After Constable : The Classification of Clouds

After Constable : "Do our politicians think foxes are more important than people", Ben Dolman 2011-2012

After I devised the title for this post After Constable which was based on three photographs of a farm I photographed in the Fens I thought I would google ‘after constable’ and I came across another photographer who used the same title for a series of photographs of smoke, his name is John Kippin. John Kippin photographed of a series of images of the burning of heather on moorland, the resulting smoke looks like billowing clouds, billowing clouds that Constable once painted, one piece in the series is a triptych, ‘small world’ came to mind and ‘nothing is new’ followed by a small smile appearing on my face.

The three photographs of the farm were not originally intended to be shown next to each other, there was no intention to create a triptych. Like most things I do it came by chance, I was printing one of the images for my MA supervisor as part of another project and as I was reviewing my back catalogue I noticed I had taken others photographs of the same place throughout the year.

What initially drew me to the location was the farm spread out across the horizon, a collection of vehicles and boats, a building half finished and a slogan on a trailer “Do our politicians think foxes are more important than people” in large red lettering. In the middle of the flat featureless Fens I was offered a chaotic vista, a vista that was confused, careless, angry, a trail of human activity.

Most of the photographs were originally done a technical exercise, the farm had become my muse and reference as I tested different cameras, film types, composition constructs and undertook depths of field experiments. I decided to print off some of the versions of the location I had been photographing to see which was the best singular image for presentation.

Farm : Detail, Ben Dolman 2012

Farm : Detail, Ben Dolman 2012

After printing off the photographs I placed them on the floor next to each other, at first I saw the cycle of a year on the farmland in the foreground, the green shots of the wheat crop, the wheat fully grown and finally the stalks left after the harvest. The only part of the year in the farming cycle missing was when the land is barren, the soil laid bare and turned over which I shall attempt to photograph over Christmas weather permitting. Besides seeing the passage of time in the photographs I noticed similar framing of the composition with the land hemmed into the bottom of the photograph under an ever present sky. In the flat lands of the Fens the sky looms large with little in the way to distract from it, the Fens take on an inland seascape. The land is only just remaining in the photographs as some sort of anchor, to act as reference to fully gasp the scale of the sky but also to heighten its fragile presence. I hand develop my own 8x10 colour negative film and though I am improving there are always some blemishes that stand out in the negative especially in the sky and light areas and after scanning I clean them up in PhotoShop. When cleaning up the spots of dust I zoom into the sky, in the clouds I find all references of place and time are removed, all there is an abstraction of reality lost in the cumulus. I hate to say it but the sky becomes quite painterly, the uneven grain of the film combined with the subtle changes of hue and tone remind me of the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto who has just had a joint exhibition 'Dark Paintings and Seascapes' with Mark Rothkoat Pace Galleries.

Hiroshi Sugimoto's seascapes are just simply stunning and I dislike to use this word ‘sublime’ as I care little for it in the artwork normally associated with it but in Hiroshi Sugimoto's work it seems just so. After initially enjoying aesthetic pleasures of Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs a sense of timelessness overcomes me, the photograph captures a transient moment that draws out time. I find the work not unlike music in that it has a directness of emotion whilst still remaining undefined and immaterial. The photographs are highly structured, even the more ethereal ones, there is a strong linear slice across the picture plane dividing the image. Hiroshi Sugimoto offers a contained void that ones thoughts and dreams can be projected upon, a bisected construct of light and dark, a light defused, a light graduated, a light rippling on the surface in undulations of darkness. The flatness of space, the limited black and white palette, the simple elemental subject of air and water can seem very minimalistic but for me it offers a deep but contradictory experience, I feel a deep melancholy but also elation at the same time. Some might called this spiritual, a transcendental experience, for me I care little for the nonphysical realm, what Hiroshi Sugimoto offers me is a space, a space that is from the physical realm, a reflective space of my all too human condition.

