I want to make a note here of the following quote from the coursework text so that I don’t forget it:
“I feel confident that such an alliance of science with art will prove conducive to the improvement of both” William Henry Fox Talbot
Although the quote refers to photography, it really struck a chord with me in a wider sense because I was encouraged to following a scientific career as a teenager because “you’ll struggle to make any money as an artist“. As an adult, knowing the huge variety of artistic careers that are out there, I know that isn’t necessarily true. More importantly, the focus on STEM in education in the last few years has disheartened me because I believe that it should be STEAM – the Arts need to be included. Even at its most basic – engineering innovation from aircraft to architecture has design behind it.
I see photography as both mechanical and creative. Some people will never be able to capture “artistic” images – my Granddad was one of those, he not only took bad holiday snaps but always had a few pictures of strangers at the start because he was “testing the film“! Similarly, some people can take amazing photographs with only the most basic of equipment.
Adjusting settings like the exposure on the camera and using certain filters and lenses to alter the image that you are taking or manipulating the image afterwards – either digitally or manually when it is being developed – are mechanical functions that a photographer can use to create the desired final image.
Those who don’t consider photography to be art must surely realise that the same is true of artists. Even with the best paints, most expensive brushes and years of art school, there are people who will still create poor compositions and never produce decent art and for them, the process of creating art itself is nothing more than a mechanical act which produces unoriginal, mechanical ‘art’. I suspect that those who dismiss photography are simply displaying their snobbery.
What in my view, makes photography unique as an art form is a combination of things:
- The tool itself
- The process (film or digital)
- The capturing of a miniscule moment in time
- The photographer (as opposed to someone who takes photographs)
- The supposed ‘truth’ of photography
Photography in relation to time
This can be looked at in several different ways. At its most basic, as I mentioned earlier, a photograph captures a moment in time.
I like to use this ‘capturing of a moment’ and take a series of photos in quick succession. This works well for subjects like my dog running towards me. The result is a stilted animation that captures the joy on her face when she’s out playing, every movement of her muscles and if she’s in water, the splashes that she creates.
For most of us, being able to capture a moment in time means that we can have those treasured memories of our children growing up, family members that are no longer with us or physical reminders of the enjoyment of our holidays and so on.
Time is key when a photograph is used for evidence; be that to mark a historic event, record the findings in an air crash or to support a police investigation. Nowadays of course, images such as these are time-stamped automatically when they are taken.
We can also see time in another way from photographs and that is the ability to work out roughly when in the history of photography, a particular photo was taken. Selfies are a very modern trend but in Victorian times, memento mori were very popular, even to the point of the dead being propped up on stands and eyes being painted onto the image to make them appear alive. A great example of this is the use of attractive women to sell goods including magazines. Her hair, make-up, clothes, shape and even the pose itself can give you a rough idea of when the photo was taken. I have just skimmed through images of front covers for Cosmopolitan magazine and was able to recognise images from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s and a more contemporary image just by making a very quick visual assessment – of course, make-up, fashion etc can be inspired by previous trends but it is a good rough indicator.
What do we mean by ‘photographic image’?
We would normally associate the term ‘photographic image‘ with an actual photograph, a 2-dimensional image that captures the subject exactly. However, some artists are capable of creating art that I would consider to be “photographic images” such as this example by Egyptian artist Mostafa Mosad Khodeir, done in Biro. You have to look very closely before you realise that artwork of this nature is not actually a photograph!
On the opposite side of the spectrum, there is surreal photography where the photographic image is not telling us the truth. These can be photographs that have been manipulated after they were taken but there are plenty of examples of photographs of people seeming to hold the sun or the moon in their hands and those can be created using only the simplest of equipment, patience and angles.
Whilst the definition of photography, according to Wikipedia, may be:
“Photography is the science, art, application and practice of creating durable images by recording light or other electromagnetic radiation, either electronically by means of an image sensor, or chemically by means of a light-sensitive material such as photographic film.”
The realism of some artworks and the art of surreal photography have skewed the meaning of what actually is a ‘photographic image‘.
