I am exhibiting some of my work in progress as part of a group exhibition in the 2021 Oxfordshire Artweeks festival (Oxfordshire ArtWeeks 2021), though this year it has to be online (from 01 to 23 May). I am showing as part of the collective to which I belong, Oxford Photographers. This will be the sixth year running we have managed to exhibit as a group although normally we do so physically in central Oxford.
My offering is a first attempt to string together the story of Bartholomew Steer and the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 and see how it sits with peers and public. Results so far are favourable. People understand from images and captions what the project is about and what I am trying to do. This is all good practice.
We are exhibiting in the form of a series of galleries on Flickr (Oxford Photographers 2021). See fig. 1 for a screenshot of my own gallery.
For publicity, we have inserted a full entry into the Artweeks Catalogue (Oxfordshire Artweeks 2021) and we have run up a flyer – see fig 2. Normally this is printed and distributed to local homes, coffee shops and the like but this year it is for online use only on Instagram, Facebook and similar. This is further backed in some cases with individual videos on YouTube.
A physical exhibition is much more satisfying, of course, and since we offer a visitor’s book at our physical exhibitions we often obtain better feedback than we do online. Counting visitors as clicks on social media tells you how many viewers you have, but it tells nothing about the quality of their experience and whether they are ever likely to return. Even so, this to me is part of preparing for my current project to go public, and I am very grateful to all at Oxford Photographers for the hard work involved in assembling this or any exhibition.
I have been to several online talks in the last ten days.
The first talk was ‘What Printing Can Do for You’ with John Paul Caponigro (Caponigro 2021), someone whose website I have often consulted not least for the many interviews with photographers.
I have not done much printing, and I would like to more, so this talk hosted by the Photographers’ Gallery was a good fit. Caponigro listed a long series of reasons to make prints, many of which I had not thought about. In his view, a print is durable, scaleable (in terms of size), sensual (it is tactile) and exclusive (you can limit the number of prints). Prints can also form hand-made books, gifts, marketing information and so on. There are many uses for the print beyond display on a friendly wall.
What I had not thought of is that in Caponigro’s view a print can lead to a different experience of photography. It helps the photographer to make a statement and the viewer to connect to the image. It obliges one to look more carefully, and in very large prints one can ‘wander around’ and look at details in a way that is not possible online. A print allows the photographer to decide what is important (dodging and burning to draw out or suppress parts of an image, for example, or choice of materials). Above all, a print brings with it a context. The photographer can decide where and how the print is received through choice of size, venue and framing. Caponigro was particularly interesting on framing a print: the importance of treating the frame as a transition zone and of matching frame to context by first checking the space where the print will be displayed.
These aspects of the print help one to share experiences and thereby (one hopes) build relationships. This is a very important element in ‘putting it out there’ and taking a more commercial and professional approach to one’s practice.
Caponigro also covered a list of technical details: what to look for when assessing a print and how best to make one. I won’t go into that, not least because the world of the print and its role in connecting to customers, contacts and friends are what really mattered in this talk.
The second talk was ‘Photographer Talk: Joel Meyerowitz’ (Meyerowitz 2021). In a way, this was a trip down Nostalgia Lane. Meyerowitz has long been something of a hero of mine but the world that characterized much of his best photography – street life circa 1960-1990 – has now gone forever.
However, Meyerowitz has always been preternaturally talented as a visual artist, with an ability to pick out compositions and significant moments in an almost entirely instinctual way (see Fig. 1). As he said in the talk, ‘I like to be in places where things are coming together and falling apart in the moment. … You frame the elements of life that are most exciting to you at that moment’ (Meyerowitz 2021). The keyword here is ‘exciting’, not merely interesting, intellectually stimulating, satirical or conceptual. Meyerowitz’s best classic street photography is a visceral response to the world, and sometimes a hard-hitting one, as was Robert Frank’s. It was Frank who inspired Meyerowitz to become a photographer.
I have always admired Meyerowitz’s ability to reinvent himself and change when necessary. Most photographers are good at a single thing and there is no doubt that classic street photography is what Meyerowitz will be remembered for. However, not long after Meyerowitz had established himself on the streets of New York he branched out into a very different genre: environmental and landscape photography using an 8” x 10” view camera. This eventually found expression in his book Cape Light (Meyerowitz 2015), among other works.
