Photographer Anastasia Samoylova's FloodZone project, produced through meandering walks through Miami, documents the city's precarious frontier with the effects of climate change. We asked her about her approach to the project, and her wider photographic work exploring the picturesque.
A strong thread through your work is the picturesque. What draws you to this theme?
In general, the picturesque is that set of conventions by which the natural world is mediated and our relation to it is depicted. It has evolved over centuries, mutating and adapting incrementally, and it has an enormous hold over the popular imagination, whether we know this or not. As an artist one can attempt to reject the picturesque but I have chosen to explore it, to push it, to contemplate it as a subject within my work, so that the viewer might be made aware of the artifice of picturesque depiction, even when it appears naturalistic. I take the familiar clichés of landscape imagery and twist them, exaggerate them, play with them. This is a common theme across my many different bodies of work.
Specifically, for Landscape Sublime (2013- ongoing), your starting point was a concern about the idealised image we (and Google) have of landscape. Why do you see this as problematic?
Idealisations are as inevitable as they are problematic. It’s interesting how we are acutely aware of, and ‘woke’ to stereotypical depictions of people, but far less so about stereotypical images of landscape. And yet, what we are as people is often bound up with our complex relation to landscapes, to the natural world and to our sense of place. Again, one can reject these stereotypes or explore them.
Landscape Sublime began with my noticing that on file-sharing websites such as Flickr most landscape imagery was ultra-conformist, with photographers almost competing with each other to make the most idealised and ‘perfect’ imagery of glaciers, mountains, tropical beaches, forests, deserts and so on. These photographers were not expressing any individual vision but were refining their photography, almost algorithmically. Many were uploading their photographs free of copyright, launching their work into the world so that it might circulate freely. I would search for this imagery by keyword, download it and gather it in folders. I would then print the photos out. In my studio I would sculpt the prints into three-dimensional collages, similar in form to Constructivism or Cubism with their multiple perspectives and complex interrelations. I would light these sculptural forms carefully and then photograph them. My final works would be single, flat photographic documents of these constructions.
In discussions of the experience of landscape, the ‘sublime’ is that feeling of awe, wonder or fear that we have before an overwhelming view. But those feelings are diminished somewhat when we have already experienced the place in advance as conventional imagery. Perhaps what is sublime today is really the vast number of similar images that now fill up the world’s hard drives.
This year my Landscape Sublime took on a more apocalyptic tone. The tableaus, which are informed by Cubism and Russian Constructivism, now represent various cities that are particularly vulnerable to climate change. The series is a reimagining of Paul Citroen's celebrated photomontage Metropolis 1923. A century on, the spellbound excitement of the modern 20th-century city is giving way mixed feelings and deep anxiety about a world spinning out of control. The first in this sub-series is the Subtropical Metropolis (NYC), 2020.
It seems the idea for FloodZone began with walks around Miami. Do you find moving around a place in this way often leads to creative ideas?
When I’m in the studio everything is premeditated and planned. But observational photography requires chance encounters with places, people and light. Walking is the best way to do that. When I moved to Miami in 2016 I realised that in some way I was almost inside one of my studio collages. It is a place obsessed with the idealised image of itself. It’s there in billboards, tourist imagery, and advertising. It’s there in the way its architecture and urban spaces seem to have been designed with the camera in mind. But it is also there at the level of the popular imagination. It’s almost impossible to relate to what one is seeing and experiencing here outside of the photographic. Miami, and southern Florida more generally, depend on this pact with the idealising image. It serves the real-estate market and tourism.
Meanwhile, it has become very clear that the place is at the forefront of climate change. Sea levels are rising, hurricanes are more frequent and more powerful, and the fresh water is becoming salty. So there is great pressure on this precarious relationship between the reality of the place and its image as a kind of leisurely paradise. I began to make images very speculatively and intuitively at first, seeing if it was possible to register these tensions and paradoxes.
Once the project was underway, did you develop ideas in a more systematic way? Or did images come organically?
I shot for around a year in my spare time, with no particular goal in mind, simply letting the images accumulate. I then took a step back, looked at what I had, and noticed the forms and themes that were recurring. This was a project about living in a beautiful place with the dread and anxiety of ongoing and serious climate change. I was avoiding images of catastrophe and disaster, preferring more subtle depictions that invite the viewer into the complexity. Once I realised what I had been doing, I then continued to work more consciously. Making layouts for a possible book helped me to do this. I got a proposal accepted by Steidl, the great publisher of photographic books. From there it was a matter of intense refining of the project. I worked on the editing of the book with David Campany, who also contributed an essay for it.
Do you see projects like FloodZone, which involve travelling around, as an adventure? Or at least containing a sense of adventure?
It has definitely been a process of discovery, of places and situations. At the same time, it has been a pictorial adventure, figuring out how to actually make images that get to the subtleties I am interested in. The project involved many trips to various locations in Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, and South Carolina. The aerial images in the series came out of editorial assignments where I had to shoot from a helicopter with its door removed to fit my lens, which was certainly an adventure. FloodZone is an ongoing project; I’m expanding my territory further north along the Atlantic Coast. While I plan my final destinations there is a lot that happens along the way. Some of my best images are made in obscure locations inbetween the places I marked on the map.
Do you have any projects involving landscape/the environment in the pipeline?
I’m working on a second book with Steidl that takes a look at contemporary and historical Florida and how the two are connected: it’s colonial legacies, the development of the state over the last century into what it has become now. As this project was developing, I got very interested in the work of Walker Evans, who photographed Florida intermittently between 1934 and 1974. He was interested in many of the same themes as me, and it’s very stimulating to feel my work has a significant lineage. Clearly my Florida is different from his, but the visual dialogue is proving to be very rich.
Another project in the works is FireZone. In 2019 I began documenting the aftermath of wildfires in the American West. The series came out of a significant editorial assignment on booming real estate developments in high-risk fire zones in California. Just like with FloodZone, the project FireZone spares the viewer from traditional disaster imagery and instead focuses on how constantly disruptive fire seasons have reshaped entire swathes of American landscape and changed daily life in these communities.
Where is the best place for people to learn more about your work?
My website has information on all my projects and installation images from my exhibitions. FloodZone book is available from most booksellers online and in select bookstores. I’m a frequent user of Instagram. It serves as a diary of sorts; I post all of my news there.