Does a photographic image have to be permanently fixed?
No, in The Pencil of Nature by William Henry Fox Talbot,he refers to early experiments with various silver solutions and the camera obscura which were successful in capturing an image but that the image subsequently faded. That does not mean that he didn’t have a photographic image.
When film and developing solutions were used, photographs and negatives could be destroyed or altered and in the current digital age, photos can be deleted or manipulated as swiftly as they are taken, the original image existed. Many of the images that we see today from advertising to ‘selfies’ on social media have been manipulated to make the subject look their best.
Does a photograph have to exist in hard copy?
I don’t believe so. I have thousands of photographs on my computer’s hard drive that are more readily accessible than my hard copy photographs from the days of taking a film to be developed. In fact, if it weren’t for my digital camera and a succession of mobile phones, I would only have a handful of those images because the cost of film and developing would have been somewhat prohibitive.
However, it is fair to say that hard copy photographs are more easily secured – in this digital age, and particularly with people’s naïvety when it comes to online security, digital images are easily copied and/or used in ways that were not originally intended. A prime example of this that I find alarming, particularly amongst my friends, is when they upload – publicly – images of their children. These images may be accompanied with a location marker of some sort or even show the children in school uniform or holding their latest school certificate or achievement award!
The main thing that I took away from John A Walker’s ‘Context as a determinant of photographic meaning’ was the fact that it hadn’t occurred to me that the context in which an image was displayed or used had such an effect on how we see the image. I suppose that I had always considered a photograph to be like a piece of art and that it would have a meaning to the photographer and that perhaps different viewers might see it slightly differently, that was about it. His point made so much sense though, particularly in the social media age where photographs are re-appropriated to create bizarre, home-made propaganda memes to incite racial hatred or offer ‘evidence’ to support urban myths.
I was very much in agreement with Walker with regards his students’ claims that there are an infinite number of meanings to a photograph because there are as many meanings as there are viewers because we are all unique. If nothing else, my own experiences have taught me that in reality, very few people are either capable of original thought or they fear original thought because they don’t want to be different (we are, after all, social animals) so most will actually “follow the herd” and only see what they are told is there. Even a terrible image from a war-torn country would be viewed in a person’s particular choice of newspaper for example so the politics and opinions of that reporter and paper would ‘tell’ the viewer what they are looking at.
When asked to look for ‘artistic’ photos in a family album. This picture from around 12 years ago sprung to mind:
I was on holiday in a part of Scotland that I love and in those days, I only had a little Kodak ‘point and click’ compact digital camera – the sort that you put a couple of AA batteries into. I took lots of lovely, ‘normal’ holiday snaps and the weather had been superb but at one point when I was back at my lodgings, I remember remarking on the fact that even when it rained, you couldn’t help but be taken in by the dramatic beauty of the place. I went outside with my little camera and took this. It was only when I was back at home and uploaded the picture onto my computer that I discovered the magical quality of the picture. The way that the sun is just coming up over the mountain, the soft focus of the mountains themselves and the way that the rain, especially the drops on the lens with the sun hitting them, had almost become the main focus of the image. It was entirely accidental but the nearest thing to an artistic photograph that I had ever taken. I hadn’t been trying to photograph the scenery, I’d done that already; I was aiming to capture the mood – possibly my mood – and I believe that I succeeded.
In the days before ‘blogging’ was a thing, I kept an online journal and when I moved to the South, I would take my little camera out with me when I took the dog for a walk. It was nice to share the things that I saw and new experiences with people all over the world. On one occasion, I had found a very pretty, derelict graveyard and was taking photographs for my journal. When I rounded a corner and saw these old graves full of ox-eye daisies, I remember the way that the beauty and tranquility of it stopped me in my tracks. I was still using my little Kodak (it was 2009) and rather than documenting the graveyard itself, I wanted to the share the beauty of it and I think that this photograph does that.