Meyerowitz said in his talk that he begun to feel trapped in photographing ‘incidents’ on the street. He wanted to explore what he called the ‘colour field’, ‘field photography’ and ‘deep space’. He wanted, he said, to produce ‘as immersive an experience as a Rothko’ (Meyerowitz 2021). There are echoes of Stephen Shore in this. Shore was also using a view camera in the same period and talked of ‘filling the frame with attentionality’ (Shore 2018). Perhaps this was a cultural change, or the zeitgeist or perhaps the influence of John Szarkowski who knew both photographers well.
As Teju Cole has pointed out, ‘The renovation of photography’s possibilities happens generationally. But within this slow evolution are faster cycles, certain artists who keep it moving so that their individual oeuvres come to constitute mini-histories of photography: artists like Paul Strand, Berenice Abbott and Joel Meyerowitz’ (Cole 2018).
There is heavy pressure on photographers today to be specialists and to market themselves as brands that are finely honed to a single thing. Social media like Instagram pushes the same idea, as does the teaching establishment. It is not always helpful. Not everyone can manage a narrow specialization, and if one can’t then I think one should simply accept it rather than spend years trying to be something one is not. Meyerowitz’s landscapes are not his best work, in my view, but they are pretty darn impressive even so. One could say the same of Don McCullin’s late landscapes of Somerset. Ansell Adams took plenty of portraits as well as the landscapes for which he is remembered. Nadav Kander is a rare photographer who seems equally adept in both worlds: portraiture and environmental photography.
Teju Cole again: ‘In reading artists, we ought to focus more on what they intend than on the stylistic gestures that help us identify their works. Meyerowitz is certainly stylish — there is always a formal clarity in his work — but he can’t be pinned down to two or three styles. His oeuvre is as varied as any among contemporary photographic masters, but this is not a matter of restlessness. The variety is organically related to whatever he is exploring at any given point. He changes because he must’ (Cole 2018).
Joel Meyerowitz would never go quietly into someone else’s box.
The third talk this week was on ‘NFTs and Photography’ with Marco De Mutiis and Jon Uriarte, part of a series of talks on contemporary issues in photography hosted by Self Publish, Be Happy (De Mutiis and Uriarte 2021). However, the subject was so complicated that I still do not understand it and will have to do much more research and reading. In brief, De Mutiis and Uriarte thought that NFTs (and associated blockchain technology) are still in an unregulated Wild West phase, attracting a lot of scams and publicity hounds but not yet much of significance in terms of art and photography (finance is a different matter). That will come, and it will be very important, but a framework and an internationally recognised legal structure are needed first. In the meantime, when asked whether they would buy an NFT as a work of art, both speakers said No, which is rather a give-away. The best question of the evening was on how and whether Richard Prince could devise a way to ‘re-photograph’ an NFT artwork and profit from the result.
I had a good meeting with my supervisor this week and we went through my work in progress.
It is clear that the key to my current work lies in expressing a coherent relationship between the two layers in it: the historical layer of the Bartholomew Steer story, and the contemporary layer of the use and ownership of land today. It is this layered approach that will make my work more than just a sequence of images. During my portfolio reviews in Weeks 6-7, John Angerson was adamant that bodies of work today need layers and stories (see here). What might have worked a generation ago – a book of fine arts photographs with minimal captions and perhaps a preface – is just not enough today. The audience wants something more involving and sophisticated.
I am not there yet but I do feel that I am on the way.
My supervisor suggested I look at the work of Lewis Bush (‘Trading Zones’) and Donovan Wylie (in connection with landscape and conflict). A quick look already suggests there is plenty there for me to learn (Bush 2021, Wylie 2021). She also suggested that I look at the practice of John Duncan, particularly ‘Bonfires’ (Duncan 2008). The issue here is a long-standing problem in my work: I tend to get too close to the subject. Standing back opens everything up. This provides context, comment and room for the viewer to find their own way around the image. Duncan’s ‘Bonfires’ is a good example of keeping one’s distance in order to produce a more attentive and expressive image.
A day later, I also showed my work in progress at the monthly group critique. This too was very helpful because input from one’s peers is important. The setting is relaxed and there is no hierarchy or authority structure to get in the way. More useful suggestions came up. These include ‘Shot at Dawn’ by Chloe Dewe Mathews, Andrew Lichtenstein on how landscapes are invested with power, and ‘Vale’ by Robert Darch (Mathews 2014, Lichentstein 2021, Darch 2021). Interestingly, my peers also felt that my images are better when taken at more of a distance. The images closer-in are not so expressive.
