Walking, Memory and Darkness: A Review of Beyond the Visual

We’re delighted to say that Photobook Bristol 2016 is now sold out so this week we turn our heads back to look back at the event to be hosted by Photobook Bristol/ICVL at the Southbank Club. This was Sound, Word and Landscape: Beyond the Visual – a day of talks (by Max Houghton, Angus Carlyle, Jem Southam, Thom and Beth Atkinson, Paul Gaffney, Susan Derges and Esther Vonplon) that looked at the different autobiographical, sensory and historical elements that make up the landscape we experience.

The review below is by Rob Hudson (and do look Mametz Wood  and other projects!) was first published in On Landscape Magazine.

‘I’ve long believed in my own work that seeing by itself is insufficient to create a good photograph. Whereas visual skills are essential, they are only a part of the contribution we can make as individuals or artists to our photography. The real skill of the visual is translating whatever it is we’re trying to say into images. An extra level that might go some way to communicating our intent. Beyond seeing lies the murky, complex world of ideas, motivation, intent and meaning.

The differences are often difficult to intuit; yet it makes all the difference when a photograph is part of a process that is beyond the photographic process itself. It’s an area that’s difficult for us all to grasp, simply because it’s so vast and complex. And once grasped it is equally easy to lose hold of, to regain. It does, however, go to the root of what makes a good photograph – all those ideas that lie behind the image that might occasionally be glimpsed by the viewer. Perhaps it’s simply that we should think of ourselves as authors of photographs, rather than ’takers’. Even saying nothing is significant if it’s a conscious decision.

So when I learned that Colin Pantall and Max Houghton were organising a day long series of talks called Beyond the Visual: Sound, Word and Landscape in Bristol this November, understandably my interest was piqued. Even more so, as ’word’ is something that I’ve long used to help both develop and present my own photography. I’ll happily admit I haven’t really explored sound at all until very recently, but it is undeniably an element in most landscapes, even silence is significant.

The speakers included Angus Carlyle, a landscape sound artist; Beth and Thom Atkinson the photographers behind the Missing Buildings series; Max Houghton senior photography lecturer at the London College of Communication talking about the literature of the landscape; Jem Southam, landscape photographer and Professor of Photography at Plymouth on the importance of walking; Paul Gaffney best known for his series “We make the path by walking”; Ester Vonplon, a Swiss photographer who’s beautiful images of glaciers were a standout part of the day for many; and finally Susan Derges, best known for her photograms of rivers and streams in north Devon.

small 14.River Bovey

image by Susan Derges

In his introductory speech Jessie Alexander spoke what for many landscape photographers might think the unthinkable “I always got the impression there was something a little distasteful about the genre [landscape photography]”. He admits that this initial impression was unfounded, but that it still conjures up a whole series of derivative clichés and that it’s little wonder that many contemporary practitioners don’t want to be associated with the genre. And that while the New Topographics movement revised the genre, today’s speakers are finding new ideas to move the genre forward.

(Incidentally the New Topographics were first brought to the UK by a later speaker, Jem Southam and shown just across the river from our venue for the day, the Southbank Club, at the Arnofini in 1981.)

Picking up on Jesse’s introduction, Max Houghton discussed how the New Topographics had moved the genre forward by celebrating ’the beauty of the banal’. But she suggested that detachment isn’t the only possible response and that there’s a need for an aesthetic shift. She said there are “other secrets beyond the patch of land”. Equally she questioned the “moral imperative that immersion in nature helps us live a better life”. And that it is poets, painters [and photographers?] who help create the ’idea of the landscape’.

Perhaps the overriding question of the day was ’how do we connect with the landscape?’ Sight/looking/seeing are of course the one approach photographers will always emphasise, it is after all fundamental to how we express our relationship with the landscape. But perhaps we over emphasise looking? And if we do, it could be detrimental to the richness of our engagement (and pleasure) and in the end result in a narrower scope to our work. This isn’t to deny that looking in the active photographic sense doesn’t open new avenues in itself, enabling us to see and engage in previously unimagined ways. It is simply to suggest that there are other ways of engagement that could add to that engagement and deepen it. And a deeper engagement can only help produce more meaningful photographic work can’t it?