My final choice is this picture of Georgie. He was found in the detention block of a Military base and I was called to help. I took him home and put him up in our ‘hospital hutch’ until we could get him to a ferret rescue for assessment and re-homing. It turned out that he was a polecat/ferret hybrid who had probably been in captivity as a youngster but was possibly freed because a lack of handling and hormones made him rather vicious – he did have one heck of a bite! The rescue didn’t have any extra capacity but they did have a hutch that was surplus to requirements so we took both back home and he lived the rest of his life out happy and slightly spoilt with us. He was a beautiful boy with an equally beautiful nature; curious about everything and very friendly, this photo – taken with a smartphone camera – seems to show his personality particularly well and the way that everything around him is slightly blurred makes him the star of the show.
I had to get a digital SLR when I started my Foundation Diploma in Art, Design and Media and took lots of intentionally ‘artistic’ photographs (as well as lots of dross) but never seemed to find the time to use the camera properly. I made these three choices because whilst the intent to take a ‘good’ photo was there, the lack of fancy equipment made the results ‘artistic’ more by accident than design. For most people,the intent to take a ‘good’ photo will always be there, even if the results aren’t necessarily great. In choosing some ‘accidentally artistic’ images, I have created a truer reflection of what most people would have in their family albums. Lots of lovely memories in the form of badly composed family shots and so on but with the occasional “Wow!” photo.
In this age of digital photography, it is easier for people without any knowledge of photography to take those “Wow!” shots because up until 10 or 15 years ago, the cost of film, the cost of developing that film and the time it took to see your results meant that people were very selective about the images that they captured. I remember going on holiday when I was a youngster and taking my precious compact camera with the roll of 24 or 36 exposure film that someone in the family had treated me to. When that was all that you had and all that you could afford, you were counting how many you had left every time you took a picture. Now, because of digital photography, I have the leisure of taking dozens of shots and selecting the best ones to keep and display. In addition to that, I have some very basic imaging tools that allow me to brighten or crop an image if necessary so for example, when I submit artwork for assessment and I’ve in inadvertently got my toes in the shot, I crop them out; or if the light is poor but I don’t realise until I’ve uploaded the picture, I can play with the contrast and brightness a little to make it look more like the original piece does on a lovely sunny day.
Utilitarian vs Artistic photographs
I haven’t been able to put my hands on my digital SLR but I regularly take photos when I am out and about, particularly when walking the dog so I have selected some photos that I’ve taken in the last year and a half for this exercise.
My ‘utilitarian’ photos are just a record of where I’ve been and I tend to just point and shoot without being too bothered about composition or whether there is anything that might ‘spoil’ the picture in view (such as cars or random people).
These are what I would consider to just be standard family and scenery pictures when out walking.
My more artistic shots however, are much more carefully considered. I think about the light, what’s in the background, how I can capture the specific feeling that I get from looking at something.
The are taken whilst out walking, just like the first set, but I’ve been careful to exclude cars or buildings where possible and to make sure that I catch the personality of the subject: the light, bright feeling of the cherry blossom in bloom outside my front door, without getting the road or building beyond and making sure that i took the photo in the early morning light with no cloud; getting a more professional shot of my happy little girl at the park last summer without the row of houses in the far distance behind and for once, managing to get a shot where she was actually still; the drama of that cloud, backlit by the sun and using the old one-third to two-thirds ratio of earth and sky to attempt to frame it properly; the way the sunlight reflects on the water through the shrubbery at the side of the pond to make it seem like a place where fairies might exist.
I haven’t had the time to really play with my camera so if I do take a more artistic photo, it is purely by playing with the focus and how I frame the shot. There are some obvious ones that I could have used where I’ve actually posed the subject or perhaps used the Black and White function but I want the exercise to be a bit more of a challenge for my audience to see if my perception of what is artistic translates without any special tools.
I shared the photos with my husband to ask for comments and although he didn’t refer to any of them as artistic or anything remotely similar, he did manage to reasonably accurately gauge the mood of the photos with responses like cheerful, tranquil, playful and stormy in the appropriate places so I had achieved what I was aiming for.
