Book reviews, Inspiration, Landscape

Bastard Countryside

‘The city, in its Victorian overcoat, the muck of centuries on its waistcoat, bored Ballard. He promoted this new place, the rim. The ‘local’ was finished as a concept. Go with the drift, with detachment. The watcher on the balcony. Areas around airports were ecumenical. They were the same everywhere: storage units, hangars, satellite hotels, car hire companies, apologetic farmland as a mop-up apron for Concorde disasters.’

– Iain Sinclair, London Orbital

900 words –

‘Bastard Countryside’, the new book by photographer Robin Friend takes us on a tour of the so called ‘edgelands’ of the UK, pointing out the beauty, mystery and sublime in these 21st century backwaters. In a small autobiographical passage in the front of the book, Friend acknowledging that we still live in a world largely defined by the socio-economic constraints of the past, especially in terms of land ownership and use. Yet this is much more than a dry survey of the rural landscape. It is an archaeological adventure both impressively expansive and movingly intimate. A metaphorical quest of self-discovery as much as a survey of a bruised and battered Britain.

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© Robin Friend 2018 courtesy Loose Joints

The pictures aren’t rooted to any specific geographical locale, either by topographic reference or text. Instead, they seem gloriously unhinged, able to float free of worldly constraints to instead occupy a space that hints at a greater resonance between the image and the unconscious.

Friend’s enigmatic approach could be seen as adding to the mis-firing cannon of so-called ‘edgeland fetish’ as identified by the writer Robert MacFarlane, who provides the lucid afterword. Yet this malediction is confronted by one image in particular – the forelorn carcass of a stranded whale – its blood still leaching into the surrounding sea. This is the factual pivot around which the rest of the work’s fictional narrative seems to balance, tipping the argument away from delusions of the pastoral towards something altogether darker, more political and relevant. Like an embedded harpoon unleashed from the decks of the Pequod, Captain Ahab’s ship in Moby Dick, this image becomes engrained in us, adding poignancy and, paradoxically, life to the book as a whole.

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© Robin Friend 2018 courtesy Loose Joints

On this exploration we’re encouraged to meditate on the possibility and meaning of what we find. Friend’s photographic style shuns the cool formality usually associated with historic schools of landscape photography, instead drawing us in with a sophisticated palette of muted tones, interspersed with discordant notes of red and blue as nature’s harmony is rudely disrupted.

Elsewhere, and bearing in mind that, on the face of it, this is an interogation of ‘the countryside’, the archetypal ‘verdant hills’ of a ‘green and pleasant land’ are resolutely absent and draw attention to the artificiality of such terms. In fact, the conspicuous omission of the predominant colour of nature is one of the over-riding impressions here. Where green does feature, it becomes as man-made as a paved driveway – a gangrenous graft of grass or a slimy slither of sea-weed that, like a contaminated limb, seems to hinder rather than help us on our way. Or, verging on the darkly comical, it becomes something to be burnt.

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© Robin Friend 2018 courtesy Loose Joints

Like the Victor Hugo novel Les Miserable from which the title of this book is derived, this publication is a blend of drama on the micro and macro scale. Large format images repleat with the significance of unfolding narratives interlink with more prosaic digressions that nevertheless take on a sense of the epic, treated as they are with the same meticulous attention to detail. For example, a rusted tin can hidden in a hedge leads seemlessly on to a hulking shipwreck ravaged by tide and time. One gets a sense of the editing here, and the significance of pace, flow and cohesion. The result is a paired-back approach that expertly choreographs form and content into an articulate whole.

The remains of an array of human endevour are exposed to the lens, notably traces from the industrial revolution and the second world war. Many of these spaces and objects are tantalisingly familiar and have contemporary concerns. The recycling facility sorting material into its debased state; the wind farm blighting the bucolic view; ‘an abandoned greenhouse gradually re-mossed,’ as identified by Macfarlane. In less skilful hands these images could have easily tipped into cliché, but not here.

A sequence of penultimate pictures delve into the subterranean world of the tunnel, sewer and cave, reinforcing not only a sense of journey and adventure, but also of apotheosis – the idea of consumerist culture reaching a kind of zenith. Peak stuff, in the literal and metaphorical sense has never been so plainly or keenly observed as here in the blocked bowels of the earth.

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© Robin Friend 2018 courtesy Loose Joints

Friend seems to be echoing, in these underground caverns, the words of the photographer Robert Adams who says, ‘the area’s ruin would be a testament to a bargain we had tried to strike. The pictures record what we purchased, what we paid, and what we could not buy. They document a separation from ourselves and, in turn, from the natural world that we professed to love.’ The bargain in ‘Bastard Countryside’ seems to be at the expense, not only of the surface of the land, but the very internal workings of the earth itself.

Yet truisms crudely articulated render the poetics of art redundant. Here there is beauty (this ugly word) in the most maligned of places – a gift the photographer has captured and translated into form. The possibility of hope that, in time, we might seek to alter our ways and find an alternative to this malaise. What is pictured here is the aftermath of violence, the chaotic clash between global capitalism and nature, played out in a poet’s back yard.

Bastard Countryside by Robin Friend, published by Loose Joints through to www.loosejoints.biz

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Book reviews, Environment, Inspiration, Landscape, Photography and current affaires, Project reviews

Tribal Meditations

Simon Roberts’ atomised survey of Brexit Britain’s divided soul. A short review.

Merrie Albion, the new monograph by the photographer Simon Roberts is a timely publication delving into the social landscape of England. The work has been ten years in the making and was conceived, as much as these things can be, before the uncertainty of Brexit could taint the sea air or sour the national psyche. The pictures reveal a society of tribes, each imbued with their own laws (lores), engaging in the complex, hierarchical and habitual activities comprising our western society; rooted in a landscape rich in history, meaning and metaphor.

Merrie Albion

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, Shoreham Air Show, West Sussex, 15 September 2007

Gatherings of people in grand and intimate scale could signify that contrary to popular sociological discourse, we are all ‘somewhere’ people despite issues of class, religion and social status. This ‘somewhere’ may not be a home in the domestic sense, but it is a shared space of social interaction, where the emphasis is on a communal sense of values and attitudes. Equally, the pictures allude to the hidden rifts between people of different class, social status and socio-economic background. In both senses, we are English when we look, sound and feel the same as our neighbour, whether they be daubed in face paint in anticipation of a Kiss concert, or donning Captain Beeny t-shirts in support of a comical parliamentary candidate.

Merrie Albion

Download Festival, Donington Park, Castle Donington, Leicestershire, 13 June 2008

The pictures appeal for their detail and scope. Each element is carefully stage-managed in an act of patient observation. We see ourselves in the reflected gaze of the curious professor, peering down over half-moon spectacles, smiling wryly. The stillness of the images and their resolution reward a forensic gaze. If this is a mirror held up to us, it is gilded and gaudy, depleted of sophistication, worn and artfully stressed.

More classic British wit is on show: the absurdity of a dunking in Dickensian costume; men and women in white coats at a county show (are coming to take me away, ha ha!), the authoritarian demarcation of the end of a tourist beach; a cat (belonging to a malevolent psychopath, perhaps?) sits innocently on a wall outside a weapons factory; ‘A warm welcome’ emblazoned against a fire damaged building, provides a lurid, ironic twist. This is a country suitably sanguine about its ability to cope with political fallout and economic turmoil. The pictures seem to solidify a sense of British resolve to face up to the least worst options available.

Merrie Albion

Broadstairs Dickens Festival, Isle of Thanet, 19 June 2008

As David Matless, one of the astute writers, academics and commentators included in the book says in apt English understatement, ‘There is much variety in Merrie Albion.’ It is this remarkable breadth that would habitually dilute a voice within a project, leading to unproductive cul-de-sacs and dead ends. Yet Roberts has elegantly navigated any danger of disconnect by being clear about his socio-geographic objectives and by opening the work up to collaboration from voices across the cultural spectrum and political sphere.

Merrie Albion

Beachy Head, Seven Sisters Country Park, East Sussex, 14 March 2017

He pictures his fellow country folk in circumstances of apparent free-will, when quiet passions, pastimes and affiliations float to the surface as if in subconscious reverie. But we need direction to navigate this complex terrain and it is the narration, both in the form of extended captions and other voices, which prove to be illuminating guides on this complicated but rewarding ten-year journey around the isle.

Author’s note: this review was written from a pdf kindly supplied by the publisher, Dewi Lewis. The book is available to buy online here.

All images ©Simon Roberts

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Book reviews, Inspiration, Landscape

Missing Buildings

Hessel Street, E1

Our real times were spent out of school. I spurned authority, all the boys did. We used the derelict bombed houses as our hideaway places. They were the arenas for our obnoxious behaviour. We would buy a pennyworth of chips for our lunch, ram them into a dry roll and take it into a derelict house, climbing right to the top where we would sit and discuss things, as if we were in some kind of parliament.’

Don McCullin, Unreasonable Behaviour

Borough High Street, SE1

An overall sense of loss pervades the work of brother and sister Beth and Thom Atkinson in their new book, Missing Buildings which, as the name suggests, is a typological study of the bombed-out spaces left in London from the second world war.

This impression is reinforced by the lonely streets, the unpeopled pavements and flat, empty skies. It’s as if the air raid sirens never stopped. As if the living have sought shelter below ground alongside the dead and other archaeological remains. An eerie calm pervades throughout.

As metaphors for memory – both collective and individual – and the cumulative effect of time, these traces of buildings act as a cypher to contemplation; not only about the legacy of war, but also the cycles of social and political change that shape a modern city. Much as weather is photography’s unintended subject, so the changing socio-economic landscape of London permeates Missing Buildings, asking us to look again, and question how far we’ve come.

The outlines of these spectral structures are sometimes hard to see. One might assume that the locating process took weeks of walking and looking. The reality, it seems, is less arduous, and opens a subtle element of ambiguity in the project. Thom describes how most sites are marked on official war record maps, but some aren’t. These ‘unknowables’ are nevertheless taken to be bomb sites, both by the photographers and by passing locals, who engage the pair, curious about the project.

The public recounting of war stories adds a sense of certainty to these unverified facts, and intriguingly, Beth and Thom conspire in this story-telling with photographic ‘evidence’ – enhancing and repeating the fiction. In other words, this is not an exhaustive – or reliable – compendium of sites, but a foray into the urban past, a process of awakening and patient revelation using photography as the key to unlocking a deeper, psychological connection with places imbued with myth.

Copeland Road, Peckham

These places are remarkably, disconcertingly familiar. The urban syntax of regeneration, gentrification and disenfranchisement pervade. The side of one building – in graphic coincidence – is rendered ‘transparent’ by talented graffiti artists, showing the private décor of a fictional family, complete with ground floor pub and upstairs cat. An embarassed looking washing machine, surprised by its very public display, peeks apologetically out from a small shed onto a damp carwash courtyard. And a surrealist masterpiece – a giant monochrome rat – eyeballs the lens of Thom and Beth’s camera. Both unblinking.

Hackney Road, E2 #1

This process of walking and looking unifies the project and connects the photographers to their subject as vulnerable pedestrians, at risk from speeding car or vindictive pigeon. We learn – in the insightful afterword by David Chandler – that their grandfather was an ARP warden, based in Balham during the Blitz, whose job it was to ‘map bomb impacts in the area.’ Beth and Thom continue in this tradition – walking, observing and recording – much as their grandfather had done 75 years earlier. They have created a fitting and timely memorial to their grandfather and to the bomb site victims.

Goulton Road, Lower Clapton

In a picture from Goulton Road, Lower Clapton, a large billboard for a business directory proclaims ‘Knowledge is king.’ Next to it the ghostly, pointing, pock-marked apparition of what appears to be Lord Kitchener hovers above a sign which says ‘Cars wanted for cash.’ The memories of war, if we dare to look carefully, are everywhere.

Buy the book here.

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Book reviews, Environment, Inspiration, Landscape, Stories, Theory

Stories from the English Countryside

Something like a Nest, by Andy Sewell

“Visible out picture windows, however, are fragments of open sky and long views which obscurely make radiant even what frightens us.”

– Finis Dunaway, Beyond Wilderness

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©Andy Sewell

In his enigmatically titled new book, Something Like a Nest, photographer Andy Sewell engages in a poetic re-framing – both literal and metaphorical – of the English countryside. Employing a subtle and contemplative pictorial style, the book addresses aspects of rural life and living beyond that which is superficially dramatic or stereotypical.

Sewell’s is not a search for his own sanctuary amongst the common detritus of agricultural production and country life, but rather as a collector of small stories, and motifs, which allude in an oblique way, to their own unique narrative vignettes. The overall effect is not to define what the English Countryside is and what happens there necessarily, but to open up possibilities and connections between disparate aspects contained therein.

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©Andy Sewell

The simple act of noticing (as mundane as that sounds), or put another way, of understanding the reason for noticing, plays an important thematic role in the book. The third image, for example, depicts a still life of a jar containing what can only be described as a glutinous mass of frogspawn. Hermetically sealed in their iridescent enclave, the spawn seem safe and secure, like a new type of Kiwi jam from Waitrose, perhaps, with the label carefully peeled to reveal the tempting fruits behind. Yet, on a second look – second thought more appropriately – this is a precarious position for the entrapped embryos. The day could quickly turn from overcast and cool, to harsh and hot, boiling the life out of this primordial preserve.

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©Andy Sewell

Another still life also alludes, more subtly, to containment. This time a carton (cartoon?) of eggs is placed on a cloth-covered table illustrated with kitsch depictions of cockerels and hens. This stylized ‘wipe-clean’ version of nature – resplendent with repetitious, almost robotic looking roosters – cleverly negotiates a dialogue between the natural world and consumerism; between the rural environment and our manipulation of it. In this context, the letter lurking in the background from Tesco.com takes on somewhat Orwellian connotations. The cutlery clamouring in the corner – normally benign utensils clad as they are in sunny yellow – are now made lurid, adding a further tinge of artificiality.

This rubberized ‘cartooncloth’ adds to a sense of a reality somewhat skewed. Or is it perhaps a sense of the awareness of the photographer, somehow heightened? Either way, Sewell seems to celebrate rather than chastise these eccentricities, taking aesthetic pleasure in agricultural geometry and a keen eye for the significance in the minute and the mundane.

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©Andy Sewell

Two years ago I spent some time walking the route of the proposed HS2 rail line between London and Birmingham. Although that area of the Buckinghamshire countryside is designated an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’, the land is visually and ecologically better described as a kind of green desert. Modern farming techniques turn nature into a monoculture fit for little, save for the very specific task of growing crops. In Sewell’s green desert, the washing line draped across the middle of the frame includes a Thomas the Tank Engine towel, playfully illustrating the precariousness of this symbolic rural retreat. In the foreground, a shrunken toy tractor seems the victim of some kind of agro-chemical blunder.

Elsewhere in the book, the colour red and the people who do appear, play an equally emblematic, unifying role, as do the five kitchen windows, resplendently back-lit with jewel-like ornaments and emerald green (radioactive?) washing up liquid. Religion appears as a metaphorical backdrop, and rituals are represented throughout, adding to the sense that repetition and renewal are key features of this unsentimental and complex vision of rural life.

The image on the front of the book reflects this too, showing the desiccated remains of a cornfield, and it is encased, like frequent objects in much of Sewell’s English landscape, in a thin and beautiful veneer of plastic.

Something like a Nest is available to buy via http://www.andysewell.com/

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Aftermath, Book reviews, Environment

Coal not dole

“…their future will be as black as coal itself, and the weekly wage packet will be a giro-handout…”

– Marsha Marshall, Women Against Pit Closures, at the beginning of the strike, 1984

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the miners’ strike. A book by a German photographer, only now published, offers the viewer a rare glimpse inside the upended lives of local families during a hugely divisive period in modern British history.

 

Spud Marshall with grandchild Carla, Rimington Road, Wombwell, 1985

Spud Marshall with grandchild Carla, Rimington Road, Wombwell, 1985

 

Taking inspiration from Robert Frank and his great opus on American culture, Michael Kerstgens, a young photography student at the time, follows his family contacts to South Wales before heading to the hotbeds of social upheaval in the mining towns of South Yorkshire.

The photographer manages to secure remarkable access, particularly through a chance encounter with a man on his first day at the NUM office in Barnsley by the name of Stuart ‘Spud’ Marshall. Trusted by the communities, he now becomes an invisible eye, free to make some astonishingly intense pictures of Union meetings and record insights into pivotal roles played by the Miners’ wives.

 

WAPC activist Marsha Marshall supports picketing miners with a donation of cigarettes, South Yorkshire, December, 1984

WAPC activist Marsha Marshall supports picketing miners with a donation of cigarettes, South Yorkshire, December, 1984

 

These pictures show the subtle bonds and ties of family that are sometimes difficult to articulate, but are nevertheless integral to stories of private and working lives connected and interwoven in ways which seem both familiar and strangely abstract. The images in places feel like a sooty archeological archive, such is the patina of coal dust covering every surface. The use of monochrome connects the subjects to a strong pictorial lineage, to moral questions of right and wrong and, perhaps more viscerally, to the very elements of the land under their feet.  Adding to this sense of other-worldliness the pictures of NUM meetings, veiled in a tobacco haze, are striking for their visual aesthetic, but are made more profound as historical documents of a very particular time and place.

The solemn tone is given a refreshing and relevant counter-point with the inclusion of some witty party pictures.

 

New Years Eve with neighbours and friends at Wombwell Working Men's Club, Station Road, Wombwell, 1984

New Years Eve with neighbours and friends at Wombwell Working Men’s Club, Station Road, Wombwell, 1984

 

The last quarter of the book brings us up to date with Spud and the town, who both, as Kerstgens puts it, ‘never entirely got over the strike and its aftermath.’

 

Spud Marshall at the Mitchell & Darfield Social Club, Wombwell, 2013

Spud Marshall at the Mitchell & Darfield Social Club, Wombwell, 2013

 

The passage of time has imbued Michael Kerstgens’ important photobook a sense of perspective and confirms feelings of injustice; less about the simple economic facts regarding the (un)sustainability of the pits themselves, and more to do with the void left behind after such enormous and immediate social change.

See more of Kerstgens work and buy the book here. All photos ©Michael Kerstgens

 

The Reunion aired on BBC Radio4 recently brought together five interested parties from the strike, allowing an opportunity to see if thirty years have entrenched or softened views formed at the time.

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Book reviews, Inspiration, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism, Project reviews

Reporting on a Folly – Sochi 2014

“If you love Russia, you don’t tell the truth about it.”

Go for it!

Go for it!

This ironic quote was reported by Arnold van Bruggen (at a recent talk at the Frontline Club) as the main criticism from the Russian ‘blogosphere’ of the Sochi Project’s coverage of the build up to the Russian Winter Games.  Together with Photographer Rob Hornstra, the pair have devoted their lives to the region over the last 5 years producing 10 separate publications and an insightful website that can best be described as a compendium of stories from a troubled region given scant coverage in the mainstream media.

The aim of the project is an ambitious one. It seeks to disseminate stories – political, ethnographic and cultural – to a broad audience both within Russia and elsewhere. It uses a variety of means to do this, which all rely on the close bonds formed during many re-visits to the region. These return trips add further layers of material which are then compared and added to the encyclopaedic narrative, then made into books, newspapers, poster campaigns or shared on the web.

Human Rights Lawyer

Human Rights Lawyer

This long-form or ‘slow’ journalism is particularly suited to a variety of media with varying emphasis given to pictures or text.  The book ‘Empty land, Promised Land, Forbidden Land’ (re-printed 2013) for example, gives equal weight to both.  Chapters guide the reader through a narrative web, the strands of which – appropriately – can only be fully appreciated with time and effort.

Journalist for a local newspaper

Journalist for a local newspaper

In this regard, Hornstra’s photographs achieve a certain stateliness and formality which mirrors the lurking presence of state authority. Many of the images allude to memory and trauma – photographs of photographs, decay and dereliction – or highlight bureaucracy in all it’s monotonous repetition. The photographs, however, become a perfect medium to relay this stasis – paralysis, one might say – being themselves a form of preservation.

The success of the project is primarily due to two overarching factors. Firstly, there is a successful marriage between content and presentation: where design and layout combine to present both text and image in a beautifully approachable and tactile form. Credit here must go to designers and cartographers Kummer and Hermann, who have given the body of work its distinctive style. Second, despite the breadth of the project, the looming presence of the Winter Games in Sochi provides an anchor point around which stories revolve like constellations.

Beach in Adler

Beach in Adler

In short, this project provides a possible template for other committed story tellers keen to engage a large audience over an extended time-frame. The pair may well have been listening to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie during her TED talk in 2009. She warns of the dangers of a single story representing a stereotypical point of view. Admittedly the Caucusus as a geopolitical region are so under-reported that stereotypes are hard to imagine. Nevertheless, their approach seems to avert the kind of criticism normally leveled at photojournalists.

An intelligent and thought provoking project which challenges photojournalists to commit to their subject – becoming investigators, not just voyeurs.

All images © Rob Hornstra

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