This is an encounter between photographers who chronicle our environment and those who create it. In Flowers gallery’s Uncommon Ground we have Canadian star Edward Burtynsky, unrivalled witness to ecological wounds; Andy Goldsworthy, who is as much land artist as photographer; Prix Pictet winner Nadav Kander, who reveals the back stories of his subjects – here, the industrial assault on the Yangtze river – with tender but unsparing honesty; and Dutch photographer Scarlett Hooft Graafland, who shoots her own naked legs draped over the roofs of huts dotted across Icelandic lava fields.
The aim of this diverse assembly is to reveal the art within nature and the nature within art. It succeeds triumphantly. From a distance, Robert Polidori’s view of a Mumbai shantytown is a mosaic glimmering with multi-hued tesserae that resolve into huts painted in acid-bright colours. On closer inspection that sea of homes is vital with human detail – tarpaulin roofs anchored by scraps of metal, plants in tin cans fighting for oxygen – that reveal more about its subject than any sociological text.
Framing a slice of Vermont quarry above a slab of water, Burtynsky similarly fuses reportage and poetry. Sickly yellow and black streaks bleed down the waterfall of rock into a poisonous green pool so motionless it could be marble. Burtynsky the artist has transformed one material into another; Burtynsky the photographer-witness has revealed the sinister alchemy wrought when we plunder nature.
The American Chris Engman, on the other hand, sculpts his way to surreal illumination. Here, he plants a multi-part frame on a swathe of barren scrubland. Either side of the structure, the sky is a merciless blue yet through the openings a veil of cloud is visible thanks to a photograph stretched across the frame. Recalling Magritte, the effect of this sleight of eye is to intensify the cerulean real.
Some works blur the boundary between art and life more concretely. The Dutch collaboration Wassinklundgren mischievously scattered empty bottles around Beijing then photographed the citizens who, tempted by a fee of 1 cent for every one recycled, paused to pick them up. Tom Lovelace here displays canvas pinboards, discovered in a shop window and discoloured by the light to A4-size rectangles of deep-sea green, in smart wooden frames. Not just another sequence of found objects, in this company they become a story, as technically engaging as it is romantic, about the power and beauty of hidden light.
Such conceptual materialism, rooted in the work of 1960s visionaries such as Piero Manzoni and the Arte Povera movement, also informs a cycle by young British photographer Peter Ainsworth. Drawn to off-radar urban sites, Ainsworth here proffers a shot of a bleak, industrial, water-filled gully whose stained cement flanks he has divided into rectangles with masking tape, then pairing close-up photographs of the framed stone oblongs alongside etchings he has made of their pitted, decaying patina. The former pack a rough-and-ready punch while the latter are so elegant they could be mistaken for abstract Japanese prints. The result is a graceful interrogation of the rapport between nature and image that goes to the heart of what this illuminating exhibition is about.
Photography needs its conceptual revolutionaries if it is to grow and flourish. But its capacity to remind us of the wonder of the world outside our window is still its most precious virtue.
‘Uncommon Ground’, Flowers Gallery, London to September 1 www.flowersgallery.com