For the next few weeks I will be posting the results of my background research. I have read quite a few texts over the past two months, but without a clearer idea of the intent and direction of my FMP the texts did not make a great deal of sense. It was difficult to apply them to my practice. Now that I have a better idea of my practice, the texts make much more sense.
First off is a book by the geographer Tim Cresswell: Place: An Introduction (Cresswell 2014).
Place is a very slippery concept. Traditionally, it was felt to consist of three things: a location, a locale (the material setting for social relations) and a sense of the place itself (the subjective and emotional feelings that people have about it). In this way a place could become a meaningful location. However, in recent years each one of those elements has been picked away and shown to be much more problematic than might appear. On a simple level, for example, there is no actual need for a specific location: a ship is a place but its location changes. And a sense of the place itself may derive not from any physical location but from the sense of the network of social relations that are embodied there, as in a sprawling market. This could be in Lagos, but it could also be on Amazon or Ebay.
Landscape is an idea closely allied to place. However, landscape is a fairly recent concept dating back to the Renaissance and in its modern form deriving from the Dutch word landschap which referred specifically to paintings of natural or rural scenes. Thus the idea of landscape began as a painterly, cultural and intensely visual idea. Landscape today is used in quite different ways and can encompass almost any scene, rural, industrial or urban (see Alexander 2015). But there is one key point about all these ideas. The viewer is always outside the landscape, looking in (see Fig. 1). The same is true of photographs and paintings. Place, however, is about being there, on the inside. As Cresswell puts it, ‘We do not live in landscapes – we look at them’ (Cresswell 2014: 18).
This is a challenge photographically because if you concentrate only on the topography, how can you give an impression of what it is like to be there and live there? Anyone trying to portray rural communities will encounter this problem. Arguably, this challenge also lies behind much modern landscape photography (and in fact, I would argue, defeats it). An image may look lovely, even sublime, but at the same time it can be curiously lifeless and uninvolving because we are only ‘looking at’, with no sense of the particular pungency of the place itself. Cresswell uses the example of a novel by Bernard Williams (Border Country, 1960) in which Matthew, the central character, returns to the place of his childhood: ‘He had forgotten the qualities of life that made it a “place” and replaced it in his mind with a “landscape”. What follows is an examination of the gap between the idea of the village as a “landscape” and the idea of the village as a lived and felt “place”’ (Cresswell 2014: 17). See Fig. 2.
Another aspect of place is that a place only comes into being as the result of human intervention. Creswell makes this point using a poem by Wallace Stevens, ‘Anecdote of the Jar’ (Creswell 2014: 28):
I placed a jar in Tennessee
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
It is easy to forget that something is where it is for a reason and the fact of its being there changes everything about the area. This is another challenge photographically because it is easy to take for granted that what we see is what there is. However, that is not the case. A ‘wilderness’ comes into being only in contrast to a city or town. A cathedral spire is not merely a pleasing prospect, as in a Constable painting. The spire is a strong statement about the beliefs and world view of those who built it. Art is frequently co-opted in this way. Gormely’s ‘The Angel of the North’ both creates and place and makes a statement, as does any public statue. But then so does a Roman Triumphal Arch, and so often the statement is one of imperialism and power relations. A village church may look ‘pretty’ but its history as an instrument of social control and coercion is not. See Fig. 3.
As Cresswell points out, place can never be looked at only from a single point of view: ‘Regional geographers talk about places as discrete areas of land with their own ways of life. Humanists and philosophers write of place as a fundamental way of being in the world. Radical geographers investigate the way places are constructed as reflections of power.’ (Cresswell 2014: 55). There is a tension here that I need to hold in mind as a photographer. I can show a place as an assembly of objects, but at least for some viewers that place may also evoke a deeper primal need to belong or, on the contrary, a revulsion at the power relations suggested.
This is important, I think, in any project involving the English countryside, long the theatre of relations between master and servant, have and have-not, landowner and everyone else. My area of study, for example, is strong marked by the consequences of periods of social and economic change. As Creswell points out, capital is free-flowing (and today is globally so), but most people are not. In fact many may have a deep psychological need to belong and an identity that derives from remaining in a particular place: ‘So the permanence of place and the mobility of capital are always in tension and places are constantly having to adapt to conditions beyond their boundaries’ (Cresswell 2014: 93).
This perfectly expresses the conflicts that arose in my area of study in the sixteenth century, as farming experienced economic changes and a new class of merchants and entrepreneurs moved into agriculture and ‘property development’. Rural communities found themselves pushed out by land enclosures and large-scale sheep pasturage. Villages became deserted (like Water Eaton in my area of study) and on a wider scale this soon manifested as a social fear of vagrancy. Governments cracked down with harsh laws against vagabonds or ‘masterless men’ – in reality the displaced rural poor – thus exacerbating a problem they themselves had created by licensing the activities of a new entrepreneurial class in the first place. ‘The vagabond’s wayward travels meant that he always had traces of elsewhere about him which disturbed those who had chosen a settled and rooted existence – the vagabond threatened to undo the comforts of place and transgressed the expectations of a sedentarist metaphysics (Cresswell 2014: 175).
The remarkable thing is how little things have changed in intervening centuries. The essential dynamics are still there. The countryside today is still belongs to landowners and the wealthy middle class. Villages and the rural poor are still threatened by changes in farming (now, ‘agribusiness’) and entrepreneurial property development. Community resources are still enclosed, as sports fields and Green Belt land are sold off for large-scale housing schemes. Governments still largely side with money and prioritize change and mobility over settled rural communities.
A reading of this book has helped me to see that ‘place’ is a rich, complex and overall remarkable thing. It is also something with a history. When we look at a place, we are also looking at the history of the economic and social relations that have made it the place it is. The challenge as always is how to represent this photographically in my area of study. At the moment, this is looking to be rather a forbidding challenge but at least I now feel that when I look at something I am able to take a view this is much more aware and informed.
ALEXANDER, J.A.P. 2015. Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography. London: Fairchild Books.
AUGÉ, Marc. 2008. Non-places : an Introduction to Supermodernity. 2nd English ed. London: Verso.
CRESSWELL, Tim. 2014. Place: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Son.
Figure 1. ADAMS, Ansell. c. 1960. ‘Cathedral Peak and Lake, Yosemite National Park, California, c. 1960’. From: Christie’s. 2019. ‘Ansel Adams and the American West: Photographs from the Center for Creative Photography’. Available at: https://www.christies.com/en/lot/lot-6244536 [accesssed xx xx 2021].
Figure 2. SOUTHAM, Jem. 1989. Untitled. From: Jem Southam, D. M. Thomas, F. A. Turk and Jan Ruhrmund. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.
Figure 3. ROBERTS, Simon. 2009. Untitled. From: Simon Roberts and Stephen Daniels. 2009. We English. London: Chris Boot Ltd.