PHO705 Week 18: J. M. Ramírez-Suassi

I have been looking at the work of the Mallorcan photographer J. M. Ramírez-Suassi (Ramírez-Suassi 2021). His most successful book to date is Fordlândia 9 (Ramírez -Suassi 2020), a photographic essay on Henry Ford’s Utopian and disastrous rubber venture in Amazonia in the 1920s.

Against all advice from aghast colleagues Ford created a settlement and factory in, effectively, the middle of nowhere and tried to run it on strict Puritan lines under the direction of security patrols. There were to be no women, no alcohol and no loose behaviour, like gambling. Needless to say the workers Ford managed to recruit did not take kindly to these dictates, and when it emerged that the chosen site was inhospitable to growing rubber trees anyway, the workforce began to drift away and the venture soon collapsed. The story could be straight out of Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (Herzog 1982).

Fordlândia is still there, somewhere in the forests of Amazonia, though it is in ruins now and while the population is slowly increasing the inhabitants are mostly poor people driven to the place by necessity.

Fig. 1: J. M. Ramírez-Suassi 2020.
Fig. 1: J. M. Ramírez-Suassi 2020. Untitled. From Fordlândia 9.
Fig. 2: J. M. Ramírez-Suassi
Fig. 2: J. M. Ramírez-Suassi 2020. Untitled. From Fordlândia 9.

I like Fordlândia 9 because of its dreamlike and poetic atmosphere (see Figs 1-4). The sequencing has clearly been made with great care. In Ramírez-Suassi’s words

‘It is a nod to literature; in literature the 9 is important. There are 9 sections with 9 photographs each. And 9 black and white photographs. Most of the photographs of F9 are limited to a specific geographical context, but my intention is that they generate a discourse that helps us to weigh all the territories we step on with our feet. In F9 we do not find any symbolic image that summarizes the book, in this sense it is an open book. There are endless paths in the book and in the middle of the jungle, and also images that suggest being taken in populous cities. I think that the human being needs these two spaces, because he is both a citizen and a pilgrim’ (Titchener 2020 B).

The result is that the images both individually and collectively express a duality, foreboding and entrancing, dark and light, romantic and forbidding at the same time. This is very much Ramírez-Suassi’s particular style, and the same duality, the same interplay between fiction and documentary, can be seen in his ongoing series One Eyed Ulysses (Ramírez-Suassi 2018). I love engaged but quirky urban photography of this kind and when the pandemic is over I look forward to makes some new work in this vein.

Fig. 3: J. M. Ramírez-Suassi 2020
Fig. 3: J. M. Ramírez-Suassi 2020. Untitled. From Fordlândia 9.
Fig. 4: J. M. Ramírez-Suassi 2020
Fig. 4: J. M. Ramírez-Suassi 2020. Untitled. From Fordlândia 9.

Fordlândia 9 reminds me of some of the work of Gregory Halpern such as Let the Sun Beheaded Be (Halpern and Chéroux 2020). Both Halpern and Ramírez-Suassi are looking at ways of bringing complex historical traces into their work, and both are clearly trying to express what Halpern has said about photography in general:

‘For me, what makes photography such an exciting and troubling artform in general is the deception and tension hard-wired into it, the difficulty of defining its slippery relationship to truth. A photograph has potential to be much more objectively truthful or factual than, say, a painting, but painting is more honest about its intentions and possibilities’ (Bourgeois-Vignon 2018).

Fordlândia 9’s story of the power of nature confronting greed and desperation reminds me of my own project. In 1596 there was starvation across the countryside caused by nature – failed harvests – and homelessness and poverty brought on by man: the enclosures. Among the wealthy merchants and landlords who were directing the enclosures there was plenty of what one reviewer has detected in this depiction of Henry Ford’s failed venture: ‘blind ego marching forward … armed with arrogance and the belief that money and power are enough’ (Titchener 2020 A). And I too am looking at how best to bring complex historical traces into my work.

