Learning to see is a crescendo
CHRIS GILLARD has seen the natural world through a camera lens since the age of seven, the beginning of a lifelong journey capturing landscapes in all their moods. He became a professionally qualified photographer in 1999 at the International College of Professional Photography in South Melbourne, Australia (ICPP) graduating in the top percentile of his year group. He subsequently invented a unique method of displaying his photographs in three dimensions on glass. Entitled ‘Fragile Landscapes,’ this is a method inspired by hand-tinted vintage glass photographic slides and Chris’s environmental passion. This work has been collected as standalone art and integrated into architecture. A selection of his fine art landscape photography on glass will be shown in Melbourne, Australia in 2016.
I’m seven years old on another long road trip, riding in the back seat of a blue Holden Gemini. It’s the early 1980’s, Australia. I’m looking out the window.
My granddad is driving and we’re two hours inland, west, making our way across the Queensland border into New South Wales. It’s summer and the scorching late afternoon heat stifles the car interior while the road shimmers and melts ahead.
I said I was looking out the window but that’s not quite right. I was soaking it in, physically drinking in the wide expanses of the shifting landscapes. I had a deep attraction to the many colours and moods, continuously changing, but the mood I really longed for was particularly dark. I was searching for clouds, but not just any: Cumulonimbus clouds. Storm clouds.
Violent storms were a normal summer phenomenon in that part of the world and I loved everything they offered: lightning, thunder, wind, hail, rain, all in massive quantities. I loved the way storm clouds changed light, color and physical feelings. From the car I would carefully watch clouds build for hours as we traveled. You couldn’t imagine my disappointment when I had diligently observed a storm cloud developing for hours, only to realize it was going to miss us. I didn’t have a camera and I didn’t have a license to drive. If I had, I would have become one of the first storm chasers. Instead I had to relegate this road trip imagery to memory, and spend my life trying to recapture that light, those feelings, and those moods.
When I wasn’t on a road trip with Grandad, I was on the roof of our house for hours at a time, scanning the horizon for anvil shapes and those telltale cauliflower cloud structures. I would sit and survey the sky for the types of clouds that preceded storms, even days out: Mackerel sky, Mammas, Cumulus Congestus, Alto Cumulus, Cirro-Stratus, Cirrus, Alto-stratus, and more. I knew them all.
It was clearly an obsession and it worried my Mum, especially as lightning got closer and the wind picked up, or worse, in the absolute stillness in the moments before a storm breaks. I was given a little instamatic camera around the same age. I never had a chance of getting a good shot. Instamatic cameras are not single lens reflex cameras and we couldn’t afford one. All the best images from those days are in my head.
I wasn’t just watching the clouds. I was also watching my family and my early observations revealed to me something I was already feeling: that you do not choose to be an artist. My Grandmother was a great lady and a multidimensional creator: oil painter, sculptor, puppeteer. Her husband, my Grandfather, was tragically killed in WWII, and while he was given the title of Officer on the HMAS Perth, he perhaps more deserved the title of Stunningly Talented Writer, expressing powerful love through simple words. My father continues to be a prolific painter of oils, watercolours and more. They chose art over all else, as a priority. For every artist the instinct manifests naturally inside the body and the mind. When you have a need to create, it is inherent, built into your soul; your only way of being, seeing, feeling and expressing.
So I was born steeped in the smell of Linseed oil, with art as a fundamental component of my being. By the time I was a teenager, I had earned my Masters in Backyard Studio Observation, majoring in ‘Asking Heaps of Questions’ and ‘Washing Sable Brushes’. Despite my early indoctrination into the world of painting, I was not drawn to canvas so much as I was drawn to film. You can stand all afternoon and paint a wonderful landscape. You have but a millisecond to capture lightning.
On weekends, I’d spend most of the day on the roof, alone, watching and waiting, camera in hand, ready to click. I became the Weather Bureau and the Weather Radar. Once I warned a neighbour about a storm that was coming in the afternoon as he was repairing the roof of his house in the morning. The official weather bureau hadn’t predicted a storm, but my neighbour knew me well as the unofficial one. He stopped work as I pointed out the barest strip of innocent looking cloud on the far horizon. That storm was a violent one. At this point it was not just careful observation that helped me, but a real connection to the environment. I knew its moods. I picked up the subtlety. It was like a close friend and I got to know it really well.
As I grew up, I was shuttled all over the place on long road trips during the holidays, not just with my Grandad, but my dad too. We covered pretty much the whole east coast of Australia over the years and my storm obsession widened to a full-blown love of the environment, in all its shades, from lightest to darkest. I saw its whole spectrum of emotions: calm, angry, unsettled, brooding, serene. I felt that we were one and the same, part of the same global canvas.
As I look back at those times when I sat or stood on the roof of my home, scanning the skies for so many hours when I was young, the most obvious sense I invoked was sight, but perhaps the deeper learning came through my other senses.
Rubbing my thumbs together I could conjure up the humidity that lurks in the air and made me sweat and the viewfinder fog up. In the gum trees, I could listen to the cicadas – I knew that when they sang, they sang up a storm. I knew it was coming because I listened to what I was told. Later, as darkness moved in, I could smell it on the wind – petrichor, the fresh, potent, irresistible scent of rain hitting warm earth. The light would be dazzling and I was in the right spot. Learning to see is a crescendo, the result of a combination of learning to feel, listen, smell, touch and taste.
This is the kind of sensory tuning that takes me to places, then allows me to embrace and reveal their moods. Perhaps there is some degree of extra-sensory perception in this too. I would not be surprised. For me, landscape photography is a relaxing meditative state. Often I have no idea where I will go. Each time I follow an unmarked, intuitive trail to a place where an image and a mood are patiently waiting. It is an enlivening process that taps into natural energy fields and at best, I am just a vehicle to express what the environment wants to say. Nature is infinitely clever, so why should we restrict our thinking to a mere five senses? The Ancient Egyptians (Khemitians) taught that we all have the ability to use 360. Not six or seven senses, some slight variation on our own common belief, but hundreds. Through my own natural experiences of feelings empowered by the elements, with a camera or without, I skirt the very edges of understanding this.
Seeing through totality of feeling was the beginning of a method I am still learning. Embracing a mood became the beginning of my art. And it has only just begun. Being an artist is a journey that does not begin with a lesson or end in retirement. I improve and gain insight as long as I stick to my natural curiosity and maintain a loving connectivity to something much bigger, more important and mysterious than myself. My creation often begins as a solitary process, but should never remain so. Only by connecting to something that is not myself will I connect with others, the other.
Published: May 26th, 2016