Part 1 :Context and Research
I’m very interested in Psychogeography, the practice that is said to stem from the revolutionary group of artists and writers called Situationist International (SI) 1957 – 1972. In her introduction to the book I’ve just acquired, Tina Richardson writes:
For the SI, psychogeography was the ‘study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’ [ ….]those taking part were expected to be conscious of the environment, especially in the way it tied in with a critique of capitalism (p. 2, 2015)
I’m not going to go into detail because I’m about photography at the moment but, from what I’ve gathered, psychogeographic practice is as fluid and varied as those people who perform it. Every urban walk is different according to the individual walker , the space/place and time etc. One of the papers in the book is by writer and performer Ian Marchant and Walking the Dog: (For those Who Don’t Know How to Do It) who paints a wonderful picture of the amount of local knowledge, history and individual peccadilloes that can be revealed through doing just that. I began to think it was all fiction, and so, being me, checked out Presteigne where he lives. Looks as if he was telling the truth!
I hadn’t realised I was a psychogeographer but I am in my own small way and this is what my relationship with landscape is all about at the moment. I was born and brought up on a large council estate. Back gardens were mainly just for looking at and we played in the street or went to the local park. For several years weekends were spent in Derbyshire in either of two family ‘huts’.
I’ve moved house several times as an adult and one of the first things I do when I’ve moved is to explore the local area and look at its history. Having recently read Jennifer Cross’s paper What is Sense of Place” (2001) it looks as if my sense of place now is both ‘Spiritual” because I feel at home/make a connection with the landscapes I find and ‘Narrative’ because I look for histories and recollections written by other people. In a sense, I make myself at home as opposed to feeling ‘rooted’, (thanks to my fellow student Stephanie d’Hubert for writing about this Paper and providing an access link.)
I realised recently that I’m most attracted towards small, wooded spaces where there’s a degree of safety because I’m not far from civilization (meaning houses) yet I can breathe a different air; have space to think and be in areas where nature has been given some freedom to be itself. My walks also fit with psychogeography in terms of Debord’s concept of ‘dérive’ – an unplanned tour directed by my feelings at the time because once I’ve set out I often take different routes according to how I’m feeling. This has become more apparent now that we’ve moved house. I can still get to the larger Common via a 5 minute drive but there are nearer smaller spaces where I can walk with the dogs. Assignment 1 was based on one of them – Ottershaw Memorial Fields but, this year, I discovered another smaller area where I don’t have to cross the busy main road.
This is where the political aspect comes in. The entry to Chaworth Copse is through a gate by the side of the main road. It was originally part of the grounds of ‘The Mansion’ (a large house set in the grounds of Ottershaw Park and this, together with nearby Timber Hill, was given to the poor to graze their animals on and later used as allotments from the 1800s until the 1960s. The Copse has been designated as a Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace (SANG) which gives it “legal protection from being disposed of by the Council at any time in the future for development” see here . This isn’t as simple as it sounds because local Councils are under government pressure to build new homes and are always looking for ways around protected areas plus some of the funding comes from the EU and our membership is under the spotlight. See here . I’ve been re-reading Marion Shoard again on Edgelands and her reference to research done in York which showed that “….in the green belt around York, a quarter of the supposedly protected green belt within one mile of the edge of the built-up area was developed between 1966 and 1996”. I don’t think that the Copse comes within the meaning of Edgelands in the sense of an interfacial rim, but I do think that a precarious status does apply.
Many of the surrounding houses have garden gates opening onto the Copse and there are also several public footpaths leading off with access to back gates of other houses and also down to another busy road. Having written that, I rarely see anyone walking through the copse, even with a dog, so it’s almost as if I have my own private wood (cf also my Assignment 5 of People & Place here.) I know that people do use it – there’s a game being played between myself and someone who keeps leaving a large soft toy perched on a tree. I move it in case it’s lost and it might get rained on. The toy disappears and then reappears somewhere else a few days later etc. There’s also an area which has a rope ‘swing’ near a branch structure, now covered with tarpaulin. From the rubbish I can sometimes see scattered and blackened twigs it’s obvious that one or more people (probably youngsters) use it for meet-ups. I even found myself tutting at it all one day (like a respectable elderly citizen) going back the next day with a carrier bag to clear some of the rubbish away, and then almost phoning the local Council to ask if they would empty the rubbish bin please because it was overflowing!