As both Ramírez-Suassi and Halpern have successfully demonstrated, however, the key is to manage this subtly, indirectly, using allusion, perhaps simply setting an image in the half-light of a misty dawn rather than in the glare of the day. One has to keep the magic alive. If a viewer looks at an image and merely declares, ‘After all, that’s just a photograph’ then one has failed. As Ramírez-Suassi has said in an interview (Feuerhelm 2020), ‘Fordlândia is a manifestation of a time loop: myth and present do not annul each other, as a matter of fact, they feedback each other.’ So, too, there is a strange time loop between the events in Oxfordshire of 1596 and today. The magic lies there.

References

BOURGEOIS-VIGNON, Anne. 2018. ‘Power and the Camera: Gregory Halpern Talks Intuition, Reflection and Representation’. Magnum Photos [online]. Available at: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/gregory-halpern-profile-intuition-representation/ [accessed 18 Oct 2020].

FEUERHELM, Brad. 2020. ‘JM Ramírez-Suassi: Fordlândia Interview’. AMERICAN SUBURB X [online]. Available at: https://americansuburbx.com/2020/06/jm-ramirez-suassi-fordlandia-interview.html [accessed 17 Jun 2021].

HALPERN, Gregory and Clément CHÉROUX. 2020. Let the Sun Beheaded Be. New York: Aperture Foundation.

HERZOG, Werner. 1982 Fitzcarraldo. [Film].

RAMÍREZ-SUASSI, J. M. 2018. One Eyed Ulysses. Madrid: Self Published. Available at: https://www.ramirezsuassi.com/bookstore/ [accessed 17 Jun 2021].

RAMÍREZ-SUASSI, J. M. 2020. Fordlândia 9. Madrid: Self Published. Available at: https://www.ramirezsuassi.com/bookstore/ [accessed 17 Jun 2021].

RAMÍREZ-SUASSI, J. M. 2021. ‘J. M. Ramírez-Suassi’. J. M. Ramírez-Suassi [online]. Available at: https://www.ramirezsuassi.com/ [accessed 17 Jun 2021].

TITCHENER, Robin. 2020 A. ‘Fordlândia 9 by JM Ramirez-Suassi’. Robin Titchener [online]. Available at: https://www.robintitchener.com/post/fordlândia-by-jm-ramirez-suassi [accessed 17 Jun 2021].

TITCHENER, Robin. 2020 B. ‘Utopia, Rubber and Dreams of Madness, Fordlândia 9 by JM Ramirez-Suassi’. Photobook Store Magazine [online]. Available at: https://photoeditions.co.uk/photobook-reviews/utopia-rubber-and-dreams-of-madness-fordlandia-9-by-jm-ramirez-suassi-reviewed-by-robin-titchener/ [accessed 17 Jun 2021].

Figures

Figures 1-4. J. M. Ramirez-Suassi. 2020. Untitled. From: J. M. Ramirez-Suassi. 2020. Fordlândia 9. Madrid: Self Published. Available at: https://www.ramirezsuassi.com/bookstore/ [accessed 17 Jun 2021].

PHO705 Week 17: Work in Progress

I had a meeting with my supervisor on 09 June.

First, I have decided to retitle my project and call it The Rising.

We went through my current work in progress (see Figs 1-5). I presented this in the form of double-page layouts as if for a book. I found preparing that a very helpful exercise. The process has forced me to curate my images down to a top 25-40 (from many hundreds), think about how to sequence them, consider the benefits of a consistent aesthetic (light, time of day, field of view, colours and so forth), and look at the most important events and contemporary quotations from the story of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596.

I have also include a map of the area which I have commissioned although it is a rough at this stage.

