Photo-anxiety and the ‘poor image’

I made these images in an attempt to disrupt my habitual image making, by introducing a number of technological and human ‘glitches’. All the images were made around the house whilst sorting through and disposing of stuff brought out of storage from my old office at work. The images are incidental and make no attempt to record the process – they are made at the edges. I used a first generation micro four-thirds camera with a CCTV lens. The camera has no viewfinder and no focus assistance, and my failing near-sight made focusing erratic. The lens introduced significant curvature and vignetting. No cropping and no processing. These images are a step on the way to a final artifact, which will be in print form. Not quite degraded ‘poor images‘ in Hito Steyerl’s (2009) terms (maybe explore this later) but a step on the way. Having worked to develop the quality of my images over the past year or so, I felt anxious working in this way, introducing limitations right at the beginning of the process and then working with them. I’m thinking about other ways of disrupting practice, maybe along the lines of Brian Eno’s oblique strategies, in which chance application of operations transforms the process of production of images and the outcomes.

Steyerl, H. 2009. ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’. e-flux journal #10, November. Available at https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/ [accessed 31.01.19]

Object Lessons

This month I’ve been working alongside UCL Bachelor of Arts and Science students on their ‘Object Lessons’ module. For this, each student ‘adopts’ an object from one of the university museums, collections or galleries. The programme is a mixture of lectures (on material culture, the psycho-social significant of objects and workshops on handling, recording and writing about objects) and workshops involving working with objects alongside curators. Just some initial ‘descriptive’ photos of some of the objects from the Grant Museum and some ‘handling’ in the Petrie Museum.

Thinking about how to develop a project from this, and perhaps how to relate the focus on objects to my work on communities and regeneration (useful discussion with Michelle about this, with lots of references to follow up).

Barking Riverside

Quick catch up on images made since the end of the previous module. Some images from the Riverside Development (‘Barcelona-on-the-Thames’).

And some from neighbouring Creekside. More to be done here, I think, around the theme of erasure and overwriting. There was a community here until the 1950s, providing housing for people employed in the industrial works in the area. This was demolished to make space for further industrial development, and people relocated to other estates in Barking. Former residents meet regularly, and there is a simple heritage trail around the area, though very low profile. Might offer the opportunity to combine exploration of the area and former residents’ emotional ties with object focused and archival work.

Preliminary activity: Intent, choices, strengths, limitations and plans

Intent. I am doing the masters programme in order to learn, develop my photography, and start to build a more coherent, informed and engaging body of work. My initial interest was the visual exploration of the relationship between the natural and the human in marginal urban places, leading to two series of images: Newcastle Beach Ocean Pool and Roding Valley Park.

Newcastle Beach Ocean Pool, 2018
Roding Valley Park, 2018

Whilst doing this work over the course of the first module, I became increasingly interested in the impact of urban regeneration, and in particular understanding and facilitating community engagement and benefit from the rapid changes taking place in east London. This gave rise to three series of images focusing respectively on urban regeneration in Hackney Wick, Ilford and Barking.

Hackney Wick, 2018
Ilford, 2018
Barking, 2018

A related set of concerns also emerged, around the privatisation of land, social infrastructure, and restrictions on access to, and use of, spaces and places for the public. Research into the three artists for this activity, alongside image making around the Barking Riverside development, have given rise to a concern for more fundamental environmental issues relating to the impact of urban development, which will be the focus for my work for this module.

Choices. For my project, I have proposed three levels of image making: (i) images made by residents as a way of exploring their lived experience and aspirations; (ii) collaborative image making with resident and community groups for influence, advocacy and change; (iii) my own artistic response to the impact of urban regeneration and the possibility of positive change for residents and communities. Over the course of this module, I plan to advance all three aspects of my practice, but will focus particularly on third (my own artistic work) for this and subsequent activities. In this area I want to be able to continue to experiment with forms of image making and dissemination, and explore how this relates to other modes and media (text, sound, video, artefacts). In carrying out research on the three photographic artists chosen for this activity, I have raised questions about my own practice and considered areas for development: see my more detailed posts on Hiroshi Sugimoto, Fay Godwin and Naoya Hatakeyama.

