For a few years there I had fallen out of touch somewhat with what the Caught By The River crew were doing. Sure, I’d still occasionally drop in and read the Antidotes To Indifference series for some recommendations of things to listen to and read; and sure, I’d always try and read anything Kevin had published on there but still, I always had some nagging feeling lurking away in the corners of my soul that cynically harboured fears that all this interest in ‘nature’ was somehow contrary to all my instincts and was little more than following trends.
The Claim sang that being wayward and cynical never left a lasting impression and I know that’s true but there are things we perhaps cannot change about ourselves no matter how hard we attempt to shift our habits. Lord knows I’ve been trying though and one of my habits from the past six months or so has been to follow through on the few subscription emails I receive (GDPR has been a pain in the ass in many respects but sheesh, it’s certainly had the effect of making ‘unsubscribe’ requests actually work) and checking out the Caught By The River site on a regular basis has been one of those.
All of which is by way of telling you how I came across the photographs of Amanda Harman, whose shots of the Somerset Levels have been published by Another Place press. The work, under the title of ‘A Fluid Landscape’ is a collection that mostly pays attention to the closer rather than the wider landscape and this is something that very much appeals to me. Harman’s photographs of grasses and plants lying partially submerged, sometimes with reflections of overhanging foliage and the broad strokes of boughs are very much my favourites in the book. One sequence of five or six pages is especially appealing, containing as they do compositions that show spots and lines of colour and tone within flat planes of water. The first are on a ground of milky white, like miso soup in a china bowl. These photographs remind me of Cy Twombly’s ‘Quattro Stagioni’ paintings and whilst they look lovely in the intimate context of a small format photobook I long to see them displayed as large prints. The shots which follow these in the book are literally by contrast on an inky black ground, the arc of stems dipping and disappearing into inner space. Simple gestural lines score the canvas. A sly dab of colour and then on… on to more complicated compositions of reflective pools that bring to mind Jem Southam’s glorious Painters Pool or River Exe bodies of work, and surely Southam is an inspiration or at the very least an inescapable reference point to any photographer working with landscape?
Getting back to those beautiful compositions of black water though, and I have to say that immediately I saw these I was put in mind of the spectacular photographs of rose bushes by Sarah Jones. Jones has been a favourite of mine ever since I stumbled on some of her work in the Tate Britain back in 1997 and whilst I have not yet seen her rose bush work in the flesh, as it were, I would very much like to savour the physical presence of her large scale prints. Now in one of those delicious coincidences that are really more about the laws of statistical probability, I had a book of Jones’ work on my desk yesterday when my friend Megan Calver visited. Megan has recently had work in the Materiality: Provisional States show at Hestercombe and it turns out that Jones had her rose photographs displayed in the same gallery in 2015 as part of the ‘Double Take’ show and that Megan was very much a fan too. I’m bitterly disappointed that I had not picked up on that show and frustrated too that the pressures and commitments of work seem to so often result in a kind of paralysis that leads to a failure to connect with the world outside of that of books and records and photographs. And if that sounds terribly self-indulgently self-pitying it is not really meant that way, for that commitment to the life inside feels ever more important in the light of contemporary history. We all build our walls and find our tiny cores of comfort, after all. It is probably opportune now too to throw in the fact that my cousin Gordon Faulds was artist in residence at Hestercombe in 2006 and to my shame I have never made the leap across the border into Somerset to touch base and share thoughts. Again, this says much more about that inner paralysis and commitment to the interior life than anything else but there we are.
Getting back to Sarah Jones’ photographs then, it strikes me when I look at these rose images that what appeals about Jones’ (and Harman’s) work is that these photographs flatten the picture plane and surrender themselves to the pragmatic reality of photography as a two-dimensional medium. Illusions of three-dimensions (or four dimensions) in a two-dimensional plane have their place of course, but the more I look at and think about landscapes it is clear to me that these illusions are not ones that particularly appeal to me. In these photographs by Jones and Harman depth is psychological as much as it is physical. The blackness in Harman’s shots is that of watery depth, clearly hinted at yet treated with a flatness that is mute and impersonal. Jones’ blackness meanwhile is literally that of blindness, of a world left intentionally underexposed. There is a world behind these roses but Jones hides it from us. We imagine there must be other plants, expanses of cultivated wilderness, suburban sprawl perhaps, but it is all just that: imaginary. In these photographs Jones plays with the illusion of depth and admits to the magic trick, like Springsteen’s delicious quip at the start of his Broadway show. Like Springsteen too, Jones (in the case of the rose photographs, literally) shines a spotlight on details and illuminates these in art. Jones has said something about her photographs being glass plates placed over the world to facilitate close examination and really Springsteen’s songs do the same. Each looks at details and draws out lines of gesture and suggested narrative. Dancing in the dark, indeed.