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A Short Response to the Work of Sean Patrick Campbell

If only I had thought of a Kodak! I could have flashed that glimpse of the Underworld in a second, and examined it at leisure.
HG Wells, The Time Machine

Having stepped out of their time machine, the Traveller wishes they had taken their time to examine the other world they had entered into. I feel that if you too were viewing the underworld, you would want to take a photo, to examine at your leisure and try to get to grips with the sublimity of what you had just experienced.

Humanity’s need to assert our dominance over ungovernable, red-in-tooth-and-claw nature is apparent. Indeed, according to Kant, recognition of the sublime involves a rational aesthetic judgement, during which we must be aware of ourselves standing apart and above that which we say to hold “astonishment amounting almost to terror”.  Perhaps to do so, we crave demonstrating that we are capable of creating the same jaw dropping effects as terrible hurricanes or towering mountains. In a recent series of photographs by Sean Patrick Campbell, taken whilst studying in New Mexico, a crowd is pictured around a monument, celebrating the testing ground of Trinity, the first nuclear bomb. Sublimity is there, in the unprecedented event, in destruction beyond comprehension. In the photograph, we have taken a step back, with the backs of the jubilant crowds turned to us. Their dark obsession with nuclear energy is revealed; the subject of this image is not the monument, rather mankind revelling in its abilities. Oppenheimer said “I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds”, and here we see the crowd give him a standing ovation. The monolithic memorial rises above their heads, interfering with the boundless expanse of white sky, and it seems to me to be humanity, putting their hand up to show nature what they can do too.   

In another photograph, the expansive wall of what we imagine is a power station fills the image. It appears as limitless, with the world contained within it, putting humanity in the odd position of omnipotent creator. No natural phenomenon is visible here, all of that is obscured by a mighty creation of our own. However, despite the sublimity within the image, we are not overcome by the power station. The stairs appear as a clear access point. Not only to understand the image by providing a sense of scale, but more straightforwardly as a way to penetrate the physical walls of the tower.  

There are three levels on view here: first humanity’s apparent desire to create something with strength equal to mother nature, then, to build the stairs in order not to be subsumed, and finally, our desire to then photograph it. When faced with something of this insurmountable nature, it is only human to not only want to overcome it, but understand it. Taking a photograph frames our experience into a digestible format from which we can take a step back.

Samuel Delaney, uncompromising and revolutionary author of science fiction, has said of his genre that it explores worlds which, instead of being a futuristic possibility, are in fact framings of our own. Through his lens we are able to criticise the often unbearable, heteronormative, ableist and racist present. Delaney has very recently given a reading at Tramway as part of Arika’s Other Worlds Already Exist which asks ‘What present stories might help us generate different futures?’. When speaking to Sean it is clear that he similarly sees his photographs as pushing through to different worlds that are present but not realised, just as photography frames to show what is there but also compresses and omits to reveal underlying truths.

We know nuclear explosions only through photographic documentation; indeed, we see iconic images of mushroom clouds rather than the actual devastation that they caused. In many of Sean’s photos, the aftermath of a human act is similarly visible without the presence of the agent. Understanding the effects of these explosions through the framed repetition of images over the years, especially with the contemporary hyper-circulation of digital media, has standardised them and rendered the catastrophe banal. This familiarisation is perhaps an example of the position of safety, albeit in ignorance, that Kant describes, from which we are able to recognise the sublime. In Sean’s photograph many people have cameras. Why would they want to take photos of an ugly black rock? They take pleasure in the fact that far removed from the event, they can attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible. He has selected a frame through which we are shown an ugly truth- of a horrific event that we know only through sanitised representation. We take a step back and are able to rationalise the sublime through our assumed ability to assert our dominance over it. We have the dual ability to destroy worlds and to then turn our Kodak on the aftermath.

See Sean Patrick Campbell ARG portfolio.

Martha Horn edits Art Review Glasgow.

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