Chris Corson-Scott’s photographs are lyrical yet sparse ruminations on New Zealand’s history and current climate. They are interior and exterior ‘scapes’ that note the intersection between the landscape and human activity, fusing personal connection (when people appear in his works they are friends) with the weight of place. He cites the nineteenth-century work of John Kinder and Alfred Sharpe as an influence – both share detailed observations of the land and concern for the environment without sentimentality.
Landscape is a central trope that threads through New Zealand art history and reflects the importance of land: economically, spiritually and as a site of conflict. During the colonial period European settlers imposed their vision on the land: it was deforested, fenced and urbanised. Concurrently artists painted New Zealand’s landscape through the nostalgic lens of the art and light of Europe, in works that at times included Māori. Bush was tamed, thinned and enveloped in a romantic haze. Art mirrored life as the settlers sought to remake the landscape to match the Europe they had left. Throughout the twentieth century, the landscape continued to be subjected to the vision of artists as they sliced and reinterpreted it to fit their views. The current iteration is contained in advertising – 100% pure New Zealand, the mythical and unspoiled utopia.
By contrast, when considered within the lineage of the landscape, Chris’s photographs operate to reveal imposition on the land, and the social and economic issues that have occurred since European settlement. Aesthetically, the land remains intact. With its fundamentally realist characteristics, the medium of photography ensures that these works are true to the physical essence of place, as seen in the texture of wood, smoothness of the ocean and palette of the sky. Chris’s viewpoint comes through the carefully chosen subjects, revealing historical progression from colonialisation, industrial development and the current neo-liberal epoch. A shipwreck on a beach alludes to European settlement; deserted and decaying hop-kilns and freezing works rot in small towns left vacant by the collapse of industry; and at the fringes of the city, urban sprawl encroaches on nature. The presence or absence of artists in their studios is also a recurring theme: emblematic of carving a way of life separate from the mainstream, and currently under threat due to the acceleration of property prices.
The cultural theorist Roland Barthes wrote of the ‘punctum’ in a photograph, which could be a small detail or a component: that element which ‘rises from the scene’, that accident that ‘pricks’ and ‘bruises’ me. For me, the punctum in Chris’s photographs is in the absence and stillness that he photographs: sitting between the realism of the landscape and the social concern of his work. It envelops and slows, containing the force of history and the present, which is where we, as onlookers, linger.
This essay was published as part of 'The Devil's Blind Spot: Recent strategies in New Zealand Photography', Christchurch Art Gallery, December 2016