Lloyd Godman: Enlightened Visions
The adjective protean hardly seems adequate to describe the force of nature that is Lloyd Godman—photographer, organic gardener, environmental activist, educator, writer and visionary. The native New Zealander has for the past several decades produced numerous bodies of work that celebrate the power and mystery of nature while questioning our collective complacency towards the planet we inhabit. Born in Dunedin, New Zealand, and now living in Melbourne, Australia, Godman applies probing intelligence and generosity of spirit to unique multiple-image panoramas, multi-media installations, and performative works that challenge and engage viewers with direct and transformative grace.
When did you begin taking photographs?
When I left school in 1967, I had a job as an electrician at a newspaper. I felt a strong gravitational pull to the photographic department, where I would use the darkrooms during my lunch breaks. The lunch breaks got longer and longer until I was banned from the floor where the darkrooms were situated. I found out 30 years later there was a real battle in the department. Some photographers saw me as a threat and were trying to keep me out, while others saw great potential and were trying to encourage me. At the time I was blind to all this and just kept taking and experimenting with photography wherever I could. In situations like this, the word “no” to me has always meant “find the back door.”
You started out taking more or less traditional landscape images; how did these morph into complex multimedia entities?
From 1976 I was exposed to a huge number of fine art books. At that time, I had a job making slides for an art school and saw the work of people like Man Ray, Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Beuys, Richard Long, Christo, Andy Goldsworthy, etc. I was also taken with the work of George Greenough, who really opened up the potentials of what a surf movie could be. If you haven’t seen Crystal Voyager, track it down. The last 13 minutes is Greenough’s work—just magic. Pink Floyd wrote the soundtrack in a swap for the film as a light show. Then, over a few decades, I kept chipping at the edges of photography in my own work until the boundaries broke down and light became the important factor. I like the idea that light feeds us: It sustains us indirectly through the food we eat and the subjects we seek as photographers. It’s a spiritual inspiration. So I began exploring the margins. But the exploration into multimedia has never meant abandoning the things that went before. I still enjoy taking traditional photographic images. They have huge elemental power and relevance. Sometimes the simplest things work best, but my visual vocabulary keeps expanding. I remember reading a book on the Tao that said do everything with love and use just enough force to achieve your aim. Four ounces is the right amount, found pounds is too much, and two ounces is not enough. So I sometimes still use a plain old camera.
Is it safe to say that you don’t recognize limits in finding new avenues of expression and uses for photography?
I have never been into popularizing and marketing a single style of work. Yes, there are still surprises and mysteries to be discovered, and I’m always enthralled by this exploration—the whole thing is a huge journey.
Body Symbols-Nude 281-10
What triggered your concern with ecological issues?
As long as I can remember, I have always looked to nature as a means to center myself. If ever there were some family conflict I would run off to the bush or the ocean. When the New Zealand government decided to build the hydro dam at Clyde and flood my favourite river, the Clutha, in 1982, I became highly motivated—I was spurred into action on a creative level as I had never been before with the series “Last Rivers Song.” Since then, ecological issues have been at the center of my work.
There’s an intriguing statement on your website: “The largest photosensitive emulsion we know of is the planet Earth. As vegetation grows, dies back, changes colour with the seasons, the “photographic image” that is our planet alters. When did this awareness dawn?
In 1996, I came to the realization that my two passions, photography and growing plants, both used the action of light. Funny it took me so long to get there when Archimedes and Aristotle made mention of both. The concept came from the work I did growing images into the leaves of Bromeliad plants. It’s easy to think about photography only in terms of representational images taken with a camera and lens. But when you take on board the idea that they are just abstractions that range from dark to light, then you can imagine yourself thousands of miles out in space looking at the Earth, and the planet becomes a continually evolving photographic emulsion, an abstract image.
What are some of the ways in which organic gardening and your art intersect?
I had cut lots of alchemic symbols from a special tape and placed them on the leaves of Bromeliads—the process was similar to a basic photogram. Because I had to expose them to the sun for about four months to create the photosynthetic images, I decided to install them in various situations and document the installations. Bromeliads are epiphytes, and for me symbolize sustainability, so I used locations like coal-burning plant rooms, elevators, etc. Then I began suspending them in galleries and used infrared-activated projectors to project light through them and create shadows on huge tissue-paper screens.
What threads link all your photographic series?
I always find some link between even the most disparate works. This often takes time, but then the things that seem displaced always reveal something I had not considered. Connections with plants, sustainability, environment and light inevitably surface.
Carbon Obscura I
Describe the motivation behind the “Carbon Obscura” series.
