PHO703: The Sublime

I have been looking at Simon Morley’s The Sublime (Morley 2010). This is relevant to my practice first because the uncanny (an important element in night photography) can be seen as an aspect of the sublime, and second because there is the sublime around in Oxford – some big views and vistas of the Thames, streets and squares full of large medieval buildings in seemingly perfect arrangements, and slightly sinister and uncanny areas when darkness falls.

Morley begins by laying down a baseline definition of the sublime:

‘The essential claim of the sublime is that man can, in feeling and speech, transcend the human. What, if anything, likes beyond the human – God or gods, the daemon or Nature – is a matter for great disagreement. Thomas Weiskel, The Romantic Sublime: Studies in the Structure and Psychology of Transcendence 1976′ (Morley 2010: 12).

Morley suggests that the sublime experience is the moment reason and certainties crumble. ‘The sublime experience is fundamentally transformative. … Something rushes in and we are profoundly altered’ (Morley 2010: 12). Morley’s divides the sublime into four different kinds, each one stemming from the ideas of Longinus, Burke, Kant or Schiller. This is not the place to engage in a long intellectual discussion, but the essential point I am trying to take away from this is that the sublime is an experience and it always involves coming up against limits – the limits of nature or self, beyond which lies the unknown. Reaching these limits is unsettling and the unknown beyond them may evoke feelings that range from awestruck to terrifying.

The question, however, is what these ideas mean in practice and how may they affect me photographically. It is not hard to find the sublime in the history of art, in for example the awe and exultation often associated with the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich or in the mighty new industrial age of Lang’s Metropolis. Or, of course, in much of the landscape photography of Ansel Adams in which the Rückenfigur is first the photographer and then the viewer.

Photographically, there are many ways of expressing these ideas today. The sublime of the photographic seascapes of Hiroshi Sugimoto can be compared to the paintings of Mark Rothko and both can be compared to the paintings of Barnett Newman who announced in 1948 that the ‘Sublime is Now … We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted, for a concern with our relationship to the absolute emotions’ (Morley 2010: 25-7).

While for another project I would love to produce something akin to Sugimoto’s seascapes, my walks along the Thames on summer evenings this year have produced something quite different. I have felt a more Burkean sublime, an experience, based in nature and shot through with pastoral and melancholy. Oxford is much about preserving the past – one thinks of Lewis Carroll or Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat – but of course that past is gone and the truth is that much of it was always a sentimental fiction. All I can do is photograph what I see before me and try to bring out something of its complex mixture of sublime, pastoral, elegiac, modern and sometimes disturbing.

Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020.
Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford’s more Burkean, pastoral, melancholic flavour of the sublime: an old and sometimes grand city gently subsiding. From Silent City.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2020.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2020. Oxford’s more Burkean, pastoral, melancholic flavour of the sublime. Three Men in a Boat? The reality is more likely an offer of illegal substances from shadows on the towpath. From Silent City.

Two aspects of the sublime easier for me to express are the uncanny and the modern sublime of the contemporary world of bright lights, grands projets, huge structures and high technology, a world all about power.

The uncanny is that unsettling feeling of uncertainty or ambiguity that can arise when we come up against a kind of limit and perhaps long-forgotten childhood memories surface and are re-experienced through now-adult eyes. The modern locus of this is Freud (Freud et al. 2003) and sometimes the surrealists and I covered it in the previous module.

Fig. 11: Mark Crean 2020. Silent City.
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2020. Elements of the uncanny, harking back to the theories of Freud and photographically to the practice of photographers such as Brandt and Brassaï. From Silent City.

The modern sublime is something all around us, at a time when the valuation of Apple Corp is greater than the GDP of Russia. It is in William Klein’s Atom Bomb Sky, New York of 1955 or Nadav Kander’s images of vast new building projects along the Yangtze in China (Kander 2010). Oxford has little of this, being mostly an old and suburban place. There are one or two views of exalted and powerful places and I covered some of them this summer (see figures 3 and 4).

Fig . 2: Mark Crean 2020. From Silent City.
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford. From Silent City.
Fig. 8: Mark Crean 2020. Silent City.
Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2020. The power of modernity contrasted with the prison-like conditions of its reality. From Silent City.

The sublime is a very interesting story and is definitely something I need to study more and bring into my images. It offers another source of tension and ambiguity, and I need that in my images – the tension, for example, between what the modern world promises and the sometimes dispiriting and exploitative results the modern world can produce. That too is part of the story.

References

FREUD, Sigmund, David MCLINTOCK and Hugh HAUGHTON. 2003. The Uncanny. New York : Penguin.

KANDER, Nadav. 2010. Yangtze, The Long River. Berlin: Hatje Cantz.

MORLEY, Simon. 2010. The Sublime. London: Whitechapel Gallery.

Figures

Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2020. Oxford’s more Burkean, pastoral, melancholic flavour of the sublime: an old and sometimes grand city gently subsiding. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 2. Mark CREAN. 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford.  From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 3. Mark CREAN. 2020. Elements of the uncanny, harking back to the theories of Freud and photographically to the practice of photographers such as Brandt and Brassaï. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. The modern sublime in big views, big skies and bright lights at Folly Bridge, Oxford. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.
Figure 4. Mark CREAN. 2020. The power of modernity contrasted with the prison-like conditions of its reality. From: Silent City. Collection of the author.