Exploring the Pastoral

'Elementary Husbandry' at Bank Street Arts

‘Elementary Husbandry’ at Bank Street Arts

I was thrilled to be in Sheffield earlier this week hanging my work at Bank Street Arts in Sheffield. I have been working on Elementary Husbandry for several years, beginning shortly after I relocated to the rural Mendip Hills in Somerset from living in the city.

Popular myths of the countryside, and narratives of the spaces beyond our towns and cities as places of sanctuary, retreat and escape are sources of great personal intrigue and underpin the motivations behind the images I’m presenting. They encompass both my personal reflections on my immediate surroundings and my preoccupation with the representations of the British landscape more broadly, which I have spoken about previously.

From the series 'Elementary Husbandry' © Jesse Alexander, 2016

From the series ‘Elementary Husbandry’ © Jesse Alexander, 2016

The title, Elementary Husbandry, draws upon two founding pieces of Western literature: Hesiod’s Works and Days (c. 700BC) and Virgil’s Georgics (c. 40BC). These ancient poems conflated practical advice for farmers alongside guidance on how to lead a modest and virtuous existence. They are widely accepted as the prototypes for the pastoral motifs that have since become ubiquitous within artistic expressions of rural life and depictions of the agricultural landscape. They intrigue me in their use of the land, and in particular its stewardship, as metaphor and allegory.

This exhibition coincides with my current residency at Bank Street Arts, where I’m creating a piece of work called 
The Nymph and the Shepherd. This involves making a new image for the gallery each week. Through nuances within the photographs, and the correspondence of material between the gallery and myself, I aim to consider the amorous romance that is often a feature of pastoral tales.

From the series 'The Nymph and the Shepherd' © Jesse Alexander, 2016

From the series ‘The Nymph and the Shepherd’ © Jesse Alexander, 2016

The Open College of the Arts is generously sponsoring a symposium that is aligned with some of these themes, which will be held on Saturday 23rd July called New Pastoral Paradigms: Explorations in Landscape and the Self.  This will be an opportunity to hear from some great practitioners who use photography and the land to explore personal and historical narratives. Speakers include: Michal Iwanowski (whose great new book Clear of People is currently under production), Hanna-Katrina Jędrosz, Christina Stohn and John Umney. It would be great to see you there.

There will be a reception at Bank Street Arts on Friday 22nd July from 18:00 – 20:00 to view the exhibition and, for those who are able to come to Sheffield ahead of the symposium, to catch up before hand.

 

Don McCullin in Somerset

‘This is How it Is’ ? Telling New Stories

‘This is How it Is’, was the name given to Don McCullin’s photoessay that covered the advance on Hué in 1968 during the Vietnam War [i], and comes from a succession of similarly succinct and matter of fact titles and headlines that, throughout the history of photojournalism from conflict zones, have bluntly and unsentimentally introduced images of the worst evidence of human behaviour. Many of us are familiar with Don McCullin’s images from his long career which, justifiably, endure for not just their content, but for his ability to relate to such horror with formal sensibility. Such images are firmly planted in the canon of ‘great’ photographs of the twentieth century, but within the scope of McCullin’s broader body of work, they are perhaps exceptional: many of McCullin’s photographs are actually compositionally quite ‘straight’ and visually unembellished. Like other great reportage photographers, McCullin’s work tends to simply allow the stark reality of the subject matter to provide narrative, often keeping stylization to a minimum. His greatest asset as a practitioner has been his ability to survive, to negotiate his way into and then out of situations with potentially lethal consequences, and to quite simply tell people back home ‘how it is.’

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Installation view, ‘Don McCullin. Conflict – People – Landscape’, Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2015 © Don McCullin Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Ken Adlard

The siting of McCullin’s war photography throughout his career has mirrored, to some extent, the changing relationship that the documentary image has experienced with institutions and audiences since the Second World War. McCullin enjoyed a long succession of assignments for British broadsheet’s weekend supplements that sustained him, and published his work in generous proportions and within elegant layouts for several decades. His most recent photoessay ‘My Last War’ published in 2012, that reported on the plight of the people of Aleppo in Syria [ii], is contrasting in terms of its blandness of scale and layout compared to spreads and stories from a couple of decades ago.

Photoessays in supplements were the primary contexts for McCullin’s work, samples of which are generally displayed at his various retrospectives. In 1980 however, his reportage work stepped outside of these spaces, and was exhibited at the V&A in London [iii]. Since then McCullin has been honoured with a succession of publications and exhibitions, most extensively Shaped by War at the Imperial War Museum (2010); an institution that has a long history of supporting artists through collaborations, commissions and acquisitions and was perhaps the most least ethically challenging placing of his work to date. Last year McCullin turned eighty-years-old and as part of the celebrations an exhibition of some of his best know images were re-printed and displayed at Hamilton’s Gallery in Mayfair (under the title Eighty), and also a more extensive show at Hauser & Wirth in Bruton, Somerset (Conflict – People – Landscape), near where he has lived for many years.

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Installation view, ‘Don McCullin. Conflict – People – Landscape’, Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2015 © Don McCullin. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Ken Adlard

 

McCullin has been documented many times candidly disclosing his compulsion to work in lethal environments between the 1960s and ‘80s, as well as discussing the trauma that his experiences have left him with – the torment of his ‘ghosts’[iv]. He has also discussed his landscape photography from Britain in relation to his experiences further afield, and the role this has had in rebuilding his emotional life [v]. The Hauser & Wirth exhibition concludes with six such images, made in Somerset and representative of the transparent emotional intensity of his work. The skies of this usually temperate county are ferocious and black; sunlight scorches the land with equal menace; and bleak metaphors abound, such as the stumps of harshly pruned willow trees that thrive on the marshy Somerset Levels – like feeble white knuckled fists determined to punch through McCullin’s Stygian prints.

