Behind the scenes, Environment, Landscape

Tend

Tend /tend/ v. 1. tr. care for, take care of, look after, look out for, watch over, mind, attend to, see to, keep an eye on, cater for, minister to, nurse, nurture, cherish, protect.

‘Free from market obsessions of scarcity, hunters’ economic propensities may be more consistently predicated on abundance than our own.’

Marshall Sahlin, in his essay ‘The Original Affluent Society, from his book ‘Stone Age Economics’.

 

An allotment after its allotted time. Eyed at by prospectors intent on converting to cash. Onions, potatoes, radishes, carrots and leeks vie with burdock and bramble for a stake (literally) in the remains of the fertile ground.

These are the forgotten remains of careful conservation and cared for cabbages. Beneath the foliage of strange and unfamiliar plants, whose fronds sway elegantly in the dusk’s last breath, rutted earth dug in right angled rows turns the ankle of unsuspecting trespassers. Stumbling, legs follow eyes reluctantly to the next abandoned, skeletal shed.

 

 

 

 

I wandered down one summer evening when the upward heat from the earth met the low sun’s last residual rays. I heard the percussive notes of shattering greenhouse glass: a whisper of boys huddled around an air- rifle, taking aim at anything that caught their eye. I wondered whether I should go down and try to negotiate a picture, but thought better of it. I didn’t doubt my own safety but knew those moments with mates – when some random stranger crashes a summer evening – were times that shouldn’t be interrupted. The suffocating heat was a warning that this was a place where I had no legitimate walk on part.

I waited at a distance. After seeing them burn up and out of the estate, I eased into the tall grass – a similar sensory experience to wild swimming such was the feeling of immersion. I lost a few skin cells to the tips of brambles wading between islands of 2by4 and fetid felt. A few surprising things were left behind: a tool kit never used, still in its box (with receipt); a variety of manual tools in states of distortion – gappy forks with missing tangs; bundles of brittle bamboo gathering dust; garden sieves that reminded me of a recurring childhood dream of panning for gold in the Klondike (aka the seasonal stream at the bottom of the garden).

The sense of industry in this place is palpable. Animal, insect and plant vie with the human to create layers of elaborate existential references. Small pathways or ‘smouts’ in the tall grasses elude to the nocturnal commute of rodents and small mammals. A beautifully formed abandoned wasps nest suggests ours is not the only reality – that there are other worlds living with us, in parallel but not linear time. A micro cosmos, yes, but no less beautiful and arguably more relevant than its celestial cousin.

So, when the bulldozers move into this vacant lot, another ‘unproductive’ space will be won over by the money men. The direction of travel here is unsurprising. A frictionless future perhaps, but one which marginalises the already under-appreciated moments and significance of and in this abandoned place.

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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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Exhibitions, Inspiration, Theory

The Space Inbetween

‘Yet it is not (it seems to me) by Painting that Photography touches art, but by Theatre.’

– Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida

NPG Gallery Record - Exhibition Image – Digital Copy

©Spencer Murphy

Some photographs have a disconcerting ability to confer a sense of hidden space between the viewer and the subject that is at once familiar and comforting, but also intangible and disrupting.

In Spencer Murphy’s award winning image of Katie Walsh, it’s not immediately obvious who this woman is or why we are looking at her. Her expression is quizical and uncertain – as if she has had to be cajoled into this quiet, mute performance – and we wonder what we are looking at; wonder how this picture came about.  Her beauty is both extraordinary and banal, but since it cannot be both, a drama is created in the space where these two binary forces meet. The mud splatters connote the rawness of nature and we might guess at her profession, if it has eluded us thus far. This information itself creates a tension between her outward expression of femininity and our imagined projection of equine energy required in her chosen discipline.

Murphy photographed several jockeys for his commission to promote the broadcaster Channel 4’s racing season, but the meticulousness of his approach coupled with the tension between the camera and his subject, is only fully realised in the portrait of Katie.

Ultimately, photography is subversive not when it frightens, repels, or even stigmatizes, but when it is pensive, when it thinks. – Roland Barthes

This is the last weekend of the show down at the National Portrait Gallery in London. I urge you to get down and see it.

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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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