Harry Gruyaert may not be a landscape photographer but as we have noted he is a great photographer of landscape. Perhaps the best proof of this is his ‘Edges’ collection in which Gruyaert selects and sequences photographs made at those points where land meets water meets sky. Land, Sea and Air as Appliance once sang, which is an appropriate reference after all since we have been musing somewhat on James Brooks’ work in recent weeks too. ‘Edges’ is a great book. It is one of those ‘chicken and egg’ collections. In other words it is one of those photography books where you see the relationship between time, intention and realisation play out in the unfolding narrative, where the ’story’ is one of endless, timeless variations on the themes of movement, stasis, flux and firmament. Gruyaert’s photographs map out our relationships with the sea as source of leisure and of commerce. They document the ways in which those relationships affect both the landscapes and the people in those edge lands. Here the cranes, docks and tough raggedy youth of industrial Galician coastal towns; there the glazed-in loneliness of wealthy retirees in a Le Touquet spa hotel. Always grainy, always underexposed. Just so.
Leafing through Edges I am reminded again of Rothko’s paintings. All the same. All different. The devils are in the details; in the subtle shifts of focus, light, shade, composition. Don’t mess with the formula. Don’t push the idea further than it needs to go. Explore the endless possibilities provided by minimal scope. At the edges. What else.
Well what else indeed, except that when I talk about edges I am of course tempted to listen to songs about edges. Making playlists is perhaps the curse of the hapless (almost exclusively) male trapped inside a world of books and films (or photographs) flailing around for a means of reaching a world that he knows exists yet cannot quite seem to reach (or even see). Should this be the case then my own list of songs at the edges (often, though not entirely exclusively, of the edges of landscapes) is shared here as a glimpse into that liminal borderland between my mediated (musical) understanding of that space and yours. And yes, you can expect more landscape themed mixes in the coming months.
River’s Edge – A Certain Ratio From The Edge Of Maps – Cody At the Edge of the Sea – The Wedding Present Cliff edge – The Bats Edge Of Town – The Bye Bye Blackbirds At the Edge of the World – Billy MacKenzie Water’s Edge – Tsunami Edge of August – The Windmills Darkness on the Edge of Town – Bruce Springsteen At The Edge Of The Wood – Dead Meadow On the Edge Of – Low Edge of the World – Let’s Active Edges And Corners – Standard Fare Edge Of Everything – Colour Me Wednesday Safe Around the Edges – His Clancyness Living On The Edge Of The World – Bruce Springsteen River’s Edge – Still Corners Sea Comes At Its Edges – Starry Eyed and Laughing Edge Of The Sea – Prelude The Edge of Forever – The Dream Academy
Last time out in this irregular ongoing series of landscape explorations we were talking about tangential connections and made mention of James Brooks and his Land Observations recordings. On one of these (2014’s ‘The Grand Tour’) there is a piece titled ‘Flatlands and the Flemish Roads’. I am unsure if Brooks intends this as anything more than a glancing reference to cycling, but its is entirely possible given that Appliance once recorded a piece called ‘Derailleur, King of the Mountain’. Certainly anyone remotely interested in the sport of cycling will immediately think of the likes of Omloop Het Volk (or Het Nieuwsblad if you insist), Scheldeprijs and the Ronde Van Vlaanderen when they see a reference to the roads of Flanders. That this immediate synaptic connection is to bicycle races rather than the WW1 fields of slaughter says much about cycling fans.
Harry Pearson says much about cycling fans, and Flemish cycling fans more specifically, in his new book ‘The Beast, The Emperor and The Milkman’. Subtitled ‘A bone-shaking tour through cycling’s Flemish heartlands’ it pretty much does what it says on the cover and is certainly entertaining in a semi-skimmed pocket-history travelogue kind of way. Hardcore cycling fans may find little new in the book but they are probably not the target audience anyway, so it’s perhaps a moot point. Certainly there were few names and anecdotes about Belgian cycling I had not stumbled on previously. What are new to me are some of Pearson’s musings on the history of Flanders, and if a little effort is also expended in an attempt to expand our knowledge of both this and of “famous Belgians” beyond Herge and Simenon it is an effort that is, to paraphrase the great honorary Flahute Sean Kelly, one that is carefully calculated.
