What’s in a landscape photograph? How much can it actually reveal beyond the surface? In Daylight Ghosts: History, Myth, Memory, photographer David Lurie uses landscape photography to evoke a complicated history, and ends up with a book not just of landscapes, but about them.
The photographs, made in 2015 while Lurie was on a six-week residency at the Nirox Art Foundation in South Africa, depict a variety of landscapes in and around the Cradle of Humankind, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Located about 30 miles northwest of Johannesburg, the Cradle is a paleontological site, where some of the earliest hominid fossils—dating back 3 million years—have been discovered. But on top of that pre-history are scattered remnants of more recent history, from tribal warfare and revolts against the Dutch colonists to The Boer Wars. The region, Lurie writes in his artist’s statement, “offers a privileged vantage point from which to understand what it means to be human and what it meant and currently means to be South African.”
“But how to capture this perspective in landscape photographs in this achingly beautiful region?” Lurie continues. “How to excavate below our conventional sight level to recover the veins of myth and memory that lie beneath the surface?”
Those are the hard but essential questions for any photographer excavating history and memory. Lurie’s approach is to show the ghostly remains of bygone humanity. “Pioneer graves, Kromdraai valley,” shows a long-forgotten pioneer burial ground, gradually sinking into a forest floor. In “Forests, Kromdraai Valley,” a footpath along a stream suggests the presence of some other overgrown place—perhaps the crumbling stone house in “Remains of pioneer cottage, Kromdraai valley.”
In other photographs, Lurie pulls back for more epic perspectives: A long view over a broken stone wall toward the Magaliesberg Mountains, for instance, is framed by the porch of what used to be a British hospital during the Boer Wars. Another image from the top of Magaliesberg Mountains across the Cradle depicts an empty landscape vanishing in the distant haze. In other images, contemporary human presence is signified by a highway or by high voltage transmission lines that erase the distances between urban centers of post-Apartheid South Africa. But those things, too, will eventually become part of the anthropological record.
The South African landscape has been shaped and re-shaped by the forces that drive history almost everywhere: hubris, ambition, greed, racism and violence (amid flashes of creativity and transcendence). Nameless settlers moldering in their forgotten, unkempt graves stir pathos, but they probably lie atop the tragedy of some forgotten tribe.
In a text that provides useful historical and theoretical context for Lurie’s work, University of Johannesburg researcher James Sey observes that Lurie’s work echoes how “South Africa has been visually imagined by many artists as a country being constantly mined, dug up and penetrated, or, alternatively, emptied out to represent the beauty of a landscape free from human presence.” But given the country’s many conflicts, even an empty landscape has political implications.
Daylight Ghosts offers a lens through which to read and appreciate landscape photography, and to expect more of it, too. To fully appreciate landscape photographs, it usually helps to understand the human history of the land in question. Lurie’s landscapes are infused with a sense of loss and melancholy, where so much human history has occurred, only to be subsumed by the quiet but overwhelming forces of an indifferent, ever-patient universe: Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. And yet, it is in our nature to assume we are always at the end of history—and our way of life will endure—so we try, try again.