I presented my work in progress as a provisional book dummy. I chose this method because I needed to clear my head and get things down on paper. Even if this does not bear much resemblance to what will be the final result, doing things this way starts the process of curation, design, storytelling and coherent analysis. I feel much better for having done it.
Two sample spreads are below. For anyone who is interested, the full pdf version of some 36 pages is here: Crean-280421-reduced.
I am attending some workshops from a series online curated by the Royal Photographic Society. They are called Creativity Live and are hosted by Jon Cunningham, a professional photographer and teacher (Cunningham 2021).
I thought it would be useful to get back to the basics of photography skills. Looking generally at the leading photography websites such as BJP online, LensCulture, Aperture and so forth has begun to make me uneasy. The reason is that it is too easy to ‘go conceptual’ and talk about the meaning of a photograph without considering whether, as a photograph, it is actually any good. So the temptation here – and I am certainly as prone to this as anyone – is to think that mediocre work can be magically raised a notch by intellectual discourse. It is important for me to get back to the basics: what makes a good photograph and how do I take one?
The first workshop was on ‘What Makes a Good Photograph’. It was pointed out that in 2019 1.4 trillion images were taken, 75 per cent more than a decade ago. However, the average ‘dwell time’ online for an image – the time a viewer spends looking at it – is now only 1.7 seconds, down from twice that five years ago. This means that it is more important than ever to take care that one’s work stands out from the crowd, and that one is informed enough to be able to sift through the images of others and feel confident that one has identified the images that matter.
Jon pointed to three main things here. First, I need to check that my attention is fully engaged when looking at an image. Second, I need to assess its competence against standard technical criteria such as exposure, framing, colour, focus and so on. Third, and very importantly, I need to look for an X factor by asking myself whether the image educates me or shows me a new perspective on something, whether it creates an arresting atmosphere that draws me in, and whether it stirs an emotion, a connection. This ‘Creative Review’ is the essence of what makes a good photograph,
An image can be technically excellent – most digital images these days are – but if it fails a Creative Review then it is a snap, not a photograph.
The second workshop was on ‘How to Spot a Signature Style’. It sounds easy. Cartier-Bresson had a distinctive style, as did Avedon or Penn. Contemporary photographers with well-known styles include Martin Parr and Steve McCurry. To them I would add Nadav Kander for his landscapes (see Figs 1 and 2). Jon suggested that one needs to assess a photographer’s work in terms of whether 1) it is visually distinctive, 2) whether it is unusual or distinctive in content, 3) whether it combines both of these elements, or 4) whether it has neither of them. Most images have either the first or the second. A few have both. Images that have neither have no style.
But for a photographer, acquiring a style is very hard and usually requires years of work until the photographer is experienced enough to be making the images that only he or she could make. And, in any case, how useful is a style? It tends to be important only in certain genres and a fixed style can be counter-productive if it blocks personal change. Many of the photographers interviewed in Photowork (Wolf 2019) repudiated having a fixed style at all, for example.
There are other issues here, too. The financial impact of the internet has sometimes made it more difficult for photographers to evolve a style because cut-backs mean that agencies and publications are keener than they were to stick to in-house styles and rules, and they are far less prepared to take risks and license experiments. So having a distinctive style is likely to mean breaking the rules, but the paradox is that unless you are prepared to break the rules you have little chance of being noticed anyway.
Jon cited the brilliant young photographer Jack Davison as an example of how to get this right. Davison’s style is one of constant energy and experimentation (see Fig. 1) that emerged from a long American road-trip in which he was able to work without boundaries. In other words, the key ingredients here are play, experimentation and a willingness to make mistakes. In Davison’s case this has taken him to Vogue and the New York Times.
I enjoyed this workshop. It was all about encouraging one to produce work that stands out and suggesting ways to start on that journey. In a world that produces 1.4 trillion images annually, there is no hope of getting on and getting noticed unless one is doing one’s best to produce work that really does stand out.
Some of us in the German Bight cohort recently arranged to hold one-to-one peer reviews of each other’s work. I teamed up with Victoria Smith. We each spent a few days reading the other’s CRJ and reviewing work in progress, then we shared our impressions in a Zoom call.
I found the process immensely helpful. I think it was Martin Parr who said that when it comes to reviewing one’s images, the easiest person to fool is oneself. For a photographer, it is too easy to become caught up in the experience of making the image and to forget that a viewer will come to the image in a much more objective way. This is why culling one’s darlings during curation can be so difficult.
