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Monday, 25 September 2017

Landscape, Chocolate Boxes and All Quiet



picture by jem southam from the River Winter.

One of the great inspirations for All Quiet on the Home Front is the work of Jem Southam (I write about it here).

His work is layered with history and meaning but somehow the being of the landscape always stays supreme. It always has an integrity and a sense of being that is independent of those layers.

    Jem Southam Dewpond

So though geological, anthropological and cultural meanings are apparent in his pictures of rivers and rockfalls and dewponds, the places he shows us take us beyond those human interpretations. For some reason it's the dewponds that really fascinate me . Dewponds are ponds in pastures that cows drink from. They date back hundreds, sometimes thousands of years which gives them a life and a soul that goes way beyond the photograph.

It's landscape photography but it is photography with soul that reaches into the nether regions of your brain. And I think soul matters. It's the great intangible that makes something really, really good. You can't really teach it, or write about, you just have to feel it. And that, strangely enough is what makes it so concrete. There's no getting away from something that has some soul to it. Just as there's no getting away from something that is utterly and soulless.

Southam's work is also linked to the idea of how we live in the landscape, and beyond the landscape. And that ties in to our very idea of who we are, what we are and where we live, and the hierarchies that are assumed in that living. Very, very often people think of landscape photography being a kind of chocolate box photography, or a glory of HDR (all of which has its place, why not). This is what I got when I googled landscape photography.



Google Beautiful Landscape Photography and this is what you get.


Google Bad Landscape Photography and you get this. There's quite a few paths, and some lightning. There's even a fucking traffic cone in there. Ha ha ha!



So mention landscape photography even to very sophisticated people and they do sometimes think it's people trying to make chocolate box pictures or be Ansel Adams. And there's nothing wrong with being Ansel Adams if you're Ansel Adams. If you're not why would you bother, just as why would you bother being Robert Frank or Irving Penn. What's the point really?

But there's this whole wormhole of landscape and nature photography that overlaps with nature writing, with psychogeography, that ties in to junk art and found art, and goes back to Survey Photography, 18th century painting, right down to the enclosures act, the division of labour, and the marginalisation of women.

It's  can be infuriating at times (because there's such an overlap with complex philosophical ideas that can bog it down in theory) but it can also be incredibly revealing of how we live and why the world is the way it is. A few years ago, I organised a day of talks with Max Houghton (project-managed by Alejandro Acin of ICVL) called Sound, Word and Landscape. and this touched on some of these ideas and it was really so revealing of how sound, word, biography, selfhood, and walking link in to and add to our visual understanding of the landscape. Jem Southam was there and the way he talked about his work added layer upon layer to what was already a very rich surface.

There's also a massive overlap with historical ideas idea of landscape, which is so laden with art-historical meaning that it is almost impossible to escape the ideologies and romances associated with it. So the idea of the land in the UK 100 years ago is not the same as the idea of the land now, but its history is embedded in how we see it. The idea of the land and the way it was represented 2 or 300 years ago is something past, but it still lives on in our idealisations and romanticisation of something that is actually quite brutal and harsh. We can never quite escape the old categorisations of the picturesque, the beautiful and the sublime. And people who don't really get landscape photography absolutely never get over this. It's almost like somebody who doesn't understand Flemish, dismissing it simply because they don't understand. "It doesn't actually mean anything does it. They're just pretending to understand each other." they might say when they heard a conversation held in Flemish (and somebody did say that to me once).

Southam layers these past meanings into his pictures. There's a shabbiness to his landscapes that they stop being landscapes. They're never grand enough to be sublime, they're never pretty enough to be romantic, they have a human element to them, but it's overwhelmed by the unpredictabilities of the actual land.

There's the idea of space being something produced (and Lefebvre wrote about this in the Production of Space. And Mitchell wrote about it in a slightly different way in Landscape and Power). So you have Perceived Space, Conceived Space and Lived Space. Southam's landscapes are neither perceived, conceived or lived space - they're something else altogether. They're landscapes where those perceived, conceived and lived elements are secondary characteristics. His are geological landscapes with a presence more permanent than the ephemeral elements that Lefebvre describe.

