Fine Art Photography as a Tool for Education & Conservation
Ian Lockwood uses traditional photographic approaches, digital media and geospatial tools to draw attention to dramatic ecological changes in the Western Ghats.
For the last several decades, I have been living in, leaving and then returning to the mountains in southern India. The geography, ecology, landscapes and cultures of South Asia crept into my consciousness at an early age, and have continued to provide the focus of my work as a photographer, writer and educator. Family ties in the region and influences from my father were significant in shaping my love for South Asia. Growing up as an American, awash in a multitude of nationalities, ethnicities and faiths, I came to identify with universal perspectives unencumbered by constricted ideologies. Interactions with natural landscapes and indigenous populations in the Western Ghats and Bengal incubated a deeper connection to the planet. My relationship with the mountains, forests and cultures, in experience, word and image has come to be a key focal point in my human journey.
An effort to balance eclectic goals of documentation, edification, conservation and aesthetics is reflected in my work. I make a living as an international educator, and teach ecological and geographic concepts that are also woven into my writing and photography. Traveling, exploring and getting to know the subcontinent intimately has been an important passion project for me. It is a vast, diverse and complex geography. Changes in ecology, land use and human pressures have been a reoccurring and often distressing reality in South Asia, during my short lifetime.
I have chosen to narrow my focus on a few regions that I have had an enduring relationship with. The landscapes that I photograph and share in publications and exhibitions are not an attempt at creating a ‘picturesque’ vision of South Asian scenes. More critical is an intention to paint a varied mosaic that facilitates fresh perspectives on the area’s landscapes, ecology and cultures. At times, it is hard to avoid the sublime in the scenery, and some of the work celebrates this aspect of the landscape. The documentation aspect of my work seeks to record landscapes and human interaction at this point in time. Aesthetically, I am interested in photography as an art form and its ability to tell a compelling story through imagery.
I believe in doing as much of the image production as possible, something that contributes to an unhurried rate of productivity. This extends beyond the production of images, to the creation of complementary text, maps, page spreads and other material that help paint a holistic image of a theme.
The iconic work of Ansel Adams, emphasising landscapes in detailed black and white was a significant influence influence on my father Merrick, who shared this approach with me. While hiking in the Palani Hills, we envisioned documenting southern India’s mountain landscape using similar approaches. In the 1980’s and 90’s, the landscapes were changing with the advent of rapid development pressure. The potential of using photography as a tool for conservation was an important aspect of the vision. We used a speed graphic 4” x 5”, and then a homemade 6 x 9cm view camera. These eventually gave way to lighter medium format cameras that were more portable. Cost factors meant that I slowly progressed from using a Yashica Mat, to a Mamiya 6, and finally a Hasselblad 503 and the Noblex 6 x 12cm panoramic camera.
Color film photography was at an advanced stage in the 1980’s, but we chose hand-printed black and white images to interpret the landscape of the Western Ghats. While in college, I assisted the campus photographer Matt Dilyard, and studied the work of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastião Salgado, Mary Ellen Mark and other notable social documentary photographers. Indian photographers such as Raghu Rai, M Y Ghorpade and T N A Perumal inspired my work. Much of my early work was shot, developed and printed using B&W film and paper. This was partly a practical response to poor color lab access and a desire to control the final prints. In using B&W, I seek to present less recognised areas in a way that elevates a message of conservation in shadow lines and nuanced silver and ebony. With the advent of digital photography in the last 20 years, I have been doing less work with film and reinterpreting the same themes and muses with this new and versatile medium. I remain interested in high levels of technical reproduction, an effective understanding of light and attention to detail that tells an authentic story.
This article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Better Photography.
The exhibition at Chennai’s Dakshinachitra entitled, The Hills of Murugan: Landscape, Ecology & Change in the Palani Hills (which will be exhibited from 6-30 July) is a compilation of nearly 30 years of documentation and 48 years of experience, exploring in the Palani Hills. The images and annotated maps highlight the theme of the changing landscape and vegetation patterns in the Palani Hills, as seen in fine art photographs and satellite imagery.Tags: Nature, better photography, Environment, exhibition, Visual Musings, Ian Lockwood, July 2018, Kodaikanal, The Hills of Murugan: Landscape, Ecology & Change in the Palani Hills