Observer and Observed No6

image by Susan Derges

Rather than simply describe each speaker and what they said, I’ve decided I’ll break up this article into some of the many broad themes which will hopefully reveal the both the differences of approach and the similarities and interconnections which made the day so stimulating. Although the ostensible themes of the day were sound, word and landscape, they weren’t the revelatory themes for this attendee anyway. And as this attendee is, as the are readers of this magazine, a landscape photographer then I hope mine will be equally fascinating. For me they were more about (and far from exclusively), memory, walking and perhaps most surprisingly darkness. I’m sure other commentators would have chosen themes and strands specific to their own interests, it was that sort of day – diverse and immersive.

 

Memory

As David Hockney said “We see through memory.” and that is, in part, why we each see a scene differently. One of the most striking common threads of Beyond the Visual was the way memory influences our perception and engagement with the landscape.

image by Angus Carlyle

Sound artist Angus Carlyle’s work involves recording in the field to produce remarkable ambient soundscapes, sometimes in collaboration with filmmakers. His poetic, evocative work, struck me quite unexpectedly and it has stayed with me long after the event itself.

He suggested that sound contains not only the memory of what made it, but also the memory of the landscape through which it travelled. Think on that, it’s wonderful. Whether it’s reflected off hard stone cliffs, or flowing water or passes through the leaves of a tree will affect the sound when it reaches our ears. I told you he was poetic.

image by Angus Carlyle

While we all hear differently, we have acoustic individuality, and then our hearing changes as we age. The construction of our ears is also inherited from our evolutionary ancestors. We have two bones from a reptilian ancestor and tubes from river creatures. So what and how we hear is influenced by our common past.

Equally we hear sound as spatial and temporal (as space and time) simultaneously. This, Angus says, is what gives sound a narrative, but that one of his major problems was to overcome the limitations of playback in replicating that narrative.

Angus explained that the ’special high places’, (the mountains) offered little to his ears and microphone, and that recording here was pushing the limitations of recording technology and technique. Recording “mediatises” a scene, renders it artificial, in the same way as a photograph cannot contain an entire scene or with perfect reproduction. So he uses spoken memory and notes taken at the scene to reconstruct an approximation or facsimile of this reality, narrating the final presentation using word to fill the gaps and open our imaginations.

“We fieldworkers always experience failure, writing is inadequate to the experience it records.” Michael Taussig.

Memory is also significant in the work of Beth and Thom Atkinson, whose Missing Buildings series records the empty spaces still remaining after the bombing of London during the Blitz. Colin Pantall described it as “A book about absences and silence.” It has also been described poetically (although I can’t remember by who) as “A typology of absence”.

Hackney Road, E2 #1

image by Thom and Beth Atkinson

It’s an unusual and wonderful book, if for no other reason than they photograph what is no longer there. In photographing the spaces left by missing buildings, it is recording the traces of memory within our urban landscape. Hidden within these images is the unspoken, yet implicit invitation to try to reconstruct those missing building in our mind’s eye from our own experience and imagination.

Princess May Road, N16

image by Thom and Beth Atkinson

In an amusing and self-depreciating talk, Beth talked about their fascination with ’the thin places’ – the thinness between the spiritual and real world, in this case the past. How the layering of history and time creates a palimpsest – the traces of the past on the present. And how ruins position us in time, quoting Rebecca Solnit “A city without ruins is like a mind without memories.”

Dingley Place, EC1V

image by Thom and Beth Atkinson

Meanwhile Thom discussed the myth of the Blitz and how it creates a ’heroicness of ourselves’. How the gap in time between then and now is filled by imagination and storytelling and how our understanding of those events are more mythological than for those who actually lived through them.

Directly following on from this Max Houghton in her talk “Reading the Landscape” discussed how the distinction between the urban landscape and the ’natural’ landscape is a false one. That we are indivisible from nature, how cities grew out of the land itself and how ’landscape’ itself is a contested word. That such distinctions reveal our desire the solace of nature.

