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.

PHO705 Week 16: Spring Cleaning

Now that we are starting my final module, it is time to dial down my research and concentrate instead on output, marketing and commercial questions. I still have research to do, because the subject of my FMP is open-ended, but what I find is not going to change the story even though it may add some depth to it.

With this in mind, I attended an online seminar at the Association of Photographers on marketing: ‘Give Your Brand a Spring Clean’ (Giles et al 2021).

Since the seminar was entirely aimed at solo working photographers, I found it both very helpful and relevant. The key points to emerge are these:

Core Purpose

Identify your USP: your ‘recipe’, style, that which makes you stand out. Research what you do against other photographers in similar fields.

Communication

  • Marketing is all about conversations, not one-way adverts. Choose words that are conversation starters, play to people’s curiosity, put across your character, energy and enthusiasms.
  • Consider what would really interest your audience and talk about things around your work such as your experiences while on a shoot, places you have visited and so on. This will help you to present yourself as open, honest and not too busy to talk (which no one likes).

Goals

  • Map out what your business needs and break that down into achievable goals. When you have established some goals, your mind will start to work out how to achieve them.
  • Your time is an investment. View your marketing as strategic. Be selective and do not try to do everything. Concentrate on what you are best at. Some things can be outsourced.

Know Your Audience

  • Marketing is about building relationships, so knowing your audience needs to inform all your activities.
  • Find out what your audience is interested in and prepare some material or stories for that.
  • It is very important to communicate that you intend to be helpful. How you can help a brand or a client is saying what you can give to them rather than take from them.
  • Put your prices out there. This saves a potential client the trouble of having to guess or ask.
  • Personalize what you do. If you send a postcard, for example, make sure there is a handwritten note on the reverse.

Social Media

  • Do not chase numbers. It is better to have 500 engaged followers on Instagram than 5000 fans who sometimes click ‘Like’. Engaged followers can produce new commissions but fans are very unlikely to.
  • Take care to communicate your personality in your captions.
  • Research what avenues on social media are producing work for you. For some this may be Instagram but for others it may be FaceBook or another platform entirely.
  • A minimum of 5 and a maximum of 10 hashtags is good, with a mix of less popular and more popular ones.
  • Add your details to the AOP’s ‘Find a Photographer’ database.
  • Follow your target clients on social media and engage with them. Find out what interests them and what they are currently majoring on.
  • Use social media to identify and research potential new clients.

Your Website

  • A good website still matters and more so for as long as the pandemic lasts. Look on it as your business card. A good photographer’s website should be impeccably designed, concise, up to date and not boring. Clients are simply too busy to wade through fluff.
  • An ‘About’ section on your website is vital. This is in effect your brand. It is where you communicate your brand values and brand story. For this reason, you need to make your story interesting and engaging. Do not view your ‘About’ section simply as space for a conventional resumé.

Newsletters

Only consider newsletters when you have really big news to communicate. Make them short, click-worthy and interesting. Clients are too busy to bother with ‘small news’ and dull.

Printed Material

Printed marketing material sent to clients or potential clients needs to be very specific and beautifully designed. It should be tailored to a particular person, commissioning editor and so on and should include something personal from you – a handwritten note, for example. Since this material will completely represent your brand, you cannot afford the second-rate. Printed material needs to be relevant, compelling and a conversation starter.

Direct emails, calls, etc.

It is important to be specific. Everything you do is about communicating your brand experience, so you need to make it warm, interesting and personal. Avoid mail merges and anything ‘database’ or you will thought a junk-mailer. Research who you are sending anything to, personalize it, get the details correct and say something about what their brand or organization is doing to demonstrate your engagement. The basis of your pitch is how you can help them.

Feedback

Ask for feedback from your peers and do not be afraid to ask for it from your audience. Do not rely on feedback from friends and family. They are unlikely to tell you what you need to hear.

Some of these topics have been covered in earlier modules of this course, but it is still good to be reminded of their importance. A few things are new, and in any event there is plenty I have not yet done such as make a first-class personal website, define my brand and write a brand statement, identify potential clients and generally work out how to position and present myself in the marketplace.

