Paul Mortimer’s degree show for the OCA was at the Dundas Art Gallery in Edinburgh. He describes Land Values as his photographic investigation of how important land is in your life. The exhibition consists of three parts:
Engagement and play
Transformation and conservation
Engagement and play is a fascinating look at Mortimer’s own environment, comparing an area in Yorkshire where he grew up with the part of Glasgow he now lives in. Mortimer asks the question- are there similar places to play and grow in as a child nowadays to those he found in his own youth? His answer seems to be no – but why? In a conversation about this with Paul we wondered at length whether it was because of the lack of perceived safety outside at present, or was it because what was wanted now by young people was more ‘sophisticated‘ than the activities we engaged in as children.
Transformation and conservation looks at the coastal area between Hartlepool and Sunderland where a piece of land that was used by the coal industry and heavily exploited has now been allowed to regenerate and is used for the almost opposite causes of recreation and tourism. The land still shows the traces of what was there before in the form of piers and fences, but is gradually returning to its natural state. These images are stunning, vibrantly coloured and reminiscent of the work of Fay Godwin and Sirkka-Liisa Konttinen.
Environmental contribution looks at the role of trees in our present urban areas, these were taken within the grounds of a hospital within the city of Edinburgh and show some stunning examples of trees against the somewhat incongruous signs in the area. The site is being considered for redevelopment, at present the grounds form an informal park for the local people and are taken for granted. Will this change with the changing use of the site? Mortimer hopes to be able to continue this project as the site changes its use and to follow the environmental changes here.
This is an interesting tripartite look at how we engage with the land. Do we value it for what use it is to us – or does land have an intrinsic value, that is more than just its monetary worth? Why do we go to places? How does memory effect what our understanding of a new place is and our visions for the future?
I started with the premise from Robert Adams essay ‘Truth in Landscape’. ‘Our discouragement in the presence of beauty results, surely, from the way we have damaged the country, from what appears to be our inability now to stop, and from the fact that few of us can any longer hope to own a piece of undisturbed land’(Adams,1996).
When you think about images of forests they are broadly divided into two camps, with photographers who have celebrated the beauty, solitude and wonder of woodlands and those who have shown the devastation that mankind has performed. Some photographers have taken both types of images.
An example of this school of photography that concentrates on the damage we have done is the work of Wendelski who has taken a series of images in Germany based on the destruction of ancient forest during the process of open cast mining for brown coal and the activist that set up camps in the forest to protest this.
From this idyllic picture of sunlight though the trees
to the destroyed countryside and swathes of mud
A similar piece of work has been carried out by the Magnum photographer Koudelka. He has done a vast photographic report on the coal mining industry in the Black Triangle in Czechoslovakia. I was lucky enough to see this when it was on show in Edinburgh. The images are graphic, black and white, very sombre. In the Edinburgh exhibition relatively small individual images, approximately 1m x 30cms were laid out in a line, so you followed the trail of disaster around the room. The destruction here has been going on for much longer than the damage in Wendelski’s pictures in Germany but is startlingly similar.
Godwin is particularly interesting in that her viewpoint and type of images she took changed over time. Her earlier work as shown in the ‘Secret Forest of Dean’ (Godwin, 1986) exemplified the beauty of a natural environment and how people could live in harmony with it, while in later work such as ‘Our Forbidden Land’ (Godwin, 1990) talks about how landowners limit access for their own use, and specifically, in reference to Scotland, talks about the environmental challenges caused by the widespread forestry work in the 70’s and 80’s, again many of her earlier pictures are simply beautiful.
Arnatt was also involved in the work about Dean Forest that was commissioned by Forestry Commission at the same time as that of Godwin. His work is difficult to track down, but the images I have seen ( in ‘I’m a Real Photographer‘)seem to fall more into the camp of the land is for use by industry, in contrast to Godwin’s more bucolic images (Arnatt, Hurn and Grafik, 2007).
and so we reach right around the circle to the original quote
Adams is the quintessential American photographer showing the beauty and wonder of the forest. A good example of his work is shown in the book ‘An Old Forest Road’ (Adams, 2017) which concentrates on barely visible paths in woodland, lit by seemingly random gleams of light. These pictures make you want to wander endlessly, exploring for no purpose other than to see the trees.
Interestingly, with the exception of Wendelski, all these images are in black and white. Some of this is because this was the accepted use when there were taken (Godwin and Arnatt) but some, like those of Adams are very recent. Is this because of the general idea that ‘art’ images should be in monochrome, because the more recent photographers are paying homage to the older ones, or simply because the colour green does not always print well? Certainly, monochrome does give some stunning images and shows the detail well. It also becomes difficult to tell simply by looking at an image of a forest when it was taken, this century or earlier. Monochrome tells the mythos of a forest well.
I started by taking images of forestry works when travelling around Scotland. Most have been taken close to me in Fife, but some were taken as far north as Fort William. In spite of this it is difficult to identify the place from the images and they become a generic series of Scottish forest images. The majority of the images were taken in the summer and early autumn, some taken in winter, again this is difficult to tell from the images, as although the light is different the dark green of the pine trees does not vary much across the year. This would not have been the case if I had been concentrating on deciduous trees.
I spent a considerable time deciding on whether to go with monochrome images, as was prevalent on the examples above, and discussed this at length with both my tutor, and the Scottish OCA group at our December meeting. Eventually I decided to use colour images, as some of them, such as the cut logs, stood out in colour and gave more information, and, even though the work was influenced by Godwin and Adams, I felt that colour was best for telling my own story.
Adams, R. (1996). Beauty in Photography. New York, NY: Aperture, p.14.