I couldn’t say it’s a beautiful area in the true sense of the word , certainly not ‘sublime’, with few wild flowers (apart from some lovely bluebells) but I enjoy walking through there, hearing the birds sing against the background of faint traffic noise and noticing what’s going on around me. Although ‘maintained’ by the local Council the area is left pretty much to itself apart from signs of trees being lopped sometimes. I walked through it with someone else a while ago whose comment was along the lines of , “This isn’t looked after at all is it. It’s a bit of a mess. I think a few houses could easily be built here”. There was I just enjoying the peace and quiet and thinking how nice it was to breathe fresh air and be in somewhere small but fairly natural! Politics with a small ‘p’. I realise as well that I need to challenge myself on wanting to think that something within shared public ownership is ‘mine’ and having elitist thinking. There’s something old in my head regarding the common weal but how each individual needs to feel some sense of pride or ownership to take proper care and not depend on someone else to take the responsibility.
Putting myself in the picture
I hadn’t felt entirely satisfied with my self portraits, couldn’t connect with them somehow and so wondered what I could do next. I’ve been building up a series of photographs of the Copse over the last few months and now thought of including some self-portraits there. I thought about and dismissed this several times though. I would have to stand a fair way from my tripod and camera. What if someone came along and stole them? I’d feel embarrassed to be seen doing something like that. People might see me from their bedroom windows and so on… Eventually it got to the point, like the original self-portraits, where I just had to do something. It was a fine day not too sunny or too dull so I would have less of a problem with exposures, and not too far to walk with a tripod over my shoulder and two dogs, on leads, who I couldn’t not take because they are my walking companions.
The way I’ve handled research this time is to mainly look at photographers without making notes as an experiment to see how much I’ve absorbed when I come to make photographs. This is apart from Elina Brotherus who has occupied my thoughts quite a lot despite my original antipathy! Brotherus photographs in large, beautiful landscapes unlike my small Copse and, to my eye, tends to stand out from the landscape as opposed to becoming more a part of it as here. She also often has her back to the viewer. As I look at this one I am reminded of Casper David Friedrich’s painting Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, 1818 of the anonymous man gazing at a wild landscape, “He is a protaganist engaging with the landscape not merely performing a supporting role” (J. A.P. Alexander ) . Could Brotherus be representing this both in an ironic and ‘feminine’ way. There’s another image where she is wading in the water of a beautiful lake, delicately holding up the hem of her deep pink coat (see here in what, to me, is a very feminine way of avoiding getting wet. With the reflection in the water this part of the image provides such a harmonious shape within the frame.
Was there any way I could put myself into the frame in a more ‘modest’ way, mainly facing the camera, whilst not entirely merging with the view?
I have also been clearly influenced by fellow student Keith Greenough and his Landscape Portrait series as I was one of his first subjects. My involvement in this project made me think more deeply on my relationship to landscape using poetry (see here) and so now I have another opportunity to place myself within it in a different way.
Now I’ve made the environmental self portraits I’ve looked back on my Pinterest Boards and collection of PDFs to investigate other influences and inspirations that provided a foundation for the work.
Revealing more unconscious influences
I discovered Susan Trangmar and her earlier, colourful Untitled Landscapes 1985 taken in the UK where she places a woman gazing into the landscape, “The viewer is invited to make an identification with the view through her eyes while at the same time being aware of a ‘blind spot’ in the visual field caused by her physical presence” – as with the earlier work of Friedrichs and the later work of Brotherus. I also liked A Play In Time a film and book commissioned in 2008 by Photoworks in association with Brighton & Hove City Council. Here Trangmar explored the seasonal changes and use of urban green spaces. The film uses split screen techniques, with snatches of overhead conversation and ambient sounds, and I would like to do work like that someday. Now I’ve braved the open air with tripod and camera this might come easier to me than experimenting with my iPhone.There are two videos on YouTube showing excerpts from the film (just do a search on Susan Trangmar) and an excerpt on the Photoworks site
Eliot Porter introduced colour to landscape photography and also the concept of ‘Intimate Landscape’ photography – making the invisible visible and looking at nature through a middle way between vistas and small detail with horizon and sky often missing. That way of making photographs attracts me and I’ve had a quite a few discussions with fellow students as to whether this is more of a feminine approach as opposed to male photographers and the wide sweep of the ‘sublime’. I’m still not sure as I haven’t found enough evidence so far. Porter certainly put landscape photography into the personal sphere when, in the preface to the Metropolitan Museum of Art Exhibition Catalogue, he wrote
Some critics suggest that I make photographs primarily to promote conservation but this allegation is far from the truth. Although my photographs may be used in this way, it is incidental to my original motive for making them, which is first of all for personal aesthetic satisfaction (E. Porter, 1979)
There’s an independence of thought here that I think puts landscape photography beyond a traditional genre.
John Darwell’s Project Borderland (1988-90) explored areas in Cumbria where nature and industry meet so as to comment on tensions between man made and natural landscape. I’m not so much looking at this but do have this continuing query as to when is a landscape natural and when not and Darwell’s style also fits my way of looking at landscape .
Another large influence has been John Gossage and The Pond – series gifted to the Smithsonian American Art Museum and exhibited in 2010. See a Review of the Exhibition Sarah Boxer for The Washington Post here . There is also a long video of the Exhibition Talk on the Smithsonian site, which is also on YouTube (interestingly a video of the book runs as a background to the walk and that reminded me of the OCA talk by Johanna Ward, who said The Pond was an influence on her work and also ran a video of her own book behind her.).
Aperture originally published the book in 1985 but it was reissued in 2010 with an essay by Gerry Badger. The book contains 52 b+w photographs taken on a walk around a derelict pond behind a shopping centre in Queenstown, Md . At first I felt disappointed that the photographs weren’t in colour but then I entered into the images to absorb the feel and sense of Gossage’s intention. We see glimpses of the pond in the first three photographs and then buildings through the trees in the fourth and so the walk unfolds. There is an essay by Gerry Badger at the back of the book where he describes how Gossage sets the pace, tenor and mood of this walk first in a forensic manner and then, by turning our gaze upwards, “[…..] we catch a glimpse of what nature might, or should, be”.
ASX published an essay about the Pond by Robert Adams on 24th February, 2013 (an excerpt from Creative Camera: 30 Years of Writing ). Adams reminds us of the thoughtlessness involved in where trash is placed unnecessarily and the hatred of life that makes some people break a tree, “for the pleasure of seeing it broken”. For him this makes Gossage’s study believable, “because it includes evidence of man’s darkness of spirit, it is memorable because of the intense fondness he shows for the remains of the natural world”.
Despite his echo of Thoreau, which might seem to promise a didactic pounding, Gossage does not use his survey of wood around a lake to stress an indictment; the off-road landscape through which he leads us is a mixture of the natural one and our junk, but his focus is not so much on the grotesqueries of the collage as on the reassurances of nature’s simplicities.
There’s little of that kind of damage in ‘my’ small Copse but it is a small piece of nature.
I will be presenting my own the images in the next post and then, in my reflections explore whether I have been able to portray my own pleasure in a small, fairly ordinary landscape, whilst also placing myself into the frame in a different way from Brotherus and Trangmar.
27th August 2015
Aexander, J.A.P. (2015) Perspectives on Place, Bloomsbury Publishing UK
Brittain, D (ed) (2000) Creative Camera: Thirty Years of Writing, Manchester University Press
Cross, J. E. (2001) What is Sense of Place Conference Paper, Colorado.
Gossage, J. (2010) The Pond , Aperture Foundation, NY
Porter, E (1979) Intimate Landscapes : Photographs by Eliot Porter, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Richardson T (Ed) (2015) Walking Inside Out : Contemporary British Psychogeography, Rowman & Littlefield,