Looking at my prints laying on the floor I started to think about artists who have tried to capture the English sky, a maddening sky that is for ever changing, Turner came to mind and then Constable. Everyone knows the highly finished big gallery set pieces by Constable, he has become part of our rural heritage with cream teas and weekend visits to National Trust historic houses set in a contained eden, an Arcadia, an imitation of an ‘idealised’ nature. The picturesque of Lancelot ‘capability’ Brown, a garden-less landscape of gentle undulating rolling grass interwoven with belts and scatterings of trees reflected in gilded serpentine lakes. The interesting thing about Constable was during his life he sold more painting in France than that at home in England, there was a restless under current in his work that in his time was not fully accepted by the England establishment. This other side to Constable was of an artist who wanted to capture the rawness of nature and the constantly changes of the sky and not just some kind of static idyll. He would do quick watercolours, oil sketches and drawings to capture and express the elementary nature of things. Constable was aware of new scientific developments in meteorology from Luke Howard's  ‘On the Modification of Clouds’ to Thomas Forster’s investigations in the Atmospheric Phenomena, on the back of the numerous atmospheric studies of land and sky Constable would write down the prevailing weather conditions and the time. Constable for me in these quick raw sketches incorporating science and a degree of realism in his work was rejecting a certain kind of romanticism traditionally associated with landscape painting, a rebellion of artifice, to be reactionary to historical greek myths and religious allegories, a nod to the age of enlightenment when the questioning of a god and religion were raised by some in the intelligentia of the age and new ideas of liberty and freedom rippled through Europe.

Constable was born in 1776 in a time of great flux, for the past century the age of enlightenment had been the dominate intellectual movement noting the work of John Locke and Issac Newton in England, an age of reason that influenced the American Declaration of Independence and in France the Declaration of the Rights of Man. The tenants of free will and rationalism of enlightenment were to be challenged by romanticism at the end of the 18th century, a counter-enlightenment that came in part as a reaction to the ideologies and events of the French revolution which turned bloody. Developments in science from the age of enlightenment led to the industrial revolution, mass production and mass communal living and romanticism was a counter reaction to this social development which preferred to celebrate the individual as hero and return to a time when nature was untamed, a time of mystery, the emotional and the poetic. In 19th century England we saw the gothic revival in the visual arts, architecture and literary which was counterpoint to the industrial revolution, creating a bi-polar nation. We continue to live the contradiction which I liken to a motorway cutting through green pastures. The motorway can be seen as a gateway to the countryside and to nature, an escape from our urban conurbations or highway can be seen as a scar on the landscape that brings nature closer into our grasp so we can tame, alter and sometimes destroy it. Areas of natural beauty such as the Lake District that were championed by the romantic movement and Ruskin are now theme parks, carefully cultivated for the weekend tourist. We want to live in the countryside but work in the city, we create a commuter belt pocketed with new ‘little villages’ whose houses ape the past be it mock Tudor or mock Georgian, a faked past that now destroys and consumes the very  thing we yearn, the rural idyll of green fields. The rationalisation of nature through science brings exploitation, the romanticism of nature creates amusement parks and fakery, both tame and alter nature, it does not which intellectual jacket you prefer humans always change things.

Seascape Study with Rain Cloud, John Constable, Oil on Paper 1827 : Royal Academy of Arts

Whilst I was researching Constable I remember one of his most popular paintings the ‘Haywain’ being re-purposed by Peter Kennard in the 1980’s. It was a time when Margaret Thatcher came to power and she allowed her best pal Ronald Reagan to site USA cruise missiles in the UK at RAF Greenham Common airbase near Newbury. It was at the tail end of the cold war, a time when the USA and USSR were competing for nuclear supremacy in Europe. The location of the cruise missiles caused massive protests at Greenham Common that led to a 19 year long protest presence in formation of the Greenham Common Women's peace camp, a non violent women peace group. The peace camp remained at Greenham Common after the INF Treaty was signed in 1987 and the missiles returned to America in 1991/92 to protest against the forthcoming Trident programme. At the peak of the protest in 1983 70,000 people attended forming a 14 mile human ring around the air base, later that year 50,000 women encircled the air base again cutting the perimeter fence resulting in confrontations with police and security and mass arrests. The fear of a nuclear Armageddon has receded from the collective conscience with the fall of the eastern bloc that fear in the world has been replaced by the war on terror, environmental disasters and economic turmoil but the world still has enough warheads to destroy all life on planet earth many times over.

