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, 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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Exhibitions, Inspiration, Landscape, Photojournalism

Beyond the Devil’s Rope

A review of the new work ‘Mountains of Majeed’ by photographer Edmund Clark

Edmund Clark has been photographing behind the scenes of the West’s ‘War on Terror’ since the late 2000’s. His breakthrough investigation of Guantanamo Bay ‘If the Light Goes Out’ drew attention to the plight of detainees and the daily routine of unconvicted terrorist suspects. With his new project, Clark continues to mine this rich seem, highlighting the discrepancies which exist between two polarized ideologies. ‘Mountains of Majeed’, is very clearly grounded in space and time – in Bagram Air Base in northern Afghanistan – but on closer consideration becomes a subtle allegory on the nature of experience.

© Edmund Clark

The photographs draw attention to the incidental spaces created between the buildings, boundaries and machines of ‘Operation Enduring Freedom’, creating a link between these highly ordered features and those which exist beyond the confines of the perimeter walls. The eponymous mountains of the title appear in each photograph like a vague recollection, their ethereal existence acting like a theatrical backdrop and counterpoint to the tangible solidity of the centre stage. The nature of warfare, analogous to rehearsed performance, is further enhanced by other details – a huge stars and stripes flag draped across the roof of a car port evokes the exuberant patriotism of a stage-show and a painting, intricately rendered, could be the set piece from a blockbuster movie.

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© Edmund Clark

Reality is further questioned by the use of other, more formal representations – this time of the landscape surrounding the Camp found as a mural in the military canteen. These idyllic paintings of the Hindu Kush by an anonymous artist known only as Majeed, contrast cleverly with their surroundings. The appropriation of this artist’s work acts as a cipher between diametrically opposed states. On the one hand is the geographical space between the soldiers inside the camp and the mountains receding into ultra violet light, and on the other the technological and existential distance between the two sides of the conflict.

© Majeed

This disparity is further enhanced with the knowledge that Clark used a state of the art high-resolution digital camera – further accentuating the difference between his Hasselblad and Majeed’s hog hair brush. The mechanism used to capture the image is sometimes a moot point, yet in this context it seems to reinforce the concept, providing a further critique on the gulf between ‘friend’ and ‘foe’. By adopting the technology of the foreign power, Clark acknowledges his place as an artist embedded within the machine of war.

Throughout the mountains remain alluring and intangible. Despite the project’s title, the clearest representation of this place is mediated through Majeed’s hand. This then becomes the most powerful narrative force within the work. The mountains become an enigmatic ‘terra incognita’ rich in human history and geological time but remain tantalizingly, for western eyes at least, beyond the devil’s rope.

The ‘devil’s rope’ is a term first used by native American Indians to describe the barbed wire ranchers used to enclose their newly acquired land. A BBC R4 program on the subject can be found here.

‘The Mountains of Majeed’ by Edmund Clark is on show at Flowers Gallery until 4th April 2015.

See more of Clark’s compelling work here.

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Exhibitions, Inspiration, Landscape, Theory

Thomas Struth and the (un)Mediated Image

Shinju-ku (Skyscrapers), Tokyo 1986 1986 by Thomas Struth born 1954

mediate vb 1. –ating, -ated to intervene between people or in a dispute in order to bring about an agreement 2. to resolve differences by mediation 3. to be changed slightly by (an experience or event)

“My whole idea of working has a lot to do with how humans live. How we live, how I live, how humans live together – human connectivity. That is my core value: what it is to be human. That is everything I believe in. I do not believe in current ideas of post humanity.”– Thomas Struth, Art Monthly 5.94

To a greater or lesser extent, all photographs have some kind of psychology or psychological origin and effect, whether it’s the ubiquitous ‘selfie’ or the jewel-like fine art print. Submerged beneath each image lies an interwoven raft of reason and rational – in journalistic terms the ‘who, what, where, when,’ of the image, but more importantly for this discussion, also the ‘why’. By looking at the architectural work of the photographer Thomas Struth, currently on show at the Barbican’s excellent ‘Constructing Worlds’ exhibition, we can see some of these psychological elements reveal themselves and become more accessible.