References

GILES, Charlie, Louisa TAN and Kate ABBEY. 2021. ‘Give Your Brand a Spring Clean’. AOP [online]. Available at: https://www.aopawards.com/charlie-giles-and-louisa-from-studio-luxmore-in-conversation-with-kate-abbey/ [accessed 27 May 2021].

 

PHO705 Week 15: Who Owns England?

Guy Shrubsole’s Who Owns England? (Shrubsole 2019) is one of many books about England’s lopsided and inequitable distribution of wealth and property. In terms of its relevance to my Final Major Project, Shrubsole’s book offers something of a coda to Standing’s Plunder of the Commons (Standing 2019). Whereas Standing is interested in the history of how we came to be where we are, and what to do about it going forward, Shrubsole offers more of a journalistic investigation of the present day.

Even so, Shrubsole’s book is full of facts and figures that are enough to make the blood boil.

  • Nearly half of Berkshire is owned by just thirty individuals or organisations (Shrubsole 2019: 7).
  • Intensive agriculture has led to a 56 per cent decline in farm birds since 1970 (Shrubsole 2019: 12).
  • 90 per cent of the land in England remains off-limits to the public (Shrubsole 2019: 17).
  • The biggest beneficiaries of UK farm subsidies have been the Queen, the Duke of Westminster, a Saudi prince, a billionaire, some 17 dukes and 14 marquesses (Shrubsole 2019: 106-7).
  • Grouse moors cover some 550,000 acres of England, an area larger than Greater London, but their management encourages flash flooding whose cost on homes and infrastructure is borne by the taxpayer (Shrubsole 2019: 95-8).
  • Many land-owners have registered their assets in offshore trusts and corporations. As such these entities have no interest in quality of life or ecological stewardship and their opaque nature raises questions of tax evasion and democratic accountability (Shrubsole 2019: 129-32).
  • The Crown Estates and the Duchies of Lancaster and Cornwall exist as a ‘quasi-feudal political economy’ covering some 450,000 acres of England. They enjoy numerous parliamentary exemptions putting them, in effect, beyond democratic control and oversight (Shrubsole 2019: 45-73).
  • A new interest in mineral rights has led to a rush by Church Commissioners, Dukes, Earls and corporations to lay claim to the ground under people’s homes, regardless of the damage and pollution that may result (from, e.g., fracking) (Shrubsole 2019: 71-2, 91).

Shrubsole makes clear that England has never been a property-owning democracy. Less than 10 per of the land in England is now owned by the public in terms of domestic homes, gardens, allotments, commons and so on (Shrubsole 2019: 233). Much of the remainder is owned by a handful of institutions: the Crown, the State (8.5 per cent), a hereditary aristocracy and landed gentry, the Church, and modern corporations (18 per cent). Fewer than thirty individuals – the Dukes – own more than 10 per cent of the land in England (Shrubsole 2019: 306-7). Only 2 per cent is owned by conservation charities such as the RSPB. Overall, just 36,000 people, or 0.06 per cent of the population, own more than half of all the rural land in England and Wales (Shrubsole 2019: 21, 296-307).

Like Standing, Shrubsole is documenting the outcome of processes that have been going on for many centuries. From the perspective of my Final Major Project, what his book makes clear is that remarkably little has changed in the years since 1596. So, as with Standing’s book, this is a powerful incentive to see the landscape as a theatre of economic, social and political relations, much of it hidden by those who do not want their wealth exposed to view. The English landscape is not about pastoral idylls no matter how strongly our culture may promote them. It is good to remember this statement, from the seventeenth century: ‘The power of enclosing land and owning property was brought into the creation by your ancestors by the sword’ (Gerrard Winstanley, in Shrubsole 2019: 78-9).