I eventually decided to sequence my work village by village ending with the awful events at Enslow Hill (execution and the end of the rising). Bartholomew Steer’s planned rising in 1596 envisioned a kind of procession from village to village – surviving quotations strongly suggest that he had a list, even if only in his head. In each village Steer claimed that he intended to kill the local Lord of the Manor and seize food and weapons, before marching on London. I am therefore matching Steer’s intent to some extent, but I am also adopting a sequence that is walking the land from place to place, and not just showing it, quite possibly using some of the same paths that Steer would have used. I see this as a kind of documentary act of remembering, another layer to offer in my work.

I have thought long and hard about sequencing in different ways, but no matter how hard I try the result is rather a jumble and the story of the rising becomes difficult to understand. At the end of the day these are interconnected places with specific events and buildings tied to them. They are not just random bits of Oxfordshire countryside.

Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2021
Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2021. A draft map (from the designer Tony Hatt) of the main area of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596. It centred on Hampton Gay, where Bartholomew Steer lived. Modern features that would not have been there in 1596 are show in lighter colours, such as railway lines and the Oxford Canal. However, they too are part of the story because I am photographing the past in the present.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2021
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2021. A sample page from a draft of my Final Major Project.
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2021
Fig. 3: Mark Crean 2021. A sample spread from a draft of my Final Major Project.
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2021
Fig. 4: Mark Crean 2021. A sample spread from a draft of my Final Major Project.
Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2021.
Fig. 5: Mark Crean 2021. A sample spread from a draft of my Final Major Project.

For anyone who is interested, a full pdf of the complete draft in a web-friendly format is here: Crean-WIP-080621 Reduced

Figures

Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2021. A draft map (from the designer Tony Hatt) of the main area of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596. Collection of the author.

Figures 2-5. Mark CREAN. 2021. Sample pages from a draft of my Final Major Project presented in book form. Collection of the author.

PHO705 Week 17: Chloe Dewe Mathews

I have been looking at the work of Chloe Dewe Mathews, particularly Shot at Dawn (Mathews et al 2014) but also Thames Log (Mathews 2021), although I do not feel that Thames Log, good though it is, is particularly relevant to my current project.

Shot at Dawn is a sombre, poignant body of work that I greatly admire. What makes it stand out to me is the amount of preparation and care that has gone into each image. The camera position has been chosen to match the likely location of each firing squad. The time each image was taken matches as closely as possible the time of each execution. Even the weather, or at least the season, seems to have been chosen to match. There is care over the colour palette employed, the half-light of a misty dawn or a recessive and muddy dusk. The result is a unified aesthetic that, allied to good sequencing, carries the whole book.

Fig: 2. Chloe Dewe Mathews 2014.
Fig. 2: Chloe Dewe Mathews 2014. Untitled. An image from Shot at Dawn. The work has a sombre, unified aesthetic which adds to the impact of each image.
Fig: 1. Chloe Dewe Mathews 2014.
Fig. 1: Chloe Dewe Mathews 2014. Untitled. An image from Shot at Dawn. The whole work benefits from careful choice of camera position, frame, time of day, light and season.

By contrast, Joel Sternfeld’s On This Site (Sternfeld 2012) also shows images of places where bad things happened. But they are not always of a killing and there is no unified aesthetic. Although these too are images that disturb us and change the moment we read the captions, there is a mixture of times of day (thus affecting the light), seasons and camera angles. The places themselves can be markedly different one from another. To my eye the result is not so effective because it lacks a unified aesthetic and a really focused intent.

Fig: 3. Joel Sternfeld 2021
Fig. 3: Joel Sternfeld 2021. Untitled. An image from On This Site. In my reading, the variety of Sternfeld’s images and their different framing, light, season and time of day detracts from the overall effectiveness of the whole work.

