The Owner, Ben Dolman 2013
Four months into my course and it is time to write my major project proposal, in those four months I have had time to research my area of interest, go out on location and make sure that the project I wish to pursue over the rest of my course of study was the right one. The project proposal was written over the past three days, I could have spent three months writing and rewriting it but I view it as a starting point that can be refined, changed and altered over the course of study. It was hard work to find form and articulate the focus my practice and research, usually I am unfocused and opportunistic which can work but not in the time frame of my study and also an unstructured and chaotic approach can be difficult to narrate within an academic discourse. The text is a bit abrupt and lacking in depth at times as it is just a proposal but over the course of study I shall go back and expand on certain elements of the project proposal, correcting, updating and unearthing subtle nuances of my intentions, reflections and research of my practice, photography
After writing the proposal I pondered on Hiroshi Sugimoto's method of working in that he devised a photograph before making it, he had a vision and the rest was just a technical process to make the pre-conceived, to visualise the concept, Hiroshi Sugimoto said he was not a hunter. When first started using photography I saw myself as a hunter and I wonder if I will remain so after this project and studying photography academically in greater depth.
Between Spaces: Traces of England
The Project Proposal
The working title for the project “Between Spaces: Traces of England” is not just a defined geographical place, a place between sea and land, between urban and rural, between residential and industrial but it also a state of mind, a space between knows, between identities.
Between Spaces is a space that is difficult to define, the space is temporary forever in transition, offering traces of human activity, a space where nature and man have an uneasy co-existence.
Whilst writing this brief I came across an interesting article in the Independent newspaper “Our beautiful ‘edgelands’: A dark light on the edge of town” by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts based on their book Edgelands: Journeys Into England’s True Wilderness published by Jonathan Cape. The edited extract from the book looks at the edges or fringes of our cities, an area that they refer to as EDGELANDS. From the article there is a quote which is not dissimilar to my observations of this particular landscape;
“The edgelands are a complex landscape; a debatable zone as economies and social tides come in and out”
Marion Shoard originated the term ‘Edgelands’ in a paper published in Remaking the Landscape, edited by Jennifer Jenkins published by Profile Books (2002). In the paper Marion Shoard proposes that edgelands are areas between the ‘urban-rural’ or an ‘interfacial area’ and they are the new ‘netherworld’ supplanting the suburbs as a new hidden or ill defined area of activity in our society.
“Often vast in area, though hardly noticed, it is characterised by rubbish tips and warehouses, superstores and derelict industrial plant, office parks and gypsy encampments, golf courses, allotments and fragmented, frequently scruffy, farmland.” Marion Shoard - Remaking the Landscape
The geography or location of ‘between spaces’ for this project will not be as literal as ‘Edgelands’, it can be an unremarkable place, desolate, neglected, barren, nondescript, but it can also be something that is peculiar or at odds with it’s surroundings, not in an obvious way just something slightly uncanny about it. The between space can also be a sanctuary, its transitionary nature allows for freedom, a freedom of movement as well as imagination. Robert Adams said when choosing a location to photograph “we just headed for a blank spot on the map”. In this blank spot one is free from convention and the space given affords a place for reflection.
A between space is a landscape that is continually encroached upon, it’s boundaries, use, ownership and ecology are always in a constant flux. In the vacated landscape the land bares witness to its past, activities that have left scares on the land, traces of human industry, leisure, indifference and wantonness. In this vacated land nature starts to reclaim the land covering past human relics with a green blanket each summer and then each winter retreating exposing human remnants once again, a place of in-between-ness. Abandon spaces, post industrialised spaces, spaces absent of human presence of a land left behind are only temporary, these outsider spaces are often transgressed upon, their isolation, quietness and hidden location attracts refugees and the unwanted cast offs of human activity. Wastelands can quickly be consumed back, reclaimed and ‘post-industrialised’ into a warehouse distribution centre or an out of town shopping and leisure complex, hubs for our insatiable modern consumerism. Another between space is the green belt, a strip of land that surrounds and helms in our human urban sprawl and protects the countryside but that last barrier is now being breached with new mock Tudor villages, a slow but unrelenting seepage of terracotta banality into the countryside.
The intent is to journey through these ever changing ‘between spaces’ is to capture the human alterations and interventions in the topography but also to explore their psychosis and how they differ to the norms of the mainstream social cognitive behaviour. The journey will also reflect and develop upon a ‘type’ landscape photography that has evolved since the 1960’s mainly in America and Europe and explored and questioned traditional notions of the ‘picturesque’ and the romantic traditions in landscape painting and photography. To show that nature is no-longer wild but instead it has been tamed, managed, reshaped, and altered by human activity and how it can witness a side of humanity that is creative and nurturing but also humanities destructive and darker self. To propose that our landscape might now be bipolar in character, a mirror image of humanity that is in a flux between beauty and ugly, between the dark and the comical, the sombre and the absurd. The final intent of this journey through the land to find an idiosyncratic approach to the subject, to find a personal interaction with the landscape through photography.
One of the main elements of the project I will be examining is the balance between the abstractness of a photograph and its literal interpretation, the balance between the fact-ness of a photograph and the drama of the subject and the artist, a visual psychosis, a drama that is not theatrical or obvious but subtle and slightly hidden in the in-between spaces, a trace of things. The psychological drama I wished to be played out is discrete, more Jeff Wall than Gregory Crewdson, the language plain and not overtly artful or stylised. The visual tension between subject could be developed from an uncertainty in it’s meaning, a double meaning, a word-image play, an inventive vernacular located in our landscape, our relationship to Endland's back yard.
Often when I look at a photograph and there is a figure in a landscape, interior or street I place my finger over the figure to see what the photograph looks like without the figure and wonder if the photograph can still have a residue of the human presence in their absence. When there are people in a scene the photographer seems to be automatically to be drawn to their presence as does viewer of the resulting photograph, the human presence always seems to dominate the focus in a photograph no matter how small or discrete the figures are, our eyes automatically gravitate towards a human presence and the surrounding area of the picture becomes merely a backdrop. The backdrop can add composure, structure and meaning to the subject, it grounds the figure and contextualises the moment but is often subservient to the human presence but I wonder if the background alone, a scene absent of a figure can convey something else about the now absent subject. Is a photograph absent of people lesser or does it need to be viewed in a totally different way and we seek instead a less literal interpretation of the photograph? Can a landscape that is absent of the actual human physical presence offer new narratives and insights now it free from literal interpretation and instead offer something else from the captured moment and reveal a human story through other traces and clues from in the photograph?
“Once you insert a person into the work, he or she become the protagonist and a lot of my books are at such low intensity that it throws everything off. I want the viewer to be the protagonist in the book. Like in The Thirty-Two Inch Ruler – no people occur except for the viewer” - John Gossage
Between spaces are found spaces and in these spaces besides composing of the photograph in the ground glass of the camera the intention is not to alter, make additions to and change anything in the scene, the witnessing of the space will be passive. In post-production and the edit there will be a more interventionist approach with the residue the subject, the image. The edit will define how the image will viewed, titled, conceptualised, displayed, associated with other images, how its narrative and meaning will be conveyed.
To experience emptiness, to work in a nominative landscape style, to be plain spoken allows one to respond freely and intuitively to the subject, this is what led me to develop this project.
The depiction of the landscape in art has been dominated by the romanticism since the late eighteenth century that has sought a nature that was untamed and emotional shrouded in mystery. Romanticism was a rejection to the age of enlightenment, a rejection of scientific fact and rationalism, of industry for the rural, of the collective for the individual. Early photography aped the early ideas and motifs of romanticism, the landscape viewed at a distance, something to be observed, a majestic other, capturing its glory. In the 1960’s the landscape was starting to viewed in different terms by photographers primarily in America where the landscape was beginning to lost it’s mystic, it’s otherness from man, it’s wildness and remoteness and the ‘seductive’ picturesque mannerisms of past were being questioned with the emergence of a new politicise landscape.
“The advance of technology, the rise of ecological consciousness, the commodification of land and the further detachment of urban life from nature were all factors that forced photographers and artists to rethink, often with a political urgency, nature’s meaning”. David Campany 'Art and Photograph' the 'The Culture of Nature'
A new approached to photographing landscape was captured in a group show in 1975 New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape at the International Museum of Photography, George Eastman House, Rochester, New York. The show was curated by William Jenkins and featured eight American photographers; Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Frank Gohlke, Stephen Shore, Nicholas Nixon, John Schott, Henry Wessel Jr and Joe Deal and two German photographers Bernd & Hilla Becher. All work submitted was black and white except for Stephen Shore, the show looked a series of issues; a problem of style, stylistic anonymity, and an alleged absence of style. The work in the show had no frills and what very matter of fact in its depiction of a subject, the images were rich in information and rejected traditional notions of beauty, emotion and opinion. The topographic approach to landscape photography was originally used by photographic surveyors to create functional and uncomplicated images of the landscape and this documentary and scientific approach to landscape photography offered the contemporary art photographers of the day the opportunity to offer a new social landscape, an alternative visual investigation of the landscape that championed the common place and captured in it what was referred to as ‘the straight photograph’, a clear, frontal, centred, artless and ambivalent take of a subject.
An American artist who was not included in 'New Topographic’s' whose work should be mentioned is Ed Ruscha whose 26 Gas Stations (1962) and Everything on Sunset Strip (1966) share a similar pictorial language and conceptual undertones to those in the exhibition. In Ed Ruscha’s later work he used text over his paintings, perhaps influenced by the signage in the landscape or that of mass consumerism and entertainment, the addition of text to the image questioned the assumed meaning or association of the subject. Ruscha painted a series of paintings of mountains, mountains that Ansel Adams might have photographed but with the additional words in a nondescript typeface placed flat directly on top of the mountain “Pay Nothing Until April”, “The”, “Co.”, “I Told You nobody ought never to fight him” or “Baby Jet”, words taken from the constant stream of our ‘POP’ culture and mass-media. The landscapes in the paintings now feels consumed, appropriated into our consumerist culture, altered and modified.
After “New Topographic’s” the photographers that have informed this project play with the notion of a found or constructed image, with the notion of being witness or interventionist, their work could be viewed as anti-art and anti-aesthetic in the traditional canon of landscape photography. Two photographers who have documented environmental changes in the landscape have seen themselves as witnesses rather than activists/environmentalists are Joef Koudelka's The Black Triangle (1980‘s) and Edward Burtynsky's Oil Series, they are chroniclers of the man-altered industrialised landscape and capturing what Koudelka refers to as the “horribly beautiful” and Burtynsky “reflecting pools of our time”.
There are photographers who less ambiguous in their approach to photographing the new social landscape and seek to raise environmental concerns and a degree of political engagement. The photographers I have looking at with this more direct interpretation to the man’s intervention in the landscape and with nature are Richard Misrach’s Petrochemical America (2012), Chris Jordon’s Midway Project (project still ongoing) and Mitch Epstein’s America Power (1993-99).
Photographing the landscape gives rise to passage, a journey through, passing and leaving things behind, the passage through the landscape leads to new places, found places, discordant at times but sometimes feeling familiar places, places known but then can be seen afresh. These passages through a landscape remind me of the work of William Eggleston’s Memphis (1965-68), Joel Sternfeld’s American Prospects (1987) and more recently Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi to the Broken Manual. These photographers offer a sightly different take on landscape and location photography and the emotional relationship of the place to the people that inhabit the spaces. Their work evoke a new visual psychological narratives that follow on from the work of Walker Evans and Robert Frank in depicting and imbruing a sequence nondescript places with a haunting beauty and poetic discourse of imagery.
So far I have looked at mainly looked at American photography in researching past and contemporary photographers for this project, but I wish to have a sense Englishness in my photography, the dialect of my own country that resonants through the subject, traces of England. In my recent research of British photographers I have seen the influenced of the new utilitarian picture making method and contextual overtures from America and Europe, the ‘straight photograph’ but the interesting British photographers I have come across so far have added or imbued this photographic approach with a certain visual subtlety that makes it their own and captures these green isles in a unique and distinct manner. I have been looking at the work of Jem Southam who was inspired by American colour ‘documentary’ landscape photography and the work of Richard Long.
“On the walk I decided to photograph the English landscape, and as you say, it is an astonishingly complex place. I eschew grandeur for the sake of it, preferring to revel in a subtle scale and history. But there’s still an epic story to be hold, which exists wherever humans have made their homes” Interview with Aaron Schuman (2005) Seesaw online photographic magazine.
Other British photographers of interest during this initial research for this project have been John Darwell’s Dark Days who produced a book that documents the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001, Simon Roberts We English whose book documents a year long journey through England capturing the English at leisure, Chris Killip’s work in Hudderfield, the North East, Staithes and Skinningrove, Paul Graham’s A1-The Great North Road (1983), Donovan Wylie’s British Watchtowers and Maze prison projects. Simon Norfolk’s The Hebrides: A slight disturbance of the sea and The Human Endeavour Contemporary urban and industrial landscape photography a collective of photographers featuring the work of Richard Chivers, Alex Currie, Oliver Perrott, Ben Westoby and Murray Ballard.
All the British photographers have been to some degree been influenced by American landscape photography and the photographic road trip but all have added a certain localism to the imagery, a dialect that is informed by our own unique relationship with our British landscape. It maybe the light and weather that is constantly changing, the confined space of our isles, the British eccentricity and our history, all of the photographers have an essence of whom we are and where we live, something I hope to do also in my project Between Spaces - Traces of England.