‘a search of time and place’- guiding principles

Fragments3
The Hill of Dreams

Place is where an event is deemed to have occurred and time is when the event transpired. The search the photographer is engaged upon is the why. Both elements of time and place must be explored equally.

It is important to distinguish between the inherent qualities of a place, where the purpose is ascribed – or space which awaits its meaning – and site which remains open to the imagination.

 

Fragments4
The Old Straight Track

It is autobiographical as the search is conducted over sites with personal significance, a known landscape – where research and knowledge are applied to amplify its presence and distinguish its position.

The chosen space, place or site has meaning that can be described. Why this place was chosen, and what is the legacy? It contains the three tenets of Landscape Photography as proposed by Robert Adams; Geography, Autobiography and Metaphor.

 

Ritual in the Henge
Ritual at the Henge

It is established in lore, and often transient; potentially a story but all that remains is a clue. It is an investigation of our presence, our existence, our actions and ultimately our legacy. The location (place) and meaning (time) must have some bearing on the intended audience.

To visit and capture is not enough, a sense of place is something you can feel, with observations leading to insights often acquired over time. To correctly construct and compose these constraints reflects an understanding of what is being observed.

Advertisements

Sylvan discoveries – Part I

Aldwark 2016-5

A few years ago I read the back column of a photography magazine, where the guest writer said he was tired of seeing photographs of trees. A valid comment when followed by an appeal for a broader subject matter, but it was not, it was a comment on how boring and inanimate they were. So I avoided one of the oldest living species on our planet.

I started to have doubts about my ‘approach’ when I came across an exhibition at the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, ‘Remarkable Trees’ features images taken by George Paxton. An amateur Victorian Photographer and Botanist producing beautiful images; where photography was the medium, and plant inquiry and investigation the purpose. I realised that photography to me was what I had discovered, not what I aimed to construct.

As a Land Photographer, you assess every new piece of land by the trees and hedges, its current origins, its history, and its future. Their presence, or absence, indicates the owners land management practice. I cannot image the world without trees, although at their current rate of extinction, it will be possible to extrapolate the date it will occur.

Aldwark 2016-6

A wooded landscape

Writers down the years have celebrated trees and the wooded landscape1, often in verse and story using anthropomorphic language. We name landscape locations after trees and many of our streets and houses. The wooded landscape tells us the type of soil underneath them, and they determine the air quality above. Historians can plot settlement and old fields subdivisions by them, and attractive treen objects fill our homes.

The Medieval mind was unsure about the woods, seeing the benefits but very aware of the dangers. This has translated down the years to ‘a fear of’ – Tolkiens Myrkviðr, a ‘dark murky wood’, as an example. This is an extract from Bartholomew the Englishman from the 13th Century,

“Woods are wild places, waste and desolate, that many trees growin without fruit, and also few having fruit. In these woods there are often wild beasts and fowl; herbs, grass, leas and pastures grow here and medicinal herbs are found in woods. In summer woods are beautied with boughs and branches, with herbs and grass. But woods are also places of deceit and hunting, for wild beasts are hunted here, and watches and deceits are ordained and set of hounds and hunters. They are also places of hiding and lurking, for often thieves hide here and lay wait for men to pass, whom they rob and often kill.” 2

Aldwark 2016-4

The Battle of the Trees

Whereas the Celtic mind, recognising the danger, but also the power contained within the woods. They celebrated these places in songs and verse; sometimes as practical but often mystical. The Battle of the Trees (Cad Goddeu) is contained within the Books of Taliesin, which were first published in the 14th Century in the Cumbric language, originating orally from the 6th Century. Debate continues as to whether this allegorical poem represents a historical event, a description of the fears and magical powers of the tree, or encoded druidic knowledge. The discussions have revealed various translations and interpretations over the years, but whichever approach is taken it still retains an elegance in its symbolism.

When the trees were enchanted,
In the expectation of not being trees,
The trees uttered their voices
From strings of harmony,
The disputes ceased.

Like many who have discovered this poem, the puzzle continues to attract. Maybe not in the wisdom it has to reveal, but in its descriptive prose of something so beautiful as a tree. The full text of the translation by W F Skene can be found here.

Aldwark 2016-2

Kipling’s A Tree Song, from Puck of Pook’s Hill, enters the same territory, and in folk circle became the Oak, Ash and Thorn, with the latest incarnation by the Unthanks. The positioning of the words is best described by John Roberts and Tony Barrand’s sleeve notes to their 1977 album, Dark Ships in the Forest.

“Rudyard Kipling’s A Tree Song sets the scene for the stories and poems of Puck of Pook’s Hill. This setting is by the late Peter Bellamy, to his own tune. We also use the song as a scene setter, a “calling-on song.” The magic of trees lies deep in the roots of Druidic religion and mythology, and the oak, ash and thorn are central characters of the bardic tree-alphabets. Much of this tree lore has survived in folk tales, in English as well as in Celtic tradition.”

The following are the 1st two verses, the full poem can be found here.

Of all the trees that grow so fair,
Old Engerland to adorn,
Greater are none beneath the Sun,
Than Oak and Ash and Thorn.
Sing Oak and Ash and Thorn, good Sirs
(All of a Midsummer’s morn)!
Surely we sing of no little thing,
In Oak and Ash and Thorn!

Oak of the Clay lived many a day,
Or ever Aeneas began;
Ash of the Loam was a lady at home,
When Brut was an outlaw man;
Thorn of the Down saw New Troy Town
(From which was London born);
Witness hereby the ancientry
Of Oak and Ash and Thorn!

A ‘wooded landscape’ is used by Landscape Historians to describe an area of land covered with growing trees. Forest originated as a legal entity, the King’s hunting ground, which might or might not have be wooded. Forest is now used to describe a conifer plantation.

2  Medieval Lore , ed. R. Steele (London), 1983), pp. 91-92

Accepting Responsibility

For a while I have been deliberating on why landscape photography concentrates on the comfortable, rarely deviating from the grand and dramatic. We have a long history of photographing the majestic places people no longer live, or not anymore. Jesse Alexander covers aspects of this, and offers alternative views in his book Perspectives on Place, which I recommend.

However in considering these questions I am still restless over something that rarely gets touched upon, the contention of land ownership itself – and should the photographer accept some responsibility for the content and approach they take in documenting this muted quagmire.

Photographing Albion

To the diligent observer, (which every photographer should be), everything we see is a product of our human activity. It is misguided to believe that anywhere exists that has not been impacted by our presence. The arcadian idyll is a popular myth or a political deception, depending on your viewpoint; but it is within this environment that landscape photography has to operate. It is understanding our output that photographers need to deliberate on, not only why we recorded a particular situation, but also, what are we capturing, and importantly who or what does it represent.

_IGP3679
Crisis or continuum?

We capture what we are

Simon Schama in Landscape & Memory (p9) stated: “Even the landscapes we suppose to be most free of our culture may turn out on closer inspection, to be its product.” Developing this statement for the photographer – even the landscapes we choose to capture are the product of our culture, not just the view but how we present it.

For example ‘natural’ moorland and abandoned farmsteads, forever associated with nostalgia – where a past freedom to roam is formed in our memory, but only recently granted – has become an attractive tax investment and ecological disaster combined. This land is depleted of diverse wildlife, increasingly covered by invasive species – where ‘grouse beating’ has become the only employment. The land has been exploited, (and managed to the point of low fertility), but it still has the ability to recover. Are we as photographers capturing its potential or its continuing demise, as metamorphosis creates a desert.

KenH7430
Tax investment and ecological disaster?

Power and Politics

The landscape is a longstanding political terrain, where owners compete with the dispossessed to control its benefit. The writings of George Monbiot cover many aspects of the power and politics behind land management, and I recommend bookmarking his site. He easily exposes the contradiction and corruption emanating from the ‘guardians of our environment’. Where scientific and environmental knowledge is blindly discarded for ‘homespun’ remedies and manorial rights. He recognises the ‘custodians’ whose purpose is to ensure the status quo in land ownership; alongside developing schemes to further increase grants and incentives – to the largest subsided industry we possess, Agriculture. Many recognise the problems agriculture face, but few are prepared to challenge its current stewardship, a notable exception being the current Scottish government.

KenH2123-Edit

A Personal Perspective

The politics beyond the frame will always dominate, but their influence within the frame is enormous. When photographers capture, then enhance areas of outstanding natural beauty, do we become responsible for validating that our land is in good hands. The continual provision of reassuring images surely sustain a belief that a ‘natural beauty’ can be accessed somehow, somewhere, but maybe not around here. What suppresses our innate curiosity to seek out an understanding of what we see? Thereby, can we conclude that the ‘traditional’ landscape photographer is guilty of aiding and abetting forces that primarily seek landscape exploitation over increasing calls for environmental harmony?

As Professor Paul Hill stated, “In my opinion, the majority of Landscape Photographs I see rarely challenge or surprise. They are predictable and formulaic and pose few philosophical or visual questions. They often appear to be conservative artefacts celebrating the status quo.”

KenH0123
Environmental harmony?

Therefore do practitioners of Landscape Photography needs to take responsibility for the images it creates; while seeking the enhanced picturesque might provide some limited income, in doing so, do we become complicit agents in widespread land abuse and destruction.

Understanding Landscapes: It’s in the (autobiographical) detail.

The Tradition

The majority of landscape photography documents the play of light on a known landscape – a ‘wide angle’ capture of the terrains principle features. This style of imagery is an opening, a doorway, a location pointer, to be read like a map. These images are technically competent but emotionally slight, and they never reveal, or provide insight to the inquiring mind. They are a product of the copyists paradigm that landscape photography practitioners struggle to leave behind.

KenH6936
The Vale of York © Ken Harrison

The images offer a window to observe, but never an invite to ingress. This type of photography rarely deliberates or reflects on the qualities of the subject. The photographer is often only interested in how the light falls on the scene – certainly creating something unique but within the confines of a recognisable and common viewpoint. ‘Planting the flag’ becomes the challenge, not the journey ‘through’ the mountain. 1

The Emotional Landscape

The land can reveal information about itself; its history and its condition – it also helps us reflect on ourselves and our psyche. The academic study of the landscape has grown in recent years, reflected in the writings of J.Thirsk, F.Pryor, A Raistrick and W.G. Hoskins; but our emotional relationship with the landscape is also subject to a rapid overhaul. Topophilia, the love of place, asks important questions about our relationship with a specific topography. Where a place is occupied or unoccupied, and can be real or perceived, it is the lands benefit or drawbacks which are logged within our mental map.2

KenH6219
Approaching Whitestone Cliffs © Ken Harrison

It is through the practice of Psychogeography, where its many practitioners take different approaches, but all are concerned with the perceived detail of the place. Peter Ackroyd introduced the personality of an individual area; what we understand to be the persistent spiritual temperament of the site. Documenting this understanding, Nick Papadimitriou describes his activity as deep topology; the absorption and capture in the memory of the detail, to the point where an impression emerges. Will Self recognised that many would see these ‘discoverers’ as amateur historians with an attitude problem3, but recognising his own search for identity he extracted a key element in the land, the autobiographical nature of its attraction and discovery. The need to understand ourselves is present in our digestion and interpretation of place.

Hedge Poking

Accessing the land can only be achieved through walking4, all other approaches are responsible for removing the critical senses which help us absorb the experience. It is a heuristic approach to landscape photography, where observation and reflection take place within the site, not at an observable distance. It is not about technical finesse, the perfect shot – it is about being there, where the senses guide the capture. As C S Lewis described, when the senses are exposed it brings back fleeting glimpses of a past, often we know not from where.

KenH0420
Pre History Dyke © Ken Harrison

Walking can be the challenge of surmounting the great vistas, but it can be as John Folwes described it, ‘hedge-poking’…. “never more than a field or one hillside, and usually much smaller still”5. For an active mind, the vistas might beckon, but the country lane also provides plenty of detail to be resolved. It becomes the perfect opportunity for the photographer to combine the forensic technique of discovery with a lyrical style of interpretation.

1  Nan Shepherd (2011). The Living Mountain. : Canons Imprint Re-issue edition . A different way of exploring a mountain.

The notion that place is capable of imparting its qualities to people may sound a little fanciful, so let me say, first, something that is merely common sense, namely, good soil yields good crops, bad soil poor crops”.Dr Yi-Fu Tuan. (2014). Space, Place, and Nature: The Farewell Lecture. Available: http://www.yifutuan.org/dear_colleague.htm. Last accessed 20th April 2015.

3  “in so doing, I hope to suture up one of my wounds in my own, divided psyche: to sew together my american and my english flesh” Will Self (2007). Psychogeography. London: Bloomsbury. p12-13.

 

4   “The manner in which the contemporary world warps the relationship between psyche and place, the ways in which we go about the task, are various”.Will Self (2007). Psychogeography. London: Bloomsbury. p11.

Fay Godwin (1985). Land. London: William Heinemann Ltd. p ix. Essay by John Fowles.