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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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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