Godwin’s work has most clearly influenced my own. Despite focusing on urban rather than rural settings, and working digitally in colour rather than in monochrome on film, my mode of working and forms of image are similar. I walk through and explore the landscape, and take photographs in the landscape rather than of the landscape. My images tend to concentrate on the meeting of the natural with traces of human activity, and have increasingly highlighted the privatisation of land and issues of access and surveillance.

Barking Riverside, 2018

Others have commented that these tend towards the deadpan aesthetic of the New Topographics. I want to explore my relationship with Godwin’s work further by making some images in the urban settings I am exploring using monochrome film and square format, to get an embodied sense of what is entailed in this way of working and how this impacts on the forms images produced. On the campaigning side, I am continuing to explore the increasing privatisation of urban spaces and the restrictions placed on public activities (including making photographs – Godwin became particularly concerned about the restrictions imposed on photographers by the National Trust, and what she saw as the increasing regulation and control of our heritage).

My engagement with Japanese photographers Sugimoto and Hatakeyama is more recent and developmental. In both cases, I have attempted to understand and position their work in relation to contemporary theory, for instance post-humanism, as well as understanding the theoretical, cultural and visual influences that have shaped their work (particularly interesting as Sugimoto trained and has worked mostly in the US and Hatakeyama trained and has worked mostly in Japan). Both address issues relating to time, history and the future. Hatakeyama’s work is most closely related to my own, and I am interested in developing the idea of excavation and the relationship between extraction and urban development, rising above and sinking below the landscape and projection into the construction of the future. Also, the question of the differences between stopping time (through the act of photographing) in the processes of destruction and construction (the photograph by necessity strips away any direct sense of temporal directionality in creation/destruction; in Hatakeyama’s work, each is dependent on the other). From an analysis of the work of both artists, I have much to learn about how to establish coherence within and between series of photographs, and ways of achieving conceptual clarity.

All three artists combine text and images, but in different ways. In all cases, text and image are not intended to explain or embellish each other, but to achieve different things (and therefore to supplement and enrich each other in the achievement of the objectives of the projects). Unsurprisingly, given earlier posts (here and here), none of these artists make any claim to storytelling or the construction of narratives. Godwin’s work was initially geographically organised, and latterly according to social and political themes relating to the land (disseminated predominantly in books). Sugimoto’s and Hatakeyama’s work is organised as distinct parallel and successive series, some open ended, which are disseminated predominantly through exhibitions and the gallery system, with some photobooks. Hatekeyama notes that his first solo exhibition looked like a group show, and has stated that creating a distinctive visual vocabulary is key objective in his practice.

Strengths and limitations. I have produced a number of images that I am happy with visually and technically (see examples and links to series above), and have explored different ways of presenting these, for instance as grids, in triptych form and as a sequence with text (see below).

‘Out of Sight’, photographs from the Roding Valley Park, grid arrangement in portfoliobox.
Stanislav’s Moscow, 2018

Each series has had a clear core theme, but the work to date has lacked a distinct conceptual basis, and therefore the growing body of work lacks coherence and a clear sense of visual, methodological or theoretical identity. Each of the three artists I have explored have achieved this sense of coherence and identity in different ways. Godwin works by walking through the rural landscape seeking images where signs of human activity are overlaid on the natural landscape creating a dialogue, and sometimes tension, between the natural and the human. This engagement with the landscape became increasingly political, and the organisation of images centred around themes like agribusiness, habitation, ownership and heritage. Each of the series produced by Sugimoto has a strong rationale, visual style and conceptual base (see earlier discussion). The series do not relate directly to each other (though all are produced with a large format camera and images are presented as large monochrome prints). Each series is related back to an evolving artistic vision, which includes work in other disciplines (for instance, architecture). In Hatakeyama’s work there is a clearer conceptual link between series, around the synergies and inter-dependencies of (destructive) extraction in rural areas and (constructive) urban development. This has been extended in his most recent work which focuses on the rebuilding of a city after natural disaster. In his writing, he is able to relate his work to current and antecedent movements in the visual arts, and chart the development of the work through his journals. Both Sugimoto and Hatakeyama are interested in the foundations of photography, and produce work that is related, in different ways, to the work of the pioneers of nineteenth century photography.

