On the wall of Darren Almond’s studio in west London is a large map of the world studded with coloured pins: a cluster in western Europe, another in the Outer Hebrides, a couple in Antarctica, more in Siberia, Japan, northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Joining them up by eye, you travel thousands of miles across oceans and mountain ranges, from one end of the planet to the other. The pins mark the regions where, over the past 15 years, Almond has made some of his series of “Fullmoon” photographs – landscapes taken at night, with a long exposure, using only the light of the full moon. The map looks carefully plotted, but in reality the trajectory reflects Almond’s gradual development as an artist, and in that sense adds up to a journey of personal geography.
He took his first full-moon picture purely by chance. Driving through France by night after a holiday, there was Mont Sainte-Victoire, Cézanne’s beloved mountain near Aix-en-Provence, illuminated by the moonlight. Almond had only recently learnt what he describes as “the math” of photography, because he wanted to record a sculpture he had made in London to be exhibited at night. “I had a medium-format camera and I thought, hang on a minute . . . ” He worked out the exposure – “15 minutes should be kind of enough”. Once he’d taken the picture, “The contact sheet sat in my studio for over a year, and I just kept staring at it. I found it really compelling and I didn’t know why.”
This was in the mid-1990s. Almond, who was born in Lancashire in 1971, was not long out of art school, where he’d studied sculpture, and most of his early work was three-dimensional. But the moonlight photograph continued to draw him, so he decided to try again. If the first picture had been influenced by Cézanne, the second was a tribute to Constable, and his mother’s love of “Flatford Mill”, despite its ubiquity as an image. The result was an uncanny hybrid that had the tonal depth and flatness of a painting but the physical accuracy of a photograph. Rather than defined by sunlight and shadow, the scene was bathed in the cold, pale, yellow glow of moonlight, while the long exposure softened the outlines of the buildings and smoothed the ripples on the water. Instead of emitting light, the pictures seemed to absorb it. “You’re giving the landscape a longer time to express itself, and giving the film so much more life,” he says. “The moon moves during the exposure. All the shadows get softened. And the moon itself has a tone and a colour.” In some of the full-moon pictures that came later, that unreal quality threatened to tip over into kitsch because the colours were so unfamiliar they looked fake.
Since then, Almond has continued to take full-moon pictures intermittently, fitting them between other projects that have taken him to some extreme places in the world. In 2002, for example, he spent a month in Antarctica, making a video work that was projected on to the external wall of the National Theatre. In 2008 he showed two films in London: one made inside a sulphur mine in Indonesia, following the hellish life of miners in close-up; the other in Tibet, a three-screen piece that recorded the life of monks inside the oldest monastery in Lhasa and the passage of the bullet train through the landscape. In 2010 he showed works made in Monchegorsk and Norilsk, in northern Siberia, the site of the Soviet gulag and one of the most polluted areas on earth.
As he has absorbed more geological, astronomical and climatic information, Almond is increasingly driven by an awareness of the damage being done to the planet. He is a respectful admirer of Darwin, and followed the voyage of the Beagle to Cape Verde, as well as to Patagonia, where the autumn colour of the trees in moonlight is surreally bright. He also reveres pioneering photographers such as Carleton Watkins and Robert Adams, working a century apart, who recorded the landscape of the American northwest – in Adams’ case, as it has been ravaged by deforestation.
He was quick to disabuse any idea that his has been a privileged journey to record the surviving wildernesses: “These places are on the cusp of change. These landscapes are becoming more popular. I’m not a mountaineer, I’m not an explorer. These landscapes are disappearing. The landscape we think about is no longer there.”
This month, in London, Almond is exhibiting some of his most recent “Fullmoon” works made in Patagonia, Tasmania, Cape Verde and Scotland. They are joined by a new series of photographs, made in daylight, of the standing stones at Calanais on the west coast of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. The stones date back to 3000BC and are believed to be a ritual site where, every 18.6 years, the moon hangs so low it appears to move between them. “What I like about the stones,” he says, “is that when you are confronted by them you are compelled by the surface of them, because they have this attainable memory. You have this relationship to time.” Standing among them at night, he adds, “you’re also trying to assimilate yourself in the context of the stars and the exploding galaxy around you. It doesn’t half put you in a questioning mood.”
Darren Almond’s ‘To Leave a Light Impression’ runs at White Cube, London SE1, from January 22 to April 13, catalogue £25; whitecube.com. ‘Fullmoon’ is published by Taschen in March