Jim Naughten is an artist who understands the transformative effects that photography can have on a subject. In each of his previous projects he has been concerned with reanimating history. His latest images of Victorian and Edwardian zoological specimens continue this overarching visual enquiry but incorporate in addition a fascinating venture into three-dimensional imaging. They are captivating enough even when seen in two dimensions. But once you plunge into the marvel of their stereoscopic depth you are transfixed. Through the act of viewing, an intangible transformation takes place. While the photographs exist in physical form on paper, they also live as an experience, a beautiful illusion held in the mind.
These immaculate stereographs will have practical application from a purely documentary or scientific point of view; yet they also provoke more esoteric responses. Witnessed in three dimensions, the specimens in fluid and articulated skeletons become sculptural. The bellying of a ribcage, the swoop of a tail, or the turn of a head is an expressive form in space. It is tempting to anthropomorphise these animals. Many of the creatures here seem to possess a character that is enhanced or revealed through the photographs, as if they were acting or knowingly sitting for their portraits. The Lar Gibbon and Flap Necked Chameleon look like jokers; the Porcupine Fish is startled; a Young Female Orangutan appears deflated; the Atlantic Cod is angry; and the Leafy Sea Dragon is a real coquette. Examining the tracery of the bones in the Eurasian Curlew’s wings and its rapier-like beak sharpens my senses. Following the arranged arabesques of the Atlantic White Spotted Octopus’s arms, I am reminded of the influence of the natural world that forged Art Nouveau.
Naughten embodies the fertile marriage between nature and art in his Animal Kingdom. He dedicated a year refining the project, solving technical challenges and gathering images during visits to numerous museums. The photographs are individually coherent, but form part of a typology, a comparative study of types. Embracing the aesthetic and working reality of the archive, he shows the patina of time and handling in the fading labels, old typefaces and peeling black backing paint of the specimens in fluid. He also echoes museums’ classification systems, arranging his final edited fifty images into five groups — Marine, Reptile, Mammal, Avian and Primate – reflecting the sequential and chronological evolution of man.
A sense of boyhood fascination is captured in Naughten’s project. He is the nascent scientific collector of weird treasures, creating his own understanding of the world through a process of discovery and systematic gathering. The simple joy of looking is captured here too. Viewing these photographs in stereo forces attention on a single subject, and the act of observation is necessarily solitary: one subject to one viewer at a time. Relative scale of the specimens becomes ambiguous and the experience is akin to being absorbed while looking down a microscope. The impression of time passing, and the world outside, momentarily slips away and an intensified consciousness takes over. A whole universe frozen in time is reanimated and elegantly represented. It is like a secret cabinet of curiosities with its doors unexpectedly wide open
— Martin Barnes
Senior Curator of Photographs,
Victoria and Albert Museum,
Each image, a portrait of Herero tribe members of Namibia, reveals a material culture that harkens the region’s tumultuous past: residents wear Victorian era dresses and paramilitary costume as a direct result and documentation of its early 20th century German colonization. Namibia’s borders encompass the world’s oldest desert. Bleak lunar landscapes, diamond mines, German ghost towns, rolling sea fogs, nomadic tribes and a hostile coastline littered with shipwrecks and whale skeletons comprise the region’s striking and haunting natural features. Namibia’s geography has witnessed a turbulent and little documented history of human settlement, upheaval and war within a particularly brutal period of European colonization.
In the European scramble to colonise Africa, Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany claimed one of the least populated and most hostile environments on the planet. It became Deutsche Sudewest-afrika. Though sparsely populated, it was already home to the San, Nama and Herero people. Rhenish missionaries set about converting and clothing them after European fashion. Over time, this became a Herero tradition, and continuing to dress in this manner was a great source of pride to the wearer. Gradually, regional variations in the silhouette emerged; for example, the addition of 'cow horns' to headdresses reflects the great importance with which they regard their cattle.
— Mia Rae Oppenheimer
Mountains of Kong
Jim Naughten’s latest project takes the viewer back in time to fabled place, which may or may not have ever existed. Acting as an explorer, scientist and photographer Naughten has documented a world that existed in the popular consciousness for over a hundred years.
The Mountains of Kong could be found on the worlds most prestigious maps of Africa from 1798 through to the late 1880s when they were finally declared to be non-existent. Naughten has created a series of stereoscopic images that tell a very different story as he imagines a fictitious record made for posterity and scientific purposes during an expedition to the mountain range. The resulting images are viewable in three dimensions by using the same stereoscopic technology made popular in the late 1800s which allowed Victorians to travel to the four corners of the world whilst sitting at home in their armchairs. Naughten presents us with the evidence for the existence of the mythical kingdom in irrefutable three-dimensional form.