A second body of work that has been compared to Shot at Dawn is Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder (Seawright 1988), a short sequence originally made in 1972-3. This suffers from similar problems to Sternfeld’s work though perhaps for different reasons. In some images, Seawright seems to have chosen to show a place where something dreadful happened, a murder, much as the rest of the world might see it – a still jaunty playground, perhaps, or the lush grass of a dog-walking site. To the viewer, those innocent scenes suddenly acquire a sinister meaning because unlike the image and perhaps the people in the image, we know from the caption what happened there, knowledge that changes our perception forever. So while Seawright’s work lacks Mathews’s unified aesthetic, it is making slightly different and still powerful points. And in his later work Hidden (Seawright 2003), Seawright went on to produce a nuanced body of work that does have a unified aesthetic and which shows the traces and suggestions of unpleasant things in a highly effective way.

Fig: 4. Paul Seawright 1988
Fig. 4: Paul Seawright 1988. ‘Saturday 9th June 1973’. From Sectarian Murders. Seawright’s work here lacks the unified aesthetic of Shot at Dawn. Instead, Seawright plays on the colourful innocence of the scene contrasted with the grim news in the caption, information that will immediately change our perception of the image.

The elements that emerge from Shot at Dawn in relation to my own current project are these:

First, a unified aesthetic is clearly powerful and important. It is not easy to manage this in a short time because one is often relying on weather and season but the idea is there. In my case, the comparison might be that Bartholomew Steer tried but failed to incite the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596. He was expecting a new dawn to arrive and instead he found himself confronted by sunset and the end of his young life. Given that many of the events of 1596 are shrouded in mystery, this makes the half-light of dawn and dusk the natural times to choose for my own images. The result adds some atmosphere but also makes the point that what actually happened in 1596 is in part obscure and after four hundred years we will never know the full truth. All one can do is show the traces of something.

The second element is a point well made by Mathews in an interview about Shot at Dawn (Cloughton 2014): ‘By photographing the empty landscapes, I am reinserting the individual into that space, stamping their presence back onto the land, so that their histories are not forgotten.’

This is uncannily similar to what I am trying to do, but with a difference. Whereas Mathews was photographing the traces of a ‘lost’ individual, I am photographing the traces of lost communities, lost landscapes like open field strips and vanished (or at least vanishing) ways of life at a moment of sometimes violent social change. This returns me to one of the core intents of my project: in photographing a landscape, I am not photography a pretty pastoral scene at all but cultural, economic and physical landscapes laid one over the other and in which specific things happened to specific people known to history. I too am trying to bring something back from faint traces ‘so that their histories are not forgotten’.

The third element is suggested by Geoff Dyer in his Introduction to Shot at Dawn (reprinted in See/Saw, Dyer 2021: 251-57): ‘Rather than serving simply as memorials, in other words, the photographs may be documentary depictions of remembering. The things we are seeing – flowers, grass, trees, walls – may have a consciousness of which they are oblivious. Strongest in cultivated landscapes, this feeling of mute or dormant sentience is particularly acute at dawn or dusk.’

Dyer’s point takes us to Roland Barthes contemplating Alexander Gardner’s portrait of Lewis Payne: ‘He is dead and he is going to die’ (Barthes 2000: 57): an act of remembering, a memento mori and a strange reversal of time all together. I had not before thought of my project as a documentary of remembering but this strikes me as absolutely right and adds another dimension to my work. And Dyer’s suggestion that a mute or dormant sentience is more acute at dawn and dusk is a powerful argument for following the kind of unified aesthetic employed by Mathews. It adds a dimension to my body of work that otherwise might not be there, because I had not realized it.

References

BARTHES, Roland. 2000. Camera Lucida : Reflections on Photography. London: Vintage, 57.

CLOUGHTON. RACHAEL. 2014. ‘Interview: Chloe Dewe Mathews’. The List [online]. Available at: https://www.list.co.uk/article/66272-interview-chloe-dewe-mathews-discusses-new-exhibition-shot-at-dawn/ [accessed 25 May 2021].

DYER, Geoff. 2014. ‘Chloe Dewe Mathews: Shot at Dawn’. In Geoff DYER. 2021. See/Saw: Looking at Photographs. Edinburgh: Canongate, 251-57.

