French contemporary photographer Chrystel Lebas is best known for her landscapes. Her work is typically developed over periods of months and yeas. In this extract from the Winter 2017 edition of Studies in Photography she speaks to Anne Lyden about her most extensive project to date: the five-year engagement with the Sir Edward James Salisbury Archive at the Natural History Museum, London.
First discovered as an anonymous collection in 2008, the archive consists of approximately 1400 gelatin dry plate negatives and contact prints. Through the investigative work of Lebas, it was discovered to belong to the former director of Kew Gardens, Sir Edward James Salisbury, the botanist and ecologist who, in the 1920s and 1930s had documented plant life in various locations around the British Isles. Some ninety years later, Lebas revisited the original sites and the resulting images formed the project The Sir Edward James Salisbury Archive Re-visited: observing environmental change in British landscape.
AL: How did you learn of the Salisbury Archive?
CL: Bergit Arends, who at the time was curator of contemporary art at the NHM was aware of my landscape work and wanted me to see the Archive, but it was about three years before I finally saw it in 2011. The boxes were moved down from the attic of the Museum, although at first we didn’t know whose archive it was. I spent three months of looking at the original glass plates; for me it was the first time working with a collection like that—not yet printing, just looking, creating lists, etc. When realising the nature of the collection I was at first disappointed by the fact that the collection wasn’t that orphaned, as Salisbury was the author, now I see how great it was to have located the author’s name. When I found an inscription for E J Salisbury, it became quite interesting and Dr Mark Spencer, senior botanist at NHM, got excited at the discovery. I put the idea to Mark to go back and see the environmental change; right from the start I saw potential for this.
I did a considerable amount of research before photographing; I matched up some of Salisbury’s images in October 2011 when I made my first trip to Scotland and visited the Cairngorms.
AL: Among those pairings was Pinus sylvestris, made on the Rothiemurchus Estate in the Cairngorms National Park, which you discuss in the book as a key moment in your collaboration with the NHM and the scientists based there.
CL: Yes, the first pairing of photographs was key to my collaboration with Mark. My understanding of the landscape ecology that Salisbury photographed ninety years previously was enhanced by his explanation. My photograph shows more trees than Salisbury’s black and white glass plate. Mark explained that these could have been growing throughout the last ninety years surrounding the older tree seen in the centre of the image. It showed me that in order to understand the habitat one must understand its history.
AL: This was the first of many trips to Scotland and elsewhere around the UK, but you were also continuing your research of the archive and attempting to understand its history.
CL: Yes. Kew Gardens kept all of Salisbury’s archive from his time there, so I went to visit to get more information for my questions. I spent a year searching thirty boxes containing his research, but didn’t find anything photographic—all the information was on ecology. I met with the geographer, Dr Charles Warren (Senior Lecturer at the University of St Andrews) who has written on the Scottish landscape as a manufactured landscape in his book Managing Scotland’s Environment (2009). I also interviewed and talked with park rangers and staff at the Forest Enterprise Scotland, Moray & Aberdeenshire Forest District.
AL: It strikes me that this level of research in many ways harkens back to your earlier portrait work in Poland ‘to find the right truth’ and also what you said about ‘you regain your memory from someone else’s memory’. With regard to the Salisbury Archive, what was the experience of revisiting someone else’s work?
CL: It made me understand what ecology is; maybe now I’m not walking the landscape as a wanderer, I am more aware that it has a history that has been influenced by man, animals, and climate.
The work is more than retracing Salisbury’s steps, certainly it was the beginning thread of the project, but my own artistic input was critical. I did question what my role was as an artist. I was a bit scared of losing myself, not knowing where it would take me…there is so much content, so many layers; how do you channel them visually? All this questioning was challenging. Yet very early on I had a vision of what I wanted the pictures to be. I realised that Salisbury had a range of pictures: landscape overviews, plant pictures, and close up studies organised in groups from the same location. I began to use the same strategies in order to frame the Natural World.
AL: You use two cameras for your work, a Mamiya and a panoramic camera, which in many ways replicate the format of the work found in the Archive.
CL: Yes, and I was aware that Salisbury was using a half-plate camera, which creates a restricted view, whereas Francis Wall Oliver, his friend and teacher at University College London used a panoramic camera to create topographic views showing the land. Even though Salisbury could have used modern gelatin roll films he chose glass plates—much in the way that I still choose to work with film and large format. He photographed the view first, then the close up, but I was doing this already as far back as my Croatian work, exploring this idea of inwards/outwards.
AL: However, unlike Salisbury you favour working at twilight…
CL: Twilight is transitional, literally and figuratively. Twilight brings a sense of uncertainty to the image that makes us question what we are looking at, and prompt the question: I wonder what we will find in these places in one hundred years’ time?
AL: Climate change has become a highly political subject of late—from those who deny there is such a thing to President Trump pulling out of the Paris Agreement—would you say the work itself is political?
CL: Absolutely, the photographs have a layer of political meaning—it is very important in my work. I find the complexity of the landscape and what people want from it intriguing. For example in Culbin (the Culbin Forest, Scotland) the decisions that are made in and about the landscape depend on who is at the top, in terms of power, and their ego. In the 1930s the afforestation of the sand dunes was to stop them wandering, but now they want to bring back moving dunes and it has something to do with Trump golf courses—Trump destroyed a valuable site, so now there is interest in bringing back ‘what was’ before.
Salisbury was part of an ecological group studying environmental change and the elements. There is an interest in native flora/alien flora – when does one become the other? How do you become part of the landscape? At what point are you naturalised? ‘Naturalised’ is a potent word, it means belong to the land—you are accepted, you are rooted, there are lots of analogies that make the work very political. Text is also a very important part of the work as image—the text places a scientific aspect into the work.
AL: Each work is made up of three components—the text, the reprinting from Salisbury’s original negative and then your own response to the same site. It is quite a strong conceptual arrangement, were you concerned how it would translate to the printed page of the book and the exhibition space?
CL: I knew that I wanted to take people on a journey, walk through the landscape. I had the walk in my head that defined how the exhibition would be at Huis Marseille; each room had a distinct geographic content, so as to create dialogue with different bodies of work. From my background in staging I could sense space and if something was going to work. In the exhibition there is also a film component to the work, four screen presentations of the landscape at Culbin with a voice over, Allen Campbell, Environmental manager at Culbin, narrating the story. It was the first time of showing the film that way, really challenging people’s interaction with it. We are an actor in the landscape. In the exhibition you are also a participant.
With regard to the book design, at first I was concerned with the notion of the gatefold pages—the panoramic unfolding—as I was scared people wouldn’t open up the pages. The concept almost requires more looking, but I realised that this is exactly what you do in the landscape. Stop and study, something the book does.
Annie Lyden is the International Photography Curator, Scottish National Portrait Gallery
Chrystel Lebas was born in France and currently lives and works in London. Her works are held in several private and public collections including the National Galleries of Scotland, The Victoria and Albert Museum, Bibliothèque Nationale Paris, The Collection and Usher Gallery, The Citigroup Private Bank and The Wilson Center for Photography.