A Portrait of Our Times

Port speaks to renowned curator and author William A. Ewing about the epic undertaking, Civilization, which tells a story of the world in which we live through the work of 140 contemporary photographers

Michael Wolf, Architecture of Density #39, 2005, (c) Michael Wolf, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

“To me, the seeds of it go back to the 1960s,” says William A. Ewing, when asked how the landmark project, Civilization: The Way We Live Now, came to be. “At university, we were made to take a class called ‘civilization,’” he recalls. “I remember lectures about Gothic cathedrals, which opened my eyes to something that beforehand had just been piles of stones. That was a really profound experience for me.”

Fast-forward several decades and the Lausanne-based curator and author has been working closely with fellow curator and art historian Holly Roussell, alongside colleagues Todd Brandow, from the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography, and Bartomeu Marí, from the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in South Korea, to create an “aerial survey” – a book and international travelling exhibition – that considers the state of early 21st-century civilisation through the eyes of many of today’s most prolific photographers. As Ewing neatly puts it in the book’s introduction, the project is “a wide-angled overview of how photography deals with an exceedingly complex and abstract idea – that is, civilisation.”

Philippe Chancel, Construction of the Burj Khalifa Tower, Dubai, 2008

Currently on show in Seoul, the exhibition will travel to Beijing in spring 2019, and then to Melbourne and Marseille. In London, a complementary show featuring work by a number of featured photographers – among them Robert Polidori, Simon Roberts, Nadav Kander, Edward Burtynsky and Michael Wolf – has recently opened at Flowers Gallery.

Edward Burtynsky, #4 Saw Mills and Makoko, Lagos, Nigeria, 2016, (c) Edward Burtynsky, Courtesy Flowers Gallery, London/Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto

Comprising many sections and addressing myriad themes such as where and how we live, how we communicate, and our beliefs and hopes, Civilization is truly global in its vision and ambition. At its core is a focus on shared human experience and how this has been rendered photographically. Indeed, Ewing draws an interesting parallel between civilisation and photography’s evolution: “Like civilisation, that wide practice known as photography also expands, evolves and mutates,” he writes in the book. “No one knows where it’s all heading, though we suspect it’s heading somewhere.”

Robert Polidori, Dashashwemedh Road, Varanasi, India, 2007 (c) Robert Polidori, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery

Given the enormous scope of the topic, it was imperative to set clearly defined parameters from the outset, explains Ewing. “If you started ticking all the boxes of everything you should put in a book called ‘civilisation’ you’d go mad. You’d end up with a list of thousands of things and it’d just go on and on. That would be a book that illustrates and you would need thousands of chapters to do any justice to it as a social work. We wanted something more poetic that would excite people and [encourage them] to think about civilisation.”

Sifting and categorising the material gathered from photographers working in places as diverse as Sudan and Mexico and across topics such as the development of humanoid robots, space telescopes and digital technologies, was a labour-intensive process that required careful decision-making, Ewing adds. “Images that seemed to be about moving – moving goods, transportation – became [the chapter] ‘flow’. We didn’t want to use the word ‘transport’ because if we chose a more symbolic picture, people could say, ‘what’s that got to do with transport?’ 

Ahmad Zamroni, Muslims pray at a mosque during the Friday noon prayer in Jakarta, 14 September 2007

“We then assembled all the ‘breakdown’ pictures (images of migrant camps, wars and so on) that you can say are about breakdown, and used the heading, ‘rupture,’” he continues. “The titles are meant to be more poetic or ambiguous; you’re not trying to label something so much as say, ‘ok, here is one way of looking at this.’” 

Indeed, what makes the project so fascinating – and what gives it its depth and breadth – is the multiplicity of international voices, approaches, perspectives and motivations that feature. There are photographers who make direct calls to action such as Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky, who writes: “While trying to accommodate the growing needs of an expanding civilisation, we are reshaping the earth in colossal ways. We have to learn to think more long-term about the consequences of what we are doing.” Others express an impending sense of doom: “Our civilisation is facing crucial challenges with man-made threats that imperil our collective future,” writes Italy-based Irene Kung. “Ancient ruins are poignant reminders that complex and sophisticated civilisations have collapsed.” Implicit in Kung’s words is the warning that nothing can be taken for granted.

National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, Parliament Square, London, 9 December 2010

The project, as a whole, reminds us just how much we’ve achieved in our relatively short time on earth. “Civilisation is really only 5000 years old and in that time we went from inventing the wheel to sending spacecraft into space,” Ewing points out. “We take so much for granted, and we have to, otherwise we’d go nuts. […] But it is an astonishing thing to see how far we’ve come. There are many ways of expressing that, but I hope that photography, collectively, conveys that sense of richness.”

Nadav Kander, Bathers, Yibin, Sichuan, 2007, (c) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

A quote from the book’s foreword written by Todd Brandow and Bartomeu Marí sums up both the uncertainty and sense of possibility that lie before us: “There are sober voices today that wonder if human civilisation will survive this century, while other voices trumpet a ‘new Renaissance,’” they write. “It is not up to photographers to say which of the two realities will triumph, but they can certainly lay out for us the state of the world, and help us think about where we want to take it.”

Civilization: The Way We Live Now, edited by William A. Ewing and Holly Roussell, is published by Thames & Hudson. Civilization will be exhibited at Flowers Gallery, London E2 until 22 December 2018.

In My End Is My Beginning: The Thames Estuary

Port speaks to photographer Nadav Kander about his latest exhibition, exploring the desolate and moving landscapes of the Thames Estuary

Water I part 1, 2 & 3 (Shoeburyness towards The Isle of Grain), England, 2015, (C) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

My grandmother would tell me stories of how, as a child, she watched the great cargo ships pass along the Thames at Greenwich, having crossed hundred of miles from all corners of the Empire to find their berth in London. To visit the same spot today is to see a completely different river, a strangely empty space in the centre of an ever growing, ever more bustling city, the river now only populated by the occasional river bus, unable to accommodate the vast modern ships and their demand for deep water ports.

Downstream, past Tilbury and Gravesend – once gateposts to the city, now quietening county towns – the river widens and stretches out to the sea. As in the city, the traffic from what was once the busiest shipping lane in the world has all but disappeared, but here the level, featureless marshland and mud flats lining the Thames are only inhabited by dormant industry and crumbling Victorian forts. This is where, in the fog and half-light, the photographer Nadav Kander has been working intermittently since the Summer of 2015.

Time II (All Hallows towards Canvey Island), England, 2015

Over his now long and celebrated career, Kander has gained much recognition for his portraiture, such as for his subversive image of the then president-elect Donald Trump for the TIME Magazine’s Person of the Year cover in 2016. Formally uncluttered and sensitively lit, Kander’s portraits of actors and architects, artists and politicians are at once instantly familiar and completely alien, the sitters arrestingly meditative and still, dislocated from the cluttered circus of public life. It is this sense of meditation, of stillness and ultimately of time, that plays an essential part in Kander’s latest series, Dark Line – The Thames Estuary, currently exhibited at Flowers Gallery in east London

“The Estuary has always been a mystical place for me,” Kander tells me on the phone from his studio in London, the day after the exhibition’s opening. “It’s such a bleak and interesting place. There’s a sense of the history there that sits on your shoulder when you make a work like this, a sense of Man’s grit and toil, the loss of love and life, and everything that was once so rich in that river.”

Water VI (Hadleigh Ray towards Yantles Creek and The Hoo), England, 2015, (C) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

Indeed, while Kander’s atmospheric, gloomy images are unpopulated – human activity only hinted at through an abandoned, half-flooded pill box or the shadow of heavy industry on the horizon – this is a series that is centred on humanity and its relationship with its environment. The Thames, once the central artery of London, connecting the city to the world, host to Romans, Vikings and ships from ever further reaches of the globe, has only recently fallen quiet – it is this eerie and uncanny emptiness captured by Kander that is so compelling.

The exhibition also features a film, presented in the same elongated portrait format as the photographs (inspired by Chinese scroll paintings), that shows Kander lying in water from the Estuary, alternately rising above and descending beneath the surface. Set to a gently throbbing music by the German-British composer Max Richter, the film develops the artistic themes of the photographic work, evoking the tide and the cycles of life that predate the use of the Thames by humans, and that will continue long after it.

Horizons II (All Hallows towards London Gateway Port), England, 2015, (C) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

Dark Line forms part of a wider body of work concerned with water that began artistically with his series on the Yangtze river in China, which received the Prix Pictet prize in 2009, though Kander traces his fascination with water to an experience he had as a child. “When I was six years old I got my first pair of goggles and went swimming. When I turned away from the shore, to see the sand sloping away into blackness, I was terrified,” he remembers. “I ran straight out of the water. I had recurring dreams about that well into my 30s, but it was not so much a fear of the water but a human condition to fear the unknown.”

This – our very human, very primal response to large bodies of water – is the wider and more instinctive attraction of Dark Line. There is a sense of the infinite, both in the endless horizons and in the unceasing, slow moving water which, as Kander says, can inspire fear and melancholy as much as it can a sense of beauty and destiny. “Ultimately it’s much less a documentary work about the Thames Estuary and more a fantastic metaphor for ending and widening and renewal,” he explains. “I think it was T.S. Eliot who wrote, ‘In my end is my beginning.’”

Silt I (Mucking towards Thames Haven), England, 2017, (C) Nadav Kander, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

I ask Kander how he plans to continue to develop his fascination with water, but he cuts me short. “I don’t feel my work with the Thames Estuary is finished yet. Being so connected to London, there’s something personal to me in this project. I definitely want to stay here, for now anyway.”

Dark Line – The Thames Estuary runs at Flowers Gallery at 82 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8DP until 13th January 2018.