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. Murray BALLARD. 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. Marco KESSELER. 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 just the way things are. 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. Gormley’s ‘The Angel of the North’ both creates a 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. In this regard, see also Liz Wells on ‘Pastoral Heritage: Britain Viewed Through a Critical Lens’ (Wells 2011: 161–208). 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 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 that 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.

WELLS, Liz. 2011. Land Matters : Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. London: I. B. Tauris, 161–208

Figures

Figure 1. Ansel ADAMS. 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. Jem SOUTHAM. 1989. Untitled. From: Jem Southam, D. M. Thomas, F. A. Turk and Jan Ruhrmund. 1989. The Red River. Manchester: Cornerhouse.

Figure 3. Simon ROBERTS. 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. Willie DOHERTY. 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. Willie DOHERTY. 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. Willie DOHERTY. 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. Willie DOHERTY. 1994. ‘Border Incident’. IMMA [online]. Available at: https://imma.ie/collection/border-incident/ [accessed 7 April 2021].

Figure 5. Paul GRAHAM. 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.

PHO705 Week 13: Oxfordshire Artweeks

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.

Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2021
Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2021. A screenshot of my gallery as part of a virtual exhibition for Oxfordshire Artweeks.

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.

Fig. 2: Oxford Photographers 2021.
Fig. 2: Oxford Photographers 2021. A marketing flyer for an exhibition during Oxfordshire Artweeks 2021.

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.

References

OXFORDSHIRE ARTWEEKS. 2021. ‘Oxford Photographers’. Oxfordshire Artweeks [online]. Available at: https://www.artweeks.org/festival/2021/oxford-photographers [accessed 2 May 2021].

OXFORD PHOTOGRAPHERS. 2021.‘Oxford Photographers’s Galleries | Flickr’. Flickr [online]. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/oxfordphotographers/galleries [accessed 2 May 2021].

Figures

Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2021. A screenshot of a virtual exhibition gallery for Oxfordshire Artweeks 2021. Available at: Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/oxfordphotographers/galleries [accessed 2 May 2021].

Figure 2. OXFORD PHOTOGRAPHERS. 2021. A publicity flyer for the Oxford Photographers Artweeks 2021 online exhibition. Collection of the author.

 

 

PHO705 Week 13: Caponigro, Meyerowitz, NFTs

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.

Fig. 1: Joel Meyerowitz 1999
Fig. 1: Joel Meyerowitz 1999. ‘New York City, 1999’.

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.

Fig. 2: Joel Meyerowitz 1976
Fig. 2: Joel Meyerowitz 1976. ‘Dairyland, Provincetown, Cape Cod, 1976’.

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. Ansel 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.

References

CAPONIGRO, John Paul. 2021. ‘Wonderful Things Printing Can Do for You and Your Images’. RPS Digital Imaging [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7b9ID8DNKZg [accessed 28 April 2021].

COLE, Teju. 2018. ‘Joel Meyerowitz’s Career Is a Minihistory of Photography’. New York Times [online]. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/18/magazine/joel-meyerowitzs-career-is-minihistory-of-photography.html [accessed 3 May 2021].

DE MUTIIS, Marco and John URIARTE. 2021. ‘NFTs and Photography’. Self Publish, Be Happy [online]. Available at: https://vimeo.com/spbh [accessed 30 April 2021].

MEYEROWITZ, Joel. 2021. ‘Photographer Talk: Joel Meyerowitz’. Photographers’ Gallery [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8eXa9rhCzM [accessed 3 May 2021].

SHORE, Stephen. 2018. ‘How to See: The Photographer with Stephen Shore’. YouTube [online]. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T029CTSO0IE [accessed 23 Jan 2020].

Figures

Figure 1: Joel MEYEROWITZ. 1999. ‘New York City, 1999’. From: Meyerowitz, Joel. 2021. Wild Flowers. Revised ed. Bologna: Damiani.

Figure 2: Joel MEYEROWITZ. 1976. ‘Dairyland, Provincetown, Cape Cod, 1976’. From: Meyerowitz, Joel. 2015. Cape Light. Revised ed. New York: Aperture.

PHO705 Week 12: Work in Progress and Ideas

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.

Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2021.
Fig. 1: Mark Crean 2021. Sample book dummy spread from my current work in progress.
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2021
Fig. 2: Mark Crean 2021. Sample book dummy spread from my current work in progress.

References

BUSH, Lewis. 2021. ‘Trading Zones’. Lewis Bush [online]. Available at: https://www.lewisbush.com/trading-zones/ [accessed 30 April 2021].

DARCH, Robert. 2021. ‘Vale’. Robert Darch [online]. Available at: https://www.robertdarch.com/vale-1 [accessed 30 April 2021].

DUNCAN, John. 2008. ‘Bonfires’. John Duncan [online]. Available at: http://www.johnduncan.info/work/bonfir/bonfir00.html [accessed 30 April 2021].