MATHEWS, Chloe Dewe, Geoff DYER, Hew STRACHAN and Helen B. MCCARTNEY. 2014. Shot at Dawn. Madrid: Ivorypress.

MATHEWS, Chloe Dewe. 2021.Thames Log. London: Marseilles: Loose Joints.

SEAWRIGHT, Paul. 1988. ‘Sectarian Murder’. Paul Seawright [online]. Available at: https://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/ [accessed 25 May 2021].

SEAWRIGHT, Paul, Mark DURDEN and John STATHATOS. 2003. Hidden. London: Imperial War Museum.

STERNFELD, Joel. 2012. On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam. Göttingen: Steidl.

Figures

Figure 1. Chloe Dewe MATHEWS. 2014. Untitled. From: Chloe Dewe Mathews, Geoff Dyer, Hew Strachan and Helen B McCartney. 2014. Shot at Dawn. Madrid: Ivorypress.

Figure 2. Chloe Dewe MATHEWS. 2014. Untitled. From: Chloe Dewe Mathews, Geoff Dyer, Hew Strachan and Helen B. McCartney. 2014. Shot at Dawn. Madrid: Ivorypress.

Figure 3. Joel Sternfeld. 2012. Untitled. From: Joel Sternfeld. 2012. On This Site: Landscape in Memoriam. Göttingen: Steidl.

Figure 4. Paul SEAWRIGHT. 1988. ‘Saturday 9th June 1973’. From: Paul Seawright. 1988. ‘Sectarian Murder’. Paul Seawright [online]. Available at: https://www.paulseawright.com/sectarian/ [accessed 25 May 2021].

 

 

PHO705 Week 16: Wylie and Seawright

I have been looking at the practices of Donovan Wylie and Paul Seawright. Like Willie Doherty, here are two photographers from and strongly influenced by Northern Ireland and its recent history.

I think I can see the connection with my Final Major Project. All three photographers are much concerned with the presence of the past, sometimes so strongly in our lives that it can drag on us like a sea anchor. The past – a history of conflict – informs both Seawright’s Afghanistan journey Hidden (Seawright 2003) and Wylie’s watchtower series in both Northern Ireland and the Middle East (Wylie 2021). Indeed Wylie has pointed out the similarities and the repetitive nature of conflicts generally (Huxtable 2021), often as in Afghanistan a long series of new clashes along the same ideological fault lines using the same tactics in the same landscapes.

A second and very important similarity is that both photographers are much concerned with how to show what is not apparently there, hence Seawright’s title Hidden for his work in Afghanistan. Unless one is showing actual combat and explosions, much of modern warfare is hidden from view. It can happen in remote locations, involve hit-and-run guerrilla tactics and IEDs, or it can arrive from above, the unseen and unheard missile strike from a drone.

This is similar to my current project in that I too am looking at landscapes shape by history and conflict. There are hedges here because common land was enclosed, sometimes with violence. There are large mansions and modest cottages because of the inequalities and corruptions of power, not because of any natural order of things. There are battlefields, even if they date back to the Civil War, and there are scars left by greedy corporations and property developers. But we quickly become habituated to them and soon we look straight past what is actually there.

Fig. 1: Donovan Wylie 2007
Fig. 1: Donovan Wylie 2007. ‘Watchtower 6’. Representing the often hidden nature of modern conflict using the architecture of power and surveillance.
Fig. 2: Donovan Wylie
Fig. 2: Donovan Wylie 2015. ‘Watchtower’. The architecture of power and surveillance, but this time with a note of isolation and mystery. We are left uncertain of what is really going on.

The challenge is how to suggest this (in my case a landscape of conflict and struggle ‘hidden’ in an apparently peaceful agricultural landscape). Wylie has favoured an approach based on the architecture of power and conflict and on the modern surveillance state, hence his long-running watchtower series (see Figs 1 and 2). He has also said that ‘repetition is control’ (Kupfer 2016), repeating patterns and shapes being behind his 2004 work on the Maze prison. His work is generally presented as a typology, the repetition being a metaphor for that control, or so it seems to me.