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Installation view, ‘Qwaypurlake’. Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Ken Adlard

While his exhibition is steeped in historical narratives, the exhibition that McCullin’s is paired with at Hauser & Wirth looks towards an imagined ‘future’. In the accompanying galleries, Simon Morrissey has curated Qwaypurlake, a collection of works that proposes a dystopian future where the county of Somerset is (once more) dominated by water and human beings live a marginalised existence. Combining practitioners with connections to the area working in multiple disciplines, Morrrissey juxtaposes figurative and familiar forms in photographs and sculpture with more abstract pieces and artefacts – playfully inviting open interpretations of a disquieting narrative. The representation of people is restricted to Ben Rivers’s three-quarter length monochrome portraits of sack-hooded figures, disturbingly fixed on the viewer through rough eyeholes. More forensic pieces complement Morrissey’s narrative; such as Marie Toseland’s (actual) wisdom teeth, and Aaron Schuman’s photographs of smouldering ashes that perhaps hint most explicitly towards some kind of imagined Armageddon event. The perpetrators of this fictional catastrophe are also described in Elizabeth Fink’s bronzes from the 1950s and ‘60s. In this context Fink’s abstracted ‘heads’ read as the fossilized remains of our extra-terrestrial successors and her ‘birds’, with their elongated legs; a life form well adapted to traversing a wetland environment.

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Installation view ‘Qwaypurlake’. Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Ken Adlard

The spirit of fantasy that Qwaypurlake embraces is a pertinent extension of the mythology and narratives of the locality. The Somerset Levels in particular, measuring only a few metres above sea level, were indeed once under water. Neolithic settlers constructed series of wooden walkways and buildings, exploiting the natural biodiversity of the wetlands. This heritage is perhaps referenced in Sebastian Jefford’s Wattle and Daub – a giant piece of netting that hangs in one corner of the gallery, although all it has managed to catch are unappetizing clumps of clay. David Wojtowycz’s looped video The Lake, which is projected at one end of the installation and depicts a subtly strange view looking down a pier or jetty with oddly turbulent water to one side and still water to the other, makes a further connection to the region’s archaeological legacy.

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Installation view ‘Qwaypurlak’. Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Ken Adlard

Glastonbury, which overlooks the Levels and is arguably the most historic and culturally significant part of the county, is associated with Joseph of Arimathea who is said to have brought Christianity to Britain and whose staff supposedly sprouted into the Glastonbury Thorn where the town’s abbey was later erected. In the twelfth century the monks at Glastonbury Abbey claimed to discover the remains of King Arthur, and the area became associated with the mythical ‘Isle of Avalon’ where Excalibur was purported to have been forged. In 2014 of course, the Somerset Levels were severely flooded, causing extensive damage and disruption – an event that will no doubt endure in the collective memory of the county’s people.

As well as the frivolity of Morrissey’s concept, Qwaypurlake has a dark and macabre side, notably the works in the gallery that adjoins McCullin’s photographs. These include Heather & Ivan Morison’s wax candles in the shape of bones, and Daphne Wright’s life-sized cast marble Rabbit and her partially dissected Stallion – laid out on its back on the gallery floor as if it had been carefully examined by the inquisitive conquerors from outer space.

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Installation view ‘Qwaypurlake’. Hauser & Wirth Somerset, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth. Photo: Ken Adlard

Wright’s marble Rabbit, however, additionally has a much more grounded presence: hanging neatly on the gallery wall by its feet it acts as a pastoral motif – the morning’s toil of a farmer or poacher, or part of a rustic themed still life by the likes of Chardin. Devoid of photographs in this gallery (such as contributions elsewhere by James Ravillious, famous for his images of rural life in Devon, and Jem Southam’s dew ponds) the installation builds upon a preoccupation with topography and place to more of an exploration of what the relationship with our natural resources and neighbouring species (and how that existence could be characterised) might be like for inhabitants for this parallel universe or potential future.

The scheduling – and thus pairing – of McCullin’s work, explicitly preoccupied with the destructive realities of human beings, with Morrissey’s escapist vision was a provocative decision. McCullin’s photographs certainly support the malevolent and dystopian presence that Morrissey constructs, and McCullin’s landscapes provide a pertinent and powerful bridge between the two exhibitions. The work in McCullin’s gallery, however, is experienced as prologue to or an extension of the Qwaypurlake project, and marks yet another contextualization of McCullin’s photography by another kind of institution.

 

Don McCullin. Conflict – People – Landscape and Qwaypurlake were at Hauser & Wirth Somerset 15.11.15 – 31.01.16. Documentation can be found here.

This essay was commissioned by Photomonitor and can be viewed here.

 

NOTES:

[i] The Sunday Times Magazine 24.3.1968. (Also reproduced in Robert Lebeck, Kiosk: A History of Photojournalism. Gottingen: Steidl, 2001)

[ii] The Times Magazine, 29.12.2012

[iii] In his memoirs, McCullin expressed his concern of having imagery of war, horror and suffering on display in an in a space to be admired. Don McCullin. Unreasonable Behaviour: An Autobiography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1990, p.226)

See also Mark Hayworth-Booth’s article ‘Personal notes on dismantling the McCullin exhibition at the V&A’ in Creative Camera (April/May 1981), in David Brittain. Creative Camera: Thirty Years of Writing(Manchester University Press, 2000)

[iv] The title of McCullin’s early retrospective monograph was titled, Sleeping with Ghosts: A Life’s Work in Photography (London: Jonathan Cape, 1994). In the documentary film McCullin (Dir. Jacqui & David Morris, Artificial Eye, 2012), he also described the ghosts haunting him from his negative filing cabinets.

[v] McCullin interviewed by John Wilson on Front Row, BBC Radio 4: 11.9.2015

Peter Mitchell

Some Thing means Everything to Somebody

From the series ' Some Thing means Everything to Somebody' © Peter Mitchell, Courtesy of RRB Publishing

From the series ‘ Some Thing means Everything to Somebody’ © Peter Mitchell, Courtesy of RRB Publishing

Scarecrows aren’t as abundant as they used to be.  A somewhat tokenistic effort in crop defence, scarecrows now tend to be limited to more ceremonial duties, such as decorating trendy suburban allotment plots.  We are still likely to encounter the scarecrow’s cousin – the guy – particularly on fund raising trails and competitive villages’ fêtes, cobbled together with bits of redundant clothing and other surplus household objects.