Over the previous module I have produced a range of types of images, and, in particular, have wanted to develop a greater personal engagement, for instance through portraits.

Den Amstel, 2018

Whilst I have been satisfied by the images, I have found it difficult to integrate these with the major body of my work.

Plans. Over the course of this module I want to develop a stronger conceptual base for my image making, and be able to position my work more effectively in relation to other traditions and approaches. I am familiar with contemporary theory in the social sciences and humanities (and have, some years ago, taught social semiotics) but need to develop my knowledge in the visual arts. I am currently exploring Flusser’s work on photography (2011, 2000) and also his writing on the city (2005) and the notion of ‘home’, which relates closely to my interests (for instance, in addressing feelings and experiences of displacement in regeneration). I can build a theoretical and methodological bridge between different levels of image making in my project by drawing on Abbott’s (2007) critique of narrative and his argument for the development of a lyrical approach to social research, and Sinha and Back’s (2014) approach to engaging participants as co-creators in the research process (which includes the use of photography). At the heart of this is further cultivation of links with community groups and projects over the coming months to lay the foundations for my FMP, and a programme of image making which will feed into my work-in-progress portfolio. I have learnt from the previous module that, with a tight timescale, it is important to have a relatively narrow focus for the production of images for the module work-in-progress portfolio. For that reason, I plan to focus on the environmental, rather than the social, aspects of my project, and to take the opportunity to experiment with forms of image making and presentation whilst developing greater conceptual clarity and theoretical sophistication. I am also working on a project relating to physical and intellectual engagement with artifacts in museums, galleries and archives.

References

Abbott, A. 2007. ‘Against Narrative: A Preface to Lyrical Sociology’. Sociological Theory 25 (1): 67-99.

Flusser, V. 2011. The Gesture of Photographing. Translation and Introduction by Nancy Ann Roth. Journal of Visual Culture. SAGE Publications, 10(3): 279–293.

Flusser, V. 2005. ‘The City as Wave Trough in the Image Flood’, Critical Inquiry 31(2): 320–328.

Flusser, V. 2000. Towards a philosophy of photography. London: Reaktion.

Sinha, S. & Back, L. 2014. ‘Making methods sociable: dialogue, ethics and authorship in qualitative research’. Qualitative Research 14(4): 473–487.

Resources

Fay Godwin

Drabble, M. 2011. ‘Fay Godwin at the National Media Museum’. The Guardian. 8th January [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jan/08/margaret-drabble-fay-godwin [accessed 30.12.18].

Fowles, J. 1985. ‘Essay’. In F. Godwin, Land, London: Heinemann: ix-xx.

Godwin, F. 1985. Land. London: Heinemann.

Godwin, F. 1990. Our Forbidden Land. London: Jonathan Cape.

Godwin, F. & R. Ingrams. 1980. Romney Marsh and the Royal Military Canal. London: Wildwood House.

Jeffrey, I. 1985. ‘Introduction’. In F. Godwin, Land. London: Heinemann: xxiii-xxix.

Jeffrey, I. 2005. ‘Fay Godwin: Photographic chronicler of our changing natural world’. The Guardian. 31st May [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2005/may/31/guardianobituaries.artsobituaries [accessed 30.12.18].

National Media Museum, Bradford. 2011. Fay Godwin: Land Revisited. Exhibition. 15 October 2010 – 27 March 2011 [online]. Available at: https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/what-was-on/fay-godwin-land-revisited [accessed 30.12.18].

Sillitoe, A. & F. Godwin. 1983. The Saxon Shore Way: From Gravesend to Rye. London: Hutchinson.