Seawright has taken a very different approach, at least in Hidden (Seawright 2003). Seawright presents subtle hints and traces, leaving the viewer to fill in the gaps (see Figs 3 and 4). This to me is the more appealing approach, because it allows the viewer to construct the story and brings their emotions into play. One is often left with solitary, sometimes sinister buildings and invited to imagine the rest. Wylie moves closer to this approach in a more recent watchtower series Northern Warning System made in 2015 in the far north of Canada (Wylie 2021). The landscapes are misty and mysterious and hint at the sublime, but in each there is a small tower that introduces a note of the sinister (see Fig. 2). In Wylie’s words: ‘What was interesting was the idea of an automated machine looking at something that’s not there, or maybe, will be there’ (Kupfer 2016).

Fig. 3: Paul Seawright 2003.
Fig. 3: Paul Seawright 2003. ‘Column’. Another approach to showing the hidden nature of modern conflict: eerie traces with the viewer left to fill in the story.
Fig. 4: Paul Seawright 2003.
Fig. 4: Paul Seawright 2003. ‘Valley’. Partly a homage to Roger Fenton, partly a superb example of how to show that which is hidden by its traces and create a sinister atmosphere.

In the end, and as with my project, I think it comes down to traces, but traces that involve the viewer emotionally. “How do you represent something without showing the thing itself?’ in Seawright’s words (Bogre and Seawright 2016). That is indeed the question.

References

BOGRE, Michelle and Paul SEAWRIGHT. 2016. ‘Paul Seawright – Documentary Photography Reconsidered’. Bloomsbury [online]. Available at: https://www.bloomsbury.com/cw/documentary-photography-reconsidered/paul-seawright/ [accessed 31 May 2021].

HUXTABLE, Isaac. 2021. ‘Donovan Wylie on the Architecture of Conflict’. 1854 [online]. Available at: https://www.1854.photography/2021/02/1854-presents-donovan-wylie-on-the-architecture-of-conflict/ [accessed 31 May 2021].

KUPFER, Paula. 2016. ‘Donovan Wylie – Studio Visit’. Surface [online]. Available at: https://www.surfacemag.com/articles/donovan-wylie/ [accessed 31 May 2021].

SEAWRIGHT, Paul. 2021. ‘Paul Seawright’. Paul Seawright [online]. Available at: https://www.paulseawright.com/ [accessed 28 May 2021].

SEAWRIGHT, Paul, Mark DURDEN and John STATHATOS. 2003. Hidden. London: Imperial War Museum.

STATHATOS, John. 2003. ‘Hiding in the Open: Paul Seawright’s Afghanistan’. John Stathatos [online]. Available at: https://www.stathatos.net/texts/writings-photography-and-art/hiding-open-paul-seawrights-afghanistan [accessed 28 May 2021].

WYLIE, Donovan. 2021. ‘Donovan Wylie’. Donovan Wylie [online]. Available at: http://donovanwylie.studio/ [accessed 27 May 2021].

Figures

Figure 1. Donovan WYLIE. 2007. ‘Watchtower 6’. From: Donovan Wylie. 2007. British Watchtowers. Available at: http://donovanwylie.studio/index.php?page=work&album=3 [accessed 28 May 2021].

Figure 2. Donovan WYLIE. 2015. ‘Watchtower’. From: Donovan Wylie. 2015. Northern Warning System. Available at: http://donovanwylie.studio/index.php?page=work&album=5&img=60 [accessed 28 May 2021].

Figure 3. Paul SEAWRIGHT. 2003. ‘Valley’. From: Paul Seawright, Mark Durden and John Stathatos. 2003. Hidden. London: Imperial War Museum.

Figure 4. Paul SEAWRIGHT. ‘Column’. From: Paul Seawright, Mark Durden and John Stathatos. 2003. Hidden. London: Imperial War Museum.