Photography on Social Media
I share photos with family and friends all over the world. It can be anything from family photos to beautiful views. I don’t do the food photos that are popular – I have a blog for sharing recipes and pictures of the results! It’s a lovely way to keep up-to-date with everyone, particularly when I have family in Canada and friends all over the UK, Europe, America and New Zealand.
Many have been interested in my progress with my studies too so photos of my creative work have their own special place online and I have had people buying my artworks because of it.
I don’t believe that social media devalues photography, on the contrary, I have been introduced to photographers I’d never have heard of otherwise and I’ve seen the children of friends and family display natural talent for photography which wouldn’t have been noticed 20 years ago.
The only place that I see a devaluing is not so much in the photography itself but the obsession with looking amazing in “selfies”. The application of what I would consider to be stage make-up and various “apps” that “make you look your best”. The most beautiful photos that I have of myself were taken when I was wearing only a smear of mascara on my lashes. I know that there’s always been an obsession with beauty but people are losing touch with what real beauty is far more than could have ever been ascribed to images in magazines – which was the big cause for concern when I was younger.
I also keep my settings private so that I am only sharing with friends and family, just as if they were visiting my house after I’d been on holiday pre-social media so I don’t feel that I am contributing to the flood. In the days before blogging was a term, I kept an online journal and would upload photographs to go with some of my posts; one of these was called “The Snowdrop Walk”, I had visited a dear friend near Dundee and taken my dog for a walk in the woods and the snowdrops were in bloom and carpeted the ground on either side of the path. It was so magical and our mutual friends all over the world loved sharing that experience through those photographs. I cannot for one second see how that sort of online posting from an amateur could be seen to devalue photography in any way.
I found the censorship of photography pre-internet, far more disturbing and devaluing. I was on holiday with my Mum in my early 20s and one of our tour guides had been a photojournalist. He had often had to go into war zones or places suffering from extreme drought and the experience was harrowing. He would take photographs for his paper to show the UK public what was really going on and when he returned home, those photographs would be put aside because “they would be too upsetting for the public”. In the end, it got too much for him and he left his career behind because people weren’t seeing the truth.
The worst thing about photography in the context of social media is them is the appropriation of photographs to spread hate. Pictures are having their context changed with memes or fake articles that turn them into extremist propaganda on an almighty scale and sadly, people believe what they are reading and that breeds hate and mistrust. That is the flip side of the democratisation coin. The freedom of social media and the availability of images online gives everyone the ability to post images and attach whatever context suits their ends.
In the first image, the blurring of the people on the stairs suggests that they are moving. The second image is intriguing because the bullet itself appears to be stationary but the fanned out exploded apple at the entry and exit points tell you that the bullet has just passed through it. In the third photograph, it is the ghostly, frame-by-frame appearances of the racket and the player’s arm that denote movement. In Jaques-Henri Lartigue’s Cousin Bichonnade in Flight, her feet aren’t touching the ground, there’s a slight blurring of her hands and the position of her legs and more importantly, the way the skirt is positioned around her legs suggests that she is jumping over, or down, the steps.
I have more shots of my two-year-old (even as a newborn) that are blurry than not because she doesn’t keep still – I feel like a Victorian photographer waiting for the long exposure time to elapse! I also take a lot of frame-by-frame pictures of my dog enjoying her runs and swims to capture her joyous facial expressions. I haven’t as yet learned how to take any long-exposure time images with my digital SLR so I don’t know how that will work for me. I love the frame-by-frame ones because they do capture so much joy that you rarely get to see close up – largely because my little collie is so fast!
I don’t believe that photography is uniquely suited to depicting the passage of time. In an earlier section of this module, we were asked to look at things like frame-by-frame in the context of storyboarding and comic/cartoon strips which are great for depicting the passage of time. Also, performance art is very well suited to the subject matter. Earlier still, we looked at Jem Finer’s Longplayer and Katie Paterson’s Glacier – these are great examples of how sound used as an art form is the perfect medium for the depiction of the passage of time.