The fifty-odd scarecrows within the pages of Peter Mitchell’s monograph have been photographed over the past four decades and accompany an eclectic array of objects from the photographer’s past on the adjacent pages. He describes the book as ‘my autobiography told through inanimate objects silently observed by scarecrows’. The miscellaneous quality of Mitchell’s collection is similar to the makeshift fabrication of the scarecrows themselves. His belongings are not, however, ephemeral objects, but neither are they (for the most part) of high value. They comprise a range of items that could be representative of collective boyhood and adolescent memories (such as model aeroplane kits, comics, pin-ups, LPs) to far more personal effects, including family photographs and memorabilia from Mitchell’s past exhibitions, as well as an Egyptian winged cobra brooch – a motif that appears repeatedly throughout the book.

From the series ' Some Thing means Everything to Somebody' © Peter Mitchell, Courtesy of RRB Publishing

From the series ‘ Some Thing means Everything to Somebody’ © Peter Mitchell, Courtesy of RRB Publishing

These objects reflect Mitchell’s diverse personal interests and the inventive, and at times eccentric, ways that he has framed his practice. His passion for cosmology, for instance, is present in his choice of many of these things. This theme was also reflected in his seminal exhibition A New Refutation of the Viking 4 Space Mission at Impressions gallery in 1979, in which he contextualized his environmental portraits of shopkeepers and workers around Leeds by speculating what the city might look like to visitors from another planet. Such an irreverent contextualization of his work in fact had truer resonances than we might imagine; that exhibition being the first exhibition of colour photographs in the UK by a British practitioner – colour film being a material that was considered the reserve of commercial imagery and family snaps alone.

From the series ' Some Thing means Everything to Somebody' © Peter Mitchell, Courtesy of RRB Publishing

From the series ‘ Some Thing means Everything to Somebody’ © Peter Mitchell, Courtesy of RRB Publishing

Although Mitchell’s possessions might appear to be a little random, he describes them in his introductory note as the things that ‘made’ him a photographer, and reveals much of their personal significance within captions at the end of the book. The relevance of the scarecrows is, however, not articulated at all. Their uncanny qualities perhaps propose ideas around ‘the other’ – perhaps picking up on earlier themes in his work. Maybe we are supposed to read their blobby limbs as cumbersome spacesuits?  Are the scarecrows just something that, as per his Leeds shopkeepers, he has enjoyed collecting during his career? It would seem actually that the scarecrows’ link with mythology connects them to many of Mitchell’s possessions.

From the series ' Some Thing means Everything to Somebody' © Peter Mitchell, Courtesy of RRB Publishing

From the series ‘ Some Thing means Everything to Somebody’ © Peter Mitchell, Courtesy of RRB Publishing

Scarecrows are firmly planted within our popular culture and our imaginations, and as with the other objects in the book, they ignite myriad other emotions and  narratives. While they are often presented as sinister or malevolent, scarecrows are represented in equal measure with more charming qualities, particularly in young children’s literature: they do not tend to be anthropomorphised by a single archetype. This open, malleable quality of the scarecrow is reflected in Mitchell’s strategy, whereby he purposefully selected for the book, those that had been constructed without facial features, allowing the viewer to interpret the character of each scarecrow themselves. Mitchell’s photographic approach, however, is far from typological or clinical: he allows brooding skies and fields veiled in mist to contribute to their meaning. He has also shot most of these pictures from a low perspective, giving us a child’s-eye-view of the scarecrow – as if we were tentatively stalking it, not entirely confident that the figures are harmless. Although there is humour throughout the series, many of the scarecrows are unsettling, and despite their unsophisticated construction, it is difficult to avoid reading them as figures.

From the series ' Some Thing means Everything to Somebody' © Peter Mitchell, Courtesy of RRB Publishing

From the series ‘ Some Thing means Everything to Somebody’ © Peter Mitchell, Courtesy of RRB Publishing

Scarecrows and other human effigies are associated with seasonal rituals and in some children’s stories they can be used to represent the passing of time – offering a point of continuity within narratives around the annual cycles of arable farming, as well as the life cycles of the small mammals who bed down within them and the birds who pick out stuffing for their nests. These endearing personal qualities are owed to their diligence – their willingness to loyally preside over the crop come rain or shine until there is little more to them than rags: their stoicism makes them noble narrators of Mitchell’s biography.

From the series ' Some Thing means Everything to Somebody' © Peter Mitchell, Courtesy of RRB Publishing

From the series ‘ Some Thing means Everything to Somebody’ © Peter Mitchell, Courtesy of RRB Publishing

But there is also a melancholy in the scarecrow which, accompanied by the nostalgia within many of Mitchell’s reproduced possessions, can feel elegiac. (These are, after all, his personal effects and sifting though them feels a little invasive.) It is, however, by no means a morbid piece of work. Some Thing means Everything to Somebody is an exciting concept, amusingly and thoughtfully contextualized, and beautifully presented in this enchanting book.

Keith Greenough: ‘Lifting the Curtain’

Coinciding with the centenary this year of the death of London social reformer and industrialist Charles Booth, Keith Greenough exhibits and publishes Lifting the Curtain, a series that juxtaposes extracts from Booth’s accounts of the hardships of the Victorian East End with contemporary images of the spaces Booth surveyed.

Taken late at night and within the early hours, Greenough’s long exposures have a tonal and aesthetic coolness to them. The technically refined and pensive images invite the viewer to study the disquieting scenes with the same patience that the photographer exercised with the long exposure method, and perhaps with a scrutiny similar to Booth’s observations.

Although Greenough’s photographs depict streets that might seem at best uninviting, or at worst malevolent, they perhaps offer more a sense of exhaustion than fear: of worrying whether you are on the best side of the street to catch a cab to save yourself from a very long walk home after a hard night partying, rather than anxiety about being on the same side of the street as some unsavoury characters.