South Bank Show. 1986. Fay Godwin. Season 10, Episode 6, 9th November [film]. Available at: https://youtu.be/4JE8I44Ak7o [accessed 30.12.18].

Naoya Hatakeyama

Fujii, Y. n.d. ‘Naoya Hatakeyama’. Ocula [online]. Available at: https://ocula.com/artists/naoya-hatakeyama [accessed 04/01/19].

Hatakeyama, N. 2018. ‘The Photographer and Architecture’. In Y. Nakamori, Naoya Hatakeyama: Excavating the Future City. New York: Aperture:259-266.

Hutchison, R. 2015. ‘A Conversation with Photographer Naoya Hatakeyama’. Interview, 24th September 2010 at Taka Ishii Gallery, Kiyosumi, Tokyo [online]. Available at: http://robhutcharch.com/blog/2015/1/31/a-conversation-with-photographer-naoya-hatakeyama [accessed 04/01/19].

McLaren, S. & B. Formhals. 2014. Photographers’ Sketchbooks. London: Thames & Hudson: 118-125.

Nakamori, Y. 2018. Naoya Hatakeyama: Excavating the Future City. New York: Aperture.

Hiroshi Sugimoto

Searle, A. 2014. ‘Hiroshi Sugimoto: art for the end of the world’. The Guardian, 16th May [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/16/hiroshi-sugimoto-aujordhui-palais-de-tokyo-paris-exhibition [accessed 30/12/18].

Molinari, L. 2015. ‘Space: timeless architecture’. In Hiroshi Sugimoto, Stop Time. Milan: Skira, 22-40.

Nakamura, Y. 2012. Memories of Origin: Hiroshi Sugimoto. [Film]. Available at: https://youtu.be/NhZJF4IPXcw [accessed 30.12.18].

Sugimoto, H. 2011. Becoming an Artist. Art21, Episode 141. [Film]. Available at: https://youtu.be/JCsbxVCdDtA [accessed 30.12.18].

Sugimoto,H. 2015. Stop Time. Milan: Skira.

Sugimoto, H. 2018a. Between Sea and Sky. Interviewed by Haruko Hoyle at Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Japan, June 2018. [Film]. Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Available at: https://youtu.be/JWh4t67e5GM [accessed 30.12.18].

Sugimoto, H. 2018b. Advice for the Young. Interviewed by Haruko Hoyle at Enoura Observatory in Odawara, Japan, June 2018. [Film]. Louisiana Channel, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art. Available at: https://youtu.be/TvO2WL-jGac [accessed 30.12.18].

Naoya Hatakeyama: constructing/extracting the future

There are a number of factors that led me to choose Hatakeyama as one of the three photographic artist for this exercise. One is a conversation with a colleague about ‘future heritage’ (those elements of the present or near future that are likely to constitute heritage in the future) and how we identify, represent, preserve and curate this. What of the present will be of value in the future? What do we need to know/imagine of the future to be able to assess this? What is the relationship between attribution of future value in the present and realisation of value in the future? A second factor is the nature of my projected FMP, which involves making images in the present in urban contexts that are undergoing change and development and which thus face an uncertain future (the projected image of which is dominated by CGI presentations produced by developers). The third factor is a shared interest in using images to investigate ‘the relationship between nature and contemporary residential environments’ (Fujii n.d.). Finally, on a visit to Aperture in New York, I came across the newly published Excavating the Future City, a survey of Hatakeyama’s work edited by Nakomori (2018). The title alone made it an essential read. I was also interested in his methods of working and his use of a journal (McLaren & Formhals 2014). In this exercise, I am taking the opportunity to become familiar with a body of work that is new to me, and to relate this to the development of my own practice as a photographer.

