First impressions and initial response to the brief
This initial assignment presented me with an interesting challenge. My first reaction was to consider where I might shoot this initial assignment? I found myself making a number of excuses to myself for identifying somewhere other than my immediate environs to shoot this project. In part this was due to my belief that where I live is not particularly interesting. But what this really meant was that I didn’t want to photograph it. This may seem odd, but on reflection this was me having to face up to someone else’s brief. In my years of making images I have always taken photographs entirely on my own terms. This task, although offering much freedom and interpretation, was essentially shooting to someone else’s tune! Given that realisation I set about considering the precise square mile in which I reside. I live in a sparsely populated and rural part of East Anglia. I am not from here and although it is my choice to live here I am an outsider, I have no roots or connections to this place.
With this in mind I set about planning how I would meet the brief and the photographic and personal challenges it presented. I used a spider diagram to plot out some thoughts and ideas and this is in my Learning Log. A key theme that quickly emerged was my lack of any romantic view about rural landscapes and rural life, to me the rural landscape is every bit as constructed as the built environment of the city. I wanted my pictures to show the mark humans on the landscape. Indeed, I narrowed the concept down further to the notion of ‘planting’. In an area of arable farming planted crops surround me. However this is not all that has been planted in the landscape. All the trappings of human existence in this place have also been planted. ‘Planted’ is the theme that I wanted to run through my images.
Which practitioners I looked at for inspiration and how their work influenced you during the project?
In advance of going out and making images I undertook some research that subsequently informed how I approached and executed the assignment. I first considered the photographers whose work I was familiar with who had photographed their own environment. I have always loved the work of Josef Sudek (1896-1976), the Czech photographer known for his haunting images of Prague. Sudek used large view cameras to capture the spirit of the ancient and the new Prague. This was no mean fete given he had lost his arm during the First World War. His study of the construction of St. Vitus Cathedral in the heart of the city, demonstrate for me a thorough record of this giant human endeavour. His images, sometimes shot at dusk or dawn present to me a very romantic almost magical view of a place that in many respects was at odds with the harsh reality of the lives of many who lived there. The people of Prague saw hardship across the 19th and 20th, turbulent years politically for many Eastern European cities. What I took from my review of Sudek’s images was his ability to convey mood and atmosphere. His work I believe contains more than a record of a place, they speak of change, that nothing is permanent and that the photograph as a record seals a moment in time, a moment that will never be repeated.
Frank Meadow Sutcliffe (1853-1941) was another photographer who I felt had a strong association with a place. Known for his images of Whitby, his work is evocative of a time when sailing ships plied the oceans and the town was a hub of trade and commerce. Sutcliffe captured both epic scenes of sailing ships on the docks but also the minutiae of the lives of sailors and dock workers in there everyday activities. An abiding impression I get from this work is the sense of place, of some images being unmistakably Whitby, unmistakably being the work of Sutcliffe
I also considered the work of another early photographer, Eugene Atget (1857-1927). I have been drawn to his work for many years and he is already an influence that I bring to my forma study with the OCA. Given the rural focus of my assignment, Atget may seem an unusual artist to consider, particularly as he is ostensibly known for his work photographing Paris during a period of great change. I have however been drawn to Atget’s work over time, less for the context and more for the approach he takes. To me Atget’s images say so much about how people lived in Paris without actually photographing people. Indeed few of the images I reviewed contained any pictures of individuals (Atget did photograph the people of Paris, but it was not this work that I reflected upon). He somehow manages to portray so much about life in the capital city of France during a time of great transition without a shot of a person or people. It is the evidence of human existence he records, human endeavour, buildings, street scenes, shops and theatres that all say so much about the city and the people who inhabited it. In my humble opinion his work is a definitive record of a changing Europe, a city that swept away the old and built the new. In some case his images remain the only record of parts of Paris now long gone. I too wanted to record the signs of human presence in my square mile, but like Atget not show any people at all. This was to be a strong theme that really influence my executions of my assignment, one that I retained, even when it meant waiting for some time to let people pass so the I could get the image I wanted.
I was keen also to look at the photographers whose work was recommended in the course materials.
The first I looked at was the Belgravia set by Karen Knorr, work shot in the exclusive district of London. With one exception in this set her work is a collection of interior images, showing the wealthy and probably privileged in their homes. The images appear to be very formal in composition and quite possibly posed. There are recurrent the themes of the rich at rest in their lounges and in their ‘Sunday best’, women wearing coats and men in the uniform of the upper class.
To me the images rely on their captions to interpret the message the artist is conveying about class and privilege, but possibly also about people on a different sort of margin. Marginal people are perhaps more commonly thought about as being the poor, this work challenges that I believe, suggesting there are different margins of existence.
The inclusion of an image of the artist’s mother and grandmother in the set say something about her as an individual, her motivation and her own place in the world she is photographing. To me she is an ‘insider’ in the world she is recording, perhaps documenting the familiar. The caption on one of the images:
“The interior represents the universe for the private individual”
says something about the artist’s intent, the themes of imperialism and sexism appear in other captions. To me the work is an interesting perspective on place, it is different but engaging. Whilst not taking pictorial ideas from this work I was struck by the idea of Knorr as an insider, photographing the familiar, it strengthened my sense of being an outsider in my square mile.
