Landscape Stories: What poetry or artist has influenced you the most? Where can the roots of your work be found?
Nicholas Hughes: It came mostly through words for me reading or listening to the likes of Seamus Heaney or Elvis Costello as well as Henry David Thoreau and Junichiro Tanizaki and their pronouncements on the virtues of quieter living. Visually Turner and Mondrian have played a part as has my free spirited friend and painter Raf Appleby, however the roots of my work were formed in the disaster of Chernobyl and the consequences of the aftermath for the mountainous regions of North Wales. My growing awareness of environmental issues and the threat posed to the natural world instilled in me a need to explore the consequences and make my own interpretations.
Landscape Stories: Are there any photographers or movements that have influenced or inspired you?
Nicholas Hughes: I engaged with the thinking of American photographer John Phal and his desire to approach truth in a more subtle manner – whereby rather than presenting straightforward scenes of destruction he chose to show the threat of for example Three Mile Island nuclear power plant bathed in glorious light.
Landscape Stories: How do your projects evolve from when you start shooting? How important is your preparatory work?
Nicholas Hughes: It is essential for me to let a sequence of images evolve from a location. This may be a consequence of a change in physical location but equally through development of the concept and constructing my mental response to an environment. It is part of the process to absorb a place over time and through seasons. Usually work made in earlier years is revisited and re-approached as a consequence of the knowledge gained.
I have my existing concerns and through observation I search for entry points that cross my philosophical stance, through experiment I seek to evolve these into new representations. The manner in which I now work relies far less on a recording of existing light and shape and is a consequence of how I enforce certain appearances upon my subject matter. With a camera and darkroom this can possibly be a longer process than for example that of a painter.
Landscape Stories: Do you have a method of working which you follow for each series, or does it vary for each different project? Please explain the themes in your artwork and your working process…
Nicholas Hughes: There is a variation around a theme within my work – essentially I am searching for visual representation of the human relationship to nature. There can be a tendency within contemporary art practice to highlight our corruption of the
environment. The difficulty is saying these things in a manner that does not turn an audience away. There are many images of destroyed habitats that
are ignored through over-saturation – it is a greater challenge for me to create a more thoughtful response through the manner in which I chose to wrestle imagery from the analogue process.
Part of my intention is to find poetic entry points that speak of a still wild nature (however minimal) and thereby offer a more optimistic outlook. Although this can still be politically charged I aim for the truth via a more circuitous route. Through engaging a more sensory response I aim to persuade of the virtues of preserving that which remains.
As a consequence the majority of my landscape work purposely seeks to exclude any signs of our existence, preferring instead to concentrate on that which resides in the psyche. There is a level of ambiguity rather than too fixed a meaning. You could say that I wish to make an impression wider than the framed image itself – something that resonates with the viewer – ideally work that will engage a level of contemplation – of silence.
I try not to constrain the parameters of my approach too far as it can restrict the potential creative outcome although when it comes to geographical territory I have deliberately restricted this to an increasingly smaller location working largely through the traditional means of large format, film and darkroom.
Landscape Stories: The use of light is a very important thing. Does the light help to create the story? Is there something special that inspires you and drives you to create a certain feeling?
Nicholas Hughes: The use of light is central to my work; often the aim is to enhance the level of contemplation. We spend much of our lives distracted or preoccupied with our daily routines to the extent that there is little time to slow down and observe the beauty within the everyday, light can draw us out of ourselves. In a similar way there are qualities within darkness that can provide the same effect – being the obvious counterbalance to light, both are necessary.
Landscape Stories: How do you approach the landscape while working on a project?
Nicholas Hughes: With respect and curiosity – and ideally living within it. In a world where every inch is already documented or satellite accessible it is important to review that which resides on our doorstep. This reviewing of my immediate surroundings examines the plasticity that can be engaged through the camera, as well as reducing my environmental impact significantly.
Progressively I have refined my approach from short distance bus travel in central London to the location for the series In Darkness Visible, to only working within my immediate location, or walking distance from my home. From there it is a continuous process of observation generally a cycle of two years in which I absorb my surroundings and establish that which resonates with my senses. My current location used for the series ‘Field’ was chosen for its remoteness in order to investigate what is left of our idea of the contemporary wilderness.
Landscape Stories: How deeply are you influenced by the surroundings and places in which you grew up?
Nicholas Hughes: As already mentioned the threat posed by Chernobyl to my native North Wales was a turning point in appreciation of the impermanency or vulnerability of my surroundings but before that the expanse of space offered by higher ground or unlimited views to the horizon via the coast has remained within. In the British Isles there are only fragments of unaltered land, reputedly most of which are in North Wales.
Landscape Stories: What about your next project?
Nicholas Hughes: At the conclusion of ‘Field’ in Verse III, I became more aware of the temporality of everything. A lengthy illness had deepened my understanding of the superfluous. As a consequence I decided to take my current interests to their logical conclusion.
Part of my study is concerned with the properties of light and dust whereby I am collecting and experimenting with material that illustrates the fine patina of our existence. I am engaging people who live in various parts of the world to help in this process without having to travel to these places myself.
In tandem I am also working on ‘Aspects of Cosmological Indifference’, which is a post apocalyptic allegory of nature’s renewal regardless of our folly. In keeping with the previous series’ one body of work informs the other.
The work is due to be shown at the Photographers’ Gallery in London and at the Nailya Alexander Gallery in New York next year.
Landscape Stories: Your photographic work reminds me somehow to the music of an English contemporary musician, Richard Skelton (A Broken Consort, Carousell,Riftmusic…). Do you know him? What is your favorite music?
Nicholas Hughes: I have not heard of Skelton but will give him a listen. Currently I am interested in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen – it is a fascination with his desire to create a world of transcendency and myth a place where there are differing values to the prevailing culture of materialism then as now. Otherwise it is hard to be specific, generally I prefer music that creates a sense of atmosphere or a powerful emotion and if I am going to be eclectic I will tune in to Radio Paradise. http://www.radioparadise.com/rp_2.php?#name=Home
Interview curated by Gianpaolo Arena