Dynamic Movement

Sara Rawlinson is a multi-award-winning fine art photographer based near London. Her work as a former seismologist informs and inspires her art, and often incorporates tectonic forces and the natural world. Her current series uses abstract geophotography and addresses the inherent noir dishevelment of climate change via sea level rise and flooding.

Rawlinson’s work has been  displayed throughout Europe and Australia. Recent events included a large solo exhibition at Montsalvat, Melbourne in April. 

A: In Issue 118 of Aesthetica, we feature #15 (Amalfi) from your new series The Deceit of Water. How does this piece series help you to express the “inherent noir dishevelment of sea level rise and climate change: subtly luscious and dangerously timely”?
SR: I have an affliction/disorder/superpower called Aphantasia, which is defined as the inability to visualise in my mind: I literally cannot conjure up mental imagery – my mind’s eye is basically blank. As with so many things, Aphantasia is a sliding scale. I don’t see blackness like a 100% Aphantasic, but instead when I close my eyes and try to visualise or remember something, I see blurry blobs of colour.

For example, if you asked me to visualise a girl in a red dress standing at the top of a staircase holding a balloon, my mind’s eye sees receding stripes (stairs) with a blurry edged red triangle (her dress) beneath a coloured blob (balloon). In theory, of course I know what questions to ask: the carpet will have texture, the wall will be coloured, her dress might have ribbons or buttons or a pattern, the railing is probably wooden, the girl has legs and shoes below her dress, etc. But those details are irrelevant. Whether I like it or not, my mind’s eye is content with the blurry concept of these shapes and nothing more.

Due to Aphantasia and just “recording” what I see, the images usually have a high degree of dishevelment, upheaval and disorientation, and are often on the darker or desaturated side of the lightness spectrum. That coupled with the subtlety and layering of meaning of the impending chaos of sea level rise, elucidates the phrase: “inherent noir dishevelment of sea level rise”. The “dangerously timely” aspect refers to the present state of sea level rise and climate change, and my understanding of it due to my decade in academic Earth science.

A: Why “subtly luscious”? What made you choose these words?
SR: I like to work with subtlety, but find that many viewers don’t look long enough to notice the subtle aspects I work so hard to include. Thus this series The Deceit of Water shows the subtlety in a different way with colour blocking changes or punctuating linear features. I hope the viewers pause long enough to notice the many aspects that are layered/hidden within the images – famous buildings or humans, and the crossing and threading of the landscape creating meaningful shapes within the image.

The luscious aspect arises from the curvaceous nature of the lines – the mingling of landscape’s limbs. In some ways, the phrase “subtly luscious” is a reflection of my motivation behind using camera painting to recreate the landscape in a curvaceous, sensual nature whilst retaining layered meaning.

A: What techniques did you use in this piece, and did you apply the same or similar techniques to the other pieces within the series?
SR: I use a technique called intentional camera movement but I like to refer to it as “camera painting” or even “camera dancing”. The basic idea is that I’m trying to trace the landscape/cityscape in front of me by literally mimicking it with my camera. I slow down the shutter speed and literally drag the camera around in large circles, vertical motions, horizontal drag or tracing the mountain peaks, etc.

So for example with The Deceit of Water #15, I was taking the last rays of the setting sun, and literally dragging them up the cliffside. This has the effect of the sea being washed up on the shore, looking like erosion and flooding of the cliff with the heat of the sun being a primary antagonist. A hint of the boardwalk is in the lower left corner, reminding us of humanity’s complicity in environmental change.

Overall it’s a very dynamic way to make a photograph. People often look at me strangely, and I’ve even had people offer advice on how to hold the camera steady, which I find even more comical because my other “hat” is working as an award-winning architectural photographer where I’m regularly taking images with 30-second long exposures while waiting for humans to stop shaking my tripod with their thundering footsteps.

A: How do works such as Roots (US Capitol), Join (Paris) and Cornerstone (Forbidden City) differ in approach and technique from others such as #15 (Amalfi) and Cast (Manhattan)?
SR: I’m always looking for whatever aspect stands out most strongly to me. So for Moat at Beijing’s Forbidden City, I was “painting” the shape of the moat surrounding the corner watchtower rooftops, which results in the triangular/pointed structure.

For the Manhattan skyscrapers, it was the immensity of their height relative to the water line, their verticality. Ultimately, I’m utilising my Aphantasia to think about how I will remember the scene in front of me. Often times it’s structural: the width of a moat, the curvature of a building’s dome, the verticality of some pillars, the rolling hills in the horizon or the arches of a bridge; but I also like to play with colour when it comes to lighting, sky colours and silhouettes.

A: How has your work as a former seismologist informed and inspired this series, and your art practice in general?
SR: The combination of geological understanding coupled with aphantasia makes my photographs rather unique. My general thirst for knowledge is indeed often related to Earth sciences in general, which certainly stems from my decade as a seismologist and lecturer in Earth sciences.

When looking at landscapes, cityscapes and building structures, water features, etc. my mind usually goes to the geological concepts of landslides, subsidence, soft stories and flooding – to the concept that water always wins. These aspects shine through quite strongly since I get to “paint” each photograph in the way I will “see” it later in my memories.

A: How do you select the locations for the series? Are any of the locations inspired by your work as a seismologist?
SR: I tend to be rather opportunistic about most things in life, photography locations included. We travel together as a family for many reasons, some of which are related to my husband’s seismology fieldwork, and I always bring my camera along. But in truth, my mind is very nature and geology focused, so I’m always finding the geology and landscape/cityscapes of interest.

Sure, I’m working on the sea level rise series for now and am really enjoying it, but I’ve also made series based on trees, clouds, flower petals, door handles and book spines, to name a few! I’m a firm believer that anything and everything is interesting – only boring people get bored.

A: How does abstract geophotography help express your ideas for the series?
SR: The concept of flooding cities and eroding cliffs by swooshing water from one place to another simply cannot (in my mind) be done without abstract camera movement. A still photograph of a coastline would have a significantly different interpretation, and would lack the abstract nature of my Aphantasic mind’s eye. It’s a bit ironic, but to me, the abstract movement of the photo solidifies the whole concept.

A: Have you considered other mediums to express your thoughts and ideas regarding climate change?
SR: Definitely yes. But I’m not ready to share yet. Ask me again in a year!

A: How do you approach light and movement within the series?
SR: While I used to be afraid of photographing the sun because it blows the exposure, I now heartily embrace it. A camera is an art-making tool much like any other. I’ve never agreed with how photographers are not supposed to use pure white, but it’s okay for a painter.

So now I do what I want, instead of what I’m “supposed to”. It’s rather liberating! Moving the sun around the camera frame can make glorious images, I think. But you do have to be careful of your eyes if looking through the viewfinder.

A: Why is a painterly aesthetic important to you?
SR: People often ask if it’s photography or art, the basic premise of which I refute. Why can’t photography be art? A camera is just a tool, just like a paintbrush. With my camera, I make long fluid strokes, pointillism and wavy textures.

I consider which elements to include, and which to exclude. I consider the composition, the base material, the ink and the colours. In fact, a lot of people don’t quite know what to make of my work…is it a photo? Is it art? And I retort, why can’t it be both! At one of my open studios, a visitor tried to convince me that my photo was a painting: “Look, there! Brushstrokes!” I explained as well as I could and even showed her the camera movements that I do, but I don’t think she was convinced.

I’ve always been one to challenge assumptions, to challenge the norm – my artwork is no different. My “painterly photographs” do seem to have a different definition of “normal” but it makes me smile, because it’s right in the middle of my comfort zone. 

A: Works from The Deceit of Water form part of a large solo exhibition at Montsalvat, Melbourne until 28 April. How is it going thus far?
SR: Curiously, this is the most relaxed I’ve been about any exhibition. It must stem from knowing that I literally cannot do anything else. The exhibition is in the middle of a four-month long worldwide trip, so I had to finalise the artworks and ship to Australia just after Christmas.

A: How do you balance the demands of prep for an exhibition with creation of new work?
SR: Curating my exhibitions provides an opportunity to seek meaning within the visual balance of a myriad of individual works, while hoping that it will all make sense to viewers. It’s a challenge, but one that I love. Through the process, I get to think about my artwork in a completely different and more holistic way. Thus I often have a rush of creativity during this time.

I’m frequently too busy with exhibition prep to make any new work, and so I tend to take long rambling notes for later use, but this time is different because the exhibition work is basically done, and because I’m travelling and experiencing new parts of the world. I’m making a lot of images on this trip, so I suppose there will have to be another exhibition!

A: How does your approach differ in a series such as Flora, for example?
SR: Flora showcases images relating to my long-standing interest in the botanical world. My mom was a landscape designer, so I was dragged along to lots of flower shows, arboretums and garden centres as a kid. I guess something sunk in! To me, the beauty of a flower is more in the botanical detail. I like to illuminate how the different elements interact with each other, like layered petals, or proud stamens.

I was thrilled when some of the Flora images were shortlisted for the Julia Margaret Cameron Award. This series hasn’t been my main focus for a while, but I’m certain it’ll make a resurgence at some point, so watch this space.

A: The Treescapes series explores the boundaries of Earth and sky – tell me more about this.
SR: The series focuses on the restorative nature between earth and sky by looking at their shared elements of clouds, light and breath. The idea is to think about the inherent teamwork in making up a horizon. Clouds seem to loaf around in the trees, daylight lazily meanders around the branches, and the breath of fresh air lingers in a forest.

I’ve been photographing treescapes for as long as I can remember, and I’m sure the series will grow over the years. One day, when I’ve made enough treescape images, I want to print them all out in a large, ephemeral format and walk amongst them, as if in a forest. As for now, the last few of the limited edition of 40 handmade concertina books with 11 photos and my poem are still available for sale on my website.

A: Will you explore further possibilities within The Deceit of Water series?
SR: Exhibitions, Instagram accounts, fine art prints on paper and on silk and a website are all great places to show work, but I also believe in good old books. There’s a satisfying feeling when flipping through a series of someone’s work that has been artfully arranged in a tactile, physical way.

Every series that I do is also accompanied by a book (from my own Sara Rawlinson Photographic Publishing). So eventually, I will indeed be making a book of The Deceit of Water, but not until the series is finished of course.

A: What additional art projects and exhibitions do you have coming up throughout 2024?
SR: I’ve been travelling a lot this year, owing to my husband’s academic sabbatical. We’ve been to China, Italy, Iceland, the USA, Singapore, Malaysia, Australia and a few more places in England and Europe. And I’ve had my camera at my side with every step. A lot of work will come from this year, once I have the time to pause and process it all.

As for exhibitions, I’m always looking for unique places to exhibit and would welcome opportunities. With my general artist-scientist hat, I’m curating a large exhibition on volcano art for March 2025 in Cambridge, which will also include two of my abstract volcano images.

All images courtesy of Sara Rawlinson.

sararawlinson.com  |  Instagram: @srawlinsonphoto

The work of Sara Rawlinson appears in Issue 118 of Aesthetica. Click here to visit our online shop.