I was also drawn to the work of Venetia Dearden although I did find it challenging and problematic.
From reading about her work ‘Somerset Stories and Fivepenny Dreams’ it is clear that it has a number of themes; kinship, friendship, family, motherhood, birth and the land, all linked to a particular locality. The work is an extensive set of engaging and in some cases quite beautiful colour images, all recorded in a specific area of Somerset. The images are hard to date. Some of them are really quite timeless and the whole sequence is punctuated with pure landscape shots which perhaps anchor the people depicted in some of the images in a clearly defined landscape of fields and woodland. Many of the images appear to have been taken in the dawn or dusk light, leading I believe to the ‘fairy tale’ atmosphere that commentators suggest her work expresses. There are a number of images of small children, babies and mothers and expectant mothers, renewal is perhaps a further them of her work?
There is also a sense of freedom in the images, but also for me sense of foreboding, particularly in the images of the travelling community. This is a vanishing way of life, that however an idyllic view her images paint, they are of people in hardship, poverty and in a world where they are not always welcome. The work reminds me a little of Boxall’s (1964) work ‘Gypsy Camera’, a long-term study of the Vincent Family of travellers in Surrey and Sussex. Although that work is much darker than Reardon’s, as it tracks the slow decline of a family and a way of life. What is similar however is a real sense of respect for the subjects that is evident in the images, the intimate moments recorded, the positive, even hopeful image portrayed. Reardon’s use of natural light is evocative and very strong.
However, many of the images grated with me in that they had the feel of a fashion catalogue, I know this is a bit contentious perhaps!! There is for me a tension between the reality of the subjects in the artist’s work and the idyllic and romantic atmosphere created by her. This is however a highly subjective interpretation on my part. I did however take from the work some thoughts about the light and the look of images in the dawn and dusk light. Indeed I set out to record my square mile images, in most cases in the early morning or late evening light.
An Internet search also led me to a Flickr page: ‘Y Filltir Sgwar’. It contained lots of individual images by many different photographers and although taken in different place a lot of the images were emblematic of rural Wales. It did make me think about what would be emblematic in my square mile?
Technical approach and any particular techniques you incorporated
From a technical point of view I wanted to convey the open expanse of my square mile, the sparcity of population and the impact of humans in creating this built landscape. To this end I decided to predominantly use a wide-angle prime lens for many of the images. Also as stated and influenced by the look of Dearden’s images I shot many of the images in either the early morning or late evening light. I took the pictures over 5 days too and from my journey to work.
I produced in all 78 images and after careful consideration and reflection on my theme of the built landscape narrowed it down to 10 final photographs.
A feature of a number of images in the final selection is a sharp angular geometry, such geometry does not often exist in nature and this I used to try to capture the man made environment I was trying to emphasise.
Strengths and weaknesses of particular photographs and your project as a whole (self-assessment)
I have mixed views about the images that I took and the final set I chose. There are one or two I was generally pleased with but overall I don’t think the collection is strong enough in conveying my message that a rural landscape is a built environment. In future I would consider some captioning. I chose not to on this first assignment because I was keen to get tutor feedback purely on the images alone. Although I used a couple of prime lenses on this assignment I will on the next one make use of a zoom. I tend not to use zooms because those affordable I find a bit slow. That said I need to address this personal prejudice!
I learned a lot from this exercise, I possibly over thought it and I recognise I need to increase the pace of my work. I also need to think more carefully at the planning stage what I want the final message of the work to be. Lots to learn, but that’s why I am here!
Thoughts on how I could develop this project in the future
There are a number of potential follow up projects from this work. I could look to create a real sense of drama in the landscape, in particular the vast East Anglian skies could be presently more dramatically than I did. The use of Neutral Density and graduate filters coupled with long exposures would create a real sense of the dramatic think. This is a technique employed by Tom Hunter in some of his images. At the suggestion of my tutor I did look at these images after I had completed the assignment. There is of course scope to shoot the people of this landscape and that is something I am giving serious consideration to trying too. All in all however I really enjoyed this activity and will post something about my tutor’s comments soon!
Adam, H. (Ed.) (2004) Atget’s Paris. Taschen London
Boxall, T. (1992) Gypsy Camera. Creative Monochrome, London
Eglon Shaw, W. (Ed) (1974) Frank Meadow Sutcliffe: Photographer: A Selection of His Work Paperback. Sutcliffe Gallery
Murray, J. (1990) Josef Sudek- Poet of Prague: A Photographers Life. Aperture Foundation. New York
Karen Knorr: http://karenknorr.com/photography/belgravia/
Venetia Dearden: http://www.venetiadearden.com/en/somerset_stories_fivepenny_dreams. Html
Tom Hunter: http://www.purdyhicks.com/display.php?aID=10
Y Filltir Sgwar’: https://www.flickr.com/photos/nicdafis/sets/725448/#
My Square Mile-April 2015
Click on the images to enlarge