It's that presence that Awoiska van der Molen works with in her supremely dark images of forests, volcanoes and landscapes. It's work that is most evident in prints that just suck you into another world, and it's quite a dark world which is beyond our control. She takes us into forests, into the sea, into volcanoes and they do become places that are above and beyond us in every way. They're not part of us, we're not that significant. We might be part of them, but we're probably not even that important. They really are quite monumental.


But though the prints are the thing (and they are, they really are. They're big Black Square constructions), her two books are also wonderful. I talked with Joerg Colberg about Sequester for his book, Understanding Photobooks (which is a really strong and organic introduction to editing, sequencing and publishing photobooks), and I also reviewed Blanco and wrote this:


It starts with a picture of a mountainside covered with what might be birch trees. There’s a diffused delicacy that comes through both the plumes of white that cover the trees as well as a softness in the image. It’s an optimistic opening where new life blooms, but at the same time there is something suffocating about it, as though this is mould enveloping the earth.

We start with life and death then, but it’s not our life. People are of no importance in Blanco. And then things go dark as we are sucked into an image of a charcoal grey sea set against a volcanic field of gravel and jagged rock. This is the kind of landscape Ingmar Bergmann sought to escape in Passolini’s Stromboli, a landscape where life is at a remove, something fragile that clings on despite the landscape rather than because of it.

It’s not land that seeks to accommodate the human presence and so it has something penitential about it. To make the work, Van Der Molen submerged herself in these places (which are not identified for fear of the intellectual resonances of that identification affecting our emotional responses), staying in them for weeks on end to attune herself to the nuances and tempers of the land, the sea, the light and the life.


It’s this that you experience in the photographs, the ineffable nature of becoming one with land where we don’t know whether it’s dawn or dusk, night or day.  So there’s a timelessness to go with that hostility to human ideas of what life is or should be. Van Der Molen’s landscapes suck you into their darkness then. They are an invitation to ponder the insignificance of our place in the world. We are simply not that important.  


 In Understanding Photobooks I talked about the ways in which she brings viewers into her images, something which Adam Bell expanding upon with reference to the book form. It's classic abstract expressionism but with a personal element overlapping with a geological elements and material form. It's really, really beautiful work.


The Photographers' Gallery

I've never met Awoiska and Awoiska's never met me, but we got to know each other through our work. I love her work and when I started putting up All Quiet on the Home Front on Instagram, her l comments showed she understood where my pictures were coming from which really touched me. We always talk about the superficiality of likes and comments and how social media is a big echo chamber, all of which is completely true. But at the same time, you can filter out when somthing really matters to people and this can help you direction and a confidence in your work. You do get people (and I remember you quite specifically) who will let you know when something is really good. Or not. And that matters.

Awoiska was one of many people I asked for feedback on All Quiet as it went in progress and her advice (as was everyone's) was invaluable in shaking the book and making it what it will be. I also asked for an endorsement from Awoiska, and this is what she said. Thank you Awoiska!

'When seeing these images randomly passing by at Instagram a few years ago, I was struck by the captivating intimacy right away.

Witnessing a growing up girl in her real world that could also be her fantasy world. And she lets the photographer, her father, be part of this.

With capturing these passing years of his daughter he captures himself as well.

Rarely does a male photographer share this openly his personal thoughts and fears in a photo book’.

Which was just beautiful.

As well as being a book about being a child, being a father, and the frailties of that position, it's also a landscape book. It's very much a landscape book. The places in All Quiet on the Home Front are scrappy landscapes. They're marginal places that have a history - Solsbury Hill is the site of old Celtic and medieval settlements. You can still see the terracing on the flat hilltop. Brown's Folly is an old stone mine. And Bicycle Mountain is land made when the Avon was diverted to build the Great Western Railway.




But all that is incidental. It's there but it is surpassed. In the way that Isabel and I inhabited these landscapes, there was a kind of physical restructuring of the places we played in. They aren't perceived or conceived or lived in. They became something different - simply places of being, where we fit into the land and not the other way round. Despite all of the social, cultural and economic histories, the landscapes lived us, we didn't live the landscapes.

It's strange looking back at it now, because there's a definite nostalgia to those places which you can see in the films (Film 1 here and Film 2 on Vogue Italia here). They've become incorporated into a memory of a past identity, a past relationship. They've been transformed by time, but in the images themselves, there's still that sense of the independence of the land from the human experience. And I still remember that.

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