Landscape Amnesia

Artist’s statement for the show Landscape Amnesia

Jared Diamond in his book, The Collapse of Civilizations, asks the question, “what was the person thinking as he cut down the last tree on Easter Island?”. The answer is that he thought nothing, even though it meant the almost total extinction of the generation that was to follow him. He thought nothing because he couldn’t remember a time when the island was covered with trees. He had what Diamond called “Landscape Amnesia”.

The photographs in this exhibition were not inspired by that phrase. They are part of a series called “Salt Spring Island Reality” which I began long before Diamond’s book was published. However, after reading his book I realized what happened on Easter Island a couple of centuries ago could happen anywhere and that realization is what determined the selection of these pictures for the show I have called “Landscape Amnesia”.

Like most photographers who come to Salt Spring I was entranced by the beauty of the island and photographed it at every opportunity. Over time, as I explored the island, I began to realize although the myth of a quiet and beautiful island was still to be found, it was being crowded out by the requirements of development and business.

Channel Ridge, where most of these pictures were taken, is an example of this. It is also an example of the truth, that to build you first have to destroy. With luck, when finished, the housing development will be a beautiful place to live and everyone will have forgotten the destruction which took place to make the environmentally friendly community possible, just as we overlook all the destruction that takes place around world to support our consuming lifestyle.

Many photographers photograph what is disappearing, record it in the last stages of decay before it is gone forever. I prefer to photograph what is here now, confronting us every day and moving us forward but which we often avoid because of discomfort or ignore because it is so familiar we don’t recognize it as being there. The pictures in this exhibition might be unpleasant to look at. They also might be considered uninteresting since what is happening here is happening in so many places it goes on almost unnoticed. The images are not intended as symbols for everything bad that humankind is doing to the environment and they are not taken to condemn what is happening to the island. They are just real pictures showing, this is what we do, this is where we have been, this is where we are heading.

There is another aspect of these pictures which must be commented on; the theory in art that reality is subjective, that one person’s reality is so different from another’s, there is no way to depict it except through symbolism, metaphor, and very long explanations of same. It’s a theory I reject. Photography is unique in its ability to record what is in front of us without bias and it is crucial that photographers do this so we have accurate records of what we have done and where we have been. If it means taking pictures of the ordinary or the banal we must do it because the commonplace is often, when it is gone, the most interesting and maybe the most important. If there is symbolism or metaphor in my pictures it’s entirely yours, not mine.

John Denniston, April 2006

Updated: April 8, 2014 — 1:45 am