Chris Corson-Scott: Landscape Photographs 2013–2018

Caroline McQuarrie reviews the exhibition at Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery, 9 April–26 June 2022.

Under the umbrella title of Tēnei Ao Tūroa: This Enduring World, Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery treated Te Whanganui-a-Tara Wellington to three sumptuous photographic exhibitions, centred on the work of Natalie Robertson, Mark Adams, and Chris Corson-Scott. Corson-Scott’s show Landscape Photographs 2013–2018 presented twelve of his large, bright landscape photographs, alongside John Kinder photographs from the 1860s and an Alfred Sharpe painting from 1880 hung nearby.

Corson-Scott is not a project-based photographer, but builds up collections of images over time, depending on where his attention is drawn. During the years the show covers, he focused on this country’s industrial past, although there are also photographs of sites relating to photographic histories and of urban sites where housing has been a political issue. Corson-Scott is known for his use of a large-format film camera, suited to making wide, tableau-style photographs of landscapes and architectural structures. Here, he has used classic photographic tropes—of moving water smoothed out through long exposures and golden-hour light—to lure us into his large scenes. The stillness in his photographs is part of their appeal, but also helps to place their subjects firmly in the past. These are buildings taken out of time, or, at least, out of their time.

Most of the photographs don’t include people. Instead we are shown the remnants of where people were, ruins that have become monuments to the capitalist efforts of our colonial-settler forebears: a sawmill, cyanide tanks, a stamping battery, coal bins, a shipwreck, a lime kiln, and a kauri dam. These are ghosts of our industrial past. Rather than concentrating on one site, in the way Robertson and Adams have in their shows, Corson-Scott takes a broader view. Bringing these disparate sites together shows the sweeping ambition of the capitalist colonising project, showing the remote corners of the country it was worth journeying to in order to extract raw materials.

Like our colonial forebears, this show has ambition. Many threads run through it. Corson-Scott’s photographs are linked to John Kinder’s photographs of similar sites, and contemporary housing developments are placed within the flow of industrial history. Alfred Sharpe’s painting depicts a farm that had just been confiscated from Ngāti Pou, making the strongest link between the sites Corson-Scott has photographed and the violence of colonisation. While his work is often linked to industrial histories and their relationship to climate change, Sharpe’s painting makes the link between capitalism and colonisation explicit.

The Adam’s architecture has been cleverly used by Director Christina Barton to keep the three contemporary photographers’ work distinct while also connected. She positions Corson-Scott within the context of Pākehā art history on his own floor, while Robertson’s and Adams’s works on the floors above and below give even greater context. At the same time, links are made to the photographic and art-world lineage Corson-Scott sits within. In Mark Adams before Cliffs and Rockfalls, Āwhitu Peninsula, 2015, we are reminded that we are looking at a photographer’s view of the world. Corson-Scott photographed Adams gazing up at the golden cliffs that Kinder photographed in 1868, linking Adams’s work on the floor below and Kinder’s photograph of the same cliff. Putting a photographer into the photograph—or a poet in A Poet Writing before the Falls and Freezing Work, Mataura, 2016, or an artist in Wildflowers in a Housing Development, Katikati, Bay of Plenty, 2015—makes explicit the act of looking, of observing the world in a creative act. It also positions these artefacts within the art world, not just within the industrial world.

While Corson-Scott refers to documentary photographer Les Cleveland in the work Saplings Growing through the Sawmill, Kopara Village (after Cleveland), 2016, he does so as a nod to a photographic lineage, more than to similar method. Cleveland took a traditional documentary approach, positioning himself as an impartial observer of a community alongside industrial sites. Corson-Scott instead brings his world with him into the image, acknowledging his own subjectivity as a photographer.

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