Throughout his career, photographer David Stephenson has been drawn to sacred spaces, whether they are sites of religious worship or landscapes that cultivate a sense of the sublime. Stephenson’s affinity with the American New Topographic movement in the 1970s precipitated his fascination with the tradition of landscape photography. Pursuing new ways to represent the land outside the aesthetic strictures of the documentary approach, Stephenson’s work is, according to Australian writer Daniel Palmer, ‘imbued with romantic sensibility’ 1 and confronts philosophical concepts such as the infinite and the unknown with a minimalist sensibility and poetic acuity.
His series of pinhole photographs from 1989 are images of seascapes that tip into abstraction. Recognizable topographic features disperse, leaving only the faint suggestion of the landscape. Pinhole photography relinquishes some of the control afforded by the analogue camera. Stephenson’s ‘Untitled pinhole photograph No. 46/1’ and ‘Untitled pinhole photograph No. 49/3’ expose the unpredictability of this technique in the abrasions around the edges of each photograph that make the image appear as if it were disintegrating. These photographs were produced using protracted exposure times and the blurred forms that result from the motion of the sea make the monochrome scene ephemeral and indistinct. The lead coated timber frames, an integral component of each work, compliment the muted, charcoal-like tones of these photographs.
Stephenson’s 1990 cloudscapes serve as an oblique homage to American photographer Alfred Stieglitz’s 1922-1935 series of cloud photographs, ‘Equivalents’, that often excluded identifiable reference points like the horizon line. The clouds in Stephenson’s images become studies of luminous abstract forms. Pockets of light submerged in darkness, these nebulous clouds eschew legibility and evoke allusions to the transcendent and the sublime.
1. Palmer, D. ‘David Stephenson’. In ‘Twelve Australian Photo Artists’ (ed. B French & D Palmer) 168-183. Sydney: Piper Press. 2009 p169