Nakamori (2018), setting the scene for a major career retrospective at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, gives a comprehensive account of the development of Hatakeyama’s work. This includes an analysis of the influence of western photography (predominantly American) and theory (predominantly European) on Japanese photography in the 1970’s and 80’s, when Hatakeyama was studying at Tsukuba University. There are distinct differences in western and Japanese conceptions of ‘landscape’. Hatakeyama, influenced by the New Topographics approach gaining attention in Japan at the time, sought to subvert the traditional Japanese association of landscape with national identity in his exploration of the relationship between the land and human activity. This is most marked when looking at the relationship between his photographic studies of lime quarrying around his home city of Rikuzentakata, and his work on urban development in Tokyo and Yokohama.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Blast (#05419), 1998.

A key characteristic of this work is the implied inter-relationship between the violence done to the rural landscape by extraction and rapid urban development in Japan. These become two intertwined processes.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Untitled (#52810), 1997.

He works at two levels in both settings, rising above the landscape and city in the Lime Hills and Untitled series, and excavating below the surface in the Blast and River series. Through this work he charts the subtle changes taking place over time in the city, whilst acknowledging the immanence of the future city in the processes of extraction and growth from that which exists below the surface in both rural and urban settings. In this sense, his work can be seen as ‘excavating the future’, with the camera as the instrument of extraction. This places Hatakeyama a substantial distance from the Japanese tradition of celebration of the landscape as an expression of national identity and spiritual unity. To a degree, his work can be seen as an environmental equivalent to the social and cultural subversion of the Provoke movement.

Naoya Hatakeyama, River Series (#004), 1993-4.

The tragedy of the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake and subsequent tsunami took Hatakeyama back to his hometown, which initiated a new era in his work. Over a period of 8 years (to date) he has has portrayed the rebuilding through human endeavour of a town almost completely destroyed, a body of work which he describes as a ‘biographical landscape’. This builds on his earlier work (though it is very different in terms of method and timescale) on the relationship between landscape (nature) and city (human) by tracing the lifecycle of a city regrowing out of devastation, in a way that transcends the particularities of this one specific place, and addresses more generally the topographic transformation of Japan, and associated global environmental questions about the relationship between the land and human activity. As Nakamori (2018) notes, this also marks a distinct shift in the position of Hatakeyama as an image maker, from a marked distance from the rural landscape and urban cityscape to one of intimate engagement with managing the present and imagining and shaping the future city.

Returning to a theme introduced in my discussion of Sugimoto’s work, this recent work by Hatakeyama, albeit in tragic circumstances, exemplifies the process of entanglement with the world, and the place that image making can play in making sense of this. The flow of extraction and urban development is interrupted and thus becomes open to analytic scrutiny. Instead of having to dig down beneath the land and the city, the city is opened up and we are forced to engage in its rebuilding in full awareness of its precariousness. The sense of hope and optimism is remarkable in a body of work (comprising, to date, of over 8000 images) arising from a catastrophic event, in which Hatakeyama’s family home was destroyed and in which his mother lost her life.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Takatachō-Morinomae , from the series Rikuzentakata, 2011

Whilst each of Hatakeyama’s series of photographs is tightly framed conceptually and methodologically, serendipity (see Bird series, in which the flight path of a small bird is traced through several frames from the Blast series) and experiment (see Slow Glass series in which he designed a large format camera specifically to explore photographing cityscapes through rain) also play a part.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Slow Glass (# 063), 2001.

He keeps a daily journal, which whilst not explicitly concerned with the development of his projects, charts the development of ideas, and acts as a resource on which to draw in the evolution of his work. The section on Hatakeyama in McLaren & Formhals (2014) Photographers’ Sketchbooks provides examples of the sketches and notes produced in the development of the camera for the Slow Glass series and about the logistics of one of the underground shoots, giving insight into his processes.

Naoya Hatakeyama, Journal (from McLaren & Formhals. 2014:119)

Further insight is given by Hatakeyama’s own writing on photography. In ‘The Photographer and Architecture’ he reflects on his current practice:

‘I walk. As usual, there are things in the field of vision before me. As I walk, they change in size and shape. Light and space, as sensation, not only exists before me, but also envelops me, moves me, and makes me happy. The, important faces and words suddenly come back to me from the past. I put my camera on a tripod, direct the lens towards a thing, and think, ” There are so many things in the world that cannot be photographed.” Yet, I release the shutter, because if I didn’t take a photograph, I would not have known this very fact. Photography is like a ship carrying light and space and heading toward the future.’ (Hatakeyama, 2018: 266).

