Ashraf Jamal | Human.Nature | 2018
It is a curiously uncanny thing when an artist’s name – her namesake – is mirrored in the work. In this case – field. An area of focus, a point of view, a mode of work, the noun precisely captures Natalie Field’s vision and practice. Particular definitions sharply convey this conceit: ‘An area of land used for a particular purpose, especially an area marked out for game or sport’ … ‘A large area of land or water completely covered in a particular substance’ … ‘An area rich in a natural product’ … A place where a subject of scientific study or of artistic representation can be observed in its natural location or context’.
In the artist’s own words, we read: ‘The deeper into the query of my humanity, the more I discover about the natural world’. Factored into the artist’s vision, therefore, we find the splice of the human and the natural worlds. The one cannot be embraced without the other. If this is so it is because the artist is not primarily concerned with photography as a medium as she is concerned with the technical ability of photography to capture the elusive yet driving enigma of our connection to nature. Field’s ‘still lifes’ – her moments frozen in time – created through a diverse technical range, including the use of coloured gels, sync flash, or multiple exposures, are always harnessed to a greater goal – the photograph as the index of a layered ‘narrative’.
Natalie Field, in other words, is inspired by the desire to tell stories through the still photograph. Her images are not declarations of a point of view but fictional evocations of that view. However, if the artist’s ‘interest lies with the narrative of the artwork, the underlying story or message’, this does not suppose that she perceives the photographic object as merely a vessel for some deeper meaning. Rather, it is the interplay of technique and vision, the very dance of conjuring a meaning, that give her photographs their allure.
A computing definition for ‘field’ reads as follows: ‘A part of a record, representing an item or data’. A linguistic and psychological usage supposes ‘a general area of meaning in which individual words make particular distinctions’. A field also evokes ‘a space or range in which objects are visible from a particular viewpoint through a piece of apparatus’. But it is the definition that stems from physics which I find particularly intriguing: ‘The region in which a particular condition prevails, especially one in which a force or influence is effective regardless of the presence or absence of a material medium’.
To understand Natalie Field’s approach to photography one must, therefore, acknowledge the palpable impact of technique, but, at the same time, also recognise that technique in-and-of-itself necessarily misses the mark. This is because the artist is in search of a more obtuse grail – the miraculous factored into the medium which can enable her to ground herself in the natural world as well as in the metaphysical dimension – a dimension beyond the material – which technique merely cloaks.
In this regard, Natalie Field shares a great deal with the central protagonist in J.M. Coetzee’s novel, Slow Man. We read: ‘The camera, with its power of taking in light and turning it into substance, has always seemed to him more a metaphysical than a mechanical device. His first real job was as a darkroom technician; his greatest pleasure was always in darkroom work. As the ghostly image emerged beneath the surface of the liquid, as veins of darkness on the paper began to knit together and grow visible, he would sometimes experience a little shiver of ecstacy, as though he were present at the day of creation’.
A comparable enchantment with the power of illusion inspires Field. However, unlike Coetzee’s protagonist, Field has discovered a romance not only in black and white photography, ‘the old magic of light-sensitive emulsions’, but also in the thrill of innovation and experimentation that continues to redefine the medium. Unlike Coetzee’s protagonist, who has a ‘lack of interest in the new’, and who sees the digitisation of the image as ‘a techne … without substance’, or as a cult of ‘images that could flash through the ether without residing anywhere, that could be sucked into a machine and emerge from it doctored, untrue’, Field prefers to believe that these seemingly artificial processes can, nevertheless, return us to ‘the day of creation’.
A pragmatist and an idealist, Natalie Field inhabits the conundrum of the age. Caught between the physical and metaphysical, human and inhuman, mortal and spectral, animal and vegetal, the artist seeks not to cynically refuse this paradox but to embrace it. Her works are curiosities, illuminations – conjurings of wonderment. She speaks of the cyanotype as ‘the perfect place for those wishing to rediscover the darkroom experience or enter it for the first time’; of treating photographic paper with a film of oil ‘to make it more translucent for the light to pass through’. And it is this light, both technical and metaphysical – a light that emanates through darkness – which she transforms into a gift. For while she may be thoroughly immersed in the techne of the image, this skill would mean little if not harnessed to a greater goal. Her images are the ‘building blocks of life’ she says. They are her portals into an intimate understanding of ‘human nature’.
In this regard the following saying makes profound sense: We are not humans on a spiritual path, we are spirits on a human path. For it is not the spirit world that is Natalie Field’s greater concern, but the human world. What is it that makes us human? What connects us to each other and all of life’s elements? What is it, despite the accelerated gulf created by the digital, that enables us to connect with the others of ourselves?
As a ‘director, photographer, retoucher’, Field understands that there can be no path forward without the acceptance of trickery and deception. And yet, it is not in the service of these trickeries and deceptions that she operates. For her it is the very ‘query of … humanity’, in the very maw of untruth and fakery which we inhabit, which matters most. Her fusions of botany, entymology, and the human body, are the force-fields for a sublime reckoning. The choreography or staging of these fusions is but the set-up for a greater yearning.