Returning to Peter Kennard’s appropriation of Constable’s Haywain, there was a protest at the National Gallery about sponsorship from an arms company and a copy of the Kennard’s work was illicitly hung in the gallery in protest where the original Haywain is housed, the story can be found at the following link

Haywain with Cruise Missles, © Peter Kennards, 1980

Whilst writing this post I was reading Magnum Stories edited by Chris Boot published by Phaidon Press and I happen on a section on Joef Koudelka. I knew of Joef Koudelka’s early work in the theatre, the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Russian immortialised in the iconic photograph taken from a balcony overlooking a street in Prague, in the foreground a person holds their arm up looking at a wrist watch waiting for the troops to arrive. I am especially fond of his photographs of European gypsies and Romany culture but I was not aware of his landscape photography. Joef Koudelka was always interested in the compositional ratio of his photographs and readily cropped the bits which were not important or did not fit. Joef Koudelka had started taking panoramic pictures in 1958 by physically cropping the print and it was not until 1986 when he was invited with other photographers by DATAK a French government planning organisation to take photographs of the French countryside that he could actually borrowed a proper 6x17cm panoramic camera and crop in-frame. At the start of the assignment he took no photographs as he felt unable to photograph the beautiful french countryside until he came across an area in Lorraine which was restructuring its steel industry and closing down production. The following passages are from Joef Koudelka p259 Magnum Stories.

"I really began to take photographs, I realised that this was precisely the kind of landscape, influenced by contemporary man, that I have a affinity with"

Koudelka : The Black Triangle - Google image search screen grab

Joef Koudelka continued working in industrial landscapes that resulted in a book called ‘The Black Triangle’, the black triangle is an area between Germany, Poland and Czechoslovakia that is heavily polluted from coal mining, the black triangle icon for the book cover also reminds me of the slag piles that surround coal mines, a simple but eloquent icon. Here is another quote from Magnum Stories;

"I know this newly devastated landscape well. I wandered through it for years and I return to it again and again. I don't find it horrible. I find it tragic, but beautiful. Horribly beautiful. I'm fond of it - if I weren't, I wouldn't photograph it. In that wounded landscape I find an untamed beauty. Strength. The struggle for survival"

Joef Koudelka claimed that he was no environmentalist but was happy for others to use the book The Black Triangle to raise environmental issues. Joef Kudelka’s approach to the environment reminds me of Edward Burtynsky's Oil series, Edward Burtynsky is drawn to how industry changes the land and again claims not to be an environmentalist but offers “reflecting pools of our time” [artist’s statement - Exploring the Residual Landscape]. Edward Burtynky’s work is highly collectable fetching high prices and sometimes finds its way back into the board rooms of the very companies whose industry pollutes, changes and alters the land he photographs. At first you may think he is collaborationist but by just acting as witness, a documenter, a chronicler he can be seen as non threatening and be given access to locations that perhaps other more agenda orientated photographer might be denied. Edward Burtynky offers the ‘Horribly beautiful’ and leaves the viewer to interpret and see implications of what is depicted.

Some contemporary photographers working in an industrialised landscape have a less ambiguous response to the pollution and destruction of the land and nature, I have just been reading Richard Misrach's Petrochemical America that he collaborated with Kate Orff and her SCAPE practice looking at the petrochemical industry in an area called 'Cancer Alley'.

On page 2 of the book Petrochemical America, published by Aperture the opening text gives you a feel for its content

"Throughout Cancer Alley, homes, schools, and playgrounds are situated yards from behemoth industrial complexes. Residents within a one mile radius of factories are subjected to significant air and water pollution as well as noxious odours and industrial noise. Many communities along the River Road live in abject poverty. Roads are substandard, narrow, and poorly maintained. Homes have little resale value. The quality of life in Louisiana has been rated one of the lowest in the nation. In contest, extremely favourable taxation policies have helped draw industry to the region"

The book is very earnest with illustrations, visualisations, maps and text by Kate Orff and SCAPE about the impact of industry in southern area of the USA but it also full of beautiful, haunting, moving and powerful photographs by Richard Misrach. Towards the end of the book they do note that not everything is straight forward, no one is whiter than white as we are all complicit or implicit in using the by-products of the petrochemical industry in our everyday lives from travel, medicine, computers, clothing to the actual film the photographs where made with and the materials to the print the book.