However, these is a caveat here. For all its value as investigative reporting, Shrubsole’s book is in the end more of a list of facts and figures. Facts and figures do not make for interesting photography books. Missing are emotion, poetry, involvement, lived experience and the sense of being there. For that I am looking at books on rural life such as Meadowland (Lewis-Stempel 2015), English Pastoral (Rebanks 2020) and Field Work (Bathurst 2021).

References

BATHURST, Bella. 2021. Field Work: What Land Does to People and What People Do to Land. London: Profile Books.

LEWIS-STEMPEL, John. 2015. Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field. London: Black Swan.

REBANKS, James. 2020. English Pastoral: An Inheritance. London: Allen Lane.

SHRUBSOLE, Guy. 2019. Who Owns England? How We Lost Our Land and How to Take It Back. London: William Collins.

STANDING, Guy. 2019. Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth. London: Pelican.

PHO705 Week 15: Plunder of the Commons

Guy Standing’s Plunder of the Commons: A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth (Standing 2019) is probably required reading for anyone involved in documenting the British landscape, its history and agriculture. However, this is not the place to offer a dispassionate review of Standing’s carefully researched story of centuries of greed and larceny. The question is whether and how this book affects my photographic practice and the lessons I can take from it with regard to my Final Major Project, the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596.

The most important impact of this book is that it obliges almost anyone who reads it to rethink and reset a host of their assumptions about land and the entire concept of property. It is too easy to forget that we live in an era of aggressive Neo-Liberalism that takes a very narrow view of such things. First, what does Standing mean by ‘commons’ and ‘commoners’?

‘The commons refers to all our shared natural resources – including the land, the forests, the moors and parks, the water, the minerals, the air – and all the social, civic and cultural institutions that our ancestors have bequeathed to us, and that we may have helped to maintain or improve. It also includes the knowledge that we possess as society, built on an edifice of ideas and information constructed over the centuries’ (Standing 2019: ix).

Second, what is Standing trying to document? Essentially, the history of this:

‘Commons now make up a tiny 5 per cent of land in Britain, against roughly half in the Middle Ages, while only 2 per cent of what was wooded forest in medieval times is forest now. A fifth wave of the plunder of the commons is underway … Everything we hold or use in common or intended for public benefit – from parks to police, from schools to sewers, even the air we breathe – is under attack’ (Standing 2019: 14-15).

The result of this long collapse of the commons is that land ownership in Britain is completely one-sided. Standing points out that by 1873 ‘just 710 aristocrats … owned a quarter of the whole country and 4,000 families owned half of it, much of that land obtained from the commons and from gifts from successive monarchs’ (Standing 2019: 22). Today, Standing continues, ‘a third or more remains in the hands of a few thousand aristocrats and gentry, mostly descendants of the land-owning families in 1873’ (Standing 2019: 14-15). A surprising amount of the rest is in the hands of the State, the Crown and corporations, not of individuals at all.

In looking at any landscape in England, therefore, I am also looking at a social landscape, an economic landscape, a landscape of power relations over history, as well as at a physical landscape shaped by man over thousands of years. I cannot afford to allow assumptions to remain unchallenged in my gaze and Standing’s book is a timely reminder that my gaze requires constant evaluation.

As Standing points out, much of the English landscape today has been determined by a few momentous events. Since the sixteenth century 5,000 enclosure Acts have enclosed more than 6.8 million acres of what had been common, public land (Standing 2019: 13), but of much more relevance to my Final Major Project is Henry VIII’s confiscation of church lands in Tudor times. That released some 10 million acres of land onto the market, spurring the rise of a property-owning middle class (the lords of the manor on my patch) and depriving countless rural poor of a means of subsistence.

It is precisely this that fuelled the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 and countless other risings and incidents of rural unrest throughout the sixteenth century. Even so, it was only a continuation of a process of enclosure and agricultural change that was already well underway. We can see this in More’s Utopia of 1516:

‘… your shepe that were wont to be so meke and tame, and so small eaters, now, as I heare saye, be become so great devowerers and so wylde, that they eate up, and swallow downe the very men them selfes. They consume, destroye, and devoure whole fields, howses, and cities … Noble man and gentleman, yea and certeyn Abbottes … leave no ground for tillage, thei include all into pastures; the throw down houses; they pluck downe townes, and leave nothing standyinge but only the churche to be made into a sheephowse’ (Sir Thomas More, Utopia, 1516).

