Madhi Fathi is a hard man to find. Just as Time Out wanted to speak with him, he’d upped and disappeared off into the Iranian mountains, armed with his camera, making him near-impossible to reach. Struck by the latest show of his photography at Total Arts, we had to track him down.
From snow-covered mountains through to desolate buildings and an aesthetic that verges on the ethereal, the Iranian photographer has made rolling emptiness his turf. The world that Fathi creates is clearly a lonely place. Titled Solitary Life, every shot in the series resounds with the low hum of an intensely private pursuit.
When we finally get in touch, we ask why he’s made the decision to reflect this closed-off world in his art. ‘This is a quest to find my own solitude in the world around,’ he explains. ‘Any human presence would violate this solitude.’
There’s an air of drama in this, and Fathi often seems attracted to primal, timeless landscapes. Each shot is underpinned by an epic atmosphere. Yet talking more with the photographer, his perspective appears far less dramatic. He often refers back to the idea that ‘depiction’ lies at the centre of what he’s doing in his photographs. When we try to pin down exactly what it is he’s depicting, his responses are straightforward, if slightly cryptic: ‘The softness of untouched snow, and the beauty of nature,’ he says.
This simplicity doesn’t fit with the heroic idea of the photographer-artist on a personal quest to find solitude. There’s clearly more going on in Fathi’s work than he is prepared to share with us.
In this collection, there’s something apparent in each image that can lead us further into Fathi’s serene world. In one shot he’s chosen to turn attention away from an isolated building that looks the stuff of legend. Instead, the focus is on the disoriented, tessellating pattern of the vast mountain range behind that stretches into the distance. In another image, taken on a desolate coastline, Fathi looks away from the immensity of the sea and is intrigued by a pattern of tracks left in the beach by an unseen jeep.
It seems that he’s trying to diminish the obvious drama in each scene. The sheer, awe-inspiring scale of each landscape howls behind every image, but Fathi’s photographs lessen this in favour of obscure details that he finds half-hidden in the scene. These are often strange, repetitive patterns – hidden among footprints left in the snow, tracks in the sand or even the vastness of a mountain range. He can transform an epic landscape into an ordered composition of lines and shapes.
When we bring this up Fathi is reluctant to explain why he makes these decisions in his work. He does tell us, however, that there are elements of this that go into setting up each shot. ‘I try to find the most effective viewpoint to show the best pattern, not to set up a dramatic scene. I just depict the parts [of what I’m looking at] that I feel must be seen with a closer look.’
Again, his answer is cryptic, but it seems that drawing attention to these patterns, which are often reminiscent of the geometric intricacies found in traditional Persian design, is an element of what Fathi is trying to do.
Even the way he describes his work hints that there’s more going on. To ‘depict the parts’, as he puts it, suggests he’s isolating elements in each landscape that have caught his own eye and which he’s trying to capture in his photographs. ‘Depicting, seeing, and reflecting is a part of a [project] to convey a message, to carry a feeling, or to show a pretty form.’ It’s not vastness and awe for the landscape as a whole that he wants to reflect, but more the ‘parts’ that formed his personal experience of that moment.
By finding patterns the photographer can engage with a forbidding landscape, he can personalise it according to his vision and reassemble that vastness into something far more private – almost solitary.
He’s a photographer, it would seem, keen to depict every image. These are not pictorial visions, they are expressions of a desire to reach out towards depersonalised landscapes and abstract them. At one point he tells us that ‘solitary life’, in Persian, is similar to the word for backyard. So does Fathi search for a backyard through these photographs? Is this a project of reclaiming the land for himself, a search for a space that can accommodate him and his ‘own solitude’? Either way, the effect is mesmerising. Fathi’s work quietly reminds us that rediscovering the land can also mean reinventing it to our own vision.
Total Arts at The Courtyard (04 347 5050), Al Quoz, taxi: nr Spinneys Warehouse. Until October