Catherine Nelson: Distilling the Essence of Landscape

© Catherine Nelson ‘Gully’ [detail] 2014 from the series ‘Expedition’

Our planet is under threat; its future is uncertain.


In folk stories of old, landscapes were conceived as having a character; they were alive and dynamic. The woodsman knew the forest, the farmer the field and the wise woman the property of the herbs that grew in the hedgerows. At night the landscape was perceived to be filled with spirits and forces beyond the realm of reason: a magical place to be respected. Such romantic ideas have been brushed aside by the hard-edged mentality of the marketplace. Today, land is property to be exploited. But what have we given up in our rush to adopt this new commercial view of the landscapes we inhabit? Is this attitude a sign of maturity or simply myopia?

Visual poetry, nature photography and digital design come together in Catherine Nelson’s transcendent landscapes, which capture something of the complex understanding that once we knew. Each natural environment is dramatically transformed – some become a perfect globe floating serenely in the heavens, others wrap around the field of view like an embrace. The images are rich with detail yet retain coherence and charm. They lovingly capture the essence of place as a complex ecological story. The result is a contemporary pictorial mythography that subtly reminds the viewer of a profound truth: that it is in the flourishing variety of the local that the fate of the world resides.

Alasdair Foster

© Catherine Nelson ‘Ballybetagh Wood’ 2008 from the series ‘Imaginary Landscapes’


The works for which you are now best known are highly complex in their construction. How did you begin working in this way?

I was walking around a nature reserve outside of Gent in Belgium (where I was then living) and thinking about the artist Pieter Bruegel [1525–1569] and the way he managed to combine many moments in the same image. I wanted to do the same.

How did you manage that technical challenge?

I spent thirteen years in the film industry creating visual effects for everything from blockbusters to low-budget art-house movies. The film industry is driven by the search for solutions and new ways of doing things. I think this approach has carried over into my personal work: the idea that there is always a way to get the result I want; I just have to find it.

© Catherine Nelson ‘Bourgoyen Spring’ 2010 from the series ‘Future Memories’

The next four series all took the sphere as their defining shape. Why did you choose this form?

I did not think about them as spheres until after I started creating them. For the composite images to work seamlessly, I had to force the perspective. The central parts are closer to the viewer and the circular format, with its continuous horizon line, evolved organically. But, as I made the images, I began to change the way I looked at them. The sphere, of course, had an association with the earth. Our planet is under threat; its future is uncertain.

So there is an ecological aspect to this work?

Yes. We all know climate change is real. The only doubt seems to be over when we will reach the point of no return. I think, these days, it is hard to look at any landscape photograph and not have, at least in the back of your mind, an awareness that nature is under threat; that it may soon be a thing of the past. So ‘Future Memories’ seemed an apt way to describe this series.

You seem to travel a lot to make your images.

I was lucky that my job in the film industry enabled me travel. I had a kind of nomadic life for many years. With the next series, I began travelling again – China… Korea… USA – other places, other worlds.

This series marked a return to my original motivation to create engaging landscapes. I wanted to take the best bits of my experience of a place and combining them into a new landscape of experience. People often found the work unreal, as though these places did not exist. That too informed the sense that these were ‘Other Worlds’. But of course, these places do exist.

How are these images are made?

Piece by piece. The shoot itself can be quite quick: an afternoon, for example. I take photographs at all angles and distances, building a library of elements from which to construct the work. Back home, I sort through the images and start creating pictorial elements; these can be anything from a single bird to a whole tree.

I usually start by creating the sky. This sets the mood for the picture and gives it a time of day. Then I create the edge and work my way inwards. For the first week everything in the picture is moving around until, eventually, something begins to emerge that has the kind of harmony and balance that I want. There are hundreds of photographic elements in each work, cut-and-pasted together digitally.

What response have you had to your work?

Overwhelming! I had expected to be working away in my studio almost invisibly for years before I would receive an invitation to exhibit or secure gallery representation. I understood from the start there was no guarantee of success. Nevertheless, before I had even made half-a-dozen images, my work was included in an Australian regional art museum exhibition and then, a few months later, I had a solo show at the Australian Centre for Photography. This led to showings in China and Korea… By the end of the first year I had gallery representation in Sydney, Melbourne, Paris and Beijing!

In October 2012, my work was presented on a blog called This Is Colossal. Almost immediately my inbox was overflowing – it was a tsunami of interest. In that one month I had almost one million hits on my website and emails from all over the world: from advertising agencies in Los Angeles to Italian sci-fi blogs to Russian magazines and German clothing designers…

What is a nuit américaine, and what are you exploring in this series?

Nuit Américaine is a cinematic technique (also known as ‘day-for-night’) in which night scenes are shot in daylight, using filters to create the nocturnal effect. That is how I created this work. The images were all made in daylight and later graded to create the illusion of night or to give it an ambiguous sense of time.