Standing shows that social attitudes changed during this period too. ‘The arbitrary mass transfer of what had been a form of commons was to scar permanently Britain’s class structure. It led to an extraordinary degree of concentration of land ownership that persists to this day’ (Standing 2019:11). The terms ‘common’ and ‘commoner’ acquired their more modern pejorative meaning. Social attitudes hardened. The rural poor and those displaced by enclosures began to be not merely looked down on but seen as a menace. Harsh laws against vagrancy were introduced. ‘From the sixteenth century onwards the emerging middle class of private property-owners joined the aristocracy in treating the rural commons as subversive, a zone of idleness, sinfulness and debauchery’ (Standing 2019: 15). This is confirmed in the tone Sir Henry Norris adopted after Steer had been arrested, calling Steer and his party ‘evill disposed wretches’ (Walter 1985: 126)

I don’t think I can actually photograph a change of social attitudes 450 years ago, but the knowledge of this will colour the photographs that I do make. Standing’s analysis goes a long way to explaining the anger of Bartholomew Steer and his peers, something that comes through clearly in the judicial depositions. These were people who felt not only that they had been deprived of the means of supporting themselves but also that the new elite was treating them with great disrespect too. By the same token, Standing’s analysis also explains why the local lords of the manor were as harsh and intolerant of criticism as apparently they were. Like others of the Tudor elite, they were ‘new money’. They had acquired their lands in dubious circumstances and were extracting profits from them even more dubiously, by replacing people with livestock and repudiating any duty to those displaced. It suited them to look down on ‘commoners’ and promote a social order in which commoners should know their place. Those who refused to acquiesce would be made an example of, which is exactly what happened. Steer and his companions were in effect subjected to judicial murder.

Even 450 years later it is easy to be quite angry about this. Anger is not always a useful emotion but in this case I think it can be put to good effect. It means I can look for drama. It means I can point out lies and find compassion where it is needed. It means I do not have to see a ruin as ‘picturesque’ or grand country houses of the time as impressive or sublime. Instead I can see them for what I think they are: sinister, evidence of oppression and injustice, places where bad and unhappy things have happened. And since, as Standing shows, England’s concentration of wealth and manifest social injustices have been turbocharged by Neo-Liberalism in recent decades, I can see these problems continuing today.

So this history is living history, still alive with meaning and emotion 450 years later. For sure, Standing’s book will affect my photographic practice even if indirectly. I doubt that anyone who reads it will be able to look on England and its history in the same way again.

References

STANDING, Guy. 2019. Plunder of the Commons : A Manifesto for Sharing Public Wealth. London: Pelican.

WALTER, John. 1985. ‘A “Rising of the People”? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596’. Past & Present 107(1), [online], 90–143. Available at: https://academic-oup-com.ezproxy.falmouth.ac.uk/past/article/107/1/90/1605901 [accessed 24 May 2021].

 

PHO705 Week 15: The Rural Gaze

The Rural Gaze was a day-long symposium organized by GRAIN, a Midlands arts organization ‘dedicated to commissioning, facilitating and delivering ambitious, engaging and high quality photography projects, commissions, events and exhibitions’ (GRAIN 2021). Twelve photographers were each given 15-30 minutes to present current projects and talk about their practice more generally. All were involved in rural affairs, whether farming practices, social conditions outside major cities, labour and seasonal work, climate change, ‘agribusiness’ or ecology.

This was one of the most interesting and informative events that I have attended. Not many of my peers are engaged in a project like mine, so it is easy to think I may have put myself out on a limb and made a poor choice of subject. In fact, I now realize this is a burgeoning field that plenty of photographers are involved in.

