The Heart of the Landscape
One of the highlights of the Brighton Photo festivals this biennial was seeing Johanna Ward’s set of concertina artist’s books that comprise I shall say goodbye with my strengthening love for you, forever and ever. Modest by comparison to other works at the top of the Vantage Point space that vied for attention in this well-filled venue, the composure and sensitivity of Ward’s project resonated effortlessly. I shall say goodbye… draws upon the narrative of the artist’s parent’s relationship – a familiar tale of love, marriage, children … and eventual separation in the 1990s. The title of the work and some of the texts within it are drawn from a letter from the artist’s father to her mother. Conflicting with the linearity of the concertina format is the ambiguous interplay of images and texts; a strategy designed to reflect the structure of memory, with its resistance to logical arrangement and its capacity to unleash itself powerfully at the slightest of triggers. Despite, we might assume, the potential for over-mystification within the words that Ward selects and the identity of the protagonists, the narrative is tangible and accessible, and many viewers will no doubt empathise with the tumultuous emotions that the series explores.
The photographs within the series are eclectic, combining vernacular material – such as still lifes of artefacts from the relationship and family photographs, presented almost like forensic exhibits – with contemporary photographs, many of which are landscapes of Scotland and Southern England. Ward’s landscape imagery reflects the emotional oscillations and complexities of her parent’s love affair with both sensitivity and visual brutality, offering transparent visual metaphor but also leaving plenty for interpretation.
I shall say goodbye… fits within a long history of the incorporation of the land within artistic expression as simile and metaphor for the gamut of love’s emotions, as well as the backdrop for tales of courtship and romantic affairs. Idyllic Arcadian settings were key features of classical literature, notably Jacob Sannazzaro’s 1504 epic Arcadia that ignited the theme within the visual arts during the Renaissance, which was rooted in much earlier works by Hesiod, Ovid and Virgil. In pastoral painting for instance, the image of two lovers fraternising  (ironically, generally ignorant of the “view” and instead engrossed in each other) is almost as recurrent a trope as the cowherder or shepherd with his flock.
In its more interesting explorations, the pastoral addresses the complex through the apparent simplicity of something else: an uncomplicated agricultural vocation, or two young people falling in love; the viewer or reader is in fact presented with something far less superficial, usually surrounding the nature of man and the purpose of his existence . We might regard Ward’s use of the land – represented beautifully, however, far from idealistically – as an extension of this mode. The land both punctuates the narrative and provides a spatial context for it, even though we do not necessarily envisage the dialogues in the texts to have played out within the actual spaces Ward depicts. Nevertheless, these places are potent sites of memory and, at times, their ordinary character no doubt adds to the ease of the audience’s connection to them.
We have all been there: traipsing a familiar walk or wandering more aimlessly, attempting to make sense of a painful reality or trying to just keep moving to remind yourself that shit happens and life goes on. I shall say goodbye… reminds us of the potential of the land to offer emotional refuge and how universal are our efforts to find answers within it.
Johanna Ward is represented by L A Noble Photographers Gallery
Watch a video showing the suite of books here
 See Simon Robert’s photograph from We English taken at the South Downs for a contemporary take on this motif.
 Nicolas Poussin’s Et in Arcadia Ego (1639) being the most discussed example of this genre or mode.