Ned Pratt’s landscapes include humankind, the manmade elements in his photographs are particular and deliberately placed. Yet, each has been touched by the force of nature that surrounds it: in almost every image there is evidence of relentless weather. Still the manmade shapes loom large, perhaps pointing to our need to impose our presence onto the perfection of the natural world. Pratt grew up in Newfoundland with these manmade elements all around him, like the ground beneath his feet, the endless ocean, and towering sky.
Despite their power, Ned Pratt’s images don’t scream and yell. You don’t see the gale. In an interview with The Rooms’ curator Mireille Eagan, in the book that accompanies his retrospective exhibition One Wave, Ned Pratt says, “I’ve never seen anyone look at my pictures and stomp!”
“I never put a man-made thing in a photograph to make fun of it,” he said. “Anything in the photographs is as important as everything else… (it) supports everything else. Obviously, there is a central point of interest or the key to making it something worthwhile to look at.”
In Miller Mechanical, Trinity Bay, 2008, the image that started this series, Pratt notes that the hydroelectric pole is not perfectly perpendicular to the frame. “I see four shapes,” he said. They aren’t perfect squares: the top left-hand quadrant exactly equals the opposite, lower right-hand quadrant diagonally. This effectively creates a tension that keeps one looking. This is interesting and it works. The viewer may or may not notice this or understand immediately why they are wrapped up in what may otherwise seem like an ordinary scene—if any scene in Newfoundland can be described as ordinary—but the pole is definitely creating tension with those shapes in the frame. The pole at the edge of the universe, obscuring your otherwise large view of the world, is there for a reason—it is the key to this particular visual puzzle.
Pratt creates like a photographer but defies many photographic conventions: he often shoots into the light (to enhance the shape of an object), he sticks horizon lines dead centre in the frame, he defies the rule of thirds, and he pushes objects almost to the edge. He changes his vantage point to enable parts of the scene to join, or almost touch, creating “a tension of proximity.” In photography, this ‘pinching’ is a place where your eye gets stuck. It’s largely discouraged, but in Pratt’s practice it functions like an elastic band that keeps the viewer in the frame—that space leads you to another, and so on.
“In a way,” said Pratt, “the compositions are more circular than linear. Not all of them, but I think what’s important in photography is that your eye is constantly dancing around in the image. When the photographs are successful, they fix you, so you’re engrossed in what you’re looking at, but you have to consider the whole. You have the first impression of the image and the finer details keep you engaged.”
In One Wave, Pratt’s playful propensity to construct innovative compositions is joyful, recalling the work of André Kertesz, a Hungarian born photographer Pratt discovered while studying at NSCAD. Kertesz was known for his innovative, playful but powerful compositions, one component in his emotional, sensitive rendering of the world into elements of design.
“That’s the photography, for me, that made me want to be a photographer in the first place,” said Pratt. “I remember when I first came across that work trying to figure out what made it so much more than just photography.”
Pratt’s elements of design are crafted from sky, sea, and land; the land is often evidenced by manmade objects that stand-in for the actual ground in a scene. They’re not always beautiful things, and almost always contain imperfections, but the way Pratt constructs his images is beautiful—his careful placement of ingredients recalling the symmetrical perfection of film director Wes Anderson’s compositions. Unlike Anderson’s scenes, that are always filled with quirky characters, here there is only evidence that someone was once there. In many instances, such as Pack Ice, Northern Peninsula, 2016, Pratt so perfectly places himself with his slightly telephoto lens that the compressed scenes he creates look two-dimensional, like façades from old Westerns.
Pratt creates ‘traditional’ compositions with non-traditional elements. “Something I’m interested in is substituting—substituting manmade objects for things in the environment,” said Pratt. “You’re playing with people’s expectations of what they think should be there. As long as it matches the notion our brain will put (in) whatever it thinks should be there.” In Below a Drift, 2017, a viewer sees a wave crashing on the shore, but it’s really a snowdrift. The movement is enhanced by the perfect placement of the horizontal lines above the snow, said Pratt. In Modern Architecture, Fogo, 2015, he pushes the forms together so perfectly he creates a different kind of tension. The manmade structure is so grand and overwhelming it becomes one in power with the ocean and the sky. Pratt’s composition erases the vanishing point and “flattens” the perspective creating a new division of space.
In Yellow Berm, 2013, there is a light dusting of snow on top of the berm, but it reads like the ocean when you look down from the sky. Pratt saw potential here and took a quick shot but returned later, even though the drive to get there took an hour. Not properly dressed for the cold he knew he had to revisit this scene. He carefully composed it while lying on the ground on reusable Sobeys bags. Pratt’s not deceiving you. Again, he gives you a clue with the title of this piece. The open composition and the lack of scale in the scene might throw off a viewer, until you figure out what the endless yellow line is that you are seeing.
“I love making photographs,” said Pratt. “The photographs that become puzzles are my favourite ones, the ones that leave you wondering what you’re looking at. I do them instinctually. They’re games.”
In the preface to One Wave, Pratt gives readers a map to his photographic approach. The title, Looking for Seeing, describes what National Geographic veteran Sam Abell does when he’s waiting for the elements of a scene to come together or what Freeman Patterson talks about in his book, Photography and the Art of Seeing. Many photographers and critics use the term, ‘seeing.’ For Patterson this involves throwing off the noise and pressures that crowd your mind and getting into a state where you are alone with the world in front of you. Suddenly, you can see, and have room in your mind to create. It’s almost a meditation, and very different from commercial or journalistic photography where your images match the intentions of someone else for a particular purpose. “I feel responsible”, said Pratt, “for every image I make, and for the messages that accompany them. That’s what I like about doing my personal photography. It’s about making things that are calm and accessible and challenging and harmless.”