Dan Holdsworth is a British photographer who creates large-scale photographs and digital art characterised by the use of traditional techniques and unusually long exposure times, and by radical abstractions of geography.
This is one of a series of photographs from Holdsworth’s series A Machine for Living, 1999-2000, which depicts the Bluewater shopping complex at night, built on the site of a disused quarry near a major motorway junction in suburban Kent. This photograph shows exits from the motorway leading to vast empty carparks. The shopping complex itself looms in the background of the image beneath a heavy sky.
Holdsworth used long exposures at night to exploit the available light sources. This process has rendered the landscape in unnatural colours. The sky is a hazy red, as are trees in the immediate foreground, while the sparse foliage dotted around the car park is a sickly yellow. Electric lights in the car park give off an eerie, excessively bright glow. The scene is completely empty of people, and this barrenness, along with the saturated colours, conveys a sense of unease. The heightened, unnatural colours and clean, empty spaces also make the scale of the image hard to discern; the subject could almost be an architectural model complete with carefully placed miniature trees. Only the pylons on the horizon line in the distance mark the landscape as a real place.
This was a reference to the modernist architect Le Corbusier (1887-1965). In his book Towards a New Architecture, 1923, Le Corbusier famously proclaimed that ‘a house is a machine for living in’. Holdsworth’s image is an ironic comment on Le Corbusier’s utopian ideal. Bluewater looms out of the landscape not as a consumerist pleasure dome but as the dreamlike or drug-induced vision of a shopping complex that does not need shoppers. Rather than a machine where humans could live, the complex resembles a living machine. The luminous glow from the mall and its parking lots suggest a wholly self-contained, self-perpetuating environment hemmed in by the quarry’s edge.
Holdsworth has said, ‘I’m often quite interested in dislocating the image from the place. I’m not so interested in where it’s located. What I’m interested in is a psychological landscape.’ (quoted in Freak). The surreal vision of the shopping centre as an extra-terrestrial landing site or post-apocalyptic refuge is achieved with the stillness and luminosity of nocturnal time-lapse photography.
Holdsworth’s interest in ‘psychological landscape’ is also evident in his other photographic series. He has also photographed volcanic landscapes in Iceland (The World in Itself, 2001). As critic Keith Patrick has pointed out, these series represent an updating of notions of the Romantic Sublime. He has written, ‘elements of awe, vastness, individual insignificance, of trespass even, are appropriate to these … wildernesses’ (Patrick, p.71).
In his Blackout series, shot at the Sólheimajökull glacier in Iceland, Holdsworth reverses the values, transmuting positive into negative, the earthly into otherworldly. The pale sky becomes black, while the sooty mountain, naturally darkened by the ashes of nearby volcanoes, is turned into an eerie, almost translucent white. Close-up views of the landscape have a mineral quality, the surface of the ground shining as if it were made of gemstones. Barren and supernatural, these landscapes are at once hauntingly beautiful and achingly nostalgic: they speak of the romantic Sublime, but also recall NASA imagery, from the early shots of the Moon seen from space to more recent radar images of Venus.
Despite their diversity, there is a sense of coherence, succession and integrity to Holdsworth’s series. His penetrating handling of tonal textures is matched by the mystery that radiates from within. They challenge our habits of perception and presents alternative viewpoints and frames of reference. They show barren landscapes (from the monumental in scale to the micro-level of the pixel), in which the human presence is physically obliterated, implicit instead through the ideological, political or technological meanings these images produce. Holdsworth in turns renders the real surreal, transforms numerical data into familiar landscapes, then dives into this virtual world to reveal the artificial but beguiling geometries of its atomic structure.