The relationship between the natural and man-made world is a subject frequently captured on film, but Catherine Hyland’s vast, yawning landscapes are arresting in their subtle—yet pointed—approach to the genre. To create her series “Universal Experience,” Hyland traveled across expansive terrain in China and Mongolia, focusing in particular on the development of spectacular landscapes as tourist destinations.
With “Universal Experience,” Hyland sought to address questions about the foundation of national identity and, more broadly, the universal desires that drive human impulses. “My photographs…bear witness to the collective striving for transcendence that seems to be ingrained in the modern man,” Hyland says. Her aim is to “make people feel something, some kind of truth that resonates with their own lives or their own actions.” This “truth” makes itself apparent in the first moment that we are presented with her work. Her spacious images are arresting, but not solely due to the remarkable landscapes they present. Indeed, despite their two-dimensionality, they manage to embody the expansive, awe-inspiring feeling that washes over you when you’re dwarfed by scale in the natural world.
Many of her photographs do include figures, and part of the wonderment we experience as viewers results from the juxtaposition between the immense landscapes and the tiny individuals. However, several of her landscape shots are devoid of human life—but they still hold our attention. Why are they so absorbing? Quickly we realize that Hyland has achieved her aim: by presenting us with unfamiliar scenes of natural grandeur, she offers a glimpse into something “greater,” a space beyond ourselves that resonates with meaning and significance.
Why is that search for meaning so alluring? Hyland believes that it’s woven into our contemporary search for authenticity. “So much of our lives are based around reproductions and mass-manufactured illusion,” she observes. “I think people constantly try to escape our mediated world because it’s very difficult to find something truly authentic…we start to get that gnawing feeling that we are all occupying the same space, and so we seek out new experiences as a remedy to that feeling.”
The vast natural landscapes in her photography, then, strangely both fit—and buck—this hunt for authenticity. Yes, they are symbols of durability, permanence, and the awe-inspiring grandeur of the natural world—and yet these images, with their creeping signs of human impact, are evidence that the landscapes have been appropriated (and even repackaged) by tourists and Hyland alike.
Ultimately, although these images represent a particular kind of landscape that is foreign to many viewers, Hyland chose to present them devoid of any locality or orientation. “The title is consciously ambiguous, and I would hope that the images are too,” she says. “I don’t caption my work; I don’t feel that [including] locations or dates adds anything. I think successful photographs rest on an ambiguity that makes you unable to stop looking at them or thinking about them.”
If you’d like to see more work like this, we’d recommend these articles: Take Refuge, a series that uses light to explore different forms of human presence and intervention in the world around us; Stars, layered images of celestial phenomena and “mature and ancient” forest landscapes; and Along the Break, images of a photographer from Tel Aviv’s journey across the vast landscape of Israel.