Dan Holdsworth’s latest photographic series ‘Forms FTP’ possesses more than a touch of the uncanny. Two images, adjacently displayed seem to denote the same landscape, yet allow your eyes to focus on the geological contours in each and a distinct difference becomes apparent. What manifests as a plunging gorge in one image becomes a craggy ridge in the other, elevations become ravines, caverns become mountainous structures.
Through the ‘Forms photographs’, Holdsworth engages with our basic optical perceptions of landscape. The ‘FTP’ of the title refers to ‘False Topographic Perception’, the scientific moniker for the convex/concave phenomena Holdsworth captures. FTP is more often associated with satellite imagery of the moon and planets. We strive to gain a better understanding of their far-flung terrains, yet our distance causes misrepresentations and misreadings to occur.
It is no coincidence that Holdsworth has identified the same anomaly through recordings of a landscape within our own world, as his extensive body of works tend to document our planet through a distinctly otherworldly lens. From the glowing, radioactive negatives of his ‘Blackout’ series to the reductive topographic casts of ‘Transmission: new remote earth views’, Holdsworth’s art is rendered of a world we feel we scientifically know; yet he presents these vistas to us in an unfamiliar fashion that lends a sense of objective detachment, leading to newly considered perspectives.
‘Forms FTP’ was aerially shot at Crater Glacier in Washington USA, a baby in geological terms that was formed after the cataclysmic eruption of Mount St. Helen’s in 1980. This glacial, transitory landscape features as a cast in the ‘Transmission’ series and echoes Holdsworth’s previous glacial series ‘Blackout’, photographed at Sólheimajökull in Iceland - a site that also unexpectedly caused eruptive chaos in 2010.
The Mount St. Helen’s volcano had previously been famed for its almost symmetrical appearance and heralded as a natural beauty spot. It has been suggested that its reputation as a tourist location and position within the US lead to a sense of Western ‘safety’ - an assumption that nothing catastrophic could occur. The unexpected eruption that followed stands as a modern example of the Kantian dynamic sublime at work, subverting our expectations even at a time when scientific understanding seems so advanced. Focusing on the topography of this primal ‘new land’ formed post eruption, Holdsworth identifies an arena of geological instability and uses it to subtly challenge our perceptions of the wider conditions of landscape.
A sense of the sublime pervades Holdsworth’s catalogue of works, his seeking out of remote locations and large-scale photographic reproductions. However, the relationship between his practice and the sublime is more complex than the Romantic 18th-century definition. Holdsworth’s works emanate a darker, more paranoid 21st-century sublime that combines the unpredictable power of nature with man’s effect upon the fine ecological balance, the awe of technological advancement and the ethics of global surveillance.
Holdsworth has described his recent works as being ‘data-driven’ - that is derived from mechanical readings of a landscape’s surface before being treated with a more subjective, artistic eye. In process ‘Forms FTP’ is no different. To record this visual phenomenon, Holdsworth had to take a ‘bird’s eye view’, or what might better be described as a ‘machine’s eye view’, scanning the land below in a manner echoing that of aerial surveillance by drone technologies and Google Earth - the latter in particular a tool that has dramatically changed our interaction and understanding of even the most remote of landscapes. It seems nowhere is truly ‘off the grid’ any more.
An objective approach is reflected in the precise presentation of the ‘Forms’ images, so close-cropped that we are denied a sense of wider geographical context. On one hand this allows for an uncluttered and systematic examination the FTP optical illusion. Yet at the same time, this lack of further visual information allows for more subjective and interpretive thought. We are told that the landforms are located in Washington, but the squeezing, plunging contours could easily be from some distant planet or moon.
Holdsworth’s position therefore is somewhere between artist, cartographer and observational scientist. He has spoken of the earliest mappings of the American West as an influence upon his recent works, in particular the collaboration between early landscape photographers such as Carleton Watkins and scientists to map the vast Western frontier. This crossing of disciplinary fields is reflected in the ambiguous title ‘Forms’, a word that is at once sculptural, art historical and scientific.
The sculptural quality and inherent beauty, not only of a vast and rugged landscape but also of a high definition photograph, is clear within ‘Forms FTP’. We are drawn to the immense clarity of the images, that allow for the smallest grains of dust and dirt to be visible. The multi-layered textures and metamorphic forms of the glacier seem to rise and sink from the photo surface, lending them a sense of physicality despite their trappings within a two-dimensional medium.
Trying to decipher which out of the two specimens displayed is the ‘true’ landscape and which the inverted is almost impossible. Both appear plausible options in a landscape that is in such a transformative state of flux.
In ‘Forms FTP’, Holdsworth presents us with parallel worlds - one a reality, the other a window onto a manipulated realm. The two resonate together to conjure questions about our consumption of landscape by virtual means rather than physical experience. In an age of rapid technological advancement, with such a proliferation of visual information available, it seems that we have a greater understanding of our world than ever before, yet through a simple manipulation, like the covert switch of a Victorian illusionist, Holdsworth offers an alternative means of reading the lay of the land, and opens up the discourse of a new frontier - where documented reality converges with virtual construction and digital manipulation.