A first reading of the quote and image above may seem to be stretching these worldly ideas somewhat. Here we have a rigorously constructed large format photograph of modernist architecture and street scene – almost completely devoid of people or ‘street-life’, and conversely we have the artist’s intention to articulate through the photographic process his particular concern for the state of society – or the ‘human connectivity’, as he puts it.

In between these two seemingly dialectic ideas, the camera acts as a mechanical intermediary, but also offers the notion of a metaphorical ‘walkway’ between the psychological state of the artist and the concrete world he seeks to interpret. A kind of ‘alchemy’ is achieved between what is actually in front of the camera, and the translation of that three dimensional ‘fact’ into something more analogous to the photographers’ reason for being there. However, what is most interesting about Struth’s work is the great lengths to which the he goes to distance himself from an imposed reading of the image.

To paraphrase Struth from the same article, ‘Everything is being filled up with mediated information, mediated fantasies, mediated role models, mediated models of society, mediated violence and mediated suggestions for solutions, which are in turn no solutions.’ To which the obvious reply is why take the picture in the first place, if not to ‘mediate’ some kind of message to the viewer? The photograph is surely the ultimate mediation between the real world and its two dimensional representation.

Struth cleverly tackles this critique by deploying a field of view which is habitually referred to as ‘cool’, yet harbours a meticulous vision in harmony with that of the architects’ and supersedes those of the buildings’ invisible inhabitants. By being restrained, he challenges the viewer to wonder about the psychological effects of living on such streets and in such cities, without the need to actively mediate this information himself.

Free from any consciously directed reading of the image, the psychological intensity of the work comes from the obsessive qualities of Struth’s vision itself, and for me at least, a reason to keep going back to study and attempt to understand the complexities of our relationship with the constructed world.

Thomas Struth will be speaking at Tate Modern in London on Wednesday at The Landscape in Contemporary Photography: from the sublime to the ridiculous.

The Constructing Worlds exhibition is on at the Barbican until 11th January.

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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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Exhibitions, Inspiration, Landscape, Photojournalism, Project reviews, Theory

Enclave

Enclave, n. – a part of a country entirely surrounded by foreign territory

‘By contrast with the beautiful and the picturesque, the sublime is associated with awe, danger and pain, with places where accidents happen, where things run beyond human control, where nature is untamable.’ – Land Matters, Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity, Liz Wells, 2011

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The electrostatic whine of feedback reverberating around this darkened room accompanies the crimson shades of ‘Enclave’, the photographer Richard Mosse’s latest Congo Project.

Trapped in its own subterranean world – this overspill display forms part of the Deutsche Börse Photography Prize exhibition at the Photographers’ Gallery, and manifests itself as a stream of consciousness halfway between dream and reality.

In this disconnected space, the curatorial process can be taken as a fundamental element to the work itself. The lack of visible light paradoxically makes the viewer more aware of their own presence while negotiating the strange hypnotic properties of the images.

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The inspired act of selecting (practically) obsolete military surveillance film, which renders vegetation in lurid red and magenta hues adds to the symbiotic relationship between content and context. Cast out from the pristine white walls of the gallery, these images are further removed from their documentary roots and engage more with the conceptual notions of representation – particularly with regard to our consumption of images of Africa as ‘other’ or ‘apart’ from western experience.

Six bed-sheet sized transparent screens hang from the ceiling, adding to the immersive nature of the work. Onto these are projected infra-red moving images from the Congo, a place where the death toll – 5.4 million since 1998 – mirrors that of the holocaust. Much like the unfathomable extent of this tragedy, the project deals less with the specifics of the ongoing conflicts, and more with a dark psychological brew into which fact and fiction melt and dissolve.

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Given this universal treatment, beauty and the sublime, albeit as something of a technical construct, are never far from the surface. A languid descent of a hillside down into a refugee camp is made cinematic with the expert use of a steady-cam, before laboring, somewhat uncomfortably, on a father holding a child in the belly of the camp. This methodology is the antithesis of the Photojournalist grabbing at action, and seems to have more in common with theatre or other performative fiction.

Mosse, filmmaker Trevor Tweeten and sound recordist Ben Frost, have chosen to view this troubled land through a prism in an attempt to extract some hidden truth from a story as impenetrable as the surrounding vegetation. By rendering the infra-red into the ocular range, they have managed to successfully re-frame the conflict and, in so doing, have turned technology used for warfare back in on itself to show its raw, hallucinogenic underbelly.

 

The exhibition continues until the 22nd June.

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Exhibitions, Inspiration, Landscape

Objects in the Field

©Sophy Rickett 2013

©Sophy Rickett 2013

The field to which the title refers in Sophy Rickett’s new work relates not to earthly subjects, but instead to constellations and the cosmos. However, this is only the starting point, launch pad perhaps, of a journey of appropriation leading to a body of work forged from the remains of one man’s quest for celestial knowledge.

Dr. Roderick Willestrop, a retired research fellow at the University of Cambridge, is the invisible subject of Rickett’s new work, whom she met while on an artist’s residency at the institution. During her search for inspiration and a visual aesthetic to ‘key into’, Rickett began a series of encounters with the man, the results of which can be seen as a terrestrial collision between the two worlds of art and science.

©Sophy Rickett 2013

©Sophy Rickett 2013

In short but intense interviews, Rickett became interested in the academic’s life beyond the rigorous confines of his work. Anecdotes would slip around the edges of sentences describing highly specific technical processes. It was these ‘slippages’, we learn, away from formal narratives, to which the artist was drawn, and wanted to draw out somehow. A potentially rather dry conversation about optics brought back memories of a childhood experience at the opticians, which Rickett has reproduced in a booklet to accompany the exhibition. For the viewer, this booklet places the work within the context of encounters which bridge two worlds.

These personal interactions create an intriguing back story as the artist, acting as investigator, becomes locked in a tussle for the deaccessioning of the scientist’s negatives. Rickett is entranced by the now obsolete processes of recording the night sky through exposures on sheets of black and white film, sometimes with durations of 30 minutes or more, using a special rotating telescope pioneered by Willestrop. These negatives – glimpsed over his shoulder – are, it transpires, deemed useless due to the constant realignment of the planets. However, the act of ‘liberating’ the negatives becomes a delicate process, and forms the framework of an interaction around which the work is made.

©Sophy Rickett 2013

©Sophy Rickett 2013

Willestrop expressed his regret, we are told, not only at the obsolescence of his work, but also in technical inconsistencies, including fingerprints and dust, which had invaded an otherwise faultless astronomical record. Yet these very human traits are referenced, albeit obliquely, in the prints, and speak of the intimacy of both Rickett and Willestrop’s relationship and the scientist’s solitary communion – he made his observations alone throughout his career – with his subject.

This feeling of melancholia is further enhanced with the piece entitled ‘Another idea that came to nothing’. It comprises of very small contact prints of objects used in a ‘Test for a guiding probe.’ As with all the work on show at Camilla Grimaldi, this is titled both by the scientist and the artist, and speaks of a collaboration of sorts.

One left with a much deeper understanding of the process behind the making of a body of work which on the face of it seems as impenetrable as the night sky. The poignancy of this project comes not from looking out into the heavens, into the undisputed aesthetic qualities of the images themselves – but on looking in, through the back of the telescope to the retired scientist and his obsolete archive, who in deference to planetary rhythms, still returns to the University to make his weekly observations.

A monograph of Sophy Rickett’s earlier work can be bought from Photoworks here. The show at Camilla Grimaldi is on until 21st March 2013.

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