Victoria suggested that I might find it helpful to involve myself more with my peers and the cohort. She is quite right: I have a tendency to be a loner and can often forget to connect with others. She also suggested that I might find it helpful to look more at the work of other photographers in a similar field to that of my Final Major Project. This is another spot-on suggestion. In fact I have looked at several photographers by now, such as Keith Arnatt, John Gossage, Fay Goodwin, Lucas Foglia, Chloe Dewe Mathews and Willie Doherty, but I have not yet written them up in my CRJ. In addition, not all of them are current practitioners, engaged in the kind of project I might see covered in the British Journal of Photography or in Aperture, or shown in an online talk. While it is very important to be aware of the major past photographers in one’s field, it is one’s now-active peers that contextualize the work one produces and against which one is likely to be measured. This feeds into commercial considerations when it comes to pitching for work or entering competitions, for example.
Further suggestions included considering my audience more fully, looking at including historical artefacts in my work such as old maps, paintings, woodcuts, implements and so on, and looking at more fluid and flexible layouts. Finally, Victoria suggested that I look at the work of the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman in, for example, Liquid Modernity (Bauman 2000) – a new field for me and so very helpful.
So overall, a great meeting. I only hope that my suggestions to Victoria with her own practice were as useful. Her own Final Major Project, Uncanny Bodies, is completely different from mine (Smith 2021). But this just made the process more interesting and more challenging. It is always good to be stretched by considering new things outside one’s comfort zone and, besides, her work has led me appreciate some wonderful photographers such as Viviane Sassen and Annie Collinge.
Although the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 may remain an obscure incident for most people, it nevertheless continues to act as a source of inspiration. Here are three examples:
The first is ‘Black Showers’, a short story based on the Oxfordshire Rising by S. J. Bradley (Bradley 2019) in Resist, a collection of fictionalised accounts of popular uprisings throughout British history (Page 2019). The story concentrates perhaps too much on the grisly aspects of arrest, torture and execution but is completely correct, I think, in showing how those arrested were starving country folk in thrall to a violent and one-sided system of government. The story is followed by a valuable afterword by John Walter (Walter 2019) which brings his original historical research up to date (Walter 1985). As Walter says,
Where the historical record fails to record the emotional timbre of the story (though their anger comes through clearly in the examination of the would-be rebels), the fiction writer’s imagination can remind us of their fear – and of their bravery (Walter 2019).
The second example is Robinson in Ruins, a documentary arts film narrated by Vanessa Redgrave and made by the artist Patrick Keiller (Keiller 2010). This a film about the meaning of landscape; much of it is set within a few miles of my home. There is extensive coverage of the Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 and of Hampton Gay and Enslow Hill.
Keiller’s interests are not entirely mine but there is considerable overlap. He shot the film in 2010 and is much concerned with the impact of global warming on the Oxfordshire countryside and with the aftermath of the Cold War on the land. He therefore investigates Greenham Common in nearby Berkshire, Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire (both once nuclear-armed airfields) and the cluster of sinister weapons and research facilities on the Oxfordshire–Berkshire borders.
However, Keiller very clearly sees the physical landscape of the film as a metaphor for an economic landscape. Keiller’s landscape is dominated by the Ministry of Defence and American corporations whereas mine is more about unequal social relations and the power of new money flowing from the City of London. Both of us are looking at pollution and at agribusiness. A powerful sequence in the film shot near the village of Beckley (Robert Burton from Beckley was executed for his part in the Oxfordshire Rising) shows combine harvesters at work in a field of wheat while the narrator reminds us than less than half of England’s cereal crop is actually destined for human consumption. Much of the rest goes to feed livestock which one guesses actually means ‘hamburgers and milkshakes from US-owned franchises’.
I am glad I have found Robinson in Ruins. It offers me something I can take care to avoid copying but the film confirms my instinct that the way forward with the Oxfordshire Rising is through metaphor. It is the underlying economic and cultural conditions that matter and from time to time they burst out in public protest whether at Greenham Common or in 1596 at Enslow Hill.
A third example is The Robinson Institute, Keiller’s exhibition at the Tate in 2012 based on at least some of the same body of work. I did not see this, but a book of the exhibition is still available and I plan to obtain a copy (Keiller 2012).