What I took from the day are these:

First, the day has really helped to place my project within current contemporary practice. I now know who some of my peers are in the wider world. I particularly warmed to the presentations by Murrary Ballard, Leah Gordon, Marco Kesseler, Matthew Broadhead, Guy Martin and Polly Braden. All are a few years into professional careers in photography, and they have websites and Instagram feeds I can follow. This is really helpful. In fact, simply watching how they made their presentations was informative.

Second, it became clear that land enclosure, exploitation and inequality are still hot topics, just as much as they were at the time of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596. To this has now been added the matter of migrant labour – the seasonal workers from countries such as Bulgaria and Romania who pick and prepare many of the foodstuffs on which we depend in our supermarkets. And over all of it there hangs Brexit, described during the day as ‘a line in the sand’ that marks a decisive change in the way we treat our land and the farming labour force.

I liked Murray Ballard’s work in progress, a study of highly mechanized farming and seasonal workers in Lincolnshire (Ballard 2021, see Fig. 1). Leah Gordon has studied the enclosure acts and the commons for many years (Gordon 2021). Her list of sources will prove invaluable. Marco Kesseler had studied some of the waste and poor treatment of natural resources involved in agribusiness but set this in its social context, showing how it is driven by corporations and supermarkets which in turn are driven by our addiction to cheap food at, seemingly, almost any cost (Kesseler 2021, see Fig. 2). Guy Martin was very interesting on the darker sides of rural life: depression and ennui, particularly among the young, the anger and divisions around Brexit, and a surprising amount of crime mostly connected to the distribution of Class A drugs across what the trade apparently refers to as ‘County Lines’ (Martin 2021).

Murray Ballard
Fig. 1: Murray Ballard 2021. ‘Ioana, holding a tray of calabrese (broccoli), Freiston, Lincolnshire, 18 March 2021’.

Third, most of the photographers pointed out the basic disconnect that fuels much misunderstanding of rural affairs. As a society, the English are raised on tales of pastoral calm and rural idylls that have never, in fact, existed. Rural life has almost always been hard and messy. Even so, we grow up with a romanticized view of the countryside from books, films and television, whether The Wind in the Willows, Countryfile on the BBC or the works of James Herriot. Corporations exploit this by creating brands with entirely fictitious back stories under which they sell factory-produced items with traditional rural scenes on the packaging. In the supermarket, you buy a chicken or a bottle of cider from a ‘farm’ that has never existed.

Fig. 2: Marco Kesseler n.d.
Fig. 2: Marco Kesseler n.d. ‘Asparagus’, part of a series and exhibition Our Nature looking at changes in the agricultural landscape.

Fourth, much of what goes on in the countryside is hidden. In part this is because most of us now live in cities even though some 80 per cent of the land in England is rural. Remoteness and strict property laws conceal much from view. In part, however, more traditional social attitudes and perhaps shame drive many problems underground, particularly poverty, mental health, single-parenting and poor housing conditions. These are just as much of an issue in rural areas as they are in any city even though officials often deny it (see Cresswell 2014, 177-79).

However, there are two other factors here, I think. The first is that big business has every incentive to promote a pastoral fantasy rather than reveal the sometimes disturbing reality. Sales depend on it. The biggest farmer in England, who owns some 30,000 acres in Lincolnshire alone, kindly provides a lushly photographed example: https://dysonfarming.com/ (Dyson Farming 2021). There are no migrant workers picking cold cabbages in this operation. Governments too have tapped into our nostalgia about the countryside, as in the wartime (1942) poster ‘Your Britain – Fight for it Now’ (Imperial War Museum 2021, see Fig. 3). It is clear where power and wealth’s priorities lie.

Your Britain - Fight for it Now
Fig. 3: Imperial War Museum 2021. ‘Your Britain – Fight for it Now’, a wartime poster of 1942 promoting the idea of Britain as a rural idyll.

