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.

 

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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.

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.

Re-Reading the Landscape

Now that my textbook is in the shops, I would like to formally welcome readers to the Perspectives on Place blog.  Over the coming weeks and months, I will be discussing some of the key ideas that are examined in my book, and presenting new work by contemporary practitioners whose photography engages with landscape and the representation of space and place in innovative and challenging ways. The content already on here should give you a flavour of the some of the themes and ideas that I would like to explore further in future posts. If you would like to submit content for consideration, please see the submission guidelines.

I would also like to take this opportunity to invite readers to the book launch on 19th February in Bristol at IC Visual Lab, which will take the form of a talk followed by a panel discussion. Please click here for more details.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you find this a useful and stimulating place for discussion.

Jesse Alexander

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Perspectives on Place

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About a year ago I started working on a textbook on contemporary landscape photography for Bloomsbury. Writing the thing was something of a task, but the draft is with the designers and things are moving ahead pretty swiftly. I’m really happy with how it is turning out. I’ve had some great support and I’m really pleased with the fantastic range of photographers who are contributing. I’m really pleased that Professor Paul Hill agreed to write a brilliant forward as well. I thought I’d share the latest cover, and also a link to pre-order a copy

It won’t be in the shops until January, and up until then I’ll be oiling the marketing bandwagon as much as possible, and of course saying a bit more about what it’s actually about. I hope that’s whetted a few appetites for now…