David Stephenson: Of Heaven and Earth

© David Stephenson ‘Melbourne, Looking East from Rialto Tower’ [detail] 2009

An artist can’t make work that is individual and original by trying to ‘guess a market’.


David Stephenson’s photographs are about very big ideas: the endless tracts of the Antarctic icecap; the vastness of the starry heavens; the spiritual grandeur of the great domes of European sacred buildings and the luminous complexity of the modern metropolis. While they are pleasing to look at, his images go far beyond the usual bounds of what we think of as beauty. They address a state of mind that, in the language of Western aesthetic ideas, is called the ‘sublime’.

The sublime is both transcendent and disturbing. It is a term that was coined by Europeans at a time when the scientific and industrial revolutions seemed to be bringing humankind complete mastery of their world. Yet, away from the city and standing, say, on an alpine peak above the cloud layer, the vastness of nature seemed overwhelming – dangerous even – both spectacular and unnerving.

David Stephenson addresses this idea in his work in a variety of ways. In the classic sense of the term we see the sublime in his image of the icy white-on-white expanses of Antarctica; images made while traveling with a group of Australian government scientists.  On an even larger scale, it is present in the patterns made by stars as they track across the heavens with the rotation of the earth below. These are patterns that hint at the ineffable scale of the universe we witness as we look up into the night sky.

However, we also sense the sublime in the deep spiritual sensibilities that drove the masons and decorators of European religious buildings; structures that seek to evoke an unseen, all-powerful deity. With their high vaulted ceilings and intricate patterns, the Romanesque and Gothic styles spanned a thousand years of European building, from the 6th to the 16th century. So strongly are they held within the European psyche that they reappeared in the 18th and 19th centuries as ‘architectural revivals’.

In his most recent work, we sense a similar foreboding in the shining spectacle of the modern metropolis. His luminous, delicately coloured images may celebrate human achievement, but they also remind us of the ecological and environmental cost of such splendour, as mountains of fossil fuel are burned to create the gigawatts of electricity need to generate all that nocturnal illumination.

Alasdair Foster

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 01-c2a9-david-stephenson-e28098the-ice-no.-1e28099.jpg
© David Stephenson ‘The Ice No. 1’ 1992


Alasdair: How did you begin in photography?

David: My older brother was interested in photography in high school, and had a small home darkroom, where I had my first exposure to photography. However, it was through a photography class while I was studying fine art at the University of Colorado that I first became introduced to the work of photographers such as Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander. Seeing Frank’s book ‘The Americans’ showed me that a photographic project could express ideas, and that stimulated my desire to become a photographic artist.

What brought you to Tasmania and how did that relocation affect your creative work?

I moved to Tasmania in 1982, when I was offered a teaching position at the University of Tasmania School of Art. I initially agreed to stay for two years of a four-year contract. In my second year, I was offered a tenured position as head of the photography studio. Probably the biggest effect that relocating to Australia had on my work was to expand my conception of the role of photography within the art world. In the US the relatively large photography scene allowed it to exist somewhat independently of other art forms – for example, there are many specialist photography galleries, magazines and publishers. Within the smaller population of Australia, photography was much more integrated into a broader art scene.

Tell me about the making of the series in Antarctica?

My early photography was mostly landscapes, which had become increasingly simplified and reductive by the late 1980s, when I was experimenting with a pinhole camera and long exposures. I was photographing ‘empty’ environments such as the horizon at the point where sea meets sky, using long exposures to smooth out detail and create minimalist images. Living in Hobart, the port for Australian voyages to Antarctica, put me in contact with scientists who had visited the earth’s southernmost continent. From their snapshots of the polar ice cap, I realised that Antarctica was one of the most minimal environments on Earth – once you get a few kilometres inland, the entire view is composed of a single substance, water, in the single form of ice. With my interest in minimalism, I just had to go there and photograph. After several attempts, I was fortunate enough to travel there twice in 1991 with the Australian Antarctic Division [a government scientific unit]. During my second voyage, I spent six weeks at a remote field station in the Larsemann Hills, and I was able to complete my series ‘The Ice’.

The leap between the minimalism of the Antarctica work and the intricacies of the European Romanesque domes is striking. How did that change in focus come about (given Tasmania is about as far from Europe as you can get)?

The Domes project also resulted from fortuitous opportunity. In 1993, I was awarded an Australia Council for the Arts studio residency in northern Italy. While travelling around the country just prior to the commencement of the residency, I visited the Pantheon in Rome, one of the greatest domed buildings in the world. I had been to the Pantheon once before, in 1984, and it had a profound impact on me. After re-visiting the building in 1993, I realised that my experience of awe in this building was related to similar emotions I experienced in environments such as Antarctica. I became committed to the idea of photographing domed buildings in Italy during the three-month residency.

Can you describe the objectives of this ‘Domes’ project?

Initially, I photographed domes only in Italy. After exhibiting this work in 1995 in Australia, in Scotland as part of Fotofeis [festival], and in New York with my dealer, Julie Saul Gallery, I became interested in extending the ‘Domes’ project to encompass the domical architecture of all of Europe. I wanted to make a book of these images. ‘Domes’ (1993–2005) and the later project ‘Vaults’ (2003–2009) investigated the capacity of a disciplined, serial approach to photography to create a typology of the ‘architecture of transcendence’. It was an approach that revealed the way these structures evolved over many centuries and architectural styles, and different geographical locations, to create a profound experience of awe for the viewer.

You have worked on the series of domes for over a dozen years and you have published a number of books of these photographs. What did you learn over that period about the architecture you photographed?

I developed a deep respect for the early architects and builders of the Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque periods, who achieved the highest levels of expression with stone and brick building technology. It often took several centuries to complete such a building, demonstrating a commitment to long-term outcomes that our contemporary society struggles to comprehend.

Was it hard to gain permission to photograph in such historic and religious spaces?

The ‘Domes’ and the ‘Vaults’ were both photographed very simply, using long exposures with natural light, captured with a medium format film camera placed directly on the floor of the building. Not using a tripod simplified obtaining permission to photograph. I steadied the camera for these long exposures by nestling it into a small beanbag cushion. Later, when I’d forgotten to pack my beanbag, I ‘refined’ this technique by using a Qantas inflight sock filled with dried rice.

The relationship between the night sky images and the artificial heavens of the domes is more recognisable. How did your experience of photographing each affect the other?

I have always had an interest in night photography, and many of my early landscape images of Tasmania were made using long exposures at night. I began the ‘Star Drawings’ series in 1995, two years after commencing the ‘Domes’ project. The two series are strongly related on a number of different levels: the experience of looking up into a sublime ‘spiritual’ space, the use of long camera exposures to reveal the previously unseen, and the intricate patterns found in the images created during both projects.

Your more recent work portrays the urban skyline at night as a glowing city of light. How did that series begin and what concerns are you exploring in this work?

I have realised increasingly that light is not only at the core of photography itself, but is a dominant symbolic and metaphoric element in many of my projects, including ‘Domes’, ‘Vaults’, and ‘Star Drawings’. ‘Light Cities’ extends this interest to reveal the glowing city at night as a potent expression of the technological sublime. Cities across the globe burn with the visual spectacle of electric light from sundown through to the early hours, revealing energy leakage into the atmosphere as light pollution, and symbolising our culture of consumption. Glowing ‘light cities’ for me are a chilling metaphor of so much that is both good and bad in our industrialised culture: extraordinary examples of the monumental technological sublime of globalised urbanisation, where awe, beauty, and human aspiration are tinged with the horror of potential environmental catastrophe; our engine of modernity burning itself up.

You have photographed a number of urban skylines around the world including New York and Tokyo. While your aesthetic renders them in a coherent visual style, did you feel there were pronounced differences between the various locations?

Actually, I have come to realise that the world is not only becoming increasing urbanised, but also increasingly globalised in the uniformity of the modern city. Although some cities in locations such as the American West or Australia have more room to sprawl horizontally, and others that are geographically constrained tend to extend more dramatically on the vertical axis, it is surprising how similar urban architecture is internationally, albeit with relatively minor regional differences.

What’s the strangest response you have had while making your photographs?

I have had some funny responses when photographing ‘Domes’ and ‘Vaults’ – when I am down on my hands and knees looking into the camera on the floor, I may have sometimes been mistaken for the most pious religious pilgrim!

What’s on the horizon?

I continue to work on photographs for the ‘Light Cities’ project and I plan to present these in future exhibitions and in a new book. I have recently photographed in Hong Kong, Bangkok and Shanghai. Besides this, I have also been working in video, both individually on time-lapse videos for the ‘Light Cities’ project, and collaboratively with my colleague, Martin Walch, on an extended project to represent the entire Derwent River system.[1]

What lessons have you learned as a photographer?

I have learned that success requires three elements in combination – talent, hard work, and luck. Luck often relates to finding the right audience or individual who is interested in your work and can help support it or find a home for it. I think the response of an audience to creative work is highly subjective and it is difficult for the artist to anticipate. An artist can’t make work that is individual and original by trying to ‘guess a market’. One has to stay true to one’s own interests and approach, and be persistent in getting the work out there … and hopefully finding those few people who are interested enough in one’s photography to help support it.

© David Stephenson ‘New Synagogue, Szeged, Hungary’ from the series ‘Domes’ 2000

[1]   A video about this project is available to view here.

Biographical Notes

David Stephenson was born in Washington, DC, in 1955, moving to Tasmania in 1982. He has a Bachelor of Art with Honours in both Fine Art and Art History from the University of Colorado and Master of Art in both Fine Art and Art History from the University of New Mexico. In 2001 he was awarded a PhD from the University of Tasmania, where he went on to become Head of Photography in the School of Art (1984–2004), subsequently holding a series of research roles (2004–2012).

While remote from the cultural centres of the northern hemisphere, his work has been widely recognised internationally. His photographs have been exhibited widely and are held in many prestigious collections including those of the National Gallery of Australia; the Library of Congress, Washington  DC; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; the Museums of Modern Art in San Francisco and New York City; and the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris. His images have been gathered into a number of prestigious books by such respected publishers as Princeton Architectural Press in New York and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon.

photo © Anne MacDonald

This article was first published in Chinese, in the July 2013 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.