Review: Landmark at Somerset House

“Nickel Tailings #34” Sudbury, Ontario, Canada
Nickel Tailings #34, Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, 1996, Edward Burtynsky

Following on from the successful Cartier-Bresson: A Question of Colour, Somerset House plays host to Landmark: The Fields of Photography, a remarkably broad survey exhibition curated by the ICP’s former director of exhibitions William A. Ewing. Where A Question of Colour looked at street photography, and refreshingly mixed up what can be quite a stale, conservative genre with a combination of the expected and unexpected, Landmark does similar things for landscape.

Occupying two galleries, packed with 130 works from across the technical span of the media, Landmark is diverse and ambitious, and yet feels remarkably tight for such a large exhibition. Partly this is down to the perennially popular device of dividing work into themed rooms. Often I find the downfall of this is that these themes feel overly arbitrary or vague, but for the most part Landmark seems to manage to avoid this, perhaps because the collections of work underneath each theme are tight and well selected.

As with A Question of Colour, there’s probably something here for people of most photographic bents. The traditional is well represented, showing both the beautiful and hideous sides of landscape. As Ewing points out in his introduction to the exhibition, landscape is a timely subject to explore given current environmental concerns, and many of the photographers on display tackle this explicitly or implicitly in their work. From Ed Burtynsky or Daniel Beltra’s photographs of landscapes brutalised by man’s relentless exploitation, to Olaf Otto Becker’s beautiful images of icebergs, the degradation of a fragile and pristine natural world is a reoccurring theme.

At the same time there are some wonderfully new and inventive takes on the concept of landscape photography, ideas which give me hope for what I must admit I always wrongly considered a rather static genre. From Raphael Dallaporta’s aerial imagery of Ozymandias like archaeological remains in vast deserts, to Dan Holdsworth’s impersonal topographic maps of landscapes, the genre has evidently moved with the times and embraced new definitions of how and why we photograph. And if the prospect of high art, intellectual photography turns you off there is also plenty of work on show which is straightforwardly enjoyable.

I could go on listing work I enjoyed but simply put there’s so much of it, you’d be better off just going and judging for yourself. I could also try and make some more sweeping generalisations about the exhibition as a whole, but it’s always a bit of an impossible task to say anything insightful about group shows, particularly when they are as large and diverse as this one. Suffice to say its an enjoyable exhibition, one which dosen’t feel as massive as it is (a rare feat) and one which probably has a little something for everyone. Also it’s free, which is always a plus.

Landmark: The Fields of Photography is on at Somerset House, London until 28th April 2013.

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