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.
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 🙂
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 . Definitions of ‘landscape’ often tend to emphasise examples of the topographical things within an area of land . But what happens when the photographer dwells on such things rather than taking in a more all-encompassing composition?  Does this matter particularly? Isn’t the relationship between those elements, or how they are juxtaposed, define the the real ‘landscaping’  – rather than the detail of what those things might happen to be?
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.
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.
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.
 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.
 See for instance, the definition of landscape for the ‘100 Mile Radius’ Photography Prize.
 Robert Adam’s tree stumps in Turning Back and Atta Kim’s rocks in In-der-Welt-sein come to mind.
 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.
Representing the English countryside is notoriously challenging. While all nations are cursed with cultural baggage and stereotypes around the appearance of and the populations within its rural parts, England is widely regarded as particularly problematic . Andy Sewell’s Something Like A Nest has been celebrated for examining and subverting pastoral clichés through his extended documentary of contemporary rural life in Southern England.
The sequence is varied in terms of subject matter and the narrative is not easy to pinpoint: Parr-esque close-ups of wares at village fêtes; oblique landscapes hinting at past activity; and images depicting the mechanics of modern agriculture, such as glistening silos and pristine glasshouses. The interior photographs help establish Sewell’s narrative more clearly however. Interior pictures have been a staple of rural commentaries: historically, Walker Evan’s 1930’s sharecropper’s homes spring to mind. Within a European context, Bert Teunissen’s Domestic Landscapes (2005) is an impressive survey, and images from James Ravillious’s study of North Devon in the 1970s and Justin Partyka’s ongoing study of East Anglian rural communities are also worth noting.
Sewell’s photographs however rarely feature the occupier directly: they are portraits of microenvironments, as opposed to examples of ‘environmental portraiture’ akin to the work of the practitioners mentioned above. In their pictures the owners and tenants tend to have modest possessions and pictures hint towards austere lifestyles. Typically, one half of the Arcadian pastoral myth is presented – simplicity, yet without the ease. The architecture and interiors depicted by Sewell, on the other hand, are much more ordinary and familiar to the urban or suburban viewer. There is realism, yet without the ‘otherness’ that this is so often accompanied with: the recurring image looking out of the window above the kitchen sink brings the art movement of that name to mind – the paintings of John Bratby for instance. Sewell is surely also using the window knowingly to remind us of how the outside (rural) environment is so often presented within popular culture as ‘other’.
Sewell’s interior images have been carefully composed to present thresholds between the food producing countryside and the sites of its consumption, with plenty of visual references throughout the entire series to our cultural framing of the countryside. This tension stands for some of the complexities in navigating contemporary rural issues, such as conflicts of interest between urban and rural populations; and food production verses conservation. Although Sewell’s series continually nods towards the pastoral, slipping for instance into elegiac form with more melancholy imagery (such as a burning pile of rubbish; a portrait of a freshly shot deer), and there are frequent references to cycles and re-birth that are typical pastoral tropes, Something Like A Nest is complex and intriguing, putting forward our domestic environment into this discourse.
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.
Landscape photographers traditionally tend not to take photographs in the middle of the day, or in fact anywhere near it. Photographing at either end of the day during what’s called the ‘golden hour’ – when the low, iridescent sun casts surreal hues and long shadows – can indeed yield ‘eye popping’ results, turning even fairly unremarkable views into something more of a spectacle. Although we may be cynical of the syrupy imagery of these kinds of pictures, there can be something rather pleasurable in heading out purposefully to photograph the sunrise (although, if you are a fan of sleep, it’s best to restrict such activities to the shorter days of the winter months): the anticipation of a clear morning, the punctual arrival of the sun behind the horizon, and the jeopardy of whether or not you set your camera up in the ‘right’ place has a certain excitement.
Such a romantic notion seems rather flippant in relation to Chloe Dewe Mathews’s recent series Shot at Dawn, which is included within the Time, Conflict and Photography show at Tate Modern, and was recently exhibited at Stills in Edinburgh. For the soldiers around whom the series was conceived, the arrival of dawn meant the certainty of execution, a fate they were condemned to for ‘cowardice’ or desertion of their posts and their duties; a merciless punishment that even a century on, its judicial wisdom is difficult to fathom. As a commission from the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford, Dewe Mathews researched and photographed the locations in France and Belgium of a selection of these executions of allied soldiers during the First World War. Conceived within the context of the centenary of the conflict, Dewe Mathews’s photographs were made as close as practically possible to the moment one hundred years on from when the soldiers were shot. Through painstaking archival research, Dewe Mathews located and photographed, the approximate spots where solders were shot by firing squad, or where they waited prior to their executions. The precision of the photographer’s methodology, in contrast to the relative spontaneity of her other documentary projects, could be seen as a means of undermining the impassionate and calculated manner in which these soldiers were made examples of.
Although there remains a degree of ignorance within the public consciousness of these macabre punishments, meted out to many solders suffering from post traumatic stress disorder [official documents relating to the execution of soldiers for cowardice and desertion were not released until the 1990s], these acts remain a smear on European military history. The passing of time has contributed to this amnesia: free of the photographer’s contextualization, we can be forgiven for failing to read the historical significance of the locations depicted in these pictures. Time has normalized, domesticated and wiped clean these black spots in the landscape and on our consciences.
The consistency of the time of day that all of these pictures were taken provides the series with a palpable sense of discord and unease: lingering dawn fog may be charming here and there but across the twenty-three photographs this builds into something unnerving. The work is indeed about reasserting an uneasy history and uniting these narratives to specific places and, as Dewe Mathews states: “stamping [the soldiers’] presence back onto the land”, but it also conveys a sense of waiting for something terrible to happen that is beyond our control.
Far from the golden hues of postcard and coffee-table book daybreaks, the cold and diffused blue-grey light of early morning dominates the colour palette of Shot at Dawn. Dewe Mathews’s views are equally untypical: sometimes angling the camera earthwards, her viewfinder pensively gravitating towards an indistinct patch of undergrowth rather than gazing towards an ember on the horizon. Despite the forensic research process which led Dewe Mathews to photograph these locations, the series retains a sense of the photographer’s anticipation, keeping a watchful eye out for the impending sunrise: what for most of us is a moment of celebration, but for the wretched souls remembered in Dewe Mathews’s photographs, promised only imminent death.
Chloe Dewe Mathews: Shot at Dawn is commissioned by the Ruskin School of Art at the University of Oxford as part of 14–18 NOW, WW1 Centenary Art Commissions
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.
Nigel Haworth’s Shattered Coast (2012)series documents the remains of the seaside towns of Usuiso and Toyoma in Fukushima prefecture that were devastated by the largest earthquake recorded in Japan and the subsequent tsunami in March 2011. Haworth visited the towns some time after the cleanup operations, and while many of the buildings appear to be on the point of collapse, much of the surrounding debris has been cleared away. Photography of the ‘aftermath’ is almost as old as the medium and this kind of “late photography” has been criticised as a means of memorializing particularly traumatic historical moments and events. Hans-Christian Schink’s project, Tohoku, which similarly records the effects of the tsunami, follows in this vein both stylistically and methodically.
Although there can be no doubt that Haworth’s images reveal the extent of the damage, by removing himself from the more forensic ‘straight’ documentary approach that is typical of “late photography” and flirting with the pictorial [a visual comparisons to Edward Steichen’s 1904 moonlit pond springs to mind], we are presented with a new take on the aftermath. Rather than dwelling on the sublime force of the tsunami and the visceral extent of the damage to property, Haworth perhaps (and unexpectedly) brings more prosaic questions to the fore: what’s going to happen now to these cleared, empty spaces? To what extent the the intrastructure and buildings be restored is aparently in question.
Haworth’s decision to photograph these locations at twilight not only gives them an atmospheric visual quality, but the strategy also takes these places beyond their usual appearance; or at least how they might appear to the naked eye. We are forced to scrutinise them in – literally – a new light, with a different sobriety. The sense of unease that these representations exude perhaps reflects an idea asserted by Diego Mormorio, that we have a subconscious, primordial anxiety that after nightfall the sun may fail to rise again in the morning . Haworth’s twilight hues also serve to remind us of the omnipresent lunar/tidal cycles, which are further referenced by the bleeding sphere of the moon at intervals throughout the series. We are invited to consider that interspersed between the predictable ebb and flow of these cycles we will have to deal with anomalies from time to time that are way beyond our control.
 See his essay ‘Photographs of the Nightfall’ in Mariniello, R. (2001) Napoli veduta immaginaria. Milan: Motto edizioni.
Following weeks of heavy rain this time last year, the Somerset Levels were starting to get very soggy indeed. Although they are a stones throw from my home – frustratingly – I was unable to get down there and witness or photograph the floods myself. Like most ‘newsworthy’ events, my experience of the floods was mediated through the TV and reportage images on newspaper websites. Images of impressive aerial views, distraught (as well as stoic) locals, and an abandoned train stick in my mind. Also, a pretty ropey ‘live’ TV broadcast one evening of territorials or marines building makeshift defences out of sandbags, to which I couldn’t shake a deep sense of cynicism for – both in terms of its likely effectiveness, and I suspected, the true nature of the story as an exercise in PR.
Plenty of independent photographers did document the flooding of course, and several photobooks have been published on the floods in the past year. Amano Samarpan’s investigation of the flooding, and the long-term effect of the water on what is predominantly agricultural land is however a more sustained project than most. Steering away from of the familiar media images of wrecked homes and ruined possessions, and the clean-up operations, Samarpan’s photographs examine the 2014 floods within the visual and theoretical framework of landscape discourse. His pictures, many of them diptychs, address, and even answer, the ecological and agricultural anxieties that spiralled last year: “How long can grass survive underwater?!” was one such question that I recall being uttered in earnest desperation. Visions of a sterile, post-apocalyptic plain seemed to haunt the imaginations of many.
There is a quiet beauty in both Samarpan’s images of the Levels underwater, as well as his photographs of the ‘recovered’ land, which inevitably have a more traditional beauty to them – that is, dare I suggest, a ‘picturesque’ quality. In this instance, the visual reunion of the Levels to their ‘normal’ state offers both ecological and aesthetic comfort: nature came good in the end. Perhaps Samarpan’s ‘drier’ pictures don’t belong within the realm of beauty or the picturesque: in fact the sublime aspect of this investigation is not the awesome power of the rains, but the terrific power of the land to dust itself off and renew itself.
A recent exhibition at Janet Borden Inc. in New York displayed a collection of vintage Ektacolor Plus prints and recent pigment prints that we might interpret as visual anecdotes that accompanied the making of his meticulously composed and crafted Altered Landscapesseries in the 1970s. We could make a comparison between the photographer’s approach and this collection of Found Pfahls to the now fairly ubiquitous use of smartphones and social media by photographers to document and augment the process and production of their projects.
In the justly celebrated Altered Landscapes, Pfahl didactically reveals the process of perspective and the monocular point-of-view of photographic vision. He introduces material to the ‘view’ directly in front of the camera such as tape, ribbon and other marks to delineate regular shapes and patterns that conflict with our brain’s desire to read the picture as the representation of a three-dimensional space. These simple and playful interventions are witty, but there is simultaneously something a little disconcerting in the way they reveal the limitation of ocular vision.
If we make a quick methodological distinction between ’taking’ and ‘making’ photographs, then Altered Landscapes can offer a pretty concrete example of the ‘made’ kind, and by comparison, we might define the photographs from Found Pfahls as belonging to the ‘taken’ category: opportunistic observations opposed to premeditated tableaux. (Not to suggest any kind of hierarchy between the two approaches.) Although made four decades ago, specific temporal references are generally absent from many of the colour photographs from Found Pfahls. There is vivid imagery of American culture, but not that much Americana. The timelessness of Pfahl’s imagery is perhaps indicative of how staid is the popular perception of ‘nature’ and the land. Where the Altered Landscapes critiques the mechanics of seeing, Found Pfahls – the ‘the making of’ that work – critiques the way we frame the landscape from cultural perspectives.