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 is 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, people buy lingerie, clearly.

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 representation of what the Ancient Greeks termed ‘Polis’ – the agencies 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

DSC_0004

©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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Environment, Photography and current affaires, Photojournalism

A frictionless future

“Bill Gates has recently promoted the notion of a ‘frictionless capitalism.’ But even if it were other than a myth, it would not be a good idea because it would mark the end of innovation. Friction can be productive when it helps us to be reflective about what we have taken for granted. Innovation occurs when generative friction stimulates reflexivity to recognize new recombinations.”
– David Stark, Professor of Sociology and International Affairs, Columbia University
51 40'35.38 N, 0 38'22.78 W

51 40’35.38 N, 0 38’22.78 W ©djnorwood2012

The HS2 rail project is an eye-wateringly expensive proposition. Understandably it has provoked consternation among residents along the length of the route and it inspired me to go out and see for myself the threat posed to parts of the landscape. Angry signs along hedgerows and bordering beech woods were an obvious – perhaps too obvious – motif around which I formed a series which featured in the Politics of Land magazine FOV (Field of View) in April 2012.

The resulting images were as much about our ideals of nature and ‘the natural’ as they were about the inevitable tide of progress. I concentrated my gaze on the Chilterns – a so called ‘area of outstanding natural beauty’ – walking paths that will, for many years during construction, be blocked with aggregates. Yet the landscape here is far from natural, being as it is, littered with pylons and the detritus of intensive agriculture.

Nevertheless there is an indefinable need in all of us to hold onto an idealized concept of ‘nature’ rather than the more brutal reality – something that has been articulated in one word – biophilia. Literally translated this means a ‘love of life and of living systems’. You won’t hear the term in village hall meetings up and down the length of the line, but it is implied; and it is there in the carefully tendered lawns and herbaceous boarders of the houses threatened with demolition.

I was recently contacted by Dr. Jos Smith of Exeter University, who walked the length of the proposed route from London to Birmingham and writes eloquently about the disparity and disconnect between this project and the communities through which the rails will run. As well as further points about ‘frictionless capitalism’, he also includes a picture of a ‘yarn bomb’, a beautifully light and poignant way of drawing attention to a weighty and somewhat prosaic subject. I encourage you to read it here.

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Environment, Photography and current affaires, Theory

Junkyard Economics

waste vb wasting, wasted 1 to use up thoughtlessly, carelessly or unsuccessfully

Picturing the detritus of the the West has produced a rich vein of photographic work. A new book by the journalist Adam Minter, however, casts the subjects in this trade, particularly in China, in more nuanced terms.

From the series Permanent Error ©Pieter Hugo 2009

For photographers, there has always been an attraction to the gritty, grungy aesthetic of a landfill site or recycling dump. The pictorial qualities of waste can draw on links with historical painting or engage with a sense of injustice; evidence that rich nations are consuming more than their fair share. The subtle beauty of the former can be seen in the work of Neil A White.

As evidence of injustice, waste dumps are often labelled on a par with the industrial exploitation of resources – mining for gold and metals used in smartphones – and other human rights abuses from which local people have no escape. This however ignores the very real economic benefits these dumps provide, and the dignity gained from a sense of agency and entrepreneurialism. Powerful and noteworthy work along these lines include projects by Sophie Gerrard and Pieter Hugo.

©Sophie Gerrard 2006

©Sophie Gerrard 2006

I am not suggesting that individuals working on these sites should be universally grateful for their lot, but I am questioning the concerned gaze of the western viewer who, when confronted with such easily decoded images, is prevented from delving into the intricacies of the issue. We look at the figure. We take in the surroundings. We reel in horror. And do nothing. This seems to be the default position.

Despite these universal truths, there is according to journalist and re-cycling expert Adam Minter , a vast and hugely rewarding trade in e-waste and recycling happening in China, which might suggest new commercial opportunities for communities in suitable parts of Africa and India. Needless to say, contamination of food and water supplies need to be addressed.

Minter argues that far from being no-go areas, recycling dumps particularly where large quantities of valuable metals can be extracted, provide the necessary raw material for new products and industries and for communities to emerge and thrive, despite the odds.

An excellent review of the book published in the Guardian by Isabel Hilton can be found by here.

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