The pastoral fantasies engendered by landscape photography are nowhere better put to the test than in the Irish countryside. For Gwynne Johnson’s new series, This Doubtful Paradise, the photographer returned to Ireland, where she was raised from the time she was one until she was 18, to pursue the sense of identity that is sewn into the landscape. On view through April 5 at the Chicago Artists’ Coalition, This Doubtful Paradise mingles images of Irish scenery with photographs of the rural areas outside of Chicago, where Johnson was born, and to which she returned as a young adult. She does not label which scenes are Ireland and which the Midwest; the mix productively confuses the notion of a homeland identity, especially given Johnson’s personal history and Ireland’s history of emigration.
By turns, Johnson pictures damaged landscapes and affirms the idyllic dream. An over-pruned tree trunk stands mute among electrical wires; a horse is turned so that it appears headless; a sunset glistens over a silvery bay; a bather is immersed in a clean, natural body of water. The range of perspectives show man’s uses and abuses of nature, but Johnson does not pass judgment, even as an environmentalist message can be gleaned from the images. Her straightforward series offers a documentary of her observations and experiences. Her most effective images show people interacting with the land, though their faces are obscured or turned away. This strategy allows viewers an almost tactile feeling of the experience in the photograph, as in the images in which the bather digs her toes into the cool underwater mud.
As if inheriting the legacy of Paul Graham’s Troubled Land series, in which he traced the subtle residue of terrorism in Irish landscapes in the 1980s, Johnson seeks evidence of her own place in the land. In one powerful image, a hand caresses a small gash in the grassy earth. The image of full of feeling, but it also represents the notion that landscape is a green-screen upon which we project our desires and hopes.
Published in Photograph (April, 2012)