There is more from Max, in the next strand, as she acted to bring together many of the ideas expressed on the day, I’ll split her contribution across the themes.

ester v 6

Image by Ester Vonplon

Ester Vonplon’s remarkable work also touches on the theme of memory. In what sounds when described in words rather mundane, her photographs of the sheets used to cover the glaciers in Switzerland in order to mitigate the effects of climate change are actually genuinely beautiful. Her pictures capture, often in close up, semi abstract, the twists, tears, stains and ripples in the cloth as the glacier moves. It’s a memory – or at least a representation – of what’s happening below, to the glacier, and it speaks directly to a potential future when these memories are all that remain. I can’t help thinking there’s a relationship between these images and the final speaker, Susan Derges’ with her photograms of rivers, where the physical connection becomes paramount.

ester v 3

Image by Ester Vonplon

That these abstracted images also spoke so eloquently of the subject of climate change through a language that is undeniably emotionally moving was the great revelation of the day for many, myself included. Perhaps beauty needs the message after all? Although I already knew the work, its potency was magnified when shown with the requiem composed to accompany it. The room was stunned into the silence of admiration. A requiem is of course a piece of mourning music and it was mixed with the sounds of melting from within the glacier that Ester herself had recorded. It is then a mourning, a memory, if you will, of a future that hasn’t yet happened.

ESTER VONPLON_Nuit de l’Année 2015 from Les Rencontres d’Arles on Vimeo.

 

Walking

I doubt any of us dismiss the importance of walking and I’m sure most realise it is far more than the sum of placing one foot in front of another. For many, myself included, it was how we first became engaged with the land and it’s the method most will use to reach or discover our locations and destinations or simply as an act of discovery itself. But do we really understand how significant walking is to our state of mind, how it allows us to enter a creative mind state, to slow down and become more aware of our surroundings, to look and to see? Again, it is a fundamental part of how we relate to the landscape.

Vaucottes 2006, The Rockfalls of Normandy

image by Jem Sotham

Walking is significant to the work of many of the day’s speakers: Ester Vonplon, Jem Southam, Beth and Thom Atkinson and Paul Gaffney. Yet in subtly different ways, ways which Max Houghton also eloquently elaborated upon in her earlier talk.

Thoreau, Max explained, described walking as ’a fourth estate’, beyond church and state, at liberty to see ’facts’. Walking is about seeing; indeed many of the new nature writers write through the medium of walking, Robert Macfarlane describes it as a ’pupilage’. Nan Shepherd described it as the “traffic of love” and said ’her eyes are in her feet’. Rebecca Solnit said, “Language is like a road, it unfolds in time.” and therefore, “walking and writing resemble each other”.

Max explained that solitary walking brings about a specific type of observation, that the land is given a narrative through walking, both temporal and spatial. And that because the land is beyond the threshold of intellectual comprehension we are unmade by what we see, and that the unfamiliar can steady us somehow. Walking is, therefore, fundamental to our perception, not just of the landscape, but it acts as a mind-altering state, opening our eyes and minds.

Conchies Way 2

Image by Jem Southam

In a quote used by Max, the artist Helen Keller said “I was so entranced by seeing that I did not think about sight.” For me this relates strongly to Paul Gaffney’s work ’We Make the Path by Walking’, which Colin Pantall described, quite rightly, as the best photobook title in recent years. It is about “stillness, movement and narrative in landscape photography”.

We Make The Path By Walking

image by Paul Gaffney

Paul explained that he had taken up meditation before beginning his photography degree, and how this came to influence both his work and how he relates to the landscape. He confessed that on his 800km walk to Santiago de Compostela he initially only expected to make holiday snaps, but the long walk felt like mediation, slowing thought processes and being aware of his own body. As he continued he began making images more instinctively, not thinking them through. That he wanted to relinquish control, but that he wanted to convey the sense of a journey through his photographs so that viewers could bring their own experiences as walkers to the images. Walking, he said, is a near a universal experience.

We Make the Path by Walking - 2012
image by Paul Gaffney

Implicit, yet unspoken in many of the day’s talks is the idea that the walk itself can be a work of art. They were different, intermingling perspectives. Beth and Thom describe how they used walks to find their subjects. In something of the flaneur Beth also spoke of the “enacting the reverie by walking”. Equally, Ester Vonplon spoke of how long solitary walks hinted at “something more”.

The confluence of two streams, Stoke Woods, the river_WINTER

image by Jem Southam

Jem Southam’s talk was more about walking as bearing witness to the landscape and the different ways he records that, either through photography or gathering objects from along the trail. If indeed ’trail’ is the right word, because some of his walks are very short. Some are as short as his morning walk to the compost heap, or the walk to school with his children. There’s a sense of unity with the world where we don’t ignore the short walk as trivial. Linking back to Max Houghton’s critique of the separation between the urban and ’natural’, the landscape is not only the hills and mountains of the national parks it is all around us.