Cancer Alley : Google Image Search Screen Grab

Chris Jordan has another take on the petrochemical industry, waste plastic. Chris Jordan’s Midway Project is based at the Midway Atoll, a cluster of islands 2000 miles from the nearest continent. Chris Jordan offers us a series of images of dead albatrosses, their bodies decomposed revealing a mass of coloured plastic objects. What had happened was the albatrosses parents had feed their chicks plastic by mistake thinking the colourful floating plastic in the sea was food, the young birds then subsequently died from ingesting the plastic, it is toxic, it has no nutrition value and the young birds starve or choked to death. There is a beauty in these photographs, the bright colourful plastic objects at the centre of the images are like offerings made to the dead, the dead are laid out, their bones and feathers encircling the brightly coloured centre. The photographs remind one of some kind of ritualistic burial where the deceased was buried with precious offerings for the afterlife, but the offerings here is our waste that kills and offers nothing for the future. Certain plastics do not decompose quickly and when we carelessly dump them at sea or on the land they enter the ecosystem and impact on all kinds of life in ways and at places that are seem at first unrelated. Chris Jordan’s photographs tread a fine line, they can be seen as works of art in themselves, they do not shout at you but they make you wonder and ask questions.

Midway Atoll, Google Maps

One final photographer I wish to look at in detail is Mitch Epstein and his American Power series of photographs that he started in 1993 and resulted in a book America Power published by Steidl covering the six year project. Mitch Epstein traveled to 25 states in the United States of America photographing all forms of power generation from coal, nuclear, wind to hydro. The project developed from a visit to Ohio of what was  happening to a small local community that was paid a lump by American Electric Power to move on mass due to the pollution of the surrounding land and associated health problems that came from the generation of energy from fossil fuels. Often industry has grown up next to an existing community as documented in Richard Misrach’s work and the resulting pollution has had a decremental effect on the local community. This has led to litigation against polluting industries for the illnesses and death suffered by members of a community, now it is cheaper to buy out the locals and create buffer zones, dead zones and this is what Mitch Epstein found in Ohio a dead empty ghost settlement. When Mitch Epstein started the project he wrote in his book “ I didn’t start it with any kind of specific political agenda” but continues “I came away troubled by the implications of what I was seeing and what happen to me”. When photographing on location he had constant harassment from both the police and local security, being post 9/11 America paranoia and suspicion was and still is rife, often exploited by the authorities for their own ends, something I have experience here in England which I shall cover in a little while.

Mitch Epstein initially used a 4x5 camera moving up to a 10x8 camera to gain greater detail from his subject, the resulting prints from the project are large and having seen some recently at an exhibition ‘Out of Focus : Photography’ at the Saatchi Gallery I can attest to their quality and detail. The work from the series I found the most moving, thought provoking and pictorially rewarding was when Mitch Epstein place everyday human activity against a backdrop of the energy industry. In ‘Amos Coal Power Plant, Raymond. West Virginia 2004’ we are offered in the foreground a neat tidy image of american suburbia but in the background looming through the leaves and trees of the suburban idyll are foreboding cooling towers of a coal fired power station. In another photograph an American school football teams plays in front of a coal power station on a bright sunning autumn morning, Mitch Epstein offers a very much factness of circumstance and in another photograph ‘Rancho Seco Nuclear Power Station Plant, Herald, California, 2005’ from American Power there is of a group of people gathering on a river bank, on closer inspection you see someone being submerge and baptised in the river, on the far river bank overlooking the religious event is a nuclear power station.