The use of material which is going to decay will also show the passage of time. Once over, I couldn’t understand why anyone would produce a piece of art that was temporary in nature. When I was faced with the Confirmatory Stage of my Diploma and I had chosen Sculpture as my medium, I began working on a piece that I desperately wanted to make from glass. As I conducted research alongside my supporting creative pieces, I realised that I did not have the finances to create the piece from glass and that it wouldn’t be the appropriate material for the main theme that I had chosen for the piece, “The Human Condition”. With respect to the rest of our planet and universe, we had only been in existence for the very shortest time and so it made sense to me to create the final sculpture from ice. It took months to complete and once displayed, I tossed the component parts into the sea. Of course, I photographed the work from the initial mould-making to the blocks of ice being tossed and melted in the waves as evidence, a record that was going to be marked by my tutor and an internal verifier but the photography wasn’t part of the sculpture. The point to using ice had specifically been to demonstrate the passage of time and from the human perspective, our relative youth compared to everything around us.
In conclusion, whilst recorded sound, photography and film are art forms that can be considered as ideally suited to portray the passage of time; other art forms are also capable of this but because they are not necessarily recordable (without bringing in one of those three media), the portrayal is far more subtle and must be experienced during the finite period of the existence of those pieces. Perhaps the only exception to this is the use of frame-by-frame illustration seen in comic strips and storyboards.
I’ve touched on why photographs are a significant part of our lives in an earlier exercise – they are our record of those loved ones that have died and triggers of happy memories of holidays and other events, particularly of children growing up. I love to see pictures of my Grandma with a cheeky smile or trying to hide her laughter because she and I were very close so I perhaps saw that side of her more than other members of the family. Even now, only two years on, I love to look back of pictures of my baby girl as a newborn and wonder at how tiny she was and later pictures as her personality began to develop. I enjoy seeing pictures from my childhood, our first dog, family holidays and so on because of the nostalgic, warm, happy feelings they invoke. Even Granddad’s photos of strangers int he beginning of a pack always make me laugh because of his thing of “testing the film” – it was such a ludicrous thing to do – “You won’t know until they are developed if there is anything wrong with the film. you have limited exposures on said film, take your test shots of scenery or family!” He never did.
I love being able to store my photographs electronically. They are easily retrievable and readily available and I’ve not had any issues with obsolescence (from the perspective of not being able to view them because of out of date software). The cost of developing all of the photos that I have taken would be far beyond my means but whenever I upgrade my computer, I transfer over every photo and have them backed up so that I can’t lose them. I actually have perhaps a dozen rolls of undeveloped film languishing in a box from my late teens or early twenties because for a longtime, I couldn’t afford to have them developed and then eventually, just didn’t get around to. If it weren’t for digital media, most of us would be limited by the cost of film and developing and I was always wary of using my film too quickly when I was on holiday and of not getting the shot right (a wonky horizon for example) or having them developed and discovering that my camera was letting in light and every photo was ruined. I think that for many people, it is certainly true for me, the fact that you can take so many photos of your loved ones and store them electronically is a great bonus.
Paul Graham’s A1 Project
Oddly, I struggled to find much information about this body of work. It tended to be a paragraph slotted in where the focus was on another of his collections such as the DHSS offices. The most in-depth information, which was still woefully short, was the essay: “Noticing” by David Campany which was commissioned by Graham’s publisher. The fact that it was commissioned meant that it was a heavily biased, almost sycophantic piece rather than a more objective, academic essay might have been.
The work was a documentary style series of photographs taken on the journey North up the old A1. The essay focuses on the impact of the photographs taken in London and barely mentions the “more lyrical” photographs of the journey North. It does tell us that at the time of the photos being taken and exhibited, Graham’s documentary style was quite a radical departure from other bodies of work – although now, it is something that we are familiar with but there really isn’t much more detail beyond that.
Stephen Shore’s American Surfaces
I find it interesting that when this was launched in 1972, it was largely ignored because it was in colour (Sean O’Hagan writing for The Guardian, 9 Jul 2015). I remember that when I was a child, I believed that artistic photography had to be taken on black and white film. It seems that snobbery exists in every art form – I suppose that’s a reflection of society and would be a great subject to cover if it is at all possible to capture!
Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi
Soth’s admission that when he undertook this project, not only did he not have a career as a photographer but that he didn’t think that it was possible for him to have one is remarkable. The irony of it being such a prolific collection when it was such a very personal project is exquisite.
Robert Frank’s The Americans
I don’t really understand this collection. I think that because I am looking at it with modern eyes and that it reminds me of the sorts of photographs that you see in archives, I am struggling to get my mindset into its original context and how it was received. I found that I was more fascinated with how Frank himself was perceived than the photographs themselves. I look at the images in the way that I look at a rather marvellous, permanent exhibition of my home town’s history that is displayed in a beautiful little old shopping arcade where lots of small businesses have been subsumed into a larger one that backs onto the arcade.
Searching for Journeys
In searching for some examples of photography documenting a journey through time and space, I found 3 that particularly appealed to me. One from the perspective of time, one through space and one that covers both in a beautifully sentimental (rather than sickeningly sentimental) way.
I liked the unusual choice of subject matter in these photographs and the diversity of the images themselves – for example: there is a lovely picture of his son looking a little tired and bored at the hospital which is nothing to do with the surgery itself but very much a part of his experience.
My second choice is this article by Jackie Mansky, smithsonian.com,
And my third, slightly whimsical choice is Christian Carollo’s Past and Present project. He had found his grandfather’s old photographs and revisited the sites where they were taken, taking new photographs which include the original. I know of a similar project that was done with album covers but that just struck me as someone trying to be hard to be cool, the Past and Present project however, is an emotional journey for the photographer and has the ability to draw you in. Partly because of the familiarity of subject matter – we all remember looking through our Granddad’s photo albums – and partly because of the fascination of seeing the similarities and changes that have occurred in each of the locations.
Photography and Land Art
I have looked at the work of Robert Smithson when working through Sculpture 1 so I would feel like I was cheating if I duplicated that here! As I mentioned in an earlier exercise, it was only when creating a temporary sculpture of my own that used the sea and recording that experience with my camera that I really came to understand this magnificent relationship with temporary art and photography. I know that not all land art is temporary but the largely un-invasive work of Richard Long and Aleksandra Mir’s First Woman on the Moon project really encapsulate that relationship.
Whilst looking through the First Woman on the Moon project, I was immediately struck by the bulldozers. It occurred to me that this would not have been possible as art without photography or Warhol’s screen printing. That horror of a mechanical tool separating the artist from the art that they were creating that rocked the art world was no longer an issue by the time that Mir embarked on this project. To me, these tools are no different to a brush, palette knife, chisel or kiln but for many, there is still a stigma around the use of the mechanical or even digital. I suspect that even in the world of photography, there are purists who don’t agree with the use of digital cameras or the digital manipulation of an image.
My tutor made the point that we may photograph that breathtaking landscape in order to capture the memory whilst on holiday but we are all too often very disappointed with the results. This is so very true of many photographs that I have taken and those pictures serve as a personal reminder but I wouldn’t want to display them! Photography, just like classical fine art, can be such a poor cousin to the real world. That said, looking at the journeys provided in the coursework and discovering some of my own, I am constantly surprised at the photographer’s skill at finding breathtaking beauty or intriguing complexity in the simple, mundane things. So much of our lives is spent listening but not hearing, looking but not seeing and these talented photographers are able to show us what we don’t see. Over and above simply creating a formal record, a body of evidence, these magnificent photographers have an amazing ability to capture those everyday moments and really make us see them.
It is precisely this ability to show us things that we don’t see a valid art form in itself. Of course photography is necessary for creating a record of temporary art, historical events, evidence in the scientific reports that we write following an aircraft crash and many other things but even those recordings of events and items can be considered as individual pieces of art. The photography section of the Pulitzer Prize is perhaps the most obvious example of this. The photographs themselves are part of journalistic pieces, they are not taken for the sake of taking them, they are not taken as stand alone pieces of art but are the results of photo journalists recording events as they occur. When you look through the winners over the years, they are striking images that not only invoke a sense of place but are, in themselves, phenomenal pieces of art whilst still performing their primary function of recording historical events.