It is certainly a shame that Pearson makes no reference, even in passing, to the great Belgian photographer Harry Gruyaert. Surprising too, for Gruyaert is famously fond of cycling and one of his quotes graces the back cover of the excellent ‘Magnum Cycling’ collection published a few years ago by Thames and Hudson and edited by Guy Edwards. There is a chapter of Gruyaert’s photographs in the book documenting the 1982 Tour de France and they are typically great shots. The best of the actual cyclists is surely one of the peloton peddling up a slope. Everyone is en danseuse apart from the man in the yellow jersey, Bernard Hinault, who sits resolutely in the saddle, leg muscles almost comically etched and bulging. Hinault too is the only one making eye contact with the camera, his piercing glare so sharp it’s a wonder the lens hasn’t cracked in terror.
That said, my favourite of Gruyaert’s cycling photographs is the last one in the book – a lovely shot of an elderly gentleman photographed against a wooden fence, from which dangle a couple of disembodied feet and lower legs. It’s probable that these feet (one in a Puma sneaker, the other in what appears to be something like a Hush Puppies desert boot) belong to young lads perched atop the fence watching the end of the first stage of the 1975 Tour and it’s an unusual Gruyaert shot because the gentleman (sharply attired in suit, tie and overcoat) is (like Hinault) making direct eye contact with us. Even more unexpected is that the photograph is in black and white, a startling shock given that Gruyaert is such a master of colour.
We looked at some of Gruyaert’s photographs during the year-long 50/50 project in 2016 so I will not dwell much longer on his photographs in the ‘Made In Belgium’ collection apart from to say that whilst they may not be landscape photographs per-se they are certainly images deeply suffused with a sense of place. Pearson makes the observation in his book that Belgium, and Flanders specifically, has transformed in wealth in the past few decades. With that in mind it seems clear that Gruyaert’s photographs are of a different Belgium, an older Belgium. They do remind me of Raymond Depardon’s Glasgow images and perhaps there is no surprise in that, for both collections are certainly now as much documents of historical, social and cultural threads that perhaps have unravelled, their frayed edges already misplaced amongst the murky mementoes of our pasts.
Today my favourites of Gruyaert’s photographs are the several shots which contain battlefield re-enactors. Here a cavalier atop his horse, the red of his jacket and scabbard an underexposed wound against a drab green hillside; there a row of riflemen with shouldered arms beneath the glowering grey of a sky that smothers the horizon. Elsewhere again there is the shock of ranks of marching figures in what, since this photograph was made in Waterloo, must be Napoleonic uniforms, backs to us crisscrossed with white straps and, in the gap between ranks, a motor car parked on pebbles, its yellow-green paintwork supremely evocative of the nineteen seventies/eighties. A small patch of sky shows in the background, this time the colour and texture of a Magritte painting. These are not soldiers, it seems to say. This is not a motor car. But this is, assuredly, Belgium.
On another day again my favourite photographs will be the ones made by the seaside, specifically in Ostend. The emptiness of the beach shelter and it’s electric red neon signs a back to front scrawl of light against the steel grey of the sea; the pale yellow columns and (again!) the reds of chairs in (yet again!) the void of a spa hotel; the nearly but not quite empty stretch of beach punctuated by the sharp imposing verticals of lampposts and a figure plumb centre looking out at the (yes, yet again!!!) concrete grey sea and a massive sky that blackens and breaks to cast a light that is almost apocalyptic. Anyone who has grown up by the seaside in the northern hemisphere can surely feel the bite of the wind in this photograph; can feel the whip of the sand as it skitters across the paving stones and into streaming eyes.
Gruyaert’s landscape photographs then are not landscape photographs, and this is their strength (analogous to Winograd saying that the key to being a great street photographer is not to call yourself a street photographer). They are instead photographs which show Gruyaert to be remarkably adept at seeing the essential qualities in the spaces around him and in capturing those essences within what would be, if he were a painter, a few deft brush stokes and decisive marks of colour. He makes landscapes out of details and details out of landscapes. He feels the light the rest of us barely see.
Once upon a time I was fortunate enough to curate the Tangents website (1996-2006) where one of the unwritten rules that no-one particularly much adhered to was the notion of jumping off at tangents in our reading, listening, viewing, writing, lives, whatever. It is entirely possible that an element of ADHD is involved in this kind of tangential approach to cultural consumption but that is perhaps something for someone else to consider.
On the note of tangential connections however, I’ve been finding some between our (no longer particularly) recent considerations of Dorset (via Rogue Male), Somerset (The Levels of Peter Benson and Amanda Harman; the rose bushes of Sarah Jones shown at Hestercombe) and Devon (aka Home) in Colin Sackett’s intriguing ‘River Axe Crossings‘ book which documents crossings of the river Axe from mouth (in Devon) to source (in Somerset) all along its various meanders (through Dorset). It’s not a new book (in fact I am already eleven years late to this particular party) but it is one that his certainly worth picking up from Sackett’s terrific Uniform Books site, from where you can also find numerous examples of Sackett’s work alongside others that explore similar themes and threads connecting into landscape and geography with a small ‘g’. The ‘Uniform Annual’ of 2017 is a great starting point.
Now it would be easy to think of the photographs in ‘River Axe Crossings’ as being somewhat underwhelming, being as they are tonally flat and printed on what feels like a silk finish paper that neither reduces the images to an earthy ‘authenticity’ as would a recycled or matt stock, nor elevates the photography to an ‘art’ status via a more glossy finish. This kind of detail is important, particularly when you bear in mind that Sackett, as a book designer by trade, would certainly have given very careful consideration to the choice of paper stock used in the book. The neutral tonality and printing of the images then lends the photographs something of the feel of shots taken on a GCSE Geography (capital ‘g’ this time) field trip, which is an idea you may choose to interpret in any number of ways, perhaps hingeing most pertinently upon our individual opinions of Geography education at high school level.
Regardless of our perceptions of Geography education though, thinking the photographs in the context of Sackett’s book as underwhelming would be a mistake, for the photographs are simultaneously not really not the point of work and the point entirely. In one sense the photographs are a tool for documenting the process of the work: A means of visually representing the/a moment within the work, where the work is perhaps more about the experience, the journey, the concept being carried through. The work is not particularly about the art of photography yet it is inevitably a critique of the art of photography, for it challenges our notions of what landscape photography should look like. Indeed the work challenges our notions of what our connections to landscapes are at all. In this Sackett’s work is very much in the same sphere as Richard Long’s and in one of those idle thoughts of tangential connection I wonder whether Sackett might have been in the same audience at Exeter’s Phoenix arts centre all those years ago when Bill Drummond delighted us all by slicing up his Richard Long photograph/art work with a scalpel. Does Sackett have one or two of those tiny rectangles bought for a pound stashed somewhere in a box as I do? And thinking all this makes me want to revisit Drummond’s wonderful ‘How To Be An Artist’ book; makes me wonder as another aside too if Sackett might one day write ‘How to be a geographer’.
I’m only lightly touching my tongue to the inside of my cheek when I write that last sentence because Sackett’s work shows quite clearly that he is (as Jim Mays suggests in his terrific little pamphlet that accompanied a display of Sackett’s books on Haldon back in 2009) “not interested in the comforts of pastoralism or the indulgences of the picturesque” but is rather concerned with notions of geographical truth. This removal of emotional attachment to landscape is something I’m intrigued by, partly because it’s something I feel (or perhaps don’t feel) myself and partly because those notions of some kind of scientific geographical ‘truth’ do not interest me in the slightest.
Bringing in our notions of tangents again, this relationship between landscape eliciting an intellectual response as opposed to an emotional one puts me in mind also of the visual and musical work of James Brooks and his Land Observations. Brooks has always been primarily interested in notions of process in his work and the threads of landscape (and of moving through landscape) filter through his earlier musical work with the group Appliance (‘Land, Sea and Air’, ‘‘Mountains, pt 1’, ‘Map Of The Territory’, ‘This Is The Place’, ‘We Are Not Stationary’) but it is with his Land Observations work that the connections to the landscape, and in particular the human interventions with that landscape really mature. The ‘Roman Roads’ body of work (collected in EP and album forms in 2011 and 2013) quite explicitly reference the lines imposed on nature by humans navigating the space through which they must move, whilst 2014’s beautiful ‘The Grand Tour’ develops this into broader notions of movement across, through and between landscapes (urban and rural). In all of this music Brooks has continued to explore the realms of repetition and cyclical patterns earthed in the work of Appliance, pulling these threads further into minimal, liminal spaces between the abstract and the real. Brooks’ visual work over the same period and beyond has followed parallel lines, and if in more recent years that work has been almost exclusively concerned with drawing inspiration from (and reference to) the constructed landscape it is always primarily concerned with removing emotional attachment to the spaces and their visual representation whilst simultaneously (and I would say with a cool humour) recognising instinctive emotional responses through colour and compositional arrangement of shape and form.
These notions resonate strongly in Sackett’s work too, particularly in the way in which he constructs work (much of it collected in the excellent ‘Englshpublshing’ book) by using the graphical quality of text and typography to challenge our perceptions of what language means, what (printed) words are for. Sackett softly but deftly makes us ask questions about the purpose of printed diagrams too, specifically in his terrific 2006 work/book ‘The True Line’ in which he collects a number of landscape diagrams made by Geoffrey Hutchings (there are connections here too between Hutchings’ diagrammatic use of marks out to those used by Brooks in his drawings – check the artwork for the ‘Roman Roads IV: XI’ album). Sackett’s book/work repurposes Hutchings’ diagrams by removing them from original contexts and presenting elements of them within new graphical relationships. With reference carefully made to the original contexts in a list of “published sources” accompanied by a “biographical commentary” of Hutchings’ work the work/book suggests itself in on breath as an academic record of Hutchings’ diagrams whilst in another proclaiming itself as no such thing.
Sackett’s work then seems to insist that we question what we are looking at, that we recognise the possibility of multiple reinterpretations of the same texts. And like Brooks’ work it is cool whilst not being cold, intellectually stimulating whilst never being academically impenetrable. Delicate balancing acts.
It feels fitting that we have been thinking about darkness in these first few months of the year for in the northern hemisphere at least these are surely amongst the dreariest and most challenging to get through, now more than ever. This sense of living through dark times, be it the apparently inexorable rise of far right political ideology or the unfolding of environmental disaster is certainly captured in Todd Hido’s ‘Bright Black World’ work.
There is a great video where Hido talks about ‘Bright Black World’ and how he appropriated the title from a page he read in an A.S. Byatt story (he also admits to not reading the whole story, which I think is intriguing in as much as it suggests how artists invest vast tracts of their time within their own work, so that references, connections, inspirations often come from magpied moments grabbed in passing). In the video Hido also acknowledges that whilst he sees himself as essentially an optimist he concedes that he’s “looking into the future but unfortunately the future’s not looking so bright and that’s part of what the work’s about”.
I’m intrigued though as to what else the work is about. Leafing through the book is a luxurious experience, not least because the pages are oversized, allowing the photographs to approach the scale they inhabit within the gallery display. The landscapes which make up the body of the book are filled mostly with darkened, glooming skies or with shadowy spooky undergrowth and trees that hint at apocalyptic events to come or just passed. Often they are landscapes filled with energy, rising off the pages to envelop us with an emotive presence it is hard to resist.
When teenagers (and perhaps most of us as adults too) look at photographs (or any art) their instinctive response is an emotional one. In their eyes all art is about emotion and whilst as a teacher it can be very tiring to hear this as a starting point for conversation day in, year out, it is also entirely understandable. It would be wrong if it were otherwise. And yet in Hido’s ‘Bright Black World’ this emotional response does feel appropriate because these photographs are surely meant to make us feel the tensions and conflicts happening within our environments (and within ourselves). In his photographs weather and landscape become as characters in a performance; actors playing their parts within the carefully choreographed context of the book. And actors emote.
Many of Hido’s landscapes (both here and more obviously in his 2010 collection ‘A Road Divided’) appear to have been photographed from behind the glass of a vehicle and feature roads retreating to their vanishing points, which naturally places Hido’s work firmly within the American tradition of the Road Trip. Think Lee Friedlander’s ‘America By Car’ but without the explicit framing vehicle of the, erm, vehicle window frames and wing mirrors. And in colour. So perhaps not so much like Friedlander’s work at all then, apart from that sense of movement through (a) country and the documenting of the shifting scene(ry). And since we mentioned the vanishing point of the road, can we place ‘Bright Black World’ in the realms of Kowalski and the last great American heroes? Possibly. Or perhaps we think about Robert Frank’s de-facto reference point ‘The Americans’? Except of course ‘Bright Black World’ is the first body of work that Hido has shot in countries outside of the USA so maybe not, except that we might just say there is something in the dark grain of Frank’s work that flavours the shadows of Hido’s and leave it at that. And I never even mentioned ‘On The Road’, did I? Or ‘Two Lane Blacktop’. Or… or… and… and… The list could go on.
In her wonderful memoir ‘Another Planet: A Teenager in Suburbia’ Tracey Thorn asks “who walks around suburbia at night? It would be spooky and weird.” To which the/an answer of course is Todd Hido. Indeed it was Hido’s photographs of suburban homes at night that first caught my attention a few years back and I admit that as much as I enjoy the newer ‘Bright Black World’ work I keep finding myself drawn back to them (analogous perhaps with loving Tracey Thorn’s ‘Record’ LP but still and always preferring ‘A Distant Shore’). I’d be interested to know what Thorn would make of Hido’s photographs for whilst they very much hold something of the suburban edgeland that she writes about in her book they are also perhaps particularly American. In this they slip more into the realms of the subtopian hauntology of David Lynch but there is also something universal in them that transcends geography and time.
What lends them this transcendency? Something to do with combinations of colour and form. Something else to do with formal composition. Another thing again to do with what you cannot put your finger on but that you know the moment you see, hear, smell, sense it.
One of the favourite phrases/ideas of many of my friends of a particular age is about “keeping the mystery caged”. In this era of self-promotion and where innumerable videos about anything you care to mention are instantly available, it can be difficult to maintain this mystery. It is perhaps unsurprising then to find one of these films documenting Hido photographing his suburban houses at night. It is a fascinating little piece that shows Hido shooting with a 35mm SLR using long exposures and bemoaning aircraft flying at night. Elsewhere in the film Hido is found in a hotel room preparing a shoot with a model. Viewed from outside the context of the artist/photographer’s bubble this feels faintly seedy and strange. Perhaps not “spooky”, but certainly to most people “weird” or at least slightly odd. But then what are/should artists be/seem to others if not somewhat peculiar to the norm? Perhaps it is this innate strangeness that allows Hido and his work to retain something of that mystery in spite of having the curtain pulled partially to unveil the mundane source of the magic. Perhaps the very act of showing parts of the process makes the end results all the more remarkable.
It is always interesting to trace connections of course and Hido has listed Robert Adams as one of his major influences. ‘Well duh’, you might think, given the unavoidable presence of Adams in the (American) photographic (ahem) landscape but gosh, hearing Hido say that encouraged me to look more closely and goodness, look at this shot from the ‘Summer Nights, Walking’ series and…. Yeah, you get the idea.
Speaking of Lynch and speaking of connections, when I look closely at Adam’s ’Summer Nights, Walking’ photographs again now I am put in mind of some of those wild black and white sequences from the stunning 2017 season of Twin Peaks. All those references back to a 1950s subtopia infected by nightmares of nuclear desolation and sexual tensions, well they all appear present in Adam’s photographs (as indeed they do to a lesser degree in Hido’s). Of course when I say that they are ‘present’ in the photographs I mean they are physically invisible but deeply psychologically felt. Remember what Thorn asked? “Who walks around suburbia at night?” And if those who do are “spooky and weird” then imagine adding to the question: “Who walks around suburbia at night making photographs?”
If you have not tried such a thing (and let’s face it, chances are that even in these times of ubiquitous cameras and endless spools of snapshots, you haven’t) then I would encourage you to even contemplate it and to not feel distinctly uncomfortable as you do so. It is the strangest sensation and it makes Hido and Adam’s work seem all the more impressive. It is so easy to say “the key to being an artist is in saying you are an artist and believing you are an artist” but the reality is so much more difficult because it is so easy for Other Things to get in the way, not least of which are social expectations and Worrying About What Other People Think (which is essentially the same thing of course). To overcome that, as Hido and Adams (and indeed Tracey Thorn) clearly have, is a monumental achievement and I would argue is at the very core of what makes their photography (and music/writing) so compelling.
Last week we looked at Amanda Harman’s photographs of the Somerset Levels and it occurred to me that really I ought to have mentioned Peter Benson’s novel which had such an enormous impact on me when I first read it all those (thirty two!!) years ago. Back in 1987 the landscape aspects of the novel certainly did not affect me as much as the narrative, yet there was certainly something beguiling and magical about it all that led me to pore over OS maps of Somerset, orientating myself around the place names and references in Benson’s words. Strange perhaps then that despite moving from the South West of Scotland to the South West of England five years after reading the book, the Somerset Levels remained (and remain still) something of an ignored treasure. Something to do, perhaps, with being just outside easy travelling distance, particularly as I only learned to drive in 2014, and perhaps too because there is a desire to keep the mystery caged and wrapped up in words and imaginations.
I have cycled across parts of the Levels in recent years, on solo sojourns and as part of the Bristol Belter sportive ride, yet I admit that when I am on my bicycle my thoughts are primarily about the process of cycling and only rarely, fleetingly, connect to the landscapes through which I am moving. The movement is the thing, and I have often wondered how I might go about using cycling as a process in which to fit art. My ‘tiny moments’ writing project of a few years ago is probably as close as I have got, although if there was some way of being able to make photographs or drawings whilst cycling in the same way I have done on train journeys then perhaps I would do so. Perhaps too I should simply admit to the fact that for me at least the act of cycling remains explicitly ABOUT the act of cycling and nothing else.
One of my most regular cycle routes takes me along the Exe valley, past Dulverton and up towards and occasionally onto Exmoor. On that route I often pass the Bridgetown cricket club and it’s delightful looking clubhouse/pavillion. I have never stopped to make a photograph of it (see above about the movement being the thing. I hate stopping on a ride even to refill bottles and much prefer eating on the move to stopping in a cafe) but you can see a glimpse of it on Google’s Global Surveillance Project (aka Streetview). Every time I pass it I think it would be fun to do a project around clubhouses before figuring that someone probably already has, or is doing so. I’m sure I stumbled on a blog at one point where someone was documenting village cricket pavilions of England and it delights me to see that Amanda Harman has built a body of work herself around a similar notion of clubhouses.
Harman’s Clubhouse images are varied in terms of the activities and sports they serve yet are all united by the absence of the people involved. What we see are the spaces devoid of the individuals who create them. We see the objects they leave behind them, sometimes related to the activity (a green fixtures book on a burnt sienna table top; cricket bats and pads on a changing room bench) but more often universal (a bar stool and a mobile gas heater; washed dishes draining beside a kitchen sink; assorted chairs; towels hung beside sinks). There is something of a fragile fragmented determination in these spaces, a sense of time draping gently into a distant past mixed with a hesitant hope extending into the future. These spaces are clearly communal yet we see them emptied of the chatter and shared experience of people. Instead the memories of moments linger in the air, unseen and unspoken but marvellously real. For me the photographs immediately bring to mind a scant few years of my youth spent at the long disbanded and dismantled Troon Sailing Club, dragging boats up and down the beach and slipping into the forbidden spaces of the clubhouse as a pre-teen waiting for my father to come back from his races on Tornadoes. I suspect these emotional attachments are, like those dishes on the draining board or the towels next to basins, universal. Many of us will have such memories and connections to fall back into and build upon on seeing these photographs. It’s one of the ways in which photographs should work, after all.
Elsewhere in Harman’s work we see shots under a collective title of Tidal Reach and here too are the tendrils of memory that reach back to my sailing club moments. The water, the sands, the horizon and the unflinching skies. My favourites of these images are the ones which are most formally constructed in terms of horizontal planes for these conjure thoughts of Rothko paintings and begin to enter the meditative realm of Hiroshi Sugimoto’s seascapes. Is it possible for anyone to make photographs of seascapes and not have Sugimoto’s work drawn in as a reference point? Probably not, but this is fine for there are surely none better. I have come very late to Sugimoto’s work and this may be to do with the slow dissolve of an instinctive mistrust of spiritual meditation which has accompanied me for most of my life. In recent months however I have become ever more drawn to his work, intrigued by the notions of time within his long-exposure images. Our instinctive response to the function of photography is to see it as the freezing of fragments in time, a vehicle in which to store memories. I have found that this is one of the hardest barriers to overcome when teaching photography at GCSE level to teenagers. It is perhaps analogous to the development of the brain and connects to the way in which most teenagers cannot get past an infatuation with ‘accurate’ recording regardless of the medium.
It is a long time since either Sugimoto or myself have been teenagers (and I for one heave a sigh of relief that this is the case) so perhaps this helps explain a move away from an infatuation with freezing moments and instead looking at ways to acknowledge time as perhaps the crucial dimension as a factor in our experiencing (and hence recording) the world around us. The most obvious response to the dimension of time is the moving image, and whilst this is intriguing in its way it feels somehow too real to be real. Only at its extremes, like with Warhol’s film of the Empire State Building, does the moving image really, ahem, move me. More interesting by far are the ways in which illusions of time are captured within the single, still image. Sugimoto is a modern master of this and his theatres work is simply breathtaking in both its conceptual and formal execution. Ditto the seascapes and particularly the Revolution development which (literally) moves the composition on its side, further into the realms of abstraction and, if we can bring in this idea again, of meditative spaces. And here is that connection to Rothko again, taking into account the Rothko chapel and the supreme meditative space of the Rothko room at the Tate in London (personally I have much fonder memories of the paintings within the ‘original’ Tate Britain than in their ‘Modern’ context but I appreciate this is more than likely down to where I first experienced them). Even within the context of the printed photo book Sugimoto’s work resonates with an otherworldly presence. These images vibrate and send tingles of electricity down the spine precisely because there is almost nothing there. The lightness of most of the seascapes is such that they almost literally become weightless whilst the darkness of the Revolution series echoes that depth of void hinted at in Sarah Jones’ rose bushes. These photographs draw us is, envelope us in their delicious emptiness. They seem to say that only in nothing can there be something; the only thing real is unreal. Magic. Illusion. Void.
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.
January has been up to its usual vile tricks in 2019, throwing the not entirely unexpected curve ball of illness (there feels like a ten day void in my memory as a result of flu) and the rather more surprising visit of the OFSTED inspectors (ironically on the day after I had finally dragged my aching and still befuddled soul into school). Still, what doesn’t kill us only makes us stronger and all that nonsense, right? Right. So The OFSTED have buggered off and promised to leave us alone for another four years (Hurrah!) and the flu has done likewise, only without the same implicit promise (indeed I have strong suspicions it’ll be back around the same time again next year).
One frustrating effect of the Illness And OFSTED double whammy has been the slowing in my reading habits. That said, I did manage to speed through Geoffrey Household’s magical ‘Rogue Male’ in the tail-end fug of flu. Now I am no aficionado of the thriller genre but it struck me reading ‘Rogue Male’ that here is the bridge between John Buchan’s rip-roaring adventure yarns of Richard Hannay’s derring-do and the more psychologically charged tomes of Eric Ambler (still my top thriller writer of choice) and Le Carre. A cover blurb quote tells us that the 1930s ‘Rogue Male’ is (still) “Simply the best escape and pursuit story yet written” and whilst that may be true it is a quote that focuses solely on the obvious narrative of the novel and ignores the fact that, in my reading at least, ‘Rogue Male’ is a book about landscape and (quite literally) our connection to the earth. It reads like an almost hallucinatory anticipation of a utopian hippie idealism hinged on a trigger point of the rejection of fascist threats and as such it feels astonishingly prescient and strangely contemporary. Seen through that contemporary lens indeed it would be easy to view Household’s novel as the smudged blueprint for any number of middle-class hipsters’ mid-life crisis books that unfold with the premise of “I decided to spend A Year in The Country in order to Get Away From Technology and to Reconnect With The Earth (and to write a book about it, OBVS)”. Not that I’m cynical, but hey…
In the best spirit of embracing contradictions then let me also say that reading ‘Rogue Male’ resonated strongly with my own interest in landscape, by which I mean that I’ve been thinking about landscape a lot in the last couple of months, specifically around the notion that landscape touches/doesn’t touch me; that landscape is so difficult to capture well (in painting, photography, text, whatever media you choose); that landscape is real/not real; that landscape is natural/not natural. Will I take a year to think, write, illustrate, explore landscape myself? Possibly. Will I write (a) blog/book about it? Almost certainly/certainly not.
Stephen Prince did this (kinda) with his ‘A Year In The Country’ blog and book which I have also been (kinda) enjoying through the January fugs. The areas that Prince explores are often those that historically I have found peripherally intriguing yet simultaneously struggle to fully connect with. So all that folkloric film and seventies childrens’ TV: I have vague recollections of seeing stuff like ‘The Changes’ at the time but in reality they clearly did not have the same impact on me as they did on people like Prince (and it sometimes feels like almost the entirety of my friends in the virtual sphere, which is to say the only friends I have in the 21st Century which is probably true of all of us and that’s not criticism as much as observation) and that’s just fine. There IS something intriguing about the (electric) technological intervention in landscape that intrigues me but the more I think about it the more certain I am that this interest is almost entirely on a visually aesthetic basis. Sure, there is something mildly interesting in notions of (ancient) power trails over landscapes but I’m no Julian Cope and I still cannot help but treat that kind of dark folkloric spiritualism with a hefty amount of (modernist) scepticism.
I suspect this scepticism, cynicism, wilful misunderstanding (call it what you will) may be a thread that most obviously filters through my own investigations of landscapes in the year(s) ahead but I may yet surprise myself. In the meantime, here are some photographs of electricity pylons.