LICHTENSTEIN, Andrew. 2021. ‘Andrew Lichtenstein’. Andrew Lichtenstein [online]. Available at: https://www.lichtensteinphoto.com/ [accessed 30 April 2021].

MATHEWS, Chloe Dewe. 2014. ‘Shot at Dawn’. Chloe Dewe Mathews [online]. Available at: http://shotatdawn.photography [accessed 30 April 2021].

WYLIE, Donovan. 2021. ‘Donovan Wylie’. Donovan Wylie [online]. Available at: http://donovanwylie.studio/index.php?page=home [accessed 30 April 2021].

Figures

Figure 1. Mark CREAN. 2021. ‘Sample book dummy spread from my current work in progress’. From: Mark Crean. 2021. Entropias. Collection of the author.

Figure 2. Mark CREAN. 2021. ‘Sample book dummy spread from my current work in progress’. From: Mark Crean. 2021. Entropias. Collection of the author.

PHO705 Week 11: Back to Basics

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.

Fig. 1: Nadav Kander 2014.
Fig. 1: Nadav Kander 2014. Untitled. Kander’s images of ruined Soviet nuclear sites are distinctive for their bleakness, their consistent tonality and colour palette, and their careful treatment of human scale in the landscape.
Fig. 2: Nadav Kander 2006
Fig. 2: Nadav Kander 2006. ‘Chongqing VII (washing bike), Chongqing Municipality, 2006’. As in his other landscape works. Kander’s images of China retain a distinct personality in their mood, tonality and colour palette, and in their careful treatment of human scale in the landscape.

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.

Fig. 3: Jack Davison 2021
Fig. 3: Jack Davison 2021. ‘Work: 6/34’. Davison’s work is notable for its boldness, energy and experimentation. There are no rules here.

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.

References

CUNNINGHAM, Jon. 2021. ‘Creativity Live Series’. Royal Photographic Society [online]. Available at: https://rps.org/news/bristol/2021/february/creativity-live-series-jon-cunningham/ [accessed 27 March 2021].

DAVISON, Jack. 2021. ‘Jack Davison: Photographer’. Jack Davison [online]. Available at: https://www.jackdavison.co.uk/ [accessed 10 Apr 2021].

WOLF, Sasha (ed.). 2019. Photowork: Forty Photographers on Process and Practice. First edit. New York, NY: Aperture.

Figures

Figure 1. Nadav KANDER. 2014. Untitled. From: Nadav Kander and Will Self. 2014. Nadav Kander: Dust. Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz.

Figure 2. Nadav KANDER. 2010. ‘Chongqing VII (washing bike), Chongqing Municipality, 2006’. From: Nadav Kander. 2010. Yangtze, The Long River. Berlin: Hatje Cantz.

Figure 3. Jack DAVISON. 2021. ‘Work: 6/34’. From: Jack Davison. 2021. ‘Jack Davison: Photographer’. Jack Davison [online]. Available at: https://www.jackdavison.co.uk/ [accessed 10 Apr 2021].

PHO705 Week 11: Peer Reviews

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.

References

BAUMAN, Zygmunt. 2000. Liquid Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

SMITH, Victoria. 2021. ‘Critical Research Journal, Photography MA’. Victoria Smith [online]. Available at: https://photographycriticalresearchjournal.wordpress.com/ [accessed 6 April 2021].

PHO705 Week 10: the Oxfordshire Rising II

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.

Fig. 1: Patrick Keiller 2010. Film poster for Robinson in Ruins.

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.

Fig. 2: Patrick Keillor 2012. Cover of The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, published to accompany the 2012 Tate Britain exhibition The Robinson Institute.

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).

References 

BRADLEY, S. J. 2019. ‘Black Showers’. In Ra PAGE (ed.). Resist: Stories of Uprising. Manchester: Comma Press, 35–47.

KEILLER, Patrick. 2010. Robinson in Ruins. [Film]. Available at: https://player.bfi.org.uk/rentals/film/watch-robinson-in-ruins-2010-online [accessed 8 April 2021

KEILLER, Patrick. 2012. The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet. London: Tate Publishing.

PAGE, Ra (ed.). 2019. Resist: Stories of Uprising. Manchester: Comma Press.

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].

Figures

Figure 1. Patrick KEILLER. 2010. Film poster for Robinson in Ruins. Available at: https://patrickkeiller.org/robinson-in-ruins-2/ [accessed 9 April 2021].

Figure 2. Patrick KEILLER. 2012. Cover of The Possibility of Life’s Survival on the Planet, published to accompany the 2012 Tate Britain exhibition The Robinson Institute. Available at: https://patrickkeiller.org/the-possibility-of-lifes-survival-on-the-planet/ [accessed 9 April 2021].