BRADLEY, S. J. 2019. ‘Black Showers’. In Ra PAGE (ed.). Resist: Stories of Uprising. Manchester: Comma Press, 35-47.
The following is a summary of a meticulous scholarly investigation by the historian John Walter (Walter 1985). It is important to record it here because now that I have found and researched it the story of the Oxfordshire Rising is going to form the backbone of my Final Major Project.
The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596 was one of a large number of rural protests that took place all over England in about 1595–7. By 1596 there had been three poor harvests in a row. The price of grain had risen threefold and many rural poor now faced starvation. The government of the time was well aware that a coordinated uprising – another Peasants’ Revolt – would be very difficult to contain. Coming on top of political insecurities such as constant warring with Spain this threat to the nation’s food supply made a fraught situation even worse.
In northern Oxfordshire, another factor was at play: aggressive land enclosures by wealthy landlords, forcing villagers off the land in favour of sheep pasture and thus increasing the pool of landless poor unable to sustain themselves. The enclosers were often aristocrats but were often also ‘new money’, self-made men with little time for the traditional social bonds between landlord and tenant. ‘There is no such thing as society’ is a phrase they would likely have understood very well.
A nexus of contentious and resented enclosures was in a small parcel of land around the villages of Bletchingdon, Hampton Gay, Kidlington, Water Eaton and Yarnton just to the north of Oxford city. Three enclosers, in particular, were at work there: Francis Power in Bletchingdon, Vincent Barry in Hampton Gay and William Frere in Water Eaton. This is almost exactly the area I am already studying for my Final Major Project.
Enter a 28-year-old carpenter called Bartholomew Steer from Hampton Gay. In the autumn of 1596 Steer and a few other young men decided that enough was enough, and they began to solicit support for a general rising in the area against the landlords and to secure desperately needed food supplies. Steer, however, went a step further than similar rebels of the time. Whereas the call in rural areas was usually confined to violence against property – by throwing down the hedges of the enclosers and taking back farmland – Steer advocated a more drastic solution. He called for local landlords to be assassinated and their weapons seized house by house in a progress towards London – at which point, he hoped, the London prentices would join them in a general uprising. Among the top of his list to be ‘spoil’d’ – Steer’s term for executed – were Francis Power and Vincent Barry.
In the event, Steer’s plans were a dismal failure. Records show that he was a thoughtful tactician and eloquent speaker, but the essential problem was that he and a handful of other ‘poor boys’ – angry young village men with no prospects – would never have the authority to persuade large numbers of people to risk everything for political change. Besides, many of Steer’s recorded comments are somewhat fantastical and it remains unclear how serious about ‘spoiling’ he actually was. ‘Work?’, he said to a starving villager, ‘Care not for worke, for we shall have a meryer world shortly; there be lusty fellowes abroade, and I will gett more, and I will work one daie and plaie an other, ffor I know ere yt be long wee shall have a meryer world’ (Walter 1985: 100). This was hardly practical talk in a famine.
Steer aimed to ignite the uprising with a gathering on Enslow Hill (a mile from Hampton Gay) on 17 November 1596, but on that Sunday evening the only people who ever turned up were Steer himself and three companions. Worse was to follow, much worse. Elizabethan society was rife with informers and Vincent Barry at Hampton Gay, Steer’s own Lord of the Manor, had already been alerted. Barry raised a general alarm and within days Steer and others had been arrested and sent to London tied to the backs of horses.
Waiting for them in London was Sir Edward Coke, the attorney general. Coke was convinced that he had uncovered a grave plot and authorized torture ‘for the better bowltinge forth of the truthe’. From now on, matters assumed a terrible inevitability. Statements extracted from the men confirmed to Coke that stern measures were required, if only pour encourager les autres. Four men were subsequently arraigned on charges of high treason, even though some of Coke’s fellow lawyers were uneasy at what may have seemed a disproportionate response to rural braggadocio with no actual action ever arising.
Of the four men charged, only two ever went to full trial. Steer and one companion had already died in prison, either from the torture or from the conditions of incarceration. Judicial proceedings were little more than a kangaroo court. At an assize hearing two of the jurors were landlords from Bletchingdon. A judge at the treason trial was compromised by a familial relationship with Vincent Barry of Hampton Gay: his heir was about to become Barry’s son-in-law.
