Phoebe Kiely: They Were My Landscape

Darren Campion

Phoebe Kiely, They Were My Landscape (2018). Courtesy of the artist and MACK

The expectation that a photograph frames the world in a descriptive and easily legible way – what we might call the informational capacity of the medium – is one that has been very much foregrounded in recent years with the ubiquity of visual media across digital platforms. In context, this expectation is accurate enough, as most of the photographs that circulate through our lives do function in this way, but to assume that the medium begins and ends as a system of transcription limits its capacities as a whole. Photographic images can exist in many different registers, the poetic as much as the factual, and while their informational capacity is always there as a baseline, for most artists this is merely a point of departure, as in the work of Phoebe Kiely.

With her dark-toned images, Kiely seems to wilfully frustrate the kind of knowledge that we might otherwise expect from a photographic image, even to the extent of calling into question what exactly is being photographed, which often seems to be veiled by the heaviness of the printing and by the indirectness of her gaze. This isn’t to say, however, that Kiely’s subjects are deliberately rendered obscure in a sort of facile emotive blur, robbing them of specifics; that is not what ‘poetic’ means in this case. The basic level of information is retained, but it has been supplemented by something else. In the work there is a sense of someone using photography as a way of locating themselves in the world, so that the notion of having a ‘subject’ falls away and the process of picture-making takes on another kind of importance as a way of forming a connection, one that needs to be continually renewed and maintained.

What Kiely photographs, then, is telling in the sense that it often seems almost incidental to the act of making the picture. Perhaps it is better to think of her approach as oriented around encounters rather than the significance of any individual subject, a point of intersection between the consciousness of the artist and the world, materialised in the picture. It is in their very resistance to our expectations around photographic description that these encounters become meaningful, elevated from obscurity by the resonance they take on within the photographic world Kiely is creating, as elements in a larger pattern. In a way it’s no surprise that the series is titled They Were My Landscape, because that is essentially what it describes, a private landscape, realised through the association of images. The work builds upon itself to form an enclosed reality, one that obviously centres on Kiely’s own point of view, while still leaving room for the viewer to enter and explore.

In fact, we are sharing this space with her, seeing it through her eyes, or rather through the ‘eye’ of her camera, and we are also, by proxy, positioned as Kiely was at the moment in which the picture was shot. So, in other words, this is not just a visual sharing of space, it is almost a bodily one as well, suggesting a more extensive overlap of the artist’s subjectivity with that of the viewer than might ordinarily be the case. Of course, all photographs ‘position’ us as viewers in specific ways, but the effect is accentuated here precisely by the seemingly off-hand quality of Kiely’s framing, as well as how she selects her subjects. Rather than offering a transparent window onto the world, the act of photographing is itself emphasised, and in this we are being made aware of how the pictures articulate Kiely’s own lived experience. This awareness goes to the heart of what the work is about, the ways in which photography provides – and eludes – connection to the world around us.

Text by Darren Campion. They Were My Landscape (2018) by Phoebe Kiely published by MACK

Phoebe Kiely, They Were My Landscape (2018). Courtesy of the artist and MACK