Reflecting on Hatakeyama’s practice in relation to the development of my own work, highlights a number of issues. Hatakeyama’s background and education in the arts, at a particular time in the cultural and economic development of Japan, enables him to position what he does both in relation to major artistic movements in the west and their recontextualisation at a particular point in time in Japan. His close relationship with architecture and the centrality of the theme of urban development makes his work fundamentally inter-disciplinary. This gives a complexity to his work. Though I share a number of these core interests, my background and context is very different, and I need to consider how I position what I do as a photographer in relation to these other aspects of my practice and expertise. Hatakeyama is able to achieve a high degree of consistency of image making and conceptual coherence in each of the series he has produced since completing his formal education in the arts, something that is lacking in my work. Whilst this is understandable in terms of maturity of practice, it is an important aspiration and requires development. Hatakeyama’s work is also impressive in the extent to which the successive series of photographs are distinct (in form and context) but related, marking out a clear (but not over-determined) trajectory. In an interview with architect Rob Hutchinson (published online in 2015, but the interview was conducted in 2010, before the Tōhoku earthquake) Hatakeyama explicitly explores the issue of consistency and coherence of artistic practice. In response to a question about the relationship of the Slow Glass series (which involved experimental development of a large format camera – see notebook extract above) and his other work, Hatakeyama says:

‘That is a very good question. Because that is a question of consistency of artistic practice. Viewers always expect a consistency of work from one artist. Some artists are repeating only one thing every day. Like Roman Opalka from France, he is just drawing the same number every day, and he makes a self portrait every day, for 45 years or so. It is so wonderful in a sense, but I am not the kind of artist of that type. My interest is having, or creating, my own vocabulary of photography, as many as possible. So from my young days, I was always trying to do that. In 2002, I made a one-man show in Germany. After the hanging of all of the works, to my eyes it looked like a group show, not a one-man show. I had many different works. So my impression was, “oh, this is a kind of group show!”. And I enjoyed that. So maybe I am trying to make my vocabulary richer. And maybe I was trying to write one poem, or one short story, with those vocabularies some day in the future, at the end of my life’ (Hatakeyama in Hutchinson 2015).

His most recent work, which is marked by a more intimate relationship with the environment, and community, following the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake, represents a new phase in his work, drawing on and extending this vocabulary.

Hatakeyama also presents his own writing alongside his images, and this is also explored in the interview with Hutchinson. Hatakeyama sees writing and photography as two distinct, but inter-dependent, modes of expression, with primacy placed on language. He states that:

‘words and images are different things, I know this. But they support each other. And if we don’t have words, we cannot see the world, we cannot even have the image’ (Hatakeyama in Hutchinson 2015).

The proposal for my project anticipates use of a range of media, including text. Exploration of the relationship between text and image is something that I intend to explore further over the course of this module.

References

Fujii, Y. n.d. ‘Naoya Hatakeyama’. Ocula [online]. Available at: https://ocula.com/artists/naoya-hatakeyama [accessed 04/01/19].

Hatakeyama, N. 2018. ‘The Photographer and Architecture’. In Y. Nakamori, Naoya Hatakeyama: Excavating the Future City. New York: Aperture:259-266.

Hutchison, R. 2015. ‘A Conversation with Photographer Naoya Hatakeyama’. Interview, 24th September 2010 at Taka Ishii Gallery, Kiyosumi, Tokyo [online]. Available at: http://robhutcharch.com/blog/2015/1/31/a-conversation-with-photographer-naoya-hatakeyama [accessed 04/01/19].

McLaren, S. & B. Formhals. 2014. Photographers’ Sketchbooks. London: Thames & Hudson: 118-125.

Nakamori, Y. 2018. Naoya Hatakeyama: Excavating the Future City. New York: Aperture.

Fay Godwin: photography, environment and activism

There are a number of reasons for choosing Fay Godwin (1931-2005) as one of the three photographic artists in this exercise. I have a longstanding interest in her work, especially her photographs of Romney Marshes (Godwin & Ingrams 1980) and the Saxon Shore Way (Sillitoe & Godwin 1983), having grown up in East Kent.

Fay Godwin, Reculver Abbey, 1983.

Through this exercise, I want to both reassess her work in the light of subsequent shifts in photographic theory and practice, and broader political changes particularly in relation to the environment, and consider whether, and how, her work has influenced my own photographic practice. Godwin, like me, came to photography from another professional field (publishing in her case) and did not have any formal training in photography or the visual arts. In a 1983 interview, she stated that:

‘I don’t have an academic approach to photographs, and I’m not very interested in theory. I’m much more interested in working. The old question about whether photography is an art is a silly question. 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 it can’t be creative.’ (quoted in Fowles 1985: xii)

The primary means of dissemination of her work has been in books produced collaboratively with writers. In this analysis of her work, however, I am going to focus particularly on two volumes which foreground her photographs, and where the text plays a supporting role: Land (Godwin 1985, based on an exhibition surveying her work and published as a book with an essay by John Fowles and introduction by Ian Jeffery) and Our Forbidden Land (Godwin 1990, for which Godwin provides her own substantial introduction and text alongside the photographs, with poems by other authors, and which highlights her activism around access to land in her role as President of the Ramblers Association). I have particular interest in the relationship between photography and writing, and also on the use of photography in social action and advocacy. Here, though, I want to reflect on how Godwin’s approach and photographic sensibility might be re-contextualised from predominantly rural to contemporary urban contexts, in which the ownership of and access to the land have become a particular concern. I also want to position the work in relation to contemporary debates about the relationship between art and environmental activism (see, for instance, Demos 2017)

Fay Godwin, Stones of Stenness, Orkney, 1985.

As Fowles (1985) points out, many of Godwin’s images play with time, juxtaposing the timeless landscape with present day (or earlier) evidence of human activity (buildings, infrastructure, artifacts, vehicles, detritus, but never people), but in layers or in proportions that convey or create tensions.

Fay Godwin, Large white cloud near Bilsington, Kent, 1985.

Godwin resisted being seen as a landscape photographer, preferring to be considered a documentary photographer. Her interest is not in the landscape per se (and thus, she has no interest in producing conventionally aestheticised landscape images: in a 1986 South Bank Show interview she states that she is ‘wary of the picturesque’), but rather in human engagement with, material impact on and use of the landscape. Ian Jeffery (1985) highlights the bringing together in the frame of the wild and the cultivated, and the antagonism and discordance, in Godwin’s work, between the land and the human, between the wilderness and habitation. Encompassing the formal arrangement of elements in the frame, the subtlety of symbolism and the careful sequencing of images, Jeffery demonstrates how the work presented in Land clearly goes beyond documentary into the domain of photographic art, drawing out resonances with other photographic artists such as Paul Strand and Walker Evans. The images are not immediately arresting, but do draw in the viewer and repay active engagement, with, as Jeffery notes (South Bank Show 1986), any romantic elements of the landscape (such as clouds and distant hills) offset by, often foregrounded, practical and everyday elements. Unlike Sugimoto’s work, discussed in an earlier post, there is no apparent underlying conceptual basis to discrete series of images in Godwin’s work (if the corpus is to be divided into series, then each would be geographically defined, rather than conceptually, with the exception of the later, environmentally focused work), there is a clear orientation to the landscape and visual sensibility, which constitute Godwin’s artistic vision. There is also what Fowles (1985) identifies as an emerging moral dimension to the work, though this might equally be described as a political dimension, which relates to private ownership, the abuse of the land by agribusiness and public use and access. This dimension is brought very clearly to the fore in Our Forbidden Land.

Fay Godwin, The Duke of Westminster’s Estate, Forest of Bowland, 1990.

