Since at least the year 2000 Darren Almond has been working away at a long ongoing series called “Fullmoon”. The principle has been very simple. Photograph outdoors at night with long exposures and the world looks different. Add to that spectacular production values, big prints, careful marketing and all the thin scholarship of modern conceptual art, and you have a perfectly judged series.
These not-very-challenging pictures with just enough intellectual and emotional content sit at one of the crossroads where art and commerce meet. If you twist to the left, Almond has made 15 years of sensitive and loaded pictures about the man-affected environment, coloured Salgados for the internet generation, with deep backstories and endless poetic weight. If you twist to the right, he’s made 15 years of desirable landscape pictures, perfectly branded, perfectly identifiable as his, and calculated not to frighten the horses. Safe, clean, vaguely worthy art, weighted to an ounce. A pinch of worry (which can be safely confined to the coffee-table book); a pound of nice picture to put on the wall.
However, if you talk to people who love pictures, none can ever remember a specific Darren Almond “Fullmoon” work. He has made a series, as undifferentiated as neckties from Hermès. Look too closely and you will be uncomfortably reminded of the things you see in Condé Nast Traveller; the next places on the planet, the places to care about and then forget.
There has been energy and thought put into the making of this stuff, and it has paid him back in spades. Almond is taken seriously as an artist, and now he has been given one of the most beautiful exhibition spaces in England, the glorious South Gallery of White Cube’s monumental temple in Bermondsey. It could have been a total bust. Astonishingly, Almond has excelled himself. He has made a series of pictures which are not only good but are good in precisely the ways that his fans have been claiming on his behalf for years.
Almond has made giant prints of the stones in a neolithic circle on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides, which (barring one unfortunate technical flaw) add up to a very exciting series. Although it may not seem like it on this page, where it is impossible to do justice to these enormous photographs, they have presence and weight and carry a glorious load of memory and allusion. The circle is called Callanish, and you have to imagine a Stonehenge, smaller than the over-run attraction by the A303 trunk road in Wiltshire but infinitely wilder. And suddenly in this place – distant but much more reachable than the grim former gulags or lost basalt rocks in which Almond has specialised in the past – everything has come together.
The set is titled “Present Form”, as though these incredibly durable stones were in Brownian motion, likely to shift in the blink of an eye. Each picture simply has a cardinal number in Gaelic, a language whose script somehow looks immeasurably old.
Almond has long been interested in time. The first point of the “Fullmoon” pictures is that they are deliberately made with slow exposures, certainly of minutes, perhaps of hours. There is no photographic instant in Almond, because he distrusts the instant or isn’t interested in it. He has been a Victorian photographer in modern dress. In his rivers, water flows like Roger Fenton’s. He has made time-lapse pieces, video, even a piece that involved photographing every minute of every hour for a week. We don’t exactly know what the circle at Callanish was, but it seems to correspond to a lunar calendar. It suits Almond’s purposes so well that if it didn’t exist, he might have had to have it built.
The stones are photographed from very low, usually singly against a drab sky. They are a kind of typology, all seen in the same way. The grasses at their feet are seen with intense clarity, as though to anchor us in the familiar reality of things known and felt. But the stones are photographed differently. They seem to bulge and strain with the weight of time within them. They are striated from whatever ancient process laid them down, and the ages of erosion since.
But those striations become metaphorical. Suddenly we’re looking at elephant skin, wrinkled with the mismatch between muscle inside and weather out. These stones are beautifully loaded. They might be the great heads on Easter Island (Nick Waplington once photographed those very well). They certainly look human, too, although not so much in the worn detail of Shelley’s Ozymandias. The best of them lean forever against a chill Hebridean wind like Steichen’s great rendering of Rodin’s Balzac.
That’s not all. Contemporary habits tend to weigh against artists telling stories; they comment upon the stories of previous artists. In the music world that can be called sampling; more pretentiously it’s called postmodernism. It allows apparently plain pictures to be freighted with the ghosts of pictures from before. The greatest British photographer of Callanish was Fay Godwin, who all her career was interested in places whose importance had been lost over time. She liked grassed-over tracks that had once been major trade routes. She loved Callanish, whatever it once was, and photographed there in an austere thin black and white that matched the stones and the weather.
Bill Brandt made great pictures in the Hebrides; Paul Strand, too. These things are not obscurities. They are what we know about Callanish, because that’s how photography works. Further afield, we have other harmonies: I found myself thinking of Elger Esser’s cliffs and Thomas Joshua Cooper’s mighty Atlantic headlands and at the other end of the scale of John Blakemore staring at pale dying flower stems. These things sit within Almond’s frames, under the surface of each picture, as memory, echo and depth. The monoliths are not alone in their ancient circle, and Almond is not alone as a thoughtful photographer in the landscape; we see him (whether consciously or not) in the context of his predecessors and contemporaries.
There are eight of these pictures in the central hall of White Cube and they are just as monolithic as the stones they represent. There is one trouble, which is that if you make photographs nine or 10ft high that depict things against a pale grey sky, you are going to have quite enormous expanses of undifferentiated grey around the outside of the picture.
Almond hasn’t solved that. As you scan a row of the pictures, the tones of each grey background are jarringly different, whiter here, yellower there, and so on. Because they are digital prints they present acres of really very boring background. It is a mistake, a technical challenge which the artist hasn’t solved. But it is the only one.
These eight pictures are what the artist has been working towards for years, and they have a magnificent hard purity which it seemed unlikely that he would ever achieve.
‘To Leave a Light Impression’, until April 13, White Cube, Bermondsey, London, whitecube.com