Jim Naughten says: “In the Mountains of Kong I discover extraordinary, otherworldly landscapes, encounter strange exotic creatures that dwell in a parallel universe. A magical Shangri-La ruled by animals. The work aims to be engaging and playful but also functions as a comment on the mutability of history and our ever evolving and malleable relationship with the past”
— Michael Hoppen Gallery
Neither Here Nor There
Photographers were required to provide equally the neutral accuracy of the photographic trace, the show-window spectacle of the exotic, and the epiphanous engagement with the sacred. Each of these effects was expected to carry viewers beyond their everyday existences and yet confirm their most central assumptions concerning the word in general and the non-European world in particular. [From Travelling Light by Peter Osbourne]
The above quotation lays out some of the high expectations of Victorian commercial travel photography, whilst also hinting at Ninetieth Century fascinations, desires and obsessions. Such aspirations are all woven into Mountains of Kong by Jim Naughten — not only in subject matter, but also in medium and how one looks at the photographs. Tapping into the wonder and magic of the time, Mountains of Kong takes the viewer on a journey to a mythical mountain range in Africa. Historical descriptions of these fertile lands were lush and hallucinogenic, described by a series of Chinese whispers that became all the more paradisiacal with each Western explorer’s version. Gold and scarlet rivers and trees existed on cerulean mountains where the luscious vegetation jostled with fantastical beasts. Human desire for mythical kingdoms and the creatures that inhabit them are plentiful in literature and folk lore: from the hanging gardens of Babylon and Atlantis, to more contemporaneous beasts such as the Loss Ness Monster and of course King Kong. Such desires continue the promise of a Shangri La, or the capturing of mythical untameable animals that seem locked forever in our imaginations and cultural consciousness.
What makes the ‘real’ Mountains of Kong different was they existed on maps of West Africa right up until the 1880s. They did not come from the imagination of popular adventure novels by authors such as H. Rider Haggard or
Jules Verne, but were instead marked and mapped by cartographers, a fact that gave them the authority of truth. Similar expectations were (and still are) also made of photography, but as the above quote suggests photography also has to entertain, and in the 19th Century, it had to take the viewer far away from damp and miserable English winters into exotic lands that were simultaneously known and not known.
Nobody grasped photography’s ability to entertain more than one of its first inventors Louis Daguerre (1787–1851), who neatly double backs into this tale by being a key developer of the diorama theatre: a key development in three dimensional viewing of still images for mass entertainment invented earlier in the century. In these photographs Naughten has photographed dioramas in museums in both Europe and the US, taking artificial scenes that often don’t quite add up and presenting them as ‘scientific’ proof of the Mountains of Kong. Naughten is exploring and reinventing the fabled mountain range questioning the veracity of the photograph; the authenticity of map making; the fantastical desires for reality and fantasy; and the malleability of history. He ties these investigations back into a key moment of photographic history by making the images stereoscopic and thus echoing the excitement not only of the explorations and literature of the time, but also the wonders of the new invention of photography that was able to dazzle and amuse viewers with its transformative ability to turn photography three dimensional.
Breathing fresh life into the myth of the Mountains of Kong, Naughten is a modern day explorer filled with the same thrill of the chase and desire for the exotic as those ninetieth century heroes that filled the pages of Lost World Novels. His work holds the same excitement and wonder as early travel photographs. As we look at these three dimensional colourful worlds we know in our heart of hearts they are not real, just as a journey to the centre of the earth is impossible, but for a tiny moment, we hope it could be true.
— Susan Bright
Every summer thousands of people from all over the world gather in a Kentish field and leave the present firmly behind. They step out of their routine daily lives and transform into historical characters from the First and Second World Wars, often with such vigour and obsessive attention to detail that its hard to imagine them in contemporary settings. Taking on a different name, identity and sometimes even a different tongue, the role players re-enact battles and drills from an imagined past. It is something more than acting, a collective fantasy played out on a massive scale.
— Jim Naughten
Photographed against a plain background in a portable studio, the re-enactors seem to gaze beyond the viewer in to another time. Their uniforms and costumes are precise in their detail, but the artist confuses our perception of what we are seeing. The time and space are ambiguous and this disconcerting effect gives the viewer the feeling that they are looking at both the past and the present simultaneously. Naughten tells us nothing of his sitters;’ lives, nor does he express a view on their activities, but raises questions about collective perceptions of history and our own relationship with the past.
— Imperial War Museum