Margaret Drabble (2011), reviewing the exhibition Land Revisited, describes Our Forbidden Land as ‘an impassioned attack on the destruction of the countryside’. The introductory essay extends far beyond the landscape as addressed in earlier work, and includes critical analysis of nuclear power, transport policy, the military, climate, housing, pollution and the use of pesticides. These themes are reprised in the text that accompanies the images, which themselves are more clearly focused on the human abuse of the land, and play a role in making this abuse visible. An overarching theme is the alienation, and exclusion, of the public from the land, whether it be by the military, agribusiness, corporate ownership or heritage industry.

Today these issues are of even greater concern, and with respect to the access to the land that is available to photographers wishing to explore these environmental and social questions, Drabble observes:

‘Since her death in 2005, photographers have been finding their access to both public and private land more and more problematic, more expensive, and legally restricted. In Our Forbidden Land she wrote about the dilemma of access to Stonehenge, a site mass marketed by English Heritage which charges substantial sums to everybody, from individual artists to wealthy advertising companies. She foresaw a time when “the only photographs we are likely to see of the inner circles of Stonehenge will be those approved by English Heritage, generally by their anonymous public relations photographers”. Our common land would be the copyright of others’.

In my own exploration of community engagement with urban regeneration, I have assumed that I will progress from photographing the changing environment to an exploration of the lived experience of residents and other stakeholders. Engagement with Godwin’s photography and writing, and commentaries on this (in particular, the essay by Fowles), has led me to reassess this, and to consider how I might develop my urban environment image making further. Questions of access are even more pronounced with concerns around terrorism leading to suspicion of photographers in urban areas, and the private ownership of land by developers, with sophisticated surveillance technology, placing severe restrictions on where photographs can be taken. In assessing my own work and planning for the development of my project, I also want to consider how my work, one part of which has explored the meeting of the built and natural environment in urban settings, and the traces of human activity that are left in urban edgelands, has been visually influenced by Godwin’s images, and how I might develop this in urban settings over the coming months.

Fay Godwin, Summerhouse Hill and Channel Tunnel works, 1990.

Whilst Godwin’s photography may not have a strong explicit conceptual basis, reinforced by her rejection of theory in preference to getting on with the work, her image making does have clear intent and is consistent and coherent in form. It can also be understood in relation to environmental art of the late twentieth century (for instance work by Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy) in that the photographs engage with being in the landscape rather than being representations of the landscape. They are the products of walking across the land and being part of the landscape, rather than standing apart from the landscape. The work can also be understood in relation to forms of contemporary environmental activist art explored by Demos (2017). Godwin collaborated with environmental groups in the production of images, for instance with the Council for the Protection of Rural England concerned about the affect on the environment around Dover of the dumping of spoil in the construction of the Channel Tunnel. She eschewed the gallery system, preferring to publish books, and produced images and texts that demonstrated an understanding of day to day life in rural areas, whilst being clear about corporate and government sponsored action that threatens the environment, from nuclear power through to the manner in which English Heritage and the National Trust “have copyrighted our heritage” (quoted in Jeffery 2005), exemplifying her distinctly anti-authoritarian position and commitment to a critical role for photography.

References

Demos, T.J. 2017. Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today. Berlin: Sternberg Press.

Drabble, M. 2011. ‘Fay Godwin at the National Media Museum’. The Guardian. 8th January [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jan/08/margaret-drabble-fay-godwin [accessed 30.12.18].

Fowles, J. 1985. ‘Essay’. In F. Godwin, Land, London: Heinemann: ix-xx.

Godwin, F. 1985. Land. London: Heinemann.

Godwin, F. 1990. Our Forbidden Land. London: Jonathan Cape.

Godwin, F. & R. Ingrams. 1980. Romney Marsh and the Royal Military Canal. London: Wildwood House.

Jeffrey, I. 1985. ‘Introduction’. In F. Godwin, Land. London: Heinemann: xxiii-xxix.

Jeffrey, I. 2005. ‘Fay Godwin: Photographