Drawn to Scale by Eugenie Shinkle
Published in Scale & Substance (March 2022)

The first known maps, which date back tens of thousands of years, were simple diagrams of the earth and sky. Unlike present-day maps, they contained no means of finding our own place in the landscape. Modern maps make space for the subject. Like their early precursors, they record the visible features of a place, but they also incorporate scales, symbols and grids that allow the observer to work out their own position. Maps are more than simple depictions of terrain – they are tools for creating a stable relation between self and space. 

Representations of landscape work in much the same way. The Western landscape tradition is based on a system – the perspectival grid – that is designed to bring order to the wayward space of nature, creating a uniform distance between the ‘here’ of the viewer’s position, and the ‘over there’ of the horizon. Like a map, a landscape view is a way of rationalising space, laying it out in relation to the self. The viewer of a landscape is at the origin of this exchange, but they are rarely the subject of the picture. 

Tamsin Green’s work is about landscape, but it’s not about a particular place. It’s about the symbols and systems that we impose upon space in order to create an idea of landscape. It’s about the relationship between the way that landforms can be represented in images and language, and the physical, tangible substance of the world as we encounter it. It’s about the work that we do in order to know the land, and to find ourselves in relation to the often formless reality on the ground. And although there are no people in Green’s photographs, her work is also about the self. 


All of Green’s work is rooted in physical encounters with the land. This practice can be traced back to a long tradition of the landscape photographer as conquering hero, venturing into the unknown alone and on foot, at the mercy of the elements. Green sets out with very different aims in mind. Rather than mastering terrain, she immerses herself in the land in order to reconnect with it and to challenge her own limits. Though her practice is based in observation, her objective is not to survey her surroundings from a distance, but to engage closely with them.

Like the tradition of painting from which they are derived, landscape photographs organise space in relation to a subject who looks out from a fixed viewing position. Few of Green’s photographs fit this description. Most of them are ambiguous in scale – it’s often impossible to tell whether the features they represent are microscopic or huge. Sometimes, they’re re-oriented so that the horizon line stands vertical, or presented in crops or pairings that encourage the viewer to mistake one form for another. They are not taken from the perspective of a stationary observer, but from that of a body in constant motion. The viewer must also take an active position in order to create a relationship with her images – to orient themselves and to resolve the sometimes abstract constellations of pattern and texture into landforms. Green’s photographs invite the viewing subject to participate in an experience that parallels her own; to transform seen space into lived space.

This close engagement with process continues in the studio. The book is Green’s preferred form, but her work departs in significant ways from the classical codex. Her books, which are assembled entirely by hand, borrow from other forms such as charts, textbooks and maps. Created by folding, cutting, and stitching, their purpose is not necessarily to document a particular site, but to re-imagine and remake places by drawing together different modes of representing them. As well as Green’s own photographs and sketches, her books contain maps and diagrams, foldouts and half-pages and inserts – sometimes loose, sometimes sewn in – scraps of text and other written records and references. They evolve slowly, through multiple experiments and maquettes. Once completed, each book continues to respond to its environment; the pages creasing and curling, acquiring marks and blemishes through repeated handling. 


Language and symbol are often used to give subjective encounters with the earth the appearance of objective fact. Far from being impartial, however, scientific investigation is also driven by curiosity, imagination and intuition. Green works with sites in the same spirit, appropriating scientific vocabulary to lend an illusory authority to processes that are far from systematic. 

Born of the Purest Parents began with a study of the typologies of salt – a substance that is common to both human physiology and to the earth’s structure – and evolved into a series of excursions planned on the basis of an inexact study of satellite imagery. The work incorporates multiple timescales – from the long reach of geological time to the relatively brief interval of human history – and contrasting visual languages.  Opening with an inventory of tools used by an imaginary geologist, it moves through a series of chapters which call on the precise language of the science textbook and the expeditionary record. Green’s own photographs of salt formations are subjected to circular crops and presented in neat rows – graphic strategies that suggest microscopy. 

This is How the Earth Must See Itself is themed around the five different kinds of rock features listed on Ordnance Survey maps – cliffs, loose rocks, boulders, outcrops, and scree. The symbols that represent these features are known as ‘ornaments’ – a pictorial language created by OS surveyors on the basis of physical surveys of the terrain. The distinction between one feature and another, however, is far from objective. The rules that are used to tell certain kinds of rock features apart are derived partly from geological fact, and partly from OS conventions that have their roots in experience: a loose rock is classified as a boulder, for example, when it is too big for one person to move on their own. 

Combining the dispassionate feeling of scientific records with the sensory appeal of hand-made objects, Green’s book works are hybrid objects that bring multiple sites and systems of representation into dialogue. Written text takes on graphic form alongside its function as caption, aphorism and glossary. Scientific language is redeployed as poetry – descriptions emerge out of intuition rather than fact, statements of fact dissolve into chains of linked signifiers, historical records are transformed into a web of analogy, similarity, and lateral connection. 


To claim that something is drawn to scale is not just to make an observation about its relative size; it’s also to state a fact about ourselves. We humans are drawn to scale, compelled to organise the world in terms of its relation to us as individuals. The names, typologies, and visual idioms that we impose on the land are ways of mediating our experience of it – creating structure where it doesn’t always exist. They encourage us to imagine the world as an unchanging presence, something distant and different from ourselves. We’re accustomed to thinking of these structures as neutral tools, and of landscape images as impartial representations of nature. Yet all of these are subjective things: human-made abstractions of place, temporary depictions of sites that are in continuous flux – convincing fictions, confluences of language and image that hide as much as they disclose about the reality of the world we inhabit. 

Green’s practice reveals the idiosyncratic nature of the descriptive systems upon which we depend to organise our world, to make it meaningful, and to find a place in it. It shows us the land as we encounter it – in glimpses and fragments, missteps and experiments, changeable and proximate, seen and felt by a body in contact with its surroundings. And it invites us to recognise the distance between us and the world around us as one that we’ve created, to value the ground beneath us, and to think anew about the way that we inhabit our planet.  

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