landscape as archive

in the work of Simon Norfolk


LCC, University of the Arts London, UK

A line of fire snakes left to right along a ridgeline, climbing up the dark volcanic rock to the summit in the distance. The sky above is patterned with the circular traces of star trails, whilst the top of the ridge is dusted with snow. Just below the summit, on the left-hand side, a patch of white seeps down the scree face of the mountain, but it fails to reach a small tarn lower down that seems to desperately reach up to connect with the edge of the ice. Titled Mt Kenya, 1934, this epic image by the photographer Simon Norfolk depicts the current state of the Lewis Glacier on Africa’s second highest mountain, with the fiery trail tracking what was the edge of the glacier almost eighty years ago. Part of a series of similar images entitled When I Am Laid in Earth, the photograph uses what Norfolk terms a ‘Pyrograph’; a flaming trail to mark the contours of the glacier from a succession of dates that mark the sad decline of this natural phenomenon. Using precise data from previous geological surveys, Norfolk used a GPS tracker to meticulously map out where the exact edge of the glacier was for the years 1934, 1947, 1963, 1987 and 2004. Norfolk arrived at the Lewis Glacier in 2014 after an exhaustive investigative process to identify the best location globally to make the visual statement that he had planned out well in advance. Working in collaboration with the environmental charity, Project Pressure, whose mission is to visualize the climate crisis, Norfolk researched a range of potential glaciers in Europe before identifying Mt Kenya as offering the best opportunity for images that most clearly demonstrated the retreat of the ice in the clearest and most reliably documented way. Even the time of year was carefully chosen, late October offered the best combination of the post summer decline of the glacier but before the snows of winter fell. Norfolk underpins all his works with this depth of research that establishes a credibility and authenticity to his work, expressed in the detail of caption information that surrounds his projects. This specificity and certainty allows him to draw inferences from the locations he depicts. As he maintains, ‘If you take to the landscape a knowledge about history then it can be reflected back at you. It tells you its memories’. [1]

Simon Norfolk, Stratographs. 2014, Courtesy of the artist.

Norfolk wanted to use fire as a metaphor for the violence of climate change, so petroleum as the combustible medium made perfect sense. The concept of using fire to paint a line across a landscape was one he had been developing for some time, with various experimental attempts to find the perfect technique on nocturnal expeditions to the Sussex hills and even the volcano of Teide on Tenerife. On Mt Kenya, during the day, he positioned tiny low powered lamps hidden behind rocks to delineate the line, and then once darkness fell and the moon had risen, he laboriously dragged behind him a homemade device consisting of a garden fork attached to which was a roll of carpet, soaked in petrol and then set alight. The Heath Robinson device was in fact a clever and elegant solution to a number of technical and representational problems. He wanted to use a low-fi approach, not wanting to contribute to the problem by the ethically problematic act of transporting large amounts of technical equipment to the top of the mountain. Instead, he locally sourced a simple everyday tool, in an act of what he describes as more ‘non-confrontational with the environment’, and displaying a certain humility in the face of the mountain. [2] By inverting the rake, the flex of the tines on which the flaming carpet was balanced also allowed him to follow the gradient of the rock surface more precisely, creating the effect that the fire was organically coming up from the surface of the mountain. Each exposure took one hour, with the long capture time meaning that no trace was recorded of his own physical presence, but that the movement of the stars was recorded to add to the sense of the geological passage of time embedded into the composition of the frame. The images were shot during the peak phase of the full moon to create the clear directional light that reveals the volcanic rock in sharp relief. There was a strong performative element to the image making, as Norfolk had to toil across the steep landscape in the thin, rarefied air at almost 5,000m elevation, leaving him exhausted and struggling to breathe at the end of each fire trail. The whole process took more than two weeks, as only one exposure could be made each night, and several were lost to technical issues, battery failure and adverse weather.

Like many of his earlier series of works on Battlescapes and the aftermath of the genocidal massacres of Bosnia, Norfolk’s interventions into the landscape of Mt Kenya can be read as a form of archival statement. The clear delineation of the historic extent of the decline of the glacial snout enables the viewer to see how global warming has impacted the environment so dramatically, with the implication that the process is ongoing. As scientists predict, the glacier will likely sadly disappear completely by the middle of the 21st century. The Mt Kenya portfolio was intended to raise awareness of the impact of climate change, to create a clear visual elegy to the loss of the ice, and as such formed the first chapter in an ongoing series of works aimed at raising awareness of the dangers posed by the climate emergency. But Norfolk also had another motivation, to experience and celebrate the sheer sublime beauty and awesomeness of mountain environments that generations of travelers have admired, this ‘romantic gesture’ as he puts it. For Norfolk, the act of climbing a mountain is a ‘search for moral altitude, a kind of distance of vision to see a long way, morally inside yourself as well as physically up there, seeking something clearer, sharper, more exposed’. He situates himself in that long tradition of English explorers who travelled to the high places of the world ‘looking for an idea of purity, a moral high ground’, and who saw a mountain as a ‘place where there was a clarity and a simplicity, that emotional current that runs through Shelley in Chamonix in 1812 and George Mallory on Everest in 1924’. [3] This concept of an ethical charge to the elevated perspective of a mountain is a current that has informed Norfolk’s work for some time, as he explains ‘for years I thought Casper David Freidrich’s “Wanderer over the sea of fog”, was about a man in the wrong clothes stuck on a mountain, but when I realized what it was really about it was an epiphany, that it was a philosophical discourse about how you should behave as a moral man. The idea that from the top of a mountain you can see clearly beyond and behind the everyday, see things in their real context, that image has informed a lot of my work’ (Norfolk to Lowe, 2004). But the transcendent perspective the altitude of Mt Kenya delivers is tinged with the sadness that it also reveals the realisation that it is a wounded hulk. Norfolk poignantly writes ‘to be next to the ice is to feel privileged: like you are beside a colossal, sleeping giant. I imagine being close to a darted bull-elephant feels the same and I'm reminded of 17th century Dutch paintings of awestruck, bewildered Burghers contemplating a stranded whalefish’.[4] He continues to express how the awesome scale of the glacier, even as it is depleted, gives a sense of perspective, ‘close-up one senses the glacier's bulk, its coiled, dormant energy or its colossal longevity. And, of course, it’s cold, resigned indifference. One is hit by an overwhelming feeling of one's own smallness and transience’.[5]

This theme of the glacier as almost a sentient being is continued in Shroud, the second of Norfolk’s ongoing series of works concerned with the climate emergency. Again, collaborating with Project Pressure, Norfolk travelled to the Rhône Glacier in the Swiss Alps in 2018 to photograph an extraordinary attempt to defy rising temperatures. A man-made ice tunnel carved underneath the glacier has been a popular tourist attraction for more than a century, but the melting of the ice in recent years above it has threatened its existence. For the last twenty years, in an attempt to delay the inevitable, the family that own the ice grotto have covered the surface of the glacier that lies directly above the tunnel with huge sheets of white material that serve to reflect the heat away from the ice below to slow down the rate of deterioration. Confronted with the decaying glacier, with millennia of geological history embedded in layers within it, Norfolk again felt an ‘amazing sense of sadness, of tragedy, when you see this eroded stump leaking water you can see where the summer sun has pitted and carved into the surface of the ice itself’. [6] Exposed to the elements the fabric has become torn and tattered, creating an elegiac mantle that envelops and wraps the ice below creating the impression of carved stone. This visual illusion is central to Norfolk’s metaphoric reading of the scene, as he notes it plays with the ‘idea of plasticity; the physical states of ice. It's water, but when it's frozen at this altitude it is like a diamond cutter. Covered in the cloth it looked like carrara marble in the folds on a pieta, one of the hardest stones we have to carve, and yet the ice can slice through the rock of the mountain like a hot knife through plastic’. [7] The effect is heightened by Norfolk’s careful use of additional lighting to sculpt and mould the surface of the cloth. As with the Mt Kenya series, Norfolk uses an in-camera technique to create a dramatic effect. To create the shafts of light that beam down from on high onto the ice, Norfolk deployed a helium filled dirigible, controlled and directed by ropes, from which was suspended a powerful flashgun, allowing his team to carefully direct the light onto precise parts of the scene. By underexposing the overall frame, the rays of light highlight the drapery creating a sculptural effect. The images have a cold, blue beauty, often tinged with a golden light raking across the mountain tops in the far distance, creating a powerful emotional effect on the viewer. Making the audience care about the loss of this frozen giant is Norfolk’s central concern, as he forcefully states ‘We will not cherish those things that we do not love’. [8]

Simon Norfolk, Shroud, 2018. Courtesy of the artist.