Adams, R. (2017). An Old Forest Road. Koln: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walter Konig.
Arnatt, K., Hurn, D. and Grafik, C. (2007). I’m a real photographer. London: Chris Boot, pp.38 – 41.
Godwin, F. (1986). The Secret Forest of Dean. [Bristol]: Redcliffe [for] Arnolfini [and the] Forestry Commission.
The brief: Search for Google images on a subject, then add your own images paying particular attention to the criteria for creativity. (imagination, invention, experimentation and development of a personal voice). Describe how your images are different from the ones in Google search.
I spent some time thinking about a subject for this exercise, looking at peppers (thinking of Weston), landscapes (Fay Godwin), shells (more Weston) and flowers (Carla van de Puttelaar). If you look at the Google screen shots of these 4 subjects they are all remarkably similar. They are pretty, in the case of the landscape sometimes beautiful). They are all colour images – this surprised me. Most of the individual images are on a white background, again this surprised me as it would rarely have been my choice. Everything looks ‘perfect’, no blemishes to be seen. All could be used in advertising pictures , although the advertisement might be very boring.
I eventually decided to go down a different route and took pictures of penguins at our local sea-life centre. This was a challenging exercise, partly because they were often moving very fast, partially underwater, and, like often in Scotland, the light was not great.
On looking on Google the images are generally similar in theme to those above. The images are in colour, they are attractive, show the penguins in their natural environment (where few of us will have the luck to see them) and they are resoundingly cute.
I felt that I wanted to show penguins in a different way. Yes, they do spend a lot of time in the snow, and yes they can look very cute, but here, when we most often see them, they are shut in a relatively small pen. Their main environment is water, and I thought it was important to try to show how they related to that.
I then changed the images to monochrome in Silver Efex 2, using a variety of processing changes to try and get the watery effect I was after, while still maintaining the essential nature of the penguins.
I was happier with these images as they seemed to show the penguins in their natural habitat, without distraction of colour.
The image I am most pleased with is this one as there is minimal distraction, they are clearly having fun and you can see the outline of the underwater penguin well:
most of the images on line are very similar, and concentrate on the ‘pretty’ and ‘cute’ aspects of photography
Fay Godwin (1931-2005) is famously known for her landscape images, but she started out as a portrait photographer. It was only when she separated from her husband that she chose a change of direction. She developed a formidable body of landscape work and published several books which contain both images and words, some written by her and some done in collaboration with other writers, such as her book Remains of Elmet: A Pennine Sequence, where the images go alongside poems by Ted Hughes. Her book ‘The Edge of the Land’ contains a series of stunning images of Britain’s coast together with essays talking about the vast range of people she met while taking these images and giving their personal stories. (Godwin, 1995).
Godwin said (quoted in an article in Amateur Photographer), “I’ve been called a Romantic photographer and I hate it, it sounds slushy and my work is not slushy. I’m a documentary photographer, my work is about reality, but that shouldn’t mean I can’t be creative.” (Clark, 2010). In her final interview with David Corfield she said “I don’t get wrapped up in technique and the like. I have a simple rule and that is to spend as much time in the location as possible. You can’t expect to take a definitive image in half an hour. It takes days, often years. And in fact, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a definitive picture of something. The land is a living, breathing thing and light changes its character every second of every day. That’s why I love it so much.” (Corfield, 2004)
One of her books ‘Our Forbidden Land’ (Godwin, 1990) is credited with helping change the English Law on public access. She was outspoken and had a deep love and care for the environment together with an abiding interest in the people she met while researching the areas she would photograph.
Margaret Drabble talks about Godwin in the Guardian and says ‘Her photographs of lochs and glens and standing stones with solitary sheep are hauntingly memorable. They have a Wordsworthian timelessness, a sense of the Wordsworthian sublime. Her imagination, like his, was attracted by the barren, the grand and the bleak. These archetypal landscapes are probably the most enduring tributes to her great talent, and they are enduring in every sense – she catches the spirits of places that have been worn and weathered, deserted and abandoned, and yet still speak to us. (Drabble 2011)
Her photography is monochrome, with a deep depth of field and are very crisp. You are in the landscape she photographs and it surrounds you. The images imply scents and sounds. Her photographs of the groynes at Pett Level in East Sussex instantly reminded me of the similar ones on the beach of my childhood in West Sussex.
Catherine Hyland also uses deep depth of field in her recent series of images taken in China and Mongolia, Universal Experience, where she pictures the effects people have had on a vast and barren environment. In an interview, she says “The aim is to shine a light on both the strange and sublime nature of these spaces, Giant Buddhas that exist in small desolate villages in rural China, and expansive mountainscapes with barely any visitors. Whether it’s sites of historical importance or natural splendour each is approached with a heightened awareness of its significance as a place of beauty and grandeur. Landscape is seen primarily as a cultural construct and only secondarily as a natural phenomenon.”. (Brewer,2017).
On her website (Catherinehyland.co.uk) you can see her images depicting ‘The attempts to control and manage the landscape are both a part of this overcoming of the past, and also an attempt to transform nature into a theme park for contemporary consumption. Implicit in this attempt is the idea that the earthquakes, the landslides, the famines, invasions and the floods are a thing of a great and colourful past. They are part of a history that has been transformed into nostalgia. But…… there might be an underlying anxiety to this enclosed world…. a reminder that the land does not pay heed to humanity’s wishes. It can and it will bite back no matter how much we try to tame it. The only question is when’.
Her images are colourful, clear and massive. You overlook the area and I find them overwhelming, even though many show people, themselves enjoying the view. Here the depth of field leads your eye outward, to the infinite distance and beyond.