The second reason is straightforward: almost all of us are hypocrites about this. We want the rural idyll and we don’t want the often impoverished reality even though, deep down, we suspect it is there. We want to think the countryside is place of wild, undisturbed natural things even though we also want cheap food and first-class roads, and we tolerate planning decisions that favour rural England as a middle-class playground for wealthy retirees and executive commuters. There is nothing new in this. It is a deep disconnect in our society that has existed for many decades, perhaps centuries. It is certainly not hard to trace it back at least to the trauma of the Industrial Revolution, the process that emptied the countryside of its people and then sold it back to them as a place of repose from the toil and smoke of cities and factories (see Taylor 1994 for a history).

‘The Rural Gaze’ has inspired me and also helped me to realize that my own project is multi-faceted. Farming and rural questions are much more nuanced that rich against poor, us against them, good husbandry versus ‘agribusiness’. One is considering a way of life with deep cultural roots. It has also made me realize that at the heart of my project there lies an enigma. The point was well made by Leah Gordon in her presentation who pointed out that Dürer’s ‘Monument to the Vanquished Peasants’, a sketch of 1525 for a proposed monument (Dürer 1525), can be read in two ways: does it invite us to mourn the loss of a proud tradition or celebrate the downfall of backward-looking troublemakers? Those are questions I have to ask about the life and times of Bartholomew Steer of Hampton Gay.

References

BALLARD, Murray. 2021. ‘Murray Ballard’. Murray Ballard [online]. Available at: https://murrayballard.com/ [accessed 24 May 2021].

CRESSWELL, Tim. 2014. Place : An Introduction. Second. Chichester, West Sussex: John Wiley & Son, 177-79.

DURER, Albrecht. 1525. ‘Monument to the Vanquished Peasants’. Available at: http://thecityasaproject.org/2012/07/the-measure-of-turmoil-durers-monument-to-the-vanquished-peasants/ [accessed 24 May 2021].

DYSON FARMING. 2021. ‘Innovative Farming for the Future’. Dyson Farming [online]. Available at: https://dysonfarming.com/ [accessed 24 May 2021].

GORDON, Leah. 2021. ‘Enclosure’. Leah Gordon [online]. Available at: http://www.leahgordon.co.uk/index.php/project/enclosure/ [accessed 24 May 2021].

GRAIN. 2021. ‘GRAIN’. GRAIN [online]. Available at: https://grainphotographyhub.co.uk/ [accessed 24 May 2021].

IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM. 2021. ‘Your Britain – Fight for It Now [South Downs]’. Imperial War Museum [online]. Available at: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20289 [accessed 24 May 2021].

KESSELER, Marco. 2021. ‘Marco Kesseler’. Marco Kesseler [online]. Available at: https://marcokesseler.com/ [accessed 24 May 2021].

MARTIN, Guy. 2021. ‘Pleasant Land (In Progress)’. Guy Martin [online]. Available at: https://www.guy-martin.co.uk/pleasant-land-troubled-land [accessed 24 May 2021].

TAYLOR, John. 1994. A Dream of England: Landscape, Photography and the Tourist’s Imagination. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Figures

Figure 1. BALLARD, Murray. 2021. ‘Ioana, holding a tray of calabrese (broccoli), Freiston, Lincolnshire, 18 March 2021’. From: Murray Ballard. 2021. ‘News’. Murray Ballard [online]. Available at: https://murrayballard.com/news [accessed 24 May 2021].

Figure 2. KESSELER, Marco. n.d. ‘Asparagus’. From: Marco Kesseler. 2021. Our Nature [exhibition]. Available at: https://marcokesseler.com/April-2021-Our-Nature-at-M-Gallery [accessed 24 May 2021].

Figure 3. IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM. 2021. ‘Your Britain – Fight for It Now [South Downs]’. From: Imperial War Museum [online]. Available at: https://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/20289 [accessed 24 May 2021].

 

PHO705 Week 14: Tim Cresswell

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).

Fig. 1: Ansel Adams
Fig. 1: Ansel Adams c. 1960. ‘Cathedral Peak and Lake, Yosemite National Park, California’. This is a traditional, formally composed landscape of the natural sublime, but the viewer is very much on the outside looking in and looking at which is not the same as being there.

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.