If the Mt Kenya series was an attempt to raise awareness of the impact of climate change, Shroud was a conscious statement to try to find solutions, not just to visualise the problem. For Norfolk the pressing need is that ‘now we have to move the argument forward, how do we mitigate against climate change, what are we going to do?’ Norfolk was therefore interested in the ‘landscape as technical laboratory of climate change solutions’. [9]

Despite its ‘forlorn and pathetic attempt to forestall the inevitable at huge cost’, the covering of the Rhône glacier provided Norfolk with an opportunity to make highly visible the huge effort that will be needed to mitigate global warming. His mission is to ‘try and find places that have this pathos that I can attach you to, to make you weep for them, fall love with them, and then that love will possibly lead you to some kind of action’. [10] This approach is one that builds on his strategy in his earlier works that dealt with the ravages of conflict, where he was seeking to ‘take the inert and try to make that landscape reflect back to me - human struggles, political struggles, ethical struggles, to vitalise the landscape, to make it live and tell me back the stories it has witnessed. To turn the landscape into a storyteller’. [11] In all of his works, Norfolk deliberately uses a visual strategy of the sublime to entice the viewer, and then to deliver a political message once their attention has been engaged. As he puts it, he sees himself as a ‘seducer, in order to begin any kind of dialogue, I need to draw the viewer into my space, the opinions we have about things are already formed. Normally, if you hear something is about refugees, you immediately know what to expect, likewise a show about landscapes. My strategy is to confuse these stereotypes, to shatter that preconception of the work, in that split second before the viewer rebuilds the fortress of their preconceptions, you can get inside with all kinds of subversions of symbols, if people don’t get what they expect, then they have to re-interrogate their preconceptions about what the pictures are meant to be about’. [12] Central to the force of this strategy is the careful way that Norfolk layers time in his images, carrying out extensive, detailed and comprehensive research into the history of the places he photographs. This process helps shape the questions and themes that he works with, helping to determine both the locations and the aesthetics he explores. As he notes, ‘in a more conceptual way doing the research makes me think about the issues and that makes me think about the conceptual framework and the metaphors I want to use’.[13] This detailed research is the foundation of Norfolk’s practice; without it he believes his work would lack any credibility or even visual force. The research process underpins the fieldwork, meaning that Norfolk is attuned into the nuances of the history that he is trying to coax out of the landscape. Norfolk’s’ approach can be described therefore as what the archaeologist Michael Shanks has identified as a ‘critical romanticism’ (1995), where the multivalent temporality of the photograph combines with its aesthetic and its content to describe the ‘topology of time – the folding of time, how pasts and presents meet… And how this encounter is ultimately incomprehensible – sublime – prompting us to restlessly experiment with our responses, representations, reflections’.[14] Like those of his contemporaries in the ‘Aftermath’ genre, Norfolk’s landscapes can be read as archives, as the photographers recognise in the terrain before them a sense of both temporal, historical and spatial complexity that they shape and give form to make meaning. The archaeologist Laurent Oliver sums up this process well: ‘We are here, in the present, looking out over a landscape that lies before us, a landscape that holds the past, all the moments of the past mixed together. We are looking at form, examining a surface crossed with line and motifs, recognizing shapes, discerning the effects of an infinite variety of proximate forms that combine with each other to create overall patterns’.[15] The landscape thus becomes more than a topography, and is transformed into a space of memory, allusion, metaphor, association and history. Photographs of this landscape then become an intervention, what Shanks calls an active ‘engagement with a place and re-presentation rather than treating them as simple descriptive document’.[16] This process also necessitates the active engagement of the viewer, who must search the scene for clues to the history of the space and place depicted. The landscape photograph can thus be interpreted as a palimpsest, a layering of time across the topography. Shanks explains this generates a ‘temporal topology’, as ‘changes in a landscape may remain long after they occurred. The contemporary/simultaneous coexistence of traces of the history of a landscape offers the challenge of disentangling the palimpsest’. [17] The image thus oscillates temporally, from present, to present/past/past present, and then again to present. To read a landscape as an archive generates the sense that a photograph of a moment in time can refer not just to the history of a scene at that juncture, but also to the past history of that place, and act as a premonition of its future history as well.


[1] SIMON NORFOLK, interview with the author, 2021.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] SIMON NORFOLK, interview with the author, 2014.

[5] Ibid.

[6] SIMON NORFOLK, interview with the author, 2021.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] SIMON NORFOLK, interview with the author, 2004.

[13] SIMON NORFOLK, interviews with the author, 2011.

[14] SHANKS, Michael. (2011) Landscape Aesthetics – Tactics (Continued) Accessed from

[15] SHANKS, Michael. (2011) Figure and ground - a glossary (Internet). Accessed from

[16] Ibid

[17] Ibid.


OLIVIER, Laurent (2011) The Dark Abyss of Time. Lanham: Altamira Press.

SHANKS, Michael. (1995) Archaeological realities: embodiment and a critical romanticism in M. Tusa and T. Kirkinen (eds) The Archaeologist and their Reality: Proceedings of the 4th Nordic TAG Conference, Helsinki, Department of Archaeology. Accessed from

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