Monday, March 19, 2012

Michael Miller's The High North

There is an eerie silence in Michael Miller's photograph series High North at Colour Factory. The enormity and tension of the landscape create a suspense akin to a fairytale where the little humans must tiptoe quietly around a brutal sleeping giant. In this series of photographs taken in an arctic winter we see the sleigh dogs are on edge snarling and ready, the boys are bulked up with machismo, guns and camouflage parkas and the train rail from the mine is snowed over. Here, human activity cannot just push forward with its elbows out like it usually does. We can certainly see through his photographs what Miller means when he writes that 'An arctic winter is humbling.' As this winter snores on, we sense the awe and fear that this landscape inspires.

The hardness and darkness of rock faces, water and bare trees contrasts with the bright white of the snow in many of Miller's photographs. In the work Priest Island, Kirkenes we see the land surrounded by this very flat dark blue water that gradually gets darker the further it is from the land. The land is covered with bright white snow and bare, black trees that seem to encroach around the little houses with little glowing lights. Above the land is a huge expanse of white sky. The houses seem so vulnerable between the darkness of the water and the whiteness of the sky. The perspective seems like that of a powerful predator, watching from afar. 

Other works that depict the way the landscape controls and impacts on human behaviour include Parked Car, Langørhøgden and The Rail from the Mine, Bjørnevetn They snow covered vehicles suggest the inactivity and stillness that the landscape demands. Interestingly, works like High Tension Power Lines, Nordland show power lines in a mountainous autumnal setting. The mountains are so awesome and beautiful that the work resists a simple environmental interpretation about the negative effects human impact has on a vulnerable environment. This image warns against human arrogance. It's not to say the human impact is not disruptive, it's just to say that the natural world seems full of strength and power. Miller's photography evokes the sublime pleasure we take from a turbulent nature that threatens to destroy us. 

 The work Border Guards shows two fresh faced, bulked up young men who are heavily armed. Their heads seem so small in contrast to the bulk of their clothes. They have these wry smiles and intense blue eyes that look back at us. In the context of the rest of the work, their exaggerated defensive stance and armoury seem to protest against the actual vulnerability that comes with living in a hostile climate. The expanse of which we see behind them. In the work Sergeant Pepperoni, Grense Jokobselv Border Outpost, we see inside a cabin we imagine boys like this must hang out. It has tropes of a lodge with plaques for achievements, wood panelling and guitars for a sing along. In the corner is a cut out of a 50's cheesecake style illustrated military girl with big breasts. The crude wear and tear tells us that maybe she been used by a lot of snowed in border guards with big guns with only Sergeant Pepperoni to entertain them. 

In Roll on Turf, Kirkenes we see children playing on big rolls of turf  that seems to have gotten all black and soggy over the snow and thaw. The piles look like big beached whales, cumbersome and difficult. The children in their purple jackets are enjoying playing on them. The scene depicts a very mundane reality of living in these conditions. The slush and messiness of the thaw seems like a dank depressing aftermath of white snow. The big grey sky and suspicious looking figure in the window of the house behind where the little children play seem ominous.

In Miia from Finnland,  Kirkenes a very beautiful girl in a white strapless debutante gown waits in the snow on a yellow milk crate. She is so graceful and composed but must be so cold. We see faded tan lines. Her black open toe shoes reveal the seam of neutral panty hose. Her hair is both black and blonde. The window behind her has white curtains and a black space for someone to peek through. Again, there is an eerie incongruity in this work that is led by the contrast in white and black. Like the children on the roll of turf there is sense of suspense of what's to come for this girl. Though for those of us from a temperate climate, there is an exoticism in how we view the soft beauty of this girl from the snow. Like sleigh bells, fur coats and warm fires there is something of the romance of the winter in the dreamy gaze of her icy eyes. It tells us she knows how to manage the slush of this place just fine. She is part of it. 

These photographs invites stories as they are rich with disruptions to build narratives around. There is a tension between the human world  and the natural one. The human world is depicted diminutively often with little flecks of bright colours that seem to contrast with sombre intensity of the whites and darks of nature. Ultimately,  Michael Miller's photographs have a deep humanism. There is a sense of hostility that somehow always seems to be suspended or deferred in those moments of everyday pleasure.

Anna Newbold

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