In the summer of 1597 the Oxfordshire Rising came to a miserable end back on Enslow Hill where it had started. In a final act of barbarity Richard Bradshaw of Hampton Gay and Robert Burton of Beckley were hung, drawn and quartered with proceedings overseen by none other than landlord and encloser William Frere of Water Eaton acting as sheriff.
This is a tremendous if very sad story that John Walter’s meticulous research into contemporary records and court proceedings has now rescued from historical obscurity. The story also has a very surprising outcome. Within a decade, the Elizabethan authorities had reversed their policy on land enclosure and were coming down hard on aggressive landlords. Among the first to be arraigned before the Star Chamber in London for precisely that were Francis Power of Bletchingdon and William Frere of Water Eaton.
Ironically, one of the leading voices in favour of enclosure reform was Sir Edward Coke. Perhaps Coke had a residue of guilt over his harsh treatment of Steer. More probably, he like others in government had realized that a new class of acquisitive and aggressive property-owners could not be allowed to prosper unchecked if the result was social breakdown and possibly catastrophic public disorder. The poor always had to be kept on side. The ghost of Bartholomew Steer would haunt lawmakers for years to come. Arguably it still does. The Cameron government’s austerity programme of 2010-16 fell disproportionately on the poor. The uprising that resulted – this time at the ballot box – was Brexit.
My challenge is how to represent this photographically. I think the only way is to treat the Oxfordshire Rising as a rich layer of metaphor within my own story. To an extent I can take a literal approach, for example by photographing some of the places where these events occurred. However, the real meaning here likes in the metaphor. In photographing a physical landscape I am actually showing an economic landscape. The physical landscape has changed; it is the economic landscape and its social relations that has endured through time.
My research has already indicated that remarkably little has changed since Steer’s day. Many big estates are still there, social inequality has increased noticeably in recent years, and there is an uneasy and sometimes unpleasant relationship between those who own the land and others who happen to live there. Meanwhile government sees the general population as potentially hostile and concentrates mainly on fixing things for its own class of interests. We may no longer have land enclosures of the Tudor kind, but I would argue that the current fashion for offshore financial vehicles, property development and agribusiness is our contemporary version of the same thing. It is essentially a cash grab upon society’s common resources by that same class of aggressive self-interested new money – today, the City of London – that caused all the trouble in the first place. Plus ça change.
WALTER, John. 1985. ‘A “Rising of the People”? The Oxfordshire Rising of 1596’. Past & Present 107(1), [online], 90–143. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1093/past/107.1.90 [accessed 29 March 2021].
What emerged is that I need to divide my project into its various sub-themes, concentrate on a typology of each one, and see what emerges. This will be my focus for the next month.
It was suggested that I look at the work of several photographers, including Keith Arnatt and Susan Hiller (in her work ‘Judenstrasse’). I have now secured a copy of Arnatt’s book I’m a Real Photographer (Arnatt et al 2007), so that will be added to the coming month’s tasks.
The two important elements that remain to be decided are the question of colour versus black and white and the storyline I will follow. I think I may have found my story, but that will require some research and I will cover it another time. I am not so sure about colour versus black and white. I think I will use both together for a while and then see which one works best after I have assembled a few more credible images.
ARNATT, Keith, David HURN and Clare GRAFIK. 2007. I’m a Real Photographer. London: The Photographers’ Gallery.
Contemporary Photography and the Environment is a talk by the curator Kim Knoppers in Self Publish, Be Happy’s Contemporary Photography series on Vimeo (Knoppers 2021). I found the talk useful because it is something of a survey of contemporary practice in this subject – and it offered several useful ideas.
The first point is that it is important for the photographer to overcome public image fatigue. This affects almost all subjects today but especially those covering global warming and the environment. The days when an image of a polar bear on a melting ice floe could capture attention are long gone.
A second point is that we need to think carefully about what we mean by ‘nature’. This is largely a culturally determined and, today, a contested term. In some ways we live in a nostalgic version of what nature is, evidenced by 1001 wildlife documentaries that show the spectacle but often not the reality. We tend to see nature and culture as opposites, but this is a false binary, and we tend to under-appreciate the relationships involved. These are not only the sometimes very complex relationships between things in the natural world itself but the relationships involved in depicting it and changing our perceptions of it. So the photographer today needs to consider the role of activism and environmental law, for example, and the role of video and sound in producing a work of art.
This is a really helpful message to encourage the photographer to move beyond the static single image. It suggests that compelling works today are likely to be stories based on collaboration between many different interests and artistic techniques.