I was invited to do an ephemeral sculpture and was given a greenhouse to work in. I was looking for a way to darken the space and found 1,000 sheets of carbon paper for $2 in a recycle shop. It all clicked—greenhouse gases and carbon—and so I drew trees (which are the key part of global carbon-trading schemes) by pricking thousands of pinholes in the surface of the carbon paper. I added a fog generator, which was activated as viewers stepped into the space. This added another reference—we are all responsible for our own gas emissions—and it brought the rays of light to life in a seductive, kinetic manner. I found that this project gave me a greater understanding of light and the camera, even though no camera is involved in the process.
It’s like a symphony of light. Is that an intentional effect?
Yes. I had a good idea what it would look like from Line Describing a Cone—a 1973 16mm film by an artist named Anthony McCall. One seven-year-old described it as thousands of violin strings made of light, so your analogy with music is consistent. It strikes me as a very direct way of bringing the viewer and the power and beauty of light together, without the mediating presence of cameras, darkrooms, chemistry and photo paper.
There’s something very spiritual and mystical about this connection.
Despite the seriousness of the environmental issues, that has now become the over-riding aspect of the work. By creating an absence of daylight it has this incredible presence that captivates people. They go back three or even four times—the experience is never the same. One guy spent an hour in there meditating.
From this work I had a dream: I flew to the stars at the edge of the universe, and discovered they were not stars. There was a huge black wall that kept everything contained, and the bright lights I thought were stars were actually small openings that let light shine in. Looking through them, they were portals to other dimensions. That’s also what it feels like if you are inside and look through the pinholes—the world outside looks new.
Last Rivers Song-Clutha Panel VIII (detail)
The “Last Rivers Song” series is a visual response to the building of the Clyde Dam you referenced at the beginning of this interview. Yet the sweep and movement in the images (enhanced by time exposures and mural-like framing) seem to suggest that man cannot keep nature bottled up forever.
The Clyde Dam came at a huge cost to the environment, but also a big financial cost: When they built it, they discovered that it was on a fault line and that nature could undo the engineering. Then they discovered that as the dam filled with water, the steep banks could collapse, causing a catastrophic wave, so on both counts they threw more money and engineering at it. The fact that nature could reclaim the dam was always in my mind as I took the images.
I like the dark tones and turbulent energy, which speak beyond notions of aesthetic beauty to the rather awesome power of nature itself, which can manifest in both positive and negative fashion.
One critic wrote about this work that there was a scream in every drop of water.
Black and white, the sublime landscape, and a spiritual presence have been key to much of New Zealand’s art for 100 years:
“Driving one day with the family over the hills from the Taieri Mouth to the Taieri Plain, I first became aware of my own particular God....Big hills stood in front of the little hills, which rose up distantly across the plain from the flat land: there was a landscape of splendour and order and peace. I saw something logical, orderly and beautiful belonging to the land and not yet to its people. Not yet understood or communicated, not even really yet invented. My work has largely been to communicate this vision and to invent the way to see it.”
—Colin McCahon, Painter, 1966
di/VISION-Marksburg Castle, Germany
Let’s move on to the “di/VISION” series, in which perspective is fundamental. You reference how architecture interacts with natural surroundings, but as depicted in these images the interaction often seems ungainly.
This work grew from a series of sophisticated travel snaps and the need to take photographs as I travelled around various cities—apart from the fact that they appeal to me on a visual level. However, they reference the camera frame, what we place in it and what we leave out. The two images relate with a disjunctive gestalt that also holds a visual impact. As you point out, when we build structures that reach into the sky it appears that we cut ungainly holes in a heaven that was once complete, but in fact we block off the light and the holes in the fabric are actually the buildings themselves.
“Acute” is another series that speaks to how architecture and environment co-exist in an almost competitive sense.
Again, it’s an ongoing and unresolved relationship. They are such great structures, and yet they defy the right angle, which was so named because it was the perfect angle to create a building with four sides. Some of the sites came about because of difficult topography, and this was the only space left to build on. The more I look at architecture, the more fascinated I am with the concept of living walls, where the wall is covered with living plants. Acute sites site would make amazing living walls.
When Light Turns to Dust-Artifact #20
I find the “When Light Turns to Dust” series particularly intriguing. It’s described on your website as “a series of photographs created from discarded negatives where the silver image has been eroded and replaced with embedded dirt and dust.” Do you consider these found images, in which you are functioning more or less as an archaeologist bringing these abstract images to light? And have you manipulated these in any way or printed them straight?
Other than to print the works with a large black area—the negatives were placed on a 5x7 glass neg carrier, and the area outside of the negative became part of the work—there is no manipulation. As there was no silver left to see the original image, the orientation of the negative was purely on aesthetic grounds. I did feel like an archaeologist finding, cataloguing and printing the images. It related very much to the "Evidence from the Religion of Technology" series. [color photograms] The negatives were so badly disintegrated that it was difficult to work out what they were.