How did the Danube work come about?

My partner saw some online images of the Danube delta in Romania and forwarded them to me. Within a month we had booked our flights and we spent five days on the delta on a small boat with a local guide. I was attracted to the area for many reasons. I had never been to Romania. In the 1970s and 1980s the delta had been dredged to extend farming land, but in the last twenty years, the area has been reclaimed, returning to its natural state. I felt that the delta provided enormous possibilities for me to create new work.

© Catherine Nelson ‘Gully’ 2014 from the series ‘Expedition’

Your next series, ‘Expedition’, takes a different but related form: the image wraps around the frame rather than forming a sphere within it. What prompted this change?

I felt that I had taken the spherical works as far as I could and this new series began with the idea of thinking about landscape from a different visual perspective. Instead of looking down (from the heavens), the viewer is looking up immersed in the landscape.

All the works have multiple vanishing points. In ‘Pond’, for example, on the left the viewer looks through the bush and out to sea. In the middle, the viewer looks down into the reflection in the pond of the sky which is on the right of the image as the viewer looks up through the trees. The viewer is kind of everywhere.

© Catherine Nelson ‘Pond’ 2014 from the series ‘Expedition’

The work also seems to have more of a narrative – to be more than landscape.

This is really nostalgic work for me, as it describes the Australian environment in which I grew up. I have been living in Europe for almost fifteen years and, I think, for this reason I was drawn strongly to creating work about the place from which I came: Sydney.

Sydney has a lot of nature areas and as a child I was always outdoors exploring my surroundings. So this work is really about memory. I was not interested in capturing the landscape as it is, but rather as I remembered it; its immensity.

Who does the figure represent in your narrative?

The boy is me.

When I was very young – I think about seven or eight – I went climbing around the foreshore of Sydney harbour with my neighbour who was two years older than me. We ended up over five kilometres from home, which is a long way for two small children. But it was a huge adventure and I have never forgotten it.

Last year, I walked that same track and I was struck by how similar it was to that depicted in ‘Expedition’: lush shaded bush leading down to the sea. That childhood adventure had affected me profoundly; it was locked in my memory and reproduced in this series of work.

Your most recent series travels underwater. Tell me about the genesis of this work.

For a couple of years I had heard of a place in the Netherlands where one can explore under the water, beneath the lilies. Somehow I never got there, but it gave me an idea. Everything I do starts out as an experiment. I was attracted to the plant’s aquatic stems; I wanted to turn them into some kind of super-form.

Why do you call this series ‘Unstill Life’?

The title is a reference to the Dutch still-life painting of the seventeenth century – something I looked at a lot while living in Amsterdam: soft shadows, dark backgrounds. The result is an old look given to a new vision; each image is a variation on that theme.

Do you think that being a woman brings any particular sensibilities to the work of an artist?

Generalisations are always generalisations but, if you simply look at it from a biological viewpoint, it has been demonstrated that women are better at discerning shades of colour. I think that is reflected in the kind of work I see produced by male and female artists. A lot of male photographers tend to steer away from too much colour and their work inclines to be more conceptual. For me, colour is a huge part of my work and something I am naturally drawn to explore. But these are generalisations and this does not exclude male artists from having a more colourful approach to their work and women a more conceptual one.

Is it easy for women to become a photographer in Western Europe?

Spending so much time in the Netherlands, I am struck by the attitude to women and how they are, without question, regarded as having an equal capacity to contribute to society as men. To regard them in any other way would be considered primitive. Having said that, if you look at the statistics of the number of solo shows by male and female artists at major museums, or how many female artists compared to male artists have work in their permanent collections, it is clear that we are far from parity.

What is the most significant thing you have learned making this work and sending it out into the world?

I have learnt how better to control how it gets out there. I am learning to call my own shots; set my own deadlines; take control more.

Biographical Notes

Catherine Nelson was born in Sydney in 1970. She trained as a painter and has a background in digital cinema post-production. Before moving back into the field of fine art she worked on many acclaimed films including ‘Moulin Rouge’ (Baz Luhrmann, 2001), ‘Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban’ (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004), ‘300’ (Zack Snyder, 2006) and ‘Australia’ (Baz Luhrmann, 2008).

Catherine was named one of Australia’s Next Generation Leaders by The Australian newspaper. She has won numerous prizes and was named Photographer of the Year at the 2013 American Aperture Awards. Her images have been exhibited extensively in Europe, Oceania, Asia and North America. At the time of interviewing, she lived and worked between Belgium and the Netherlands, but now resides in France.

This article was first published in Chinese, in the November 2015 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was Women Photographers. First published in English at Talking Pictures September 2020.

Catherine Nelson completed a new series ‘Future Memories 2020’, which revisits concepts from the body of work, also called ‘Future Memories’, she made ten years earlier. The new series can be seen here.