This series by Vancouver, BC photographer David Ellingsen, entitled “Future Imperfect,” exhibits one of the most fascinating and powerful artistic visions that I have yet encountered. These photographs, which depict high-contrast, colour-muted wilderness landscapes peppered with nude, inert human bodies, are immensely moving and equally thought-provoking. Upon my first encounter with them, I found I was spellbound and unable to keep them off of my mind – I was also impressed by their ability to fascinate me without resorting to the drama of grotesquery or tragedy. Their very simplicity, which I can’t help but think of as “purity,” elicited an instinctive and visceral response in me. Take a look at some of his shots below, and see if they do the same for you. Look closely though, because sometimes finding the bodies is like a creepier version of Where’s Waldo:
The visceral impact that I experience in response to these photos is largely created by the juxtaposition existing in each shot between the delicacy of the soft, white and inert human bodies, and the enormity of rough, wild, and uncontrolled nature enveloping them. The bodies – no different from my own – look as small and fragile as slugs or worms, and as easy to crush. Yet there they lie, almost trustingly, amid the wild tumble of trees and roots, the cold wetness of snow and mud, and the stiff, sharp tangles of grass.
The manner in which these few pale and vulnerable bodies manage to transform their surrounding landscape is incredible. Terrain which might otherwise seem mundane and uninspired in a landscape shot is brought to life – raw, dynamic and dangerous in contrast to the exposed bodies. We cannot help but empathize with the displaced human figures, and as such find that we have a unique appreciation for the texture of the rocky riverbed on which they lie, or the sway of the long, prickly grasses surrounding them. Even the symmetry of sky and water seems sharper, and the twists of a tree branch more artful.
But what about the humans themselves, their bodies draped so artfully yet carelessly upon rocks and tree branches and grasslands? Are they dead? Newly born? Are they sleeping? They look peaceful…most of the images radiate serenity…yet the images are still unnerving, and leave one feeling rather uncomfortable. Some of the humans look like misplaced sunbathers, lost in an environment that is cold, wet, grey, and overcast. Others look like unblemished corpses washed up on the pebbly edge of a river, or strewn with a haphazard gracefulness across the rocky swell of a hill.
When I initially stumbled upon this series, my first response was awe, and admiration for the unique vision of the artist. Having thought more deeply about it, I realize how strange it is that I this imagery should be considered “unique” at all! The basis of this series is nakedness – the unclothed, unadorned human being in uncultivated, naked nature. Which is, of course, the most basic and natural state of existence, and the most “naked” of all realities! We are, every one of us, born into this huge wild world vulnerable, coverless and defenseless. But this fact is somewhat lost in our contemporary, civilized Western lives. The “wild world” which we inhabit instead feels more like a measurable, and manageable entity which we control, cultivate, and record. The ever-increasing scope of our technologies, including the internet’s power to connect, see, and inform, puts the world digitally at our fingertips and seemingly into our hands. In our daily lives, the wilderness is reduced more often to photographs and imagery on a screen than it is experienced in the raw. Even our experiences “in the raw” are questionable – we vacation at house-like cottages with manicured gardens, and we camp with sleeping tents, hiking boots, and raincoats. We forget (or ignore) that our own bodies are part of this landscape, and at its mercy – we instead identify more closely with our digital or online personalities, and develop a self-conception as an entity removed from, and in control of, nature. We become compartmentalized city bodies which reside in clean and human-controlled habitats, travel through the organized, man-made environments of city streets, sidewalks, and parks, often in pod-like, mechanized transportation devices, and are almost always swaddled by the shelter of man-made clothing.
For a city or suburban body, these images of nakedness and wilderness awaken in us a discomfiting recognition of something which is fundamental to our nature, but feels somewhat foreign all the same. Of our vulnerability, and our dependence on the mercy of nature and its ability to provide for us. Of our core, animal beginnings, unprotected and unburdened by technology or clothing. It is a recollection of the irresistible, devastating love and fear we must feel in the face of the untamed wild.
*All images credited to David Ellingsen Photography*