The absence of people in Greenough’s photographs is balanced by the appropriation of Charles Booth’s very detailed accounts of individuals he encountered and wrote about in his Life and Labour of the People (1889), who existed, he wrote, “… hidden from view behind a curtain on which were painted terrible pictures.”

Avoiding an illustrative approach to the juxtaposition of image and text, there is enough narrative within the images that speaks of the economy and social ecologies of contemporary East London, while leaving enough ambiguity within the images to interplay with the texts, and for viewers to contemplate the myriad changes and progress (or not) to the streets and populations of East London over the past century.

In the spirit of Charles Booth, Greenough is donating the proceeds of Lifting the Curtain to Toynbee Hall, whose vision is to eradicate all forms of poverty, and where Charles Booth conducted his survey from. Lifting the Curtain is part of Photomonth, East London Festival of Photography 2015:

Town House, 5 Fournier Street, London E1 6QE, from 15th – 25th October

http://www.liftingthecurtain.net

'Andrews Road' from the series 'Lifting the Curtain' © Keith Greenough. Courtesy of the Artist

‘Andrews Road’ from the series ‘Lifting the Curtain’ © Keith Greenough. Courtesy of the Artist

'Bow Road' from the series 'Lifting the Curtain' © Keith Greenough. Courtesy of the Artist

‘Bow Road’ from the series ‘Lifting the Curtain’ © Keith Greenough. Courtesy of the Artist

'Leman Street' from the series 'Lifting the Curtain' © Keith Greenough. Courtesy of the Artist

‘Leman Street’ from the series ‘Lifting the Curtain’ © Keith Greenough. Courtesy of the Artist

'Shadwell Basin' from the series 'Lifting the Curtain' © Keith Greenough. Courtesy of the Artist

‘Shadwell Basin’ from the series ‘Lifting the Curtain’ © Keith Greenough. Courtesy of the Artist

'Wentworth Street' from the series 'Lifting the Curtain' © Keith Greenough. Courtesy of the Artist

‘Wentworth Street’ from the series ‘Lifting the Curtain’ © Keith Greenough. Courtesy of the Artist

The Journey, not the Destination

Rail travel invites parallels to the construction and consumption of landscape pictures. Like the stagecoach, which the railway succeeded, the train carriage provided the traveller with a novel, elevated view from which to survey the land, protected behind glass from the elements and whatever unpleasantries might lurk within it.

Rebecca Solnit begins her narrative of Eadweard Muybridge’s invention of the moving photographic image by describing the historical and technological contexts around which his high speed photography was explored. Solnit elaborates how the first railways shattered perceptions of distance through their ability to move across the land at speeds greater than anyone had travel before. So alien was such a capability that apparently, moving at the balmy rate of 30 miles per hour, passengers found the rapid succession of views from the windows incomprehensible.[i] Interestingly, when we dissect a sequence of moving image, which when allowed to run at their 30 or so frames-per-second seem to look sharp enough, it often turns out to be a series of single blurry pictures. Turner’s impressionistic Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway, painted in 1844 captures something of the chaotic image that passengers – as well as onlookers of this new spectacle – must have experienced from their carriage windows.

JMW Turner, 'Rain, Steam and Speed - The Great Western Railway', 1844 (The National Gallery)

JMW Turner, ‘Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway’, 1844 (The National Gallery)

Like the moving image – which, even at its most banal or tedious can be highly distracting – the views from the train window can be deeply mesmeric. Rail travellers entertain themselves in all manner of ways, but many chose the train purely to immerse themselves in thought, daydreams, or to simply stare for a time and take in the views of the land and the play of light across it. Trains get you to places, but they also offer their passengers tableaux vivants within the price of the ticket.

Railways often take us through kinds of terrain that we wouldn’t normally visit: their lines transect the land, often drawing longer connections between conurbations than roads by traversing around steep gradients and topographic features rather than taking the shortest route. (This isn’t always the case of course, and many railways have involved dramatic and brutal interventions to level flatter routes.) As a result of this, long distance railways tend to take travellers through relatively unpopulated parts of the land. In a British context this tends to be fairly unspectacular agricultural land that the majority of us are only likely to experience from the distanced viewpoint that some form of transport or another can offer. New railways are not always welcomed of course, particularly by those upon whom it will have a direct impact in terms of their lifestyles or property. The proposed ‘High Speed Two’ line to connect London to the North East has attracted controversy, not least around the cost of the project but how it might impact the appearance of parts of the land and the environments of its inhabitants.

Carleton Watkins 'The Calloway Canal, Kern County', c. 1884 (Library of Congress)

Carleton Watkins ‘The Calloway Canal, Kern County’, c. 1884 (Library of Congress)

The polarization between – typically – environmentalists and industrialists is of course one that dates back to the birth of the railways. Developers have been all too aware of the need to promote not just the economic arguments in favour of their railways, but the aesthetic ones. It is uncanny that one of the most important aesthetic discoveries of modernity (photography) coincided with the development of commercial steam travel – arguably the most significant technological advances.[ii] And it is fitting that this new medium was employed within some of the earliest, and still highly regarded, topographic surveys that were commissioned by railway companies and industrialists, who employed photographers including Muybridge, AJ Russell, WH Jackson, and Carleton Watkins. Joel Snyder notes how Watkins had an ability to represent the industrialization of the American West in sympathy to the land:

“Watkins’s photographs reinforce the commitment of his audience to a belief in a Western Eden, but it represents the Garden in a way that encourages the audience to see it as a scene of potential exploration and development. This representative scheme, then, presents the possibility of a double salvation – a return to unspoiled innocence and opportunity to profit from the violation of innocence. It offers, furthermore, a reassurance that this untouched West can withstand endless mass immigration and industrial exploitation.[iii]

AJ Russell, 'Deep Cut, No. 1. West of Wilhelmina Pass, Weber Canon', c.1869 (Library of Congress)

AJ Russell, ‘Deep Cut, No. 1. West of Wilhelmina Pass, Weber Canon’, c.1869 (Library of Congress)

Railway companies have made use of much more conspicuously picturesque imagery to promote the services and routes they offer the paying public, generally championing view of their destinations or the surrounding scenery, rather than the locomotives or their rails cutting through them. The neo-realist posters of the 1920s to the 1940s that tapped in to increasingly mobile populations still retain a mass appeal. In 1942, one such favourite of the railway companies, Frank Newbould was commissioned by the War Office to paint a series of picturesque images of Southern England, featuring the South Downs and Salisbury Cathedral, in his familiar style yet under the rousing strapline ‘Your Britain. Fight for it now!’ [iv]

newbould

Frank Newbould, ‘The South Downs’ from the campaign ‘Your Britain. Fight for it now’, 1942 © IWM (Art.IWM PST 14887)

The recent advertising campaign by the railway company First Great Western continues the picturesque traditions that are present in historical and contemporary railway promotional material. Moreover however, it vividly echoes Newbould’s nationalistic imperative, with the command to ‘Be a Great Westerner.’ Like the majority of Newbould’s railway posters, the machines and infrastructure of the railway haven’t featured on FGW’s billboards. Instead, glitzy panoramic photographs of destinations and landmarks throughout Oxfordshire, Wiltshire, the Western counties and South Wales have been put to use to entice weekenders and tourists to venture to the provinces. In cities like Bristol and Cardiff, similarly stock-looking images of the capital sprouted up to suggest the possibility of a reciprocal economic and cultural exchange. These images, such as the glistening sand at Weston-Super-Mare at sunset (actually, even ‘silt’ would be an over generous description of the surface of its beaches) are a fabulous illustration of landscape photography at its worst: generic and devoid of feeling or realism.

FGW billboard at London Paddington station, June 2015

FGW billboard at London Paddington station, June 2015

FGW’s campaign, however, designed by the Leith Agency received an industry award for what was celebrated by the Chartered Institute of Marketing for being “a truly exceptional campaign” [v] and was awarded the campaign of the year in May. The scale of the campaign is certainly impressive – installation shots are available on Leith’s website, and they include the domination of certain urban spaces.[vi] Given the extent of the damage and disruption to the network during the flooding and storms in 2014 and the isolation that this caused for many in Somerset,[vii] Devon and Cornwall, the necessity of a major effort to restore public confidence is evident.

Perhaps there is something exceptional about FGW’s financial commitment to the campaign that may justifiably be labelled “truly exceptional” (the campaign consisted of a range of different contexts including a video, which is also available on Leith’s website), however, the creativity of the photography, and the jingoistic strapline that accompanied them surely cannot be held to such high acclaim. The campaign also falls foul to the commonly misplaced emphasis on the importance of the location as integral to the success of the landscape image. The checklist of landmarks that are depicted on FGW’s billboard reads like a landscape photographer’s ‘bucket list’ of locations and monuments to collect in his portfolio, and overall, promotes a deeply cynical approach to the purpose of travel or recreation.[viii]

Rather than continuing with an outdated obsession with the destinations that railways lead to, if some thought was given to the potential of the uniqueness of the journey that FGW might be able to offer its passengers – as a means of experiencing and consuming the landscape – or celebrating the remarkable feat of civil engineering the Great Western Railway remains, then a more original, exciting and, above all, faithful campaign might have a chance to emerge.

[i] Rebecca Solnit (2004) Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge. London: Bloomsbury, p.9

[ii] IK Brunel’s Great Western Railway ran its first passenger trains in 1838, which runs a few miles past Lacock Abbey near Chippenham where Fox Talbot developed his photographic process, which he announced the following year.

[iii] Joel Snyder, ‘Territorial Photography’ in WJT Mitchell (ed.) (2002) Landscape and Power (2nd edn.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[iv] For more on the campaign and other posters from the series see http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20289

[v] https://www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk/about-us/media-centre/2015/may/marketing-campaign-of-the-year

[vi] http://leith.co.uk/ad-making-breath-taking-ticket-selling-first-great-western/

[vii] See Amano Samarpan’s work discussed on Perspectives on Place.

[viii] In fairness, the accompanying video does not dwell on clichéd views or landmarks in the same manner as the billboards, however, this piece demands a separate critique.

Robert Harding Pittman: Anonymization

Ikea, A-1 Autobahn © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist

Ikea, A-1 Autobahn | Kamen, Germany © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

2015 marks four decades since William Jenkins’s curated the hugely influential exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at George Eastman House in New York. Not only was the show revolutionary in terms of challenging traditional values and aesthetics within landscape photography, but it was also highly significant within the broader narrative of the documentary image and art photography [1]. The exhibition’s genesis is largely credited to the artist’s books of Ed Ruscha, in particular Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations (1963), which documented a drive of over a thousand miles from Los Angeles to Oaklahoma City [2]. Ruscha’s typology conveyed not only the monotony of this kind of journey, but it remarked upon the corporatization of the American landscape and drew attention to the significance of the relationship between it and the automobile.

The New Topographics exhibition was also contextualized through the images made by the photographers who were part of nineteenth century geological surveys, as well as the documentation of major engineering projects of the time. The exact job description of the photographers such as Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson – what their exact purpose within the expeditions was and what they were expected to supply – is unclear, and this uncertainty has perhaps contributed to the allusiveness of their pictures as expressive artefacts. However, their photography has been broadly interpreted, at least in part, as supporting an entrepreneurial attitude towards the uncharted North American landscape – speculating upon how it might be populated and inhabited and commercially exploited.

The photographs within the New Topographics exhibition revealed some of what became of these once ‘wild’ landscapes, approximately one hundred years on. Robert Adams for instance, within his project What We Bought, revealed the suburbanization of the landscape around Denver – soulless commercial buildings and out-of-town shopping precincts marching ever deeper into the Colorado desert [3]. The subjects, themes, and deadpan aesthetics of the works that comprised the New Topographics show continue to inspire and influence contemporary photographic practice: Robert Harding Pittman’s photobook Anonymization exemplifies its influence, notably, the secure place that architecture now has within landscape photography and discourse.

Real de Faula Golf Club | Benidorm, Spain © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist

Real de Faula Golf Club | Benidorm, Spain © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

Where Adams and his peers were concerned with presenting studies of specific parts of the American landscape, Pittman has survey urban sprawl on a more global scale, the images in his book having been compiled over a decade and encompass his broader research and professional activities around environmentalism. Included in his survey are images from America, Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The architecture depicted however is markedly generic: carbon hungry cement rendering and re-enforced concrete create overbearing forms throughout the series and contrast against the mostly arid desert conditions they have been uncompromisingly inserted into.

A stubborn refusal to build and develop in sympathy to the topography and climate is also very apparent throughout the series: extensively irrigated and fertilized lush green lawns and boarders are conspicuously incongruous amongst the sand and dirt in Pittman’s vibrant colour photographs, so saturated and iridescent that they are at times difficult to view – disparaging the utopian ideals that these developments proclaim. As Alison Nordström observes in one of the book’s essays, Pittman’s images are certainly not derivative of the cool, objective, deadpan gaze that typified the visual characteristics of the New Topgraphics: Pittman’s are scalding hot and have a polemic visual quality in contrast to the stoic monochrome images from the 1970s.

Lake Las Vegas Resort | Las Vegas, USA © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist

Lake Las Vegas Resort | Las Vegas, USA © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

Lewis Baltz showed us that there is of course tremendous visual potential in these kinds of subjects. His images of tract houses in the New Topographics exhibition comprised minimal blocks of grey tones rendered from the buildings’ architectural features. What these kinds of structures lack in nuanced design and individuality they make up for somehow with a distinctly photogenic quality. The visual celebration of mundane forms, geometry and repetition, is a common trend in contemporary photography inherited from the New Topographics [4].

Future Leroy Merlin | Rivas-Madrid, Spain © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

Future Leroy Merlin | Rivas-Madrid, Spain © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

Pittman presents these structures from a variety of distances; sometimes displaying them within the context of the landscapes in which they uncomfortably cohabit, but elsewhere; cropping much closer in and meditating on a landscaping or architectural feature. Perhaps here he is meditating on their vulgarity, or perhaps he is entertaining, for a brief moment, the possibility that they might have virtues.

Interstate 15 | Las Vegas, USA © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

Interstate 15 | Las Vegas, USA © Robert Harding Pittman, Courtesy of the Artist.

Although it might have been tempting for Pittman to underscore his narrative around the increasingly homogenised nature of our suburban architecture by concealing the geographic identification of these locations, he instead (within the Index) provides not only details of where in the world they actually are, but offers extensive information about each development and the specific social and ecological problems associated with them, as well as a host of other points of reference. Similarly – and refreshingly – the monograph essays are chiefly concerned with expanding upon the topics of Pittman’s enquiries rather than the aesthetics of his work. This positions the work on an authoritative footing as activist documentary, articulating a persuasive argument about the urgency of these social, economic, and most importantly, environmental issues.

[1] For an expansive discussion of the exhibition, see Foster-Rice, G. & Rohrbach, J. (2013) Reframing the New Topographics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press).

[2] For an in depth discussion of this work, see Walker, I. ‘A Kind of “Huh”: The Siting of Twentysix Gasoline Stations’ in Di Bello, P. (2012) The Photobook: From Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond (London: I.B. Tauris). An edited version is available at: http://theibtaurisblog.com/2012/03/12/a-kind-of-a-huh-the-siting-of-twentysix-gasoline-stations/

[3] For another contemporary equivalent, see Hala Elkoussy’s Peripheral project: http://halaelkoussy.com/peripheral-2005?photo=2

[4] Bernd and Hilla Becher, who contributed typologies of industrial architecture and infrastructure to the exhibition, taught at the celebrated Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and whose students included Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky – noted for their deadpan style and systematic visual methodologies.

Anonymization is published by Kehrer Verlag, €28.00

Anonymization was nominated for the Prix Pictet 2014 (under the theme of “Consumption”) and was nominated for the Deutscher Fotobuchpreis

The exhibition of the work continues until July 3rd, 2015 at Spot Photo Works in Hollywood.

Pittman gives further insight into the project and his practice in an interview with Photoparley.

Peter Bobby: ‘High-rise’

This review was commissioned by Photomonitor and can be viewed here. High-rise chronicles Peter Bobby’s long-term photographic examination of corporate spaces and the suite of installations of his work that have framed the project over the last eighteenth months or so. (Bobby was interviewed by Photomonitor during the project’s development, which can be read here.) Unpacking the politics and ideology of interior spaces has preoccupied Bobby’s practice, such as his Showhome project (2001-2002) which documented interior displays of new build luxury developments, fabricated to entice buyers to purchase property off-plan. His exploration of exclusive high-rise architecture began in 2007, on the eve of the global financial crisis. Since then, his body of research has acquired a greater socio-political resonance, as the economic gulf between the world’s ‘top 1%’ and the rest of us has increased dramatically. In almost the same period that Bobby has completed this project, the combined wealth of the richest one thousand people in Britain has risen from two hundred billion to five hundred billion pounds [1].

National Theatre (Installation Image I) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

National Theatre (Installation Image I) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

High-rise architecture conjures up contrasting images – one of extravagance and one of necessity: firstly, the slick skyscrapers that Bobby surveys, designed exclusively for the economic and social elite and secondly; (within a British context at least) post war modernist tower blocks built to house as many people as efficiently as possible. The latter are of course considered socially problematic by today’s planners and many have been systematically demolished, although some (the Trellick Tower in Kensington and The Lawn in Harlow for example) have acquired listed building status. Although Bobby’s work does not address the social issues that relate to this second category of high-rise, it illustrates their highly divisive and controversial nature, and more subtly alludes to ideas around division and inequality – not just in an economic sense, but in the relationship between vision and power. Critics of the corporate high-rise structure identify an inherent dislocation from the reality of life at ‘pedestrian level’, and the symbolic power that the gaze of their users exert over the city and its inhabitants below. Consistent throughout Bobby’s interiors are the giant ‘panoramic’ windows that dominate the architecture and interior design of the spaces. While Bobby’s work is not overtly political from a social perspective, it deals with the politics of these kinds of spaces. In particular, suggesting how the omnipresent view from the high-rise is indistinguishable from the egotistical ideology of this type of structure, and how views might be used strategically to impress or intimidate those who temporarily visit them.

National Theatre Projection of 'Curtain', June 2013 © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

National Theatre Projection of ‘Curtain’, June 2013 © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

The connection between the performances of power that take place within these spaces and theatre is referenced across Bobby’s project; notably the recurring curtain motif, and his decision to install the work at the National Theatre in London in 2013. The vulnerable corporate façade of the high-rise is further explored in Bobby’s contrasting exterior images of the buildings. As per their layout in the installations, in the book they are dispersed throughout the sequence of images, punctuating the series and disarming the prowess of the interiors. These graphically economic images resemble etchings onto a black plate and reduce their subject’s form to a concise expression. The pictures are dramatic, and the upward looking point-of-view and expanse of black night sky allude to the sublime. However, resigned to the bottom edge of the frame the subjects themselves are denied their usual resplendence.

Zenith VI © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

Zenith VI © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

Tramshed (Installation Image III) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

Tramshed (Installation Image III) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

The competitive nature of the high-rise is elaborated upon in the book’s first essay by Kim Dovey, concluding with a discussion of their fundamentally phallic nature. (Serendipitously, whilst the Tramshed in Cardiff – one of the venues for Bobby’s installation – was in the process of being decommissioned for its use as a temporary exhibition space for the Diffusion festival, a worker spray painted a yellow penis on one of the walls. This can be seen in one of the installation views in the final section of the book.) Much like the views that these spaces and their windows frame, this ostensibly patriarchal architectural underpinning is aligned with the all-encompassing, commanding force of the traditional landscape picture – which, historically, tended to be commissioned by those with a limited personal connection to the views they consume.

High-rise (85th, Ladies Toilets) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

High-rise (85th, Ladies Toilets) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

The notion that the high-rise user is immune from the eyes of others through vertical distance is illustrated in 85th, Ladies Toilets. What could be more luxurious than going to the lavatory surrounded by clear views and secure in the knowledge that no one can see you?  The one-way glass that such buildings are often cladded with facilitates the high-rise’s voyeuristic, objectifying ‘gaze’. However, this material actually has more complex implications: notably, a self-affirming quality for its users. Perhaps ironically, high-rises tend to be erected in geographical clusters, offering their occupiers views onto similar constructions and microcosms, or even constant, narcissistic mirror images of themselves in their neighboring buildings. The photograph 17th, Residential Pool invites us to consider implications of reflection, and 27th, Property Sales Office, a peculiar mise-en-abyme self-portrait – where an architect’s model of a high-rise is echoed by a similar construction visible through the room’s window – provides a more vivid illustration of this.

High-rise (27th, Property Sales Office) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

High-rise (27th, Property Sales Office) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

Hight-rise (17th, Residential Pool) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

Hight-rise (17th, Residential Pool) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

Bobby subverts the privileged views offered by the high-rise through his resistance to conform to norms of architectural photography, such as carefully balancing the exposure of the view outside the window with that of the space within. This is just one of several methods that Bobby employs to critique photography’s traditional role as servant to the ideology of architectural concepts and strategies, a problem outlined by David Drake in the book’s introduction. To the casual glance, Bobby’s photographs – as with his earlier works – might easily be mistaken for commercial- rather than art photography. One obvious distinction however is that Bobby’s High-risepictures are ‘un-dressed’ from a stylistic perspective, and are free of figures to animate the space or offer scale. Instead, however, Bobby allows certain objects to gain slightly more prominence within the frame than a more conventional picture of the space would allow, often with surreal consequences: for instance, the olive tree sprouting up from the horizon in 18th, Health Club. Absence is most acutely felt in the one image from the project which is anchored to a specific moment in history, 23rd, Executive Lounge, where a news story about the Gulf of Mexico oilrig disaster unfolds on a television. The juxtaposition of the screen and the neat, empty bar stools and tables has a distinctly abandoned atmosphere, as though – like the workers on the rig – the high-rise occupiers have responded to a similarly urgent mayday alarm.  Rather than lending the spaces and their images a sense of clean minimalism in keeping with their design, Bobby literally strips them bare, leaving them a little naked and vulnerable to our scrutiny.

Curtain (Video Still) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

Curtain (Video Still) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

As their titles suggest, Bobby’s three video pieces, Curtain, Divide and Blind, explore the idea of a physical barrier or shield between these exclusive spaces, and those on the ‘other’ side. In these works, the artist makes further references to the medium of photography, notably; the camera shutter, exposure reciprocity, and the photographic surface. In his essay, Liam Devlin notes Bobby’s deliberate use of the video camera on auto-exposure mode, whereby the camera constantly compensates for exposure as the screens in Curtain and Blind are slowly drawn across their respective windows. In Curtain this results in the steady emergence of a blood red curtain, much like at a theatre or cinema, that emerges from its dark shadow like a latent image materializing in the developer tray. In Blind, we see the electronic aluminium venetian blinds steadily descending across a window, to be suddenly flipped 180 degrees, momentarily overpowering the camera sensor and overexposing the sequence. Both of these videos offer the whole project two pseudo decisive moments that are the product of camera algorithms rather than an organic author. Devlin likens this auto exposure mode to the complex maintenance mechanisms that allow these highly artificial spaces to operate, constantly regulating temperature, humidity and air circulation.

Blind (Installation Image II) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

Blind (Installation Image II) © Peter Bobby. Courtesy of the Artist.

