Plate n°237, Blakeney, June 2014. 52°58.426’N 1°0.674’E

DCB: Your own landscape images trace Salisbury’s in terms of their locations, but they are in some sense very different. What was your specific approach to making these?

CL: When I was introduced to the E.J. Salisbury collection at the Natural History Museum, I had no idea which direction I would take, what I would focus on, and it was only after discussing with Dr Mark Spencer, the botanist that worked at the Museum, that it made sense to try and travel to the places depicted in Salisbury’s photographs and maybe to re-photograph the locations. And of course the photographs I would take might show environmental change, because I would be walking in Salisbury’s footsteps some 90 years later… It wasn’t that easy at first, as the glass plates sometimes contained only a few elements to guide me through a location: the plant species, date and location names might just be readable from Salisbury’s handwriting, engraved or written directly on the glass plate.

Arrochar, in Argyll, and Bute, Trossachs National Park, was the first area in Scotland I decided to focus on, then Rothiemurchus forest in the Cairnghorms, Culbin Sands near Inverness, Blakeney in Norfolk and Devon followed. Here the task of finding the place was made easier by the title I would find on the glass plate and container box. For example, Loch Long and Glen Loin were easy finds; the view shows the loch photographed at its head, the background showing a range of hills and the foreground populated by Scirpus [Bolboschoenus] maritimus, a plant that would be found especially in areas where salt water meets soft water coming down from the mountain. After photographing from a variety of angles, to find the exact view, I finally found the precise point and I observed that the plant species was no longer present in the landscape.

Edward James Salisbury, from box 1075-1079-Arrochar 1928. Scirpus Maritimus (on the plate). Scirpus [Bolboschoenus] maritimus. Plate n°1075

Chrystel Lebas, Re-visiting Scirpus [Bolboschoenus] maritimus Plate n°1075, Arrochar, August 2012 (Low tide). 56°12.342’N 4°45.038’W

A car park has since been built on the same spot and the course of the road has been altered, and now it seems that the species has disappeared. Observing and photographing from Salisbury’s viewpoint, looking towards the mountains in the background of his photograph for points of reference, my photographs record the same place in low and high tides. There is no vegetation in the foreground, only water from the Loch. To back up my find I interviewed Heather, a local who has lived in the

village throughout her eighty-four years, who told me about changes that have occurred. She mentioned the reconstruction of the road and the Shire Bridge being moved closer to the Loch head, as well as the fact that a great abundance of detritus washes up on the shores of the Loch in bad weather. The council has started to clear up this detritus and as a result the flora has been uprooted and dragged away from the shores.

Walking together with a scientist and discussing the photographs afterwards would inform the way I would eventually photograph, however resistant I would be sometimes to re-photograph a view – which wasn’t necessarily the one I would have agreed to focus on in the first instance. This sparked some discussions about “the view”, what is the “best view” or interpretation of the landscape – his or mine?

Sometimes the Salisbury photographs would be left aside and I would walk without having to constantly look for his views, but find my own. Looking at Salisbury’s views in the areas around the Rothiemurchus Estate, a privately owned Highland Estate within Strathspey, northeast of the river Spey, in the Cairngorms National Park, I discovered that this landscape was very different to the one captured in Arrochar. In comparison with Arrochar where the landscape is managed by farming and water or forest related activities, the landscape in Rothiemurchus has been left to its own agency, growing, falling apart and re-generating itself. I found the landscape barely changed since Salisbury photographed it in the 1930s.

The first pairing of photographs in the series, Re-visiting – Pinus silvestris [illeg.], was key to my collaboration with Dr Mark Spencer, senior botanist from the Natural History Museum in London. This pairing was made with Mark’s collaboration. My understanding of the landscape’s ecology that Salisbury photographed 90 years previously, was enhanced by his explanation. My photograph shows more trees than Salisbury’s black and white glass plate. Dr. Mark Spencer explained that these could have been growing throughout the last ninety years surrounding the older tree seen in the center of the image. Thus showing me that in order to understand the habitat one must understand its history.

Edward James Salisbury, from 1237-1249-Aviemore. Pinus silverstris [illeg]. Plate n°1245

Chrystel Lebas, Re-visiting Pinus silvestris [illeg.] Plate n°1245, Aviemore, Rothiemurchus, October 2011. 57°8.713’ N 3°50.290’ W

And of course I couldn’t resist but to associate this following image to Salisbury’s  Plate n°1245, and for me it was really me this time conversing with Salisbury’s “views”, creating my own narrative with respect to what has happened in the landscape.

Chrystel Lebas, Re-visiting Pinus silvestris [illeg.] Plate n°1245, Aviemore, Rothiemurchus, August 2012. 57°8.691’ N 3°50.304’ W

Coming back to your question, I had a very calculated approach, at first relocating the places Salisbury had photographed, using maps and GPS coordinates I became a detective and maybe a little obsessed with the task of finding the exact “view”, but sometimes I would look at this landscape through my own eyes and record it when possible during twilight. It just happened that I often found the places to photograph at the end of the day, making it appropriate for me to record the shifting time of day, bringing a layer of uncertainty to the image. I wonder what we will find in these places in 100 years’ time?

DCB: And so from your detailed research and the various processes you have undertaken while travelling to make this work, your own artistic project has very much emerged, which both reveals a sense of history hidden in the landscape, but also interestingly – as is stated in the press release for the show – the psychological effects of the landscape. Can you elaborate on these things?

CL: I have always been interested in the fact that photography might just reveal what the eye cannot see, with long exposures for example, hence bringing another layer of understanding to the image. For this particular series it was important to take the viewer with me through these walks, these wanderings, through changing landscapes, and share the experience of looking at the places through Salisbury’s eyes and through my own. The psychological effect is very much translated through the way I photograph and the way that you, the viewer, might comprehend the image depends on your own experience of the landscape. For me it all takes me back to my own childhood spent roaming the forests in the South of France and Burgundy where I grew up, playing in the wild landscapes being scared sometimes and attracted to these intriguing spaces at the same time. Learning about the ecology through “Histoire Naturelles” at school, was a key component of my interest in the natural world. Here, of course, this psychological element is emphasised by the fact that these habitats are, have been or will be, in some way influenced by man, animal and the climate – the ecological identity of the places. There is also the physicality of the images, in the exhibition or in my publication Field Studies, printed in large scale for the viewer to be drawn into the space of the image, into the landscape’s histories, where notions of the sublime and our relationship to nature come into play.

Chrystel Lebas, Field Studies, Fw: Books, 2017

DCB: Your new monograph Field Studies: Walking Through Landscapes and Archives, is a beautiful realisation of the project in book form. What is the concept behind the book, and how did you come to produce the project in this way?

CL: It was important for me to bring together Salisbury’s archive, and my own interpretation of his research in film and photography, and also to use the key texts that I researched throughout the years. For example each group of images is accompanied by 2 extracted texts/quotes, one from Clive A. Stace’s 2014 New Flora of the British Isles, which is the botanists’ bible, which I have seen being used whilst researching at the Natural History Museum by botanists working there to be able to identify plant species in a precise and scientific way. The texts are hermetic to me and most of the time incomprehensible. And in parallel I extracted quotes and passages of texts from Salisbury’s own publications, which are written in a more poetic, reader friendly way.

Chrystel Lebas, Re-visiting Colonisation of boulder by Mosses & Oxalis acetosella.Plate n°1254, Arrochar, May 2012. 56°13.041’ N 4°44.146’ W

For example, in Re-visiting Colonisation of boulder by Mosses & Oxalis acetosella, Plate n°1254, Arrochar, May 2012, Salisbury’s text explains: ‘A common example of sleep-movements is furnished by the Wood Sorrel in which the leaflets droop down at night (Fig. 173). Such movements can also be induced by the influence of contact. Thus, if the leaflets of the Wood Sorrel are repeatedly flicked with the finger, they will after some time assume the night position (Fig. 173, N). Other kinds of Wood Sorrel which are cultivated in conservatories display these changes much more rapidly.’ In this passage Salisbury “humanizes” the plant species and bring us close to the natural world. These extracted texts are also exhibited with the photographs.

Edward James Salisbury, from box 1250-1258-Arrochar 1928. Colonisation of boulder by Mosses & Oxatis acetobetta. E.J.S/ 1928. Plate n°1254

Towards the end of the book my collection of photograms made in response to E.J. Salisbury’s publication Weeds and Aliens, explains the complexities around weeds growing in our gardens that we don’t necessarily want, and plants that were imported to embellish our gardens during the Victorian period that are preventing the native species growing. Here I have chosen to use the similar method of creating Plant Portraits in my colour darkroom, placing the plant directly on to the photographic paper and changing the colour filtration gradually to record the chromatic effect.  Here this series shows my own interpretation of a scientific recording. As Salisbury recorded in his notebooks his own experiments, I recorded mine.

Plant Portraits or Weeds & Aliens Studies, Buddleja davidii, Butterfly-bush, 0 yellow 130 magenta 0 cyan 30 secs, Photogram, 2016

Plant Portraits or Weeds & Aliens Studies, Buddleja davidii, Butterfly-bush, 100 yellow, 100 magenta, 0 cyan, 30 secs, Photogram, 2016

Then of course Nanda van den Berg, the director of Huis Marseille Photography Museum where I had the first showing of “Regarding Nature”, and for which the book was published, wanted to write an interview “Vogue style”, that would retrace my practice and its beginnings from childhood to now, something I have never done before and was a very interesting venture. From five hours of telephone conversation Nanda managed to beautifully write an essay that brings together the core of my practice as an artist. Making me realise that my past might just have influenced my practice in some ways more than I anticipated.

I also asked Dr. Mark Spencer to write an essay on the collections and the role of the archive, and especially the photographic archive in the Natural History Museum. Mark also gave an account of his own experience working in collaboration with artists, which could be an interesting or challenging task at times, and as an expert in his field of Botany he was able to give us more understanding of the role of science in understanding the environmental issues we deal with currently. Bergit Arends was the curator for the project; her essay is centered on the role of the artist and scientists working in collaboration and especially retracing the steps of the project, from the beginning, creating an interesting dialogue between art and science.

Liz Wells has known my work for a long time, writing and curating it, she is also a great figure in terms of contemporary photography that focuses on the environment and issues relating to it. Her essay brings in parallel, past bodies of work that relate to similar issues and replaces them in the context of my practice and current practices in contemporary landscape photography.

DCB: What challenges does the environment face today? And how might photography contribute to our understanding of the ecological issues we face on a planetary scale?

CL: This is an important question and one that I will be cautious in answering, and I will let Dr Mark Spencer explain as he did in his essay in Field Studies: ‘Conveying the impacts of environmental change on the living world (or ‘biodiversity’ in current parlance) to non-specialists is challenging. People find it hard to comprehend complex atmospheric processes when it comes to understanding climate change. This complexity is exacerbated in the living world; not only are biological processes highly complex, they are (compared to climatological processes relating to climate change) poorly documented and under-researched. To us biologists, this lack of knowledge is deeply concerning; the “passive green backdrop” that us humans take for granted is the very stuff of life. Environmental change effects all vegetation types, cultivated, human-impacted lands and our rapidly diminishing wildernesses, and this will have an enormous impact on our own well-being. An accessible way of imparting the importance of environmental change is via photography. One of the most regular and successful means by which scientists demonstrate climate change is by the use of photographs of ice-sheets or glaciers: an “historic” image denoting past conditions and recent photography that underlines the extent of the change.’

My work is increasingly focusing on these particular issues around the environment and how we, human beings, influence it, however sometimes it is more complex then it appears and that is why we need science to step in and demonstrate the urgencies we face. In my photography and film works I am pointing out at the issues, hopefully engaging with a wider audience to share my findings and at the same time asking questions that might just provoke a reaction or a dialogue. My photographs are accompanied with GPS coordinates so that the locations can be retraced back and observed years after my photographs and Salisbury’s were taken, hence the recording of potential change in the landscape will continue.

Born in France, Chrystel Lebas lives and works in London.  A graduate of the Royal College of Art, her photographs and films have been widely exhibited, including at Huis Marseille Museum for Photography; the Victoria and Albert Museum, London; Palais des Beaux-Arts, Brussels; Le Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature, Paris; National Media Museum, Bradford; Palais de Tokyo, Paris and Nichido Contemporary Arts, Tokyo.

Daniel C. Blight is co-editor of Loose Associations, a periodical of new writing on image culture, published by The Photographers’ Gallery; visiting tutor in Critical & Historical Studies at the Royal College of Art and lecturer in photography at the University of Brighton.

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