There is a hell of a lot of personal stuff in these images. My wife and I had lived in the same house for 28 years, we had two great kids, I had established a fantastic organic vegetable garden and orchard, built onto the house in a unique way, and had a fully tenured academic position at the art school. There seemed to be a glowing light in what I was doing. Then when I found these disintegrating negatives under the house (where they had been festering away for years) it all fell to pieces. My marriage broke up, I sold the house and garden, I gave up my position, my best friend died of a brain tumour. The light I had once known had truly turned to dust. But I have since learned that if you are open to the Tao, light is more resilient than this. Like a forest after a fierce fire, it can grow again in even more surprising and rewarding ways. I fell in love, moved to Melbourne and changed direction completely.
Aporian Emulsions-Alchemic symbol
That openness to serendipity or fate or whatever you want to call it seems fundamental to so many of your projects.
The element of chance has always been a key factor in my work. When weird things happen, let them happen—but you have to be open to them. One strange experience was when I was using alchemic symbols in the “Aporian Emulsions” work (alternative emulsions selectively painted onto a base, usually paper, in alchemic motifs). I was walking on a beach and found a book wet with rain on an old, equally wet coat. The book turned out to be printed in 1893. It was a reprint of the original text—Hermetic Arcanum [a key work of 17th century alchemy]. Ultimately, it was this book that brought Tess Edwards, my new partner and I, together. (We now live at the Baldessin Press in St. Andrews, Victoria, Australia.) Tess and I worked on a series for which I would photocopy the pages of the book onto rag paper, paint the alchemic symbol on with a Van Dyke Brown emulsion, and create a photogram image. I would then post it to Tess, who would paint into it, leaving various areas of the symbol and text exposed. As yet, we have not had the chance to show this body of work.
For one so keenly attuned to and wedded to organic processes, how do you feel about digital?
Digital is an exciting expansion of the great analog vocabulary we already have. Like many other photographers, I initially perceived it as a bit of a gimmick, and I never thought it would be able to match traditional chemical-based processes. But Photoshop allows image enhancement to a degree you can never achieve in a darkroom with an enlarger. Whereas silver salts grow in a way quite similar to the organic expanding cells of a leaf, the CCD is basically the same as a solar cell we use to generate electricity, so in that way it is green technology. However, digital technology has subverted many of the syntaxes of traditional photography that I identified with. Take the black border that denoted the whole frame, nothing but the frame, etc. Now you can pop a black border around any image in a few clicks of the mouse.
Evidence from the Religion of Technology
How do your educational activities intertwine with your photography?
There has always been a very close connection. When I was learning about traditional photography I had a great book by Duane Michaels that had a technical section in the back. He was really open and not only gave basic photographic info but an insight into how he worked. It was a great help and inspiration to me, and I have looked to use this as a model. I strongly believe in humanity that includes sharing information that one discovers rather than using it for personal power. While to some degree it demystifies the work, it offers assistance to others on a similar journey.
In 1983 I had the opportunity to establish the photographic section at the School of Art at Otago Polytechnic. The section grew into the second-largest in the school and included BFA and MFA students. The department was exciting because, like my own work, the students were encouraged to explore all meanings of photography. Unfortunately, art schools all over the world have been overrun with administrators who only create more administration for the academic staff, who then deal with the stress by fobbing off the students. The formula goes like this: double the number of students, halve the number of lecturers, triple the administration and cut the budget by a quarter. When students pay huge fees, they expect to pass, and the onus is on the lecturer to get them through rather than the student to engage in a critical manner and do the work. If you fail a student, the administration wants to know why. I hear the same story from colleagues in New Zealand, Australia, Britain, Scotland, France and the USA. The critical creative spirit gets lost in the meetings, manuals and forms of administration.
Now I teach at a much lower level where there is little administration and I can direct more energy into my own work. I now feel more honest to the students. From time to time I run landscape workshops where we go out to isolated places miles from civilization, where we camp, share experiences, and work with the natural rhythms of light from the sun and moon. We use digital and film to apply the basics, experiment with new ideas and techniques, and give critical feedback. As they leave, students ask why they can’t get this kind of instruction at art school.
The Green Room-Image 18
Ultimately, is photography for you something of a mythical process?
Yes. Landscape photography often gets painted as predictable and a bit of a yawn, but when it contains real visual intensity, it evokes an intriguing mythology. Even the mundane places we are familiar with can set the scene for events of epic proportions—all the viewer needs is imagination. There need not be a specific mythology in the work, just the feeling of a mythology; we need a different set of senses than just our head. The images that intrigue me the most are those I don’t understand.
[I profiled Godman for the March 2008 issue of Black & White. Expand your consciousness by visiting his inspiring and thought-provoking website: http://www.lloydgodman.net.]