The High-rise publication effectively documents and handsomely presents a substantial project, which acquired a slightly new narrative of its own in each of the four venues in which it was installed. The scope – in terms of related subjects and disciplines – and critical depth of the publication’s essays do justice to the complexities of Bobby’s work and the issues that he addresses. While the work is not directly concerned with the socio-economic implications of the high-rise – and Bobby delves much further than this conceptually – it would have been interesting to explore the architectural polarity (and similarities) of the high-rise and the divergent images that they arouse. This view is obviously coloured by the economic climate in which we presently find ourselves looking at Bobby’s project, and is a reminder of how the specific moment of experiencing a work influences our reading of it as significantly as all of the other contextual dimensions. [1] According to Jacques Peretti’s documentary The Super-Rich and Us(BBC2: 08.01.15 & 15.01.15)

High-rise (Cardiff: Ffotogallery, 2015)

High-rise (Cardiff: Ffotogallery, 2015)

High-rise (Cardiff: Ffotogallery, 2015)

High-rise (Cardiff: Ffotogallery, 2015)

Perspectives… launch Part 2: Panel Discussion

Here is the second video from my book launch at IC Visual lab last month. The panel is chaired by Colin Pantall (colinpantall.blogspot.com) and includes Celia Jackson and Gawain Barnard. Their place-based photographic projects are discussed, and Colin poses pertinent questions around contemporary landscape practice.

Apologies for the variable sound quality.

 

Perspectives… book launch and talk

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Thank you to all for braving the rain and heading to ICVL in Bristol last Thursday for the launch, talk and discussion. I have managed to upload my talk, although due to some technical difficulties at present I’m having some syncing issues. I hope to be able to rectify these and in the next couple of weeks upload the panel discussion, which comprised of Celia Jackson and Gawain Barnard and was chaired eloquently and dynamically by Colin Pantall. Thank you as well, Frederico Colarejo for taking some pics and flogging some books🙂

Re-Reading the Landscape (IC Visual Lab, Bristol) from Jesse A P Alexander on Vimeo.

Bob Mazzer: ‘Underground’

Where is the ‘Landscape’?

On initial inspection, readers can certainly be forgiven for questioning the logic or wisdom of discussing Bob Mazzer’s recent monograph Underground within this blog. Since his days as a projectionist in a King’s Cross cinema, Mazzer has photographed people travelling on and around the London Underground, and his book is a celebration of the diversity of the capital’s commuters and visitors and the – at some times wonderful, and other times terrifying – atmosphere of the place. The use of a small format camera, the emphasis on human subjects and of course, the urban location might most immediately site Mazzer’s series within the documentary sub-genre of street photography – save for the fact that these are all, almost exclusively, not taken on the streets but beneath them [1]. Definitions of ‘landscape’ often tend to emphasise examples of the topographical things within an area of land [2]. But what happens when the photographer dwells on such things rather than taking in a more all-encompassing composition? [3] Does this matter particularly? Isn’t the relationship between those elements, or how they are juxtaposed, define the the real ‘landscaping’ [4] – rather than the detail of what those things might happen to be?

'Waterloo & City Line, 1980s' © Bob Mazzer. Courtesy of Howard Griffin Gallery

‘Waterloo & City Line, 1980s’ © Bob Mazzer. Courtesy of Howard Griffin Gallery

Mazzer’s interest isn’t in the transport infrastructure per se, but the people who use it and the collective identity that they bring to it. The great time period that the project covers, from the 1970s to today, gives a sense of the shifts in styles, tastes and socio-political attitudes over the decades. We might therefore consider the work as a ‘survey’ in a scientific sense: through the almost obsessive nature of Mazzer’s picture taking (if, I am led to believe, his Leica is not around his neck it’s being held up to his eye), his keen observations, and importantly; the relatively confined geographic nature of this study, we are presented with as much a record of place as a record of its users, which, unlike the people who have made use of it over the years to commute, socialise and holiday, has remained relatively constant.

'Trying to open doors, 1980s' © Bob Mazzer. Courtesy of Howard Griffin Gallery

‘Trying to open doors, 1980s’ © Bob Mazzer. Courtesy of Howard Griffin Gallery

Using journeys to make photographic projects is a staple of documentary practice. From Walker Evans and Robert Frank’s road trips across America to Paul Graham’s seminal work of British colour documentary, A1 – The Great North Road, and more recent projects such as Chris Coekin’s The Hitcher and Paul Gaffney’s We Make the Path by Walking, the methodology (and act) of moving through the landscape is often just as important as how it is framed within the viewfinder. Another body of work that makes and interesting counterpoint to Mazzer’s are Paul Fusco’s blurry shots from the open window of Bobby Kennedy’s funeral train that record – literally – a cross section of society on one particular day, as the train cut its transect through a sample of the American landscape.

'Kensington Lads, 1980s' © Bob Mazzer. Courtesy of Howard Griffin Gallery

‘Kensington Lads, 1980s’ © Bob Mazzer. Courtesy of Howard Griffin Gallery

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I don’t believe Mazzer’s Underground does really belong in the field of landscape, but it gives us an opportunity to consider the porous – and perhaps pointless – nature of neatly defined genres. It also reminds me that the most interesting photographic subjects we are ever most likely to capture will not be found in exotic locations, but right under our noses. Moreover, it’s the interaction between people and place, rather than just the arrangement of the ‘stuff’ within the frame, which is what’s most interesting to focus our lenses on.

[1] It was an interest in the discrepancy between the values we place on the terrain above the surface compared to below it that led me to explore the underground landscape during my postgraduate studies. See Threshold Zone and Turnstile on my personal website.

[2] See for instance, the definition of landscape for the ‘100 Mile Radius’ Photography Prize.

[3] Robert Adam’s tree stumps in Turning Back and Atta Kim’s rocks in In-der-Welt-sein come to mind.

[4] WJT Mitchell asserts in Landscape and Power (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) that the verb ‘to landscape’ has more relevance than the noun ‘landscape’, in terms of defining the nature of the genre.

Bob Mazzer is represented by Howard Griffin Gallery, London.

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