As I have mentioned before, photography also takes other art forms (such as sculpture and fine art) to a wider audience. I have “known” Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa for what feels like my whole life. Every time I have visited Paris, the queues for the Louvre have been so long that I have walked away. Why then, if I have never seen the painting, is it so familiar? Photography. I have seen the painting in print and nowadays, on-screen, because of photography. So even when photography is not necessarily the art itself, its value in its ability to take art to a wider audience must not be dismissed.
Project 3 – A Sense of Place
A very personal experience
I am very lucky in that there is currently an exhibition of Richard Long’s work at my local gallery with the 2009 Cornish Slate Ellipse taking centre stage, unfortunately, no photography is allowed:
I find Long’s work very calming, perhaps because of the simplicity of the structures and his gentle treatment of the landscape – for me, his work is a great example of the definition of art as place. Of course, many people would assume that I am referring to the landscapes that he uses but it is about the way it makes me feel connected to the landscape and brings me such a sense of peace when I immerse myself in the work. Of the four galleries at Gallery Oldham, this exhibition has created a very quiet space that seems to be empty of other people when you enter. The way that the galleries are laid out, although a separate space, the doorway is very wide and the connecting space is in constant use (the exhibition is in gallery 3, highlighted in yellow, below).
During a recent event called Bee Day showing the honey bees and their hives was on, connecting space was in use for children to draw hive designs and paint pebble bees; the moment you stepped from that connecting space full of children’s excitement, your whole body responded to its peace. My husband remarked that it gave him a feeling of “invasiveness” similar to that of stepping into a church and realising that someone is quietly praying at a pew and you don’t want to disturb them. It is difficult to articulate “art as place” and I really didn’t get to grips with it when I read The First of All Things by Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar because felt that they didn’t explain themselves particularly well or really get to the point that they were trying to make in a coherent way but this Richard Long exhibition has given me a deeper, personal understanding and experience of art as place.
This is an entirely internal experience which I believe is referred to as autonomous sensory meridian response and will be individual, personal experiences – which goes back to the arguments of Walker’s students about people’s reactions to images but I still believe that the biological explanation, like Walker himself, dismisses infinite possibilities.
Ian Berry’s images of Whitby
The number of people on that small bit of hillside make it look very crowded. It’s many years since I visited but “Goth Weekend” aside, I remember it as more peaceful so the photograph threw me a little. I think that if the people were not visible in the photograph, that sense of peace that I recalled from childhood would have been obvious. Even cities look peaceful when photographed or filmed at dawn, before the hoards of shoppers, workers, commuters, tourists and so on take to the streets!
The absence of familiar objects
The absence of familiar objects in a photograph not only removes any sense of scale but it can also alter your perception of the image significantly, for example: sunlight coming through trees on a walk can look magical but when the family dog or a person is within the frame, it takes away that sense of magic; old, abandoned, derelict buildings can take on an eerie aspect where the flora and fauna have taken over; in general, I always feel that the presence of cars or people can really destroy what would have otherwise been a beautiful landscape photograph so whilst I appreciate those familiar objects for their ability to deliver perspective and scale, I also think that they take more away than they give.
Incredibly, the first image given in the exercise struck me as a city, whereas the second, closer image of the same location could be a large-ish town. Whilst you can still see the hills in the background, the addition of the hill in the foreground of the first and the wider shot just make the built up area seem vast in comparison. The other thing that was immediately obvious from a personal perspective was the fact that with the first, I could envision myself where the photographer is, taking in the views and enjoying the day but the second made me want to go up into the hills in the background to escape. I was surprised by that because there are fewer buildings visible in the second image.
Because I was unaware of even the most basic rules of composition and lighting in photography, my only real consideration when taking photographs was to make sure that the horizon was straight – and I didn’t always get that right! It was more about if I could get what I wanted in the frame. Perhaps that’s why I took photographs with the intention of trying to capture how I felt about what I was looking at so it would have been inappropriate to have bought a postcard (on occasions when they were available) because that is a representation of someone else’s view of the subject.
The photos that take me back to specific places and times are the ones when I actually managed to capture the mood that I was trying for. Many of my photos are otherwise pretty or interesting but somehow, a little flat. The fact that my husband is able to pinpoint the mood of those photographs with a reasonable degree of accuracy reinforces my conviction that I got those photographs right. He has a different outlook to me and in many cases, the photographs were taken either before I met him or when he was working away.
The rise of digital photography, whether with an expensive digital SLR, a tablet or smartphone and the ability to take a lot of shots and then discard the “bad ones” later hasn’t in any way devalued photography. I know that professional and keen amateur photographers using film used to take lots of shots of the same thing, print a sheet of tiny proofs (a contact sheet?) and select the best to be developed as a much larger, individual image. The tools and method may have changed but the intention and results are the same. If anything, it has given more people the ability to enjoy experimenting with photography – I always wanted to but found the cost somewhat prohibitive, now, I can play with photography a little.
Mitch Epstein’s American Power photographs, for me, showed the industrial and commercial provision of power so close to heavily built up areas that it didn’t say anything about the environment for me. Of course, it makes sense that power stations and the like will be close to “civilisation” because that is where the power is needed but I saw that power as more invasive and oppressive from a human perspective rather than it having an environmental impact.
Fay Godwin’s Our Forbidden Land photographs are, I think, far more emotive and evocative. She is showing humanity’s encroachment on – and destruction of – the world around us by chosing to photograph more remote areas, places which, without the man-made detritus that is in view, would be stunningly beautiful and very peaceful. Our Forbidden Land is the photographic equivalent of the following extract from The Doors’ When the Music’s Over which had a profound effect on the 15-year-old me when I bought it on cassette in 1991:
“What have they done to the earth?
What have they done to our fair sister?
Ravaged and plundered and ripped her and bit her
Stuck her with knives in the side of the dawn
And tied her with fences and dragged her down”
When the Music’s Over, The Doors – from the album Strange Days, first released in September 1967
Godwin’s work made me realise that oddly, whilst I see electricity pylons as “marching” across the landscape and metal fences as somehow tying the Earth down, having grown up roughly where West Yorkshire, Lancashire and Greater Manchester meet, I see a beauty and craftsmanship in dry stone walls. Even more peculiar is my response to wind turbines on the landscape – I see a beauty and grace in their architecture that is almost balletic – so much so that some years ago, I created this painting, a series of lino-cut monoprints and a collage from some of the prints:
With the first image, the colour division between the fields and the route taken by the tractor would not necessarily be obvious if you were at ground level.
In the second image, there is a space and beauty seen in the image. If you were stood on any road in that expanse of city, you would be surrounded by buildings and have no concept of anything beyond. In a way, that would be quite claustrophobic.
In the third image, the towers of the power station would have been partially obscured by the trees and shrubbery immediately around you. As it is, they have a certain majesty that you perhaps wouldn’t expect from such an industrial, utilitarian construct but up close, I imagine they would seem to loom and be quite oppressive.
There are a couple of views/places that came to mind with this exercise but none was so powerful as my eternal fondness for “Indian’s Head” in Greenfield, Saddleworth. Walks around the reservoirs, on the hills and on the moors were a staple at the weekends when I was growing up (except on match days during cricket season – then it was a walk in a local country park). I still remember my step-dad asking me if I could see the Indian’s Head the first time we drove that way. It took me a minute to realise what he was talking about but I loved it and still do – I couldn’t wait to show it to my husband when we first visited my home town a few years ago! It is a rock formation on the top of the hill overlooking Dovestone’s reservoir that looks like a Native American Indian Chief’s head in profile (second image). Of course, when you walk up onto it, it is nothing more than a dramatic rocky outcrop on top of the hill: