When I think of the Louvre, my mind automatically recalls world-renowned artworks such as the ancient Winged Victory of Samothrace, Eugène Delacroix’s July 28: Liberty Leading the People or its famed glass pyramids by architect I.M. Pei. I do not immediately connect this bastion of art history with contemporary art and design. But that is exactly what happened when the museum and Apple collaborated—the Louvre renovating its Decorative Arts Pavilion and Apple beginning its 2015 “Shot on iPhone 6” ad campaign. With larger-than-life scaffolding to hide the construction, stories-high ads for the new iPhone 6 were erected onto the building’s façade, and for a time, displayed the work of Austin Mann.
Mann’s photography demonstrates a wide-range of genres from landscape imagery, to portraits, to stills of celebrated landmarks. While varied, these categories connect through one central component: Mann’s handling of light. In a phone interview, Mann stated, “I was interested in both the physical and spiritual connotations of lightness and darkness…Where light is there is no darkness.”
The idea of light conquering darkness resonates strongly with the artist. He speaks of being powerfully inspired and influenced by nature, “especially in its untouched state.” In his earlier landscape photographs, colorful panoramic vistas immerse the viewer with their grand scale and distinctive vantage point. It is worth noting that Mann is not afraid to jump out of helicopters, scale mountains, and/or dive underwater to get just the right viewpoint for his shots. His image of Blue Nile Falls in Ethiopia shimmers with a white mist. This spray veils most of the photograph—only the craggy rocks, on which the viewer seems to stand, are crisply in focus with light reflecting off of their jagged edges. A tiny human figure emerges from the vapor in the lower right portion of the photograph. This adventurer is so insignificant in relation to the expansiveness of the natural landscape that it feels as though this individual may be easily swallowed up by the breathtaking power of the waterfall. Such an awe-inspiring and overpowering scene readily recalls the Sublime as discussed throughout aesthetic history.
In the 1st century CE, Longinus defined the Sublime as “evoking more intense emotions…it is vast, irregular, obscure and superhuman.” Edmund Burke, in the 18th century, expounded on the idea, how mankind could experience delight as it may “arise from the contemplation of a terrifying situation—natural, artistic or intellectual—that could not actually harm the spectator, except in the imagination.” J.M.W. Turner’s paintings of the 1800s exemplify the concept, with his figures overwhelmed by the supremacy of their natural surroundings. In the 20th century, artists like Barnett Newman reinterpreted the Sublime as expressing the tragedy of the human condition through abstract means.
Similarly, Mann allows the immensity of nature to take center stage in his landscape work, bringing to mind humanity’s ephemeral interactions with its environment. The enormity of the Nepalese Annapurna mountain range is only interrupted by a diminutive airplane. A small boat sails into the limitless blue of the Greek Mediterranean Sea. The bleak but massive cliff in Iceland engulfs the insignificant person framed against a sky of grey. According to Mann, “All my work makes you feel small or that there is a great power… For me, the pristine landscape is in some ways, a portrait or snapshot of God’s character.”
The artist brings this approach to his portrait photography—where humanity exists as perhaps the most celebrated facet of nature. Mann states, “The soul is the only thing that is eternal. I try to connect the audience to the subject in a deep emotional way—soul to soul.” In one portrait, water rivulets cascade down the face of an Indian boy, the joy of childhood captured in a moment of time. Mann’s photograph of a young Honduran girl reveals her slight smile and eager expression, offering a slight glimpse into her character and personality. He focuses closely on her eyes displaying a face full of innocence and trust. “You must allow the subject feel comfortable with you as the photographer, which takes a lot of time. The best portrait photographers like Richard Avedon spent days getting to know his subject in order to capture that one shot. You have to also be vulnerable with the subject and it is most important to prioritize them as people.”
An elderly Filipino woman stands amidst a radial sunburst that fills the space with warmth. She weighs the catch of fish for a presumed customer in a comfortable atmosphere, gauzy patterned curtains covering a background window. Mann says, “It is important that the subjects are proud to know that their image could be up on a billboard. You as the photographer have stepped into someone’s home, often one they should be proud of. It shifts how you think you would handle yourself.” Of course, Mann cannot escape his own photographic construction, but he attempts to merely document these slices of daily life rather than project a pre-made narrative onto those he is photographing.
His black-and-white series of Ethiopia’s rock hewn churches in Lālibalā is subtle in its tones, displaying his most dramatic treatment of light. Each of the 12 churches was carved from a single piece of stone throughout the 12th and 13th centuries. The subterranean structures were excavated from the ground and leave no visual trace on the horizon—a reductive process rather than additive. They remain Orthodox Christian pilgrimage sites to this day.
Mann displays countless textures found in these early monolithic edifices—the rough wood of a door, wrinkles in white linen garments, the graininess of the carved walls. He claims, “I am almost always chasing some sort of unique lighting situation, texture, drama, or juxtaposition.” The contrast between the human figures clad in stark white and the stony setting is striking. There is a dramatic reverence in the scene, enhanced by the sight of countless shoes removed by followers before entering the sacred space. The viewer is seemingly witness to another era, but also a participant in a continuum of devotion.
Perhaps what strikes one most about the photography of Austin Mann is the empathetic nature of his photos. Empathy, the ability to share another’s feelings, differs from sympathy in that it does not involve simply feelings for someone else. Instead, it builds a shared outlook—sadness is shouldered together and joy is celebrated together. Mann joins his subjects in a setting, learns about customs, and attempts to understand their humanity, their contributions as a person on this earth. The artist travels the world, helping to cross cultures through the medium of photography, stating “With digital cameras and iPhones, nearly everyone can speak this shared visual language and it connects us as human beings.” Mann’s work reveals commonalities between our experiences as human beings and challenges each of us to take an empathetic moment—to experience life through another person’s perspective. This approach to portraiture perhaps best fits Immanuel Kant’s definition of the Sublime, and its stress on the importance of a person’s “subjective capacity for feeling.” Kant did not consider the Sublime an overarching, singular property, but rather a moral and personal response connected to “the adoption and application of universal affection.” Both Mann’s landscapes and portraits can remind us of the Sublime, whether they demonstrate Burke’s idea of nature’s absolute beauty and power, or instead focus on the noble facet of humankind discussed by Kant. In his veneration of light, revelation of the earth’s magnitude, and celebration of individual’s humanity, we can see the grand and particular beauty of this world.
Featured Image: Mann on Louvre: France, 2015, Image: © Allan Spiers