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.