The images of power stations overlooking or being the backdrop to everyday life remind me of a photograph taken by Simon Roberts from his book WE ENGLISH titled “Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, Nottingham 16th June 2008” the photograph depicts a group of people on a golf course set against the cooling towers of the power station. Ratcliffe-on-Soar power station is just a couple of miles north where I live and I have photographed the power station and surrounding area myself though without much success, I could not find anything more to add that had not been done by others including Simon Roberts. On different times I have gone to photograph the power station I have been followed and one time stopped by security staff and asked to hand over my film. Post second world war certain western governments have got into the habit of classing people or countries who oppose them as terrorists. It has become the easy option to define a group of people or countries as terrorists and attack them with little regard to the rule of law and human rights, the USA has a really nasty habit of using terrorism as a means to suspend the terms of the Geneva Convention for ‘terrorists’ and use torture and imprison people without trial, invade a sovereign country without actually declaring war. Terrorism  is used to evoke the sense of fear in the public, a terrorist is the bogey man but also one mans terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. The concept that there is terrorism and that it maybe on home soil seems to give governments permission to spy on its own people, an infringement of privacy and by extension an attack on freedom and liberty the very things they say they are fighting for and protecting, the irony. Military installations were always considered off limit areas and you expect to be questioned if you tried to take photographs of them. Now post 9/11 power installations, public buildings and private property has sought the same exclusion, industry and governments have aligned themselves with each other to either spy on the public or hide things from the public. We live in a country where the police have become politicalise, on hire to the highest bidders since the miners dispute in the 1984-5 when the Tory party brought their independence with big pay increases and overtime to crush Union and by extension people power. We have also outsource and privatised the security of the realm and where ever you turn barriers are being erected and freedom challenged. I always make sure I am on public land, the Queen’s highway where I know by law I can freely take photographs of anything and anyone, I do not trespass, I either use a long lens or accept the distance from my subject as part of the composition and conceit of the photograph. I use to just ignore security guards when they harass me, then I use to challenge them but now I have moved onto a new method. Now either I educate them or bore them to death about photography, to educate them in the law and why I photograph, what is photography and why I choose to photograph a particular location, if that fails or I am feeling naughty I might pretend to be, no I am a camera geek and bore them to death about depth of field or go through every bit of my equipment in excruciatingly detail. I need to buy one of those jacket which has a 100 pockets worn by bird watchers and get a badge made called ‘The Loughborough Photographic Society’ if that does not ward them off nothing will, the sight of an over enthusiastic camera hobbyist.

Just because I take a photograph in the countryside that happens to have an industrial complex in the background should one assume that I might be an environmental terrorist, just because I take a photograph of a field or farm should one assume I am a thief or wish to practice illegal hunting, just because I walk and photograph from public road or path should one assume I am up to no good and ask ‘why are you photographing that?’.

Contemporary landscape photography has become politicised, the documentation of human changes to the land has become the new ‘Vietnam’ in photography. Some photographers photograph polluted and altered landscapes for their ‘horrible beauty’ to quote Joef Koudelka, some just want to act as witness and let others comment whilst some want a more confrontational dialogue from their photographs dealing head on with environmental, social and political issues.

Storage Tanks, Ben Dolman 2012

Returning back to my work I have been using a 6x17cm back on my 4”x5” field camera, it is not prefect as you have to keep on changing the viewing glass back for the film back and you cannot use it without a tripod, no decisive moment here but a bespoke 6x17 camera is expensive and out of my reach at the moment [I am saving up]. I like the format for landscape, its composition is appealing as Joef Koudelka noted in his own work and upon seeing the work from the Black Triangle I have been inspired to keep on working within this pictorial construct, the panoramic. My first attempts have been hit and miss either through technical ineptitude or finding the right subject. In the past I have used cropping and stitching of photographs as illustrated in the photograph below, neither method appeals to me long term as I prefer to frame the photograph in the camera on location.

Three Photographs Stitched Together : Quarry, Ben Dolman 2011

I have always enjoyed the panoramic, it is immersive and I like the way it fills my field of vision. Before multiplex cinemas with there small screens the grand old cinemas of past which have now been sadly converted into bingo halls had the big main screen and this screen was massive and could fully show case the epic, an epic shown in cinemascope or 70 mm film. The cinematic tableau has influenced photographers not only in its format, lighting and other production constructs but also its drama as seen in the work of Gregory Crewdson who has a new documentary about his work filmed over the past decade 'Brief Encounters' and Aaron Hobson's dark cinemascapes series. The panoramic is an extreme pictorial format, in the diagram below I have illustrated the different ratios of film to that of the golden ratio what is thought to be the perfect ratio between the horizon and vertical. For me the extreme ratio of 17 x 6 panoramic film can offer a heightened sense of reality as the image is not easily contained, it spills into our peripheral vision, the gaze is no-longer fixed.

Film and Pictorial Ratios

It has finally stop raining so that marks the end of this post, the kit is in the car and off I go to photograph the land, the sky and the bits in-between and hopefully not harassed today.

Green Sea, Ben Dolman 2012