> The evolving relationship between an artist and the landscape in the work of Chrystel Lebas

Camilla Brown / The evolving relationship between an artist and the landscape in the work of Chrystel Lebas

September 2016

Chrystel Lebas’s main and recurrent subject for her work has been nature and the landscape. In her series Abyss (2003-6), The Wait (2007), Blue Hour (2005-6) and Presence (2008) she has produced large and immersive panoramic shots in forests and wilderness. She often works at times with limited light, such as at twilight. The movement of animals and plants are recorded because of her use of long exposure times. Working in the wilds, often on her own, she and her camera have almost become part of the landscape and her large scale prints have considered notions of the sublime and our relationship to nature.

Lebas has also worked on films projected at a large scale focussing over time on the landscape, including Blue Hour (2005) and Presence-Kupa-August (2010). Interspersed within these larger series are her forays into more detailed studies. For Natural Histories (2009- 11) she made square framed images of flora and fauna in Croatia, and in Spoor (2009-11) and Animated nature (2009) she produced photograms of mummified birds and animal tracks. These works have a relationship to natural history and botanical studies and led to her most recent and ambitious new commission.

Since 2011 Lebas has been working at The Natural History Museum in London, using an unexplored collection of landscape images and field notes taken by British botanist and ecologist Sir Edward James Salisbury(1886-1978). The images record natural environments, capturing in particular botanical information in the British Isles. Lebas collaborated with Mark Spencer, curator of the British and Irish Herbarium, and Kath Castillo, biologist and botanist at the museum, to jointly trace this important collection.

Initially she began to print positives from the glass plate negatives and then visited the locations. The scientific aim of the project was to study the impact of environmental change over the ninety-year period, as seen between the original works by Salisbury and Lebas’s contemporary study. Lebas as an artist was drawn to work on this for her own reasons including an opportunity to develop themes and interests explored in earlier work. The project began by focusing on the Scottish landscape in Argyll and Bute, the Trossachs National Park and in the Cairngorms National Park. Then it extended to Blakeney Point in Norfolk where Sir E.J Salisbury observed ‘a complex and dynamic coastal landscape’. Presently she is developing work in Dartmoor National Park.

Collaborating with botanists and scientists was a new and fulfilling experience for Lebas but a process that was not without its challenges. One of the first hurdles Lebas faced was pinpointing exact locations found in the earlier photographs. Lebas’s ability to find and source plants and growth so similar to the original images is breathtaking to the point of being uncanny. It was no mean feat given the lack of specific information given in the original works. Yet Lebas talks of this process as being a mix of science and serendipity, combined with hours of field work on location. She was to use modern Global Positioning System to provide a permanent accurate record of locations, which appears in the titles of her work.

Salisbury used photography simply as a tool to record species. He had a purely instrumental approach and was using a fairly primitive form of camera, which had its limitations. Before photography, botanists had to be very talented illustrators or collaborate with good ones. Photography was to provide a more accessible way to get things recorded. However, the medium had its limits, not least because Salisbury was working with black and white photography, missing all the information a colour image would record. It is surprising how atmospheric and artisan his photographs appear from a contemporary perspective. Perhaps this is in part due to a surge of contemporary artists’ use of older cameras and techniques for artistic effect. Lebas uses technically advanced cameras and in her work we see much clearer and sharper images which provide a lot more information than Salisbury’s original, often out-of-focus, images.

With the ninety-year time span across the projects we do notice, when work is shown side by side, time itself in these images. In Re-visiting – Pinus silvestris [illeg.] – Plate n°1245 we see afforestation as nascent saplings have transformed into established trees.  Re-visiting – Loch an Eilein with Nuphar pumila & Pinus – Plate n°1239  presents views of the same lake taken by the photographers who have cropped and framed the scene quite differently and by doing so altered our view of the natural habitat we are looking at and our notions of beauty within it.

So much of our perspective on nature and the landscape is mediated through art and increasingly photography, that it is easy to forget how constructed and controlled photographs are, with just as much authorship as a painted scene. This point in fact was made as early as 1890 by P H Emerson stating “Instead of it being an easy thing to paint “a mere transcript of nature” we shall show it to be utterly impossible. No man can do this either by painting or photography, he can only give a translation, or impression, as Leonardo da Vinci said long ago; but he can give this impression truly or falsely.” This was in his book Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, at a time when it was presumed that artistic production was clearly gendered as a male domain. But the text does reveal how this debate between art and science and its intersection with photography is by no means new.

Through working on this project Lebas has learnt to identify species and types of plants and became immersed in a world of classification. She became interested – as explored in her photograms Weeds and aliens’ portraits – with the notion of defining species. Most well-known of these being the now feared Japanese knotweed which it is illegal to plant and come into contact with in the UK. Yet originally this plant was brought over as an exotic import. This shifting of meaning and classification over time has fascinated Lebas, and has become a thread of her new work.

This also touches on elements explored further in her film work, The Wandering Dunes, that questions how man-made our landscapes are. Her film work includes the voice of narrator Allen Campbell the Conservation Ranger at Culbin, who discusses the history of the Scottish landscape we see in the work. Campbell speaks about the process of dune formations which in the 1600’s threatened to subsume the local environment and would have turned the area to desert. The dunes were gradually taking over parts of the estate covering farmland and houses and so a process of afforestation began to try to prevent this. So the forests we see in the work we learn were not in fact a natural habitat of this part of the world, but imported and man-made. When viewed in the context of raging debates around the rising wave of Scottish Nationalism we start to become aware of how much our sense of national identity is linked to the rural environment. Yet nostalgia is a very subjective, and often twisted, force. With our natural environment in so much perpetual motion and change and so man-controlled we often hit moments and points where fact and fiction blur. This project enables us to reconsider what our natural habitat is and reveals how difficult it is to answer this question.

Brought together as a solo exhibition at the end of 2016 at Huis Marseille as well as a new publication, this project has enabled Lebas to spread her artistic wings. This ambitious new commission has allowed her to consider a range of key and fundamental questions around the relationship of photography and film to nature and the landscape, and as such it feels like a pivotal moment in her practice.


 – essay by Camilla Brown


For further viewing:

Recent work from Chrystel Lebas will be included in The View From Here: Landscape Photography at the National Galleries of Scotland open from 29 October 2016 –   30 April 2017

Chrystel Lebas / Regarding Nature solo exhibition at Huis Marseille, Amsterdam, will be on show 10 December 2016 – 5 March 2017


Full captions to images selected at right:

Edward James Salisbury, From box 1237-1249- Aviemore. Pinus silverstris [illeg] – Plate n°1245

Re-visiting – Pinus silvestris [illeg.] – Plate n°1245. Aviemore, Rothiemurchus, October 2011. 57°8.713’ N 3°50.290’ W. © Chrystel Lebas

Edward James Salisbury, From box 1237-1249- Aviemore. Loch an Eilein with Nuphar pumila – Plate n°1239

Re-visiting – Loch an Eilein with Nuphar pumila & Pinus – Plate n°1239. Aviemore, Rothiemurchus, August 2014. 57°8.749’ N 3°49.010’ W. © Chrystel Lebas

Edward James Salisbury, From box 1070-1079- Arrochar 1928.  Juncus tenuis & Juncus bufonius, Arrochar 1928 – Plate n°1073

Weeds and Aliens Portraits – Fallopia japonica Japanese Knotweed © Chrystel Lebas

Edward James Salisbury, From box 1237-1249- Aviemore. Culbin Sands Dunes – Plate n°1248

The Wandering Dunes – Culbin Sands, 2014 – (Stills). Four channel video installation with sound © Chrystel Lebas