Jem didn’t always think like this, 40 years ago before he had a photography practice he set out for a very long walk. With his brother he decided to hitchhike as far as possible from Bristol and walk back, photographing the return journey. Remarkably they ended up in Berwick Upon Tweed.

It was later that he came to realise that short walks are how we normally engage with the world. “The wonder”, he said “of a short walk is not just art.” He explained that we walk with others in all ways, even if only our shadow we carry with us our dark side. But also our memories, our families, our histories and our ancestors stretching back 800,000 years. Those ancient humans walked about 20000 miles in a lifetime, mostly short walks of about 4 miles a day. “What are we missing”, he asked, “without the short walk?”.

 

The Darkness

If you’ve ever set off before the first light breaks or returned late into the evening after photographing the dusk then you’ll have experienced been surrounded by night. It is a familiar experience for almost all landscape photographers, yet we habitually ignore the darkness, it is not our destination. With the dishonourable exceptions of the Aurora or star tails the night is rarely photographed, this is in part due to the previously insurmountable technical difficulties, and, of course the difficulties of seeing in the dark. But with modern camera technology this is changing, as Paul Gaffney said of his ’Stray’ series, “The camera could see more than I could.”

paul gaffney stray 2

image by Paul Gaffney

Paul only realised he wanted to photograph the night when he got lost taking a short cut through the woods in the dark. He used the camera to ’see’, to find a way out. He told us how the sense of immersion of getting lost was exhilarating, how he had to rely on touch, smell and hearing as much as sight. Photography he said “almost feels like too much control”, and that he wanted to find a way to relinquish that somehow.

paul gaffney stray 1

image by Paul Gaffney

The Stray exhibition, he said, was an experiment in how to convey that sense of immersion to the viewer. It evolved through time and through talking to visitors, from small prints to large prints and finally to projection in a darkened room.

Full Circle No2

image by Susan Derges

Using a far older and more basic technique, the photogram (light on photographic paper), Susan Derges also photographs the night, or more specifically the effect of moonlight on rivers. It is wonderful, elemental work that speaks of a desire to be as close to the landscape as possible.

Her work, she said, is not driven by a conceptual motivation, but a desire to get close to things – to remove the element of the “self portrait” and “escape the division of the eye and the lens”. It is driven by “a desire for communication with what is around you”. That in physically handling the materials and making a direct physical connection between the subject and image she could bridge that gap somehow to “understand the depth and momentum of water”.

 

Her prints are often as tall as a person so the viewer is immersed both in scale and metaphorically. “My desire”, she said, “was to animate whilst allowing stillness, reverie and a dreamlike state”. Her solution to the problem of engagement with the landscape was to remove as many physical barriers as possible, to make a direct physical contact in her process that feels more direct to the viewer. They are wonderful, and come as close to anyone I’ve seen to revealing the inherent magic of night.

small 11. Shoreline

image by Susan Derges

Conclusion

In conclusion, we spend so much time discussing the trivia of landscape photography; the gear, the techniques, and exaggerating the adventure, but to what end? The real questions we seem to habitually avoid are of how we engage and connect with the landscape and what it means to us.

What I loved about the day was that this ‘intent’ was at the forefront, and for many it was the result of a lifetime of study and development of practice within the landscape. And if there’s one universal factor we can all take from the day, then this is surely it. The more we dig below the surface, the deeper in we get. Understanding the landscape is equally about understanding ourselves; how we perceive, connect and relate to place, and that is indeed the work of a lifetime.

So I like to offer huge thanks to Colin Pantall and Max Houghton who organised the day, and to all the speakers and attendees. Being in a room full of people struggling with the ideas of honesty and integrity in landscape representation, and the struggle to make work that somehow matters was a wonderful experience. Thank you.’

 and in the core and navel of the wood there seemed a vacuum, if you stayed quite still, as though you'd come on ancient stillnesses in his most interior place.

Image by Rob Hudson from Mametz Wood

See more of Rob Hudson’s work here.

Visit On Landscape here.

 

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