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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Environment, Landscape, Stories

Fiction and the Field

Boy_small

 

A boy lies in a field in the sun, wondering how he got there.

The journey itself was unremarkable. He’d wanted to accompany his Dad on one of his quests for ‘buried treasure’ since the day he opened the shed door and a large thin, heavy object crashed behind it.

‘No harm done, son,’ said Dad, plugging in the headphones and twiddling the on dial until a faint but unmistakable whine could be heard through the nearest headphone.

J had dreamed many times of being Indiana Jones. Indiana James! Ha! He imagined being pursued by spear wielding tribesmen and having to use quick-wit and guile to stay alive. He knew it was an arcane, outmoded illusion (although he didn’t use those words, exactly). It was ‘uncool’ because his Dad started him on those 1980’s adventure movies. He also couldn’t help but love everything about them and had a Harrison Ford poster stuck with old blue-tack on the back of his bedroom door. It was a gift from Dad.

The skate park was where he normally hung out with Ed, his buddy and wingman on the hard, grey slopes just behind the local secondary school. J and Ed were in a race to master grinds after they both nailed ollies, kickflips and heelflips. Ed had broken his wrist on his first attempt and had spent the previous couple of weeks sulking on a bench, but at least that’s where Amy hung out. There was always an upside.

Boy

The last time J was face down in the dirt wasn’t on his board. He’d launched himself and his ancient hardtail mountain bike at full speed down Greenacre Hill, over some hastily harvested planks and attempted to glide gracefully over Roo, H and Charlie, clipping Charlie on the way down with his front wheel, swearing and feeling the warm tingle of blood as it leaked from his sweaty brow. The ground was equally as hard then as now. He’d have more of an audience today, if he had his bike and could be bothered to build a ramp, but he wondered whether even a light aircraft overshooting the nearby aerodrome would elicit much of a response from the field of foragers whose senses were entombed by the elemental tone of copper and bronze humming through their heads.

The loose change in J’s jeans pocket jabbed into his groin. He commando crawled along to the next clump of dried wheat stems, wondering why he’d seen so few insects lying as he had been for half a day, with his chin nuzzled into the chaff.

At least it wasn’t pissing down with rain.

A version of this image features in the latest edition of Landscape Photographer of the Year.

Field

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Behind the scenes, Environment, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism

In Transit

athenian-vans

These graffiti covered vans seen recently in Athens seem to distil many of the arguments about the economic woes of a country coupled with the migrant crisis we hear so much about in the media.

I spent a day walking around the neighbourhood near the flat, which happened to be close to Athens China Town. If ever there was a success story of economic migration, surely this was it. Nothing glamorous about the location but the fashion draped over mannequins on pavement corners had more than a hint of glitz. One wondered how the dark warehouses behind, full of sequinned dresses and racy underwear could sustain themselves, yet business seemed to be booming. In harsh times a little bit of luxury seemed to go a long way.

Keeping watch like sentries outside the store fronts were dilapidated vans, mostly white and mostly adorned with a livery of spray can tags. The tipping point of resistance to this criminal damage had long been surpassed, and now these most utilitarian of vehicles were slowly morphing into their surroundings.

The vans show something of the industrial heartland of commercial Athens, away from tourist attractions. They are a modern symbol of what the Ancient Greeks termed ‘Polis’ – the agents of citizenship which help drive, literally in this case, the economic well-being of a city.

 

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Behind the scenes, Environment, Inspiration, Landscape, Stories

Pits (dis)

Pits. Everywhere, pits.

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©Crown Copyright 2015

The dimpled remains of an agricultural past litter the landscape. Farm labourers gathered its chalky alkaline nutrients, then applied it back to the topsoil as fertilizer around a hundred years ago. Then, fields were smaller and could be re-energized more easily with modest machines and brute strength. Pastures were dotted with people, talking, shouting, singing even.

Go to a ‘less advanced’ nation, Morocco say, and listen to the sounds the land encourages people to make. Whooping in the cold morning light. Toiling ‘till the sweat appears. I’ve been there and heard it. I’ve camped out under the stars on a rocky hill by the side of the road: pitched up by bicycle the day before, thinking I was the only one for miles. As dawn broke, a work party lying low nearby filled the air with the clatter of their pick-axes, which reverberated round the valley walls. These were the sounds that once resonated in the spaces carved out between these woods, in these pits. Now this clamour of voices is consigned to the past.

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Al Haouz, Morocco ©djnorwood 2015

Of course, this is not the whole story. There is quiet – in between the gunfire from pheasant and partridge shooting, when their less appetising cousins can be heard. Coppices are festooned with plastic feeders and barrels that could grace a gallery space, as Duchamp-esque ready-mades, such is their utilitarian sculpted form. The only way to negotiate these places, without straying across the sight lines of twin barrels, is with the help of a map. Maps help keep us safe.

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Untitled #1 ©djnorwood 2016

Maps also spur our curiosity, if we let them. At the risk of stating the obvious, the ordnance survey map aims to graphically represent three dimensional reality on a two dimensional plane, with all the necessary information needed for safe passage in the outdoors – the location of the nearest pub, for example, being of particular significance. But it also harbours information about physical features deemed necessary for safe passage through space. Pits are a fine example. Each one is marked as if it were a key feature to notice or negotiate – the map yielding these features – pit (dis) – as if they were waypoints on a quest. Yet in reality they are hard to find and usually disguised by mature trees, making full use of the fertile soil beneath.

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An open chalk pit ©djnorwood 2016

We are aware of the significance of local actions on the global whole, and this is the starting point for my curiosity. This was reinforced recently by reading the fascinating and far reaching biography of Alexander von Humboldt, ‘The Invention of Nature’ by Andrea Wulf. Humboldt recognised the connectedness of the natural world back in the early part of the 19th century, and although much has changed in the way that we interconnect with each other, our interdependence with the land remains the same. Humboldt recognised both the significance of humans impact on ecosystems and the details of flora and fauna that gave flesh to his ideas. In the absence of so little of each, were he alive today, I’m convinced he would have searched out clues such as these.

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Humboldt in South America: Versuch über die gereizte Muskel-und Nervenfaser (1797)

These particular ones aren’t heroic monuments like the usual totems of our recent industrial past – in Cornwall for example – where the chimneystacks of abandoned tin mines break the horizon like spires. These are intimate , hidden depressions, surrounded by trees, and this is the M3 corridor of rural Hampshire – a heavily industrialized zone of mono-cultural farms and fields.

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A disused chalk pit, ©djnorwood 2016

Perhaps lingering significance lies with the map makers themselves, who have carefully documented their pock marked presence, laying cartographical bread-crumbs on the surface of paper, and leaving it up to the curious minded to discover and create their own narrative. Perhaps it lies in the simple notion that something insignificant marked on a map can arouse interest and curiosity, and this in itself should be a cause for hope and optimism.

Anyone with a (healthy) map obsession can scratch the itch at the British Library. The fascinating  Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line is open until 1st March 2017.

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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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Aftermath, Environment, Stories

The Story of the Stuck Man

Groaning from outside my window is not in itself particularly unusual. This spot where the road meets the park is a place where all life mixes – the perimeter fence being a kind of shoreline between the suburban and the communal. Railings mark a displaced tide where the unexpected, from time to time, gets washed up. As I mute the women’s ‘slope style’ from Sochi, morbid moans settle on a disembodied space near the gates.

The Story of the Stuck Man (1 of 3)

I peer through the blinds onto the sickly sodium lit road and clock my neighbour – the one opposite with the enviable motor-home – in studious activity beside the park railings. Next to him is the dark dangling shape of a man – the source of the pained expletives; a shadow in contorted misery begging to be released.

I cannot un-see the impaled man. I grab keys and race downstairs before the hall lights have a chance to fully flicker on and cross the road to the man who is stuck like a pig at a banquet. The neighbour is trying to cut through his jeans with paper scissors; perilous, if not for the fact that they are woefully inadequate. A more threatening implement is needed. I find a serrated pair back in the kitchen draw, and try not to impale myself as I charge back outside, leaving strains of the ‘Star-Spangled Banner’ floating down the corridor.

Back outside, precise incisions are made in the denim around the spike until only gravity and fatigue have him still wedged. His free leg claws back and forth in mid air, but it remains hopelessly short. If the fight left him, he would probably fall back in a heap, maybe with a crump on the head; but then his knee would still be wedged and it might dislocate.

The Story of the Stuck Man (2 of 3)

I do another circuit back up to the flat for a chair then climb over the fence almost getting my foot caught next to his viced knee. The aroma of alcohol oozes from him, like he’s been marinating in ale. I thrust my back and shoulder under his rear end hoping he still has enough control over his bodily functions and inch his stranded leg up towards the respite of the waiting chair.

The Story of the Stuck Man (3 of 3)

‘Aaarrhh. No WAIT. Stop. STOP. Not all the way. I can’t reach it.’

There are some loose bricks nearby, so I build a little step and from these he manages to reach the chair and then we gently prise his limb up, off and down. He staggers as the blood returns.

‘Aargh. Tha…Thank you, boys. I really. I really a…appreciate you helping me. Don’t worry about me now. I’m going the long way round.’

He shuffles into the shadows, oblivious to his ragged state. I wonder about the ethics of photographing a helpless victim pinned to some railings for the sake of an interesting picture, as he disappears into the gloom.

The aftermath will have to do.

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