When people think of nature photography - particularly mountains - tranquil photographs by Ansel Adams and Carleton Watkins quickly spring to mind. World-renowned fashion image-maker Nick Knight may have been inspired by these names when tackling mountainous peaks The Matterhorn and Mont Blanc in the Alps for his latest show at Albion Barn, Mountains, but the end result couldn't feel more different. The key to understanding this newest body of work is to let the mountain envelop you. Knight's images are emotional, moving and even violent, but they're also, somehow, incredibly still.
Mountains follow Knight's previous 2019 Albion Barn exhibition, Roses from my Garden, with both shows mirroring each other through sharing a theme that was borne from a long-standing fascination with nature. Knight tells me that instead of working on 'a variation of roses, like peonies', he wanted a challenge; 'Mountains seemed to me a real challenge, and I like a challenge.' Challenge accepted. (The physicality and labour-intensive work of photographing mountains, however, proved nothing like the process he undertook to capture roses from his garden).
Knowing he wanted to approach mountains from different viewpoints, Knight tells me he 'wanted to be airborne, and so I flew around the summits in a small helicopter, normally used for Heliskiing.' Going on to explain his experience in what would otherwise be a 'glorified ski lift', Knight reveals 'looking down a 3,000 ft drop from above with nothing else around you is a little weird. It's a funny feeling of controlling that fear by looking through the camera to concentrate on getting the image; I'm not really acknowledging the depth in front of me'. In addition to height, Knight had to contend with a startling drop in altitude, blistering gales blowing through the helicopter's two open doors and -27 temperatures, with the resulting images verifying the extraordinary, almost verging on paintings in their aura and tone. 'It's all just very experimental', Knight acknowledges. 'You're just hoping to get an image, but it feels a bit expressionistic in a way that you might imagine Jackson Pollock pacing around and thrashing his canvas; it's a physical thing which photography can often lack. It can otherwise seem very mechanical, and you just click a button; I like the physical involvement of it all.'
There is undoubtedly a romantic aspect to these images thanks to their painterly nature, which accentuates the violence and sheer forces of nature we know mountains to be. 'Throughout lockdown, I started experimenting with a technique of blurring imagery to suggest something instead of to show something', Knight informed me, an idea that's ended up underpinning the show's entire narrative. 'Mountains are big jagged structures, and so I started looking at how to get the feeling of a mountain rather than showing it in some way, communicating the idea of incorporating emotional photography rather than factual photography'.
One sensation often recalled in artistic responses to mountains is their serene quality and overarching stillness. 'When you go to the top of a mountain, it is quite oddly still because there's no noise', Knight asserts. 'I wanted to come at it from a different perspective because we're seeing huge collisions on a huge geographical, extraterrestrial scale. These are big tectonic plates colliding, and they're pushing shards, boulders, rocks and everything 3000 ft up into the air. So these are very violent collisions; you're just seeing them over a prolonged time frame so that it would be billions of years. In some way, I wanted to imply the energy behind the collisions that have created these landforms'. The press release notes, 'In some eighteenth-century painters, such as Phillip James de Loutherbourg, the melodramatic is accentuated and presented in such a way as to evoke a sense of awe in audiences', Knight's mountains are no exception.
Mountains is open to the public until 8 September at Albion Barn.