‘Nature, always simple, employs but four materials in the composition of her scenes, ground, wood, water, and rocks.’ So remarked English politician and writer Thomas Whately, in his 1770 book Observations on Modern Gardening. It’s a simple statement, but it sets out a complex problem. For the eighteenth-century observer, nature was something of a contradiction, referring both to a wild and intractable external world, and to an ideal, unknowable other. Organising ground, wood, water and rocks into the recognisable form of a landscape scene – subjecting nature to the order of representation – was a way of resolving this enigma.
Knowing what we know today of humanity’s collective impact on climate and planetary ecosystems, the idea of nature as an unrepresentable other feels a bit naïve. Western philosophy has long since done away with the category of nature as something separate from humanity, and modern science has erased much of its mystery. When the term is evoked in the present it’s often done so with a measure of irony, and the tacit understanding that nature is a concept and a vehicle for ideology rather than something tangible.
Abstraction is an important part of the language of 12 Hz, and it brings to mind the classicism of photographers like Minor White or Harry Callahan – an austere and slightly distanced beauty that might be perceived as apolitical.
However, there remain aspects of our world that perception can’t reach, and it’s these qualities that Ron Jude’s 12 Hz sets out to describe. The title refers to the lowest frequency of sound that’s audible to human ears, and Jude has used it here to allude to the murmur of geological activity that goes on around us on a scale too gradual and remote for us to apprehend: ‘The deep time movement that we don’t have any perceptive awareness of, how do you imply or suggest that through an image? And the kind of movement that we can perceive, how do you slow that down so that you see it in its basic elements?’ These basic elements – ground, wood, water and rocks – are the sole subject of 12 Hz: lava formations, boulders, sinkholes and rifts in the earth, boiling seascapes, glacial ice and dense entanglements of vegetation. Formal similarities between the photographs hint at more substantial material affinities: slow-moving rivers of glacial ice resemble water churned up into waves; waves loom as high as mountains. And almost all of the photographs are dark – the thick darkness of the depths of the earth, a primordial darkness that the eye struggles to penetrate.
12 Hz represents a significant departure for Jude. Much of his earlier work dealt with memory and personal narratives, but in 2015, following the completion of a cycle of three books – Emmet, Lick Creek Line, and Lago – he began exploring a new way of working. After years of photographing in colour, Jude shot 12 Hz entirely in black-and-white. Landscape, which had been the subtext of many of his previous publications, became the primary subject: ‘I wanted to see if I could photograph landscape without any human intrusion, or ironies, or any kind of juxtapositions. … Was it possible for me to make pictures of an uninterrupted landscape that still had a kind of tension to it, and a kind of psychological weight, without it being idealised and sentimentalised?’
In fact, few of the photographs in 12 Hz conform to the typical structure of landscape, and they foreground Jude’s skill as a photographer in a way that his earlier work doesn’t. In comparison to the looser – at times, almost snapshot – style of the photographs in Lago, for instance, these are complex, formal pictures. Envisioned as single images rather than as parts of a more extended narrative, many of the photographs push the limits of legibility. It’s not always easy to get a sense of scale, or of exactly what it is that you’re looking at. ‘Abstraction in photography is something I’ve always railed against. It always seemed beside the point, to me, in terms of what I thought was important about the medium and its descriptive powers, and what that yielded.’ But abstraction is an important part of the language of 12 Hz, and it brings to mind the classicism of photographers like Minor White or Harry Callahan – an austere and slightly distanced beauty that might be perceived as apolitical.
For some, 12 Hz will be nothing more than a book of outstandingly beautiful photographs. For others, it will prompt deeper reflection on how photography might contribute to the meaningful representation of our present reality.
Though he’s accustomed to working with film, Jude shot all of the photographs in 12 Hz on a digital medium format camera. The subject of technology is an awkward one that photographic artists often prefer not to discuss, but changing cameras can transform the way you work. The digital sensor registers light levels below the limits of the human eye and most analog film stock. It allowed Jude to work in near-darkness deep inside lava tubes, to freeze the turbulent motion of water, and to capture an extraordinary level of detail. Every tiny variation in surface, every nuance of tone and shadow is registered in these images. The eye that’s at work here seems more than human, and at times there is an uncanny sense that what we’re looking at is an exchange between a machine and a wholly autonomous external world. ‘I thought it would be interesting to look at this thing that is almost indifferent to us, and to some degree diminish the arrogance that we bring to looking at the landscape: that it’s our dominion, and that everything revolves around us. The earth was here long before us, and it’ll be here long after us.’ Even Jude’s photographs of trees look less like organic matter and more like something petrified, still and dark.
Although he’s seeking to represent the edges of human experience, Jude stops short of calling this category ‘nature’. The same is true of Paul Kingsnorth’s short text accompanying the work: beneath the mantle of human life, he writes, there is only Rock – not humanity’s opposite, but its substrate. Whatever we choose to call it, this limit still has an important part to play in political discourse. The idea that the earth will persist beyond the superficial damage inflicted by humanity, is for some a deeply melancholy prospect, and for others a source of tremendous reassurance.
In conversation, Jude is slightly apologetic about the fact that the work isn’t more obviously engaged with environmental issues. But this turn to abstraction – and the consequent tension in the way that we encounter his photographs – is ultimately where the work is most evocative, and potentially most effective. There’s a palpable sense of turmoil in many of the images: of things being violently torn apart; of pyroclastic flows, of melting ice and deluge. This impression of crisis could be seen as a metaphor for the damage that we are inflicting on the planet, but the decision to read it this way is a signal of our own political leanings, and not something inherent in the images themselves.
Critic Ingrid Sischy once wrote that ‘beauty is a call to admiration, not to action.’ But partitioning the experience of photography into selfish enjoyment or enlightened sensibility is to advocate for propaganda at the expense of more complex responses. Landscape, in its broadest sense, has always been a means of transforming and bringing order to the world around us. As such, it is always political. For some, 12 Hz will be nothing more than a book of outstandingly beautiful photographs. For others, it will prompt deeper reflection on how photography might contribute to the meaningful representation of our present reality.