Knoppers cited several photographers whose work it might pay to study, not least since some of them used mixed media. These include Robert Adams and Joel Sternfeld, with whom I am already familiar, but also Melanie Bonajo, Mark Dorf, Douglas Mandry, Almudena Romero, Lucas Foglia and Fabio Barile. I have already looked at the work of Foglia and Barile and it resonates very strongly with me, particularly Foglia whose career began as a student of Gregory Crewdson.
The overall message of this talk is that essentially we and the planet are all one organism. This is the Gaia hypothesis (Lovelock 1979) and the emphasis is therefore on wholeness. In a world awash with competing theories and a surfeit of images, the challenge for the photographer is that ‘imagination and the camera give us the opportunity to re-enchant a disenchanted world’ (Knoppers 2021).
Many of these ideas bear directly on my current project, particularly the emphasis on moving beyond the static image and into the realm of story-telling and collaboration. The emphasis on examining the culturally determined aspects of what we call ‘nature’ is important too. However, throughout her talk Knoppers emphasized the importance of intimacy. Intimacy builds relationships. Something that is overly conceptual can seem cold and aloof. What the artist needs to aim for is, in her words, ‘clear, detailed and visually seductive’ (Knoppers 2021).
John Duncan, who reviewed my portfolio in Week 6, suggested that I look at the practice of Jem Southam, particularly The Red River which Southam published in 1989 (Southam et al 1989, Southam 2019). In it, he followed the Red River in Cornwall from source to sea, although in reality the ‘river’ is more of a tin-mining stream coursing through a valley. This is one of Southam’s earlier bodies of work. It has a highly atmospheric, spontaneous, slightly off-kilter feel to it, likely because Southam was using a hand-held camera in contrast to the large tripod-mounted plate cameras that he used for much of his subsequent work.
Southam has spoken interestingly of how he came to approach this subject, in the form of a long talk available online (Southam 2020). He started out wanting a portrait of local distinctiveness, a record or topography of a particular landscape. However, he found that this approach was not really touching the lives of the people who lived in the valley. His project felt ‘flat’ and something was missing.
The key came when Southam was looking at a painting of Manchester in the 1850s by William Wyld (‘Kersal Moor, 1852’), which is all golden light and smoking chimneys, and he realized that what had really been motivating him was the story of pastoral set against the industrial sublime, in fact the painting’s subject. Much of the Red River, too, was a smoky and polluted landscape. At the same time, Southam realized that other stories – he calls them ‘myths’ – had been motivating him unconsciously, in particular Biblical stories and the stories in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress which he was re-reading.
This realization enabled Southam to concentrate on specific things in the landscape, or on specific images to frame, because he now understood why he was doing it. He was showing the effects of industrialization on a traditional pastoral landscape and its people far more than he was simply making a portrait of a valley. This was no pastoral childhood wonderland but a mucky and sometimes disturbing reality.
Southam’s realization provided the close, evocative contact his project had lacked until then. Southam believes that these stories exist in all of us. We imbibe them growing up from children’s books or in school or as part of our culture. Some are indeed myths and collectively we have been carrying them for thousands of years. And while we may often carry them unconsciously, they are deeply influential and can affect our attitude to everything we see.
Southam’s talk in this video is a fascinating example of the creative process at work and a reminder that we have to bring the whole of ourselves to a project. Unless we do, the chances are we won’t understand our motivations and so our project, too, may end up lacking because we are not connecting with what our subconscious is telling us.
In another talk online, with time with Martin Parr, Southam points out that ‘the process of developing a piece of work is actually led by the place itself’ (Parr 2019). It is a kind of reverse process that begins by accident, in Southam’s experience. Something draws us to a particular locale, but we do not yet know what. As the images pile up we are confronted by the need to establish why we are drawn to this place, what our work is really about, and how we are going to tell the story.
These are really helpful points to hear and completely relevant to my own project, particularly the clash of pastoral and industrial which is ever-present in the English countryside. I am faced with exactly the questions Southam poses and I need to go through the same process. When I find out why I am doing what I do, then I will begin to know something.
Figure 1. SOUTHAM, Jem. 1989. Untitled. From: Jem Southam, D. M. Thomas, F. A. Turk and Jan Ruhrmund. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.
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. SOUTHAM, Jem. 1989. Untitled. From: Jem Southam, D. M. Thomas, F. A. Turk and Jan Ruhrmund. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.
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