Fig. 2: Jem Southam 1989.
Fig. 2: Jem Southam 1989. This is an image from his book The Red River, about a Cornish valley. In that book, Southam made a conscious attempt to give an impression of what it is like to live there and be there. He resisted the fallback of simply depicting the topography as a series of landscapes. He tried to portray a place, not just a landscape.

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.

Fig. 3: Simon Roberts 2009.
Fig. 3: Simon Roberts 2009. Untitled. This is an image from Roberts’ book We English. There is humour in this image, but the image’s components attempt to locate landscape in a place and culture. The landscape here is as much industrial as natural. There is a hint in the golfers of the English countryside as a middle-class playground. Culturally, there is the suggestion of English ‘stiff upper lip’ as the golfers try to ignore all that ugliness in the background and instead play up and play the game. There are many messages in this image and few of them are about conventional landscape photography.

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.

References

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.

Figures

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.

PHO705 Week 13: Willie Doherty

I have been looking at Willie Doherty’s dark, brooding and highly atmospheric practice in both still images and video installations. Nearly all of his work has been on Derry and ‘The Troubles’ but that doesn’t mean Doherty’s practice is not of much wider appeal. It is. The weight of history, fear, violence, sectarianism, hope, despair, inequality, colonialism – these exist in every society in the world.

The main lessons I draw from Doherty’s practice in relation to my own, and in particular to my FMP, are these:

The Past Haunts the Present
A landscape or an image may mean little to a viewer, manifesting as simply another piece of countryside or an unremarkable ‘non-place’. Just one small piece of information, however, can transform our understanding with the result that we will never look at that scene or at that image in the same way again. Two examples from Doherty’s practice: Fig. 1 is ‘A Fork in the Road’ of 2010, an unprepossessing scene until we learn that this is the spot where a body was dumped after a paramilitary execution. Fig. 2 is a classic, scrappy, urban non-place, until we learn that this is where paramilitary kneecappings are carried out.

Willie Doherty 2010. 'A Fork in the Road'.
Fig. 1: Willie Doherty 2010. ‘A Fork in the Road’. Our whole reading of the image changes when we learn that this was the scene of a murder.
Fig. 2: Willie Doherty 2013. 'Remains
Fig. 2: Willie Doherty 2013. ‘Remains (Kneecapping behind Creggan Shops)’. Another image whose meaning entirely depends on the information we are given. On its own, the image is neutral and shows a typical ‘non-place’.

Non-places become places when they are imbued with human meaning, and Doherty is a master at suggesting this. In other works, he has taken the idea much further as in his video installation Ghost Story of 2007 (see Fig. 3). The past haunts what we see, a past of pain and suffering even though the details are indistinct. The voice of the narrator is both a ghost and memory. The shock, I think, comes from realizing that this could be us and in some sense is us. We may not have been to this particular place nor suffered like that, but we all have similar ghosts and ghostly places and they haunt us, too, in exactly the same way.

Ghost Story 2007 by Willie Doherty
Fig. 3: Willie Doherty 2007. ‘Ghost Story’. A still from a video installation whose subject is the way the past and memory haunt the present.

Showing the past in the present is a subtle process. It can only work by suggestion, allusion, hints and guesses that slowly coalesce because that is how the human mind works. Anything else is agitprop by comparison.

This is a very important part of my current practice, because I am trying to show traces of the past in the present, a past that in some cases is about 400 years old and in which there lie buried painful and traumatic moments – torture and death in the very places I bring my camera to.

The Slippery Image
Doherty’s practice has often made use of words and signs, sometimes overprinted on the image itself. They are brief and usually ambiguous, challenging us not to take what we see at face value but think to more carefully about the implications of what the image shows, implications that usually stretch back into Irish history and British colonialism. ‘Typically for Doherty’s work the signposts offered by the titles misdirect rather than guide’ (IMMA 2021).

This is the classic interplay in all photography between denotation and connotation. As Roland Barthes described, the photograph is a message without a code’ (Barthes 1977: 17) that has been ‘worked on, chosen, composed, constructed, treated according to professional, aesthetic or ideological norms which are so many factors of connotation; while on the other, this same photograph is not only perceived, received, it is read, connected more or less consciously by the public that consumed it to a traditional stock of signs’ (Barthes 1977: 19).

The power of the photographic image always lies in this essential ambiguity. What an image actually shows may be very different from the assumptions and associations we bring to what we see, usually unconsciously. Doherty neatly makes this point in ‘Border Incident’ (see Fig. 4). We pick up the image’s title and immediately apply a sinister reading to the image, assuming it must show the aftermath of a bombing or paramilitary violence of some kind. The image might show that, but Doherty pointed out at the time that it might equally well show no more than a burnt-out abandoned car that someone has dumped there. We are kept guessing.

Willie Doherty Border Incident 1994
Willie Doherty 1994. ‘Border Incident’. A sinister scene of paramilitary violence or simply a wrecked car? The viewer is left to decide. The image itself is neutral.

Non places become places when imbued with the meanings we give them, but we need to be aware of what those meanings are and where we may have obtained them.

Less is More
Doherty’s images are usually simple, bare, stripped down to essentials and they don’t show people. This is a deliberate choice and I would imagine that it requires careful very attention to framing and the elimination of unnecessary ‘furniture’ (stray branches, discarded items and so on). In Doherty’s words: ‘I wanted to show less and tell more’ (Maris 2015).

Show Not Tell
Overall, Doherty’s practice is ‘show not tell’ and it challenges much of what we take to be conventional landscape practice. These are almost all landscape images (or video installations) but these are hardly the landscapes one might find in a tourist brochure. Doherty’s work has often been compared to Paul Graham’s Troubled Land (Graham 1987) in this regard and I think there is a lot to learn from both photographers. An example is Graham’s ‘Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast’ in Fig. 5, an apparently conventional frame of an urban scene whose disturbing implications – soldiers, graffiti, damage – only become clear after contemplating the image for a while.

Paul Graham 1984. 'Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast'
Fig. 5: Paul Graham 1984. ‘Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast’, from Troubled Land. An apparently conventional landscape image with troubling signs if you look.

References

BARTHES, Roland and Stephen HEATH. 1977. Image Music Text. London: Fontana.

GRAHAM, Paul, Gerry BADGER and Declan MCGONAGLE. 1987. Troubled Land: The Social Landscape of Northern Ireland. London: Grey Editions with Cornerhouse Publications.

IMMA. 2021. ‘Willie Doherty – Border Incident (1994)’. IMMA [online]. Available at: https://imma.ie/collection/border-incident/ [accessed 6 April 2021].

MARIS, Jacqueline. 2015. ‘Willie Doherty – Finished’. YouTube [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uOabhkLnjY [accessed 8 April 2021].

Figures

Figure 1. DOHERTY, Willie. 2010. ‘A Fork in the Road’. From Willie Doherty. 1986-2012. To the Border. Kerlin Gallery [online]. Available at: https://www.kerlingallery.com/exhibitions/willie-doherty_1/exhibition_works/7/479 [accessed 6 April 2021].

Figure 2. DOHERTY, Willie. 2013. ‘Remains (Kneecapping behind Creggan Shops)’. Kerlin Gallery [online]. Available at: https://www.kerlingallery.com/artists/willie-doherty/artist_works/24 [accessed 6 April 2021].

Figure 3. DOHERTY, Willie. 2007. ‘Ghost Story’. TATE [online]. From Willie Doherty. 2007. Ghost Story. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/doherty-ghost-story-t12957 [accessed 8 April 2021].

Figure 4. DOHERTY, Willie. 1994. ‘Border Incident’. IMMA [online]. Available at: https://imma.ie/collection/border-incident/ [accessed 7 April 2021].

Figure 5. GRAHAM, Paul. 1984. ‘Roundabout, Andersonstown, Belfast’. From Paul Graham, Gerry Badger and Declan McGonagle. 1987. Troubled Land : The Social Landscape of Northern Ireland. London: Grey Editions with Cornerhouse Publications.