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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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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Inspiration, Photography and current affaires

The power of the familiar

Familiarity with the natural world, particularly that which is close to home, does not necessarily engender an intense sense of engagement.  Unlike the sublime – mountain tops, canyons, vast oceans, where a feeling in the moment is all consuming – the ‘familiar’ occupies a space within the subconscious mind where memory resides.  Here, a sense of belonging may replace the exhilaration experienced when encountering environments which thrill us with their scale and splendour.  Photography can act as a medium for remembering –  family portraits for instance – collected over decades, which reveal in (sometimes) uncompromising detail, the passage of time.

In nature these shifts happen with the rhythm of the seasons.  Often, one has to look closely at the subtlety of the changes to realize their significance.  The work of the photographer Jem Southam deals with these changes which one may casually dismiss as insignificant, but which imply a sense of the effects of time, both on the landscape in front of the lens, but also that which is stored in personal and collective memory.

River Creedy at Sweetham, 22 January 2011

River Creedy at Sweetham, 22 January 2011

By making repeated visits to places he knows intimately, Southam becomes attuned to hundreds of ‘small traumas’, which build like whisperings among the leaves, creating a sense of movement through time.  Altered notes – in a musical sense – become fractures and fissions, which then become significant when compared to the next rendition and so on.  It is this familiarity and love of place which could be seen as a metaphor for the universality of memory and the frailties and struggle implicit in human experience.

In this case, that tension is created by Winter – or the retreat in sorrow (trauma) of Demeter, the Greek goddess of the harvest.  It would perhaps have been an obvious starting point for Southam to time his wanderings with forecasts of torrential downpours and the river in spate.  However, this approach would have removed space for rewarding contemplation.  Instead, an intense engagement with a quality of light which occurs around dawn, suggests the forming of a new relationship with place, binding the series together in a stream of consciousness.

When considering Joel Meyerowitz’s Aftermath project on the attack on the World Trade Centre, the writer David Campany coined the term ‘Late Photography’ – the idea of photographing the traces of an event, rather than the event itself.  These pictures are ‘of’ a river and ‘of’ winter, but also allude to thaw and flood, which link them to this overarching concept, and by association, to traces of natural process and the cycles of trauma.

In his book Spectral Evidence, Ulrich Baer discusses his views on the connection between the arrested moment explicit in photography and the act of remembering.  He connects pictures of historical sites of trauma – concentration camps – with memories, by arguing that it is precisely the nothingness – or familiarity – within a photograph, which removes it from historical reference points and draws it back into the unconscious mind.  It is this disconnect with history and current affairs, which acts to steer Southam’s pictures towards associations with memory.

The river, Winter pictures are above all moments of discovery and communion.  It is this sharing of the familiar, which draws our attention to that which we have not before cared to register.  The effect is to re-calibrate one’s notions of significance.  The ravages of water, rendered in exquisite detail, remind us of the complex relationship between beauty, death and re-generation. A relationship which is exploited by Southam through the  descriptive properties of his 10x8in plate camera.

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Inspiration

Networking hermits

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Last night I went to a screening of the film ‘Somewhere to disappear‘ a film by Laure Flammarion and Armaud Uyttenhove.  It’s a fascinating story about the photographer Alec Soth‘s quest to find subjects for his latest project ‘Broken Manual‘.

The strap line for the film summarizes that ‘it’s not about running away, but the desire to run away’, which throws light on the autobiographical nature of Alec Soth’s photographic mission.  He seems to be using his memories of childhood – spent in the woods around his Minnesota home – building dens and playing with imaginary friends – as a personal trope to find people who have taken this desire to a whole new level.

One particularly poignant moment in the film records his meeting with a young man living in a cave in the desert.  Inside this rocky recess lie his belongings – a blanket and a gun, amongst a few other practical essentials.  This man is a true escapee.  Soth describes his departure from the encounter, saying that he forgot to say ‘good-bye’ to the man, and was driving away, when the man appears, runs over to him, and hugs him like an old friend.  Soth says that this intimate moment confirms that even though these individuals seek out a solitary lifestyle, and covet it preciously, there remains a fundamental need to connect with others.

Soth goes on to state the need to be ‘carried’ by his stories, and the directors also describe how each conversation with a stranger leads to an encounter with someone else, who in turn recommends a friend, or a friend of a friend, and so on.  Tellingly, though, even in these apparent extremes of isolation, social networking also plays its part.  Some hermits Facebook each other to see if this odd guy with the huge camera has dropped by…

The irony isn’t lost on the audience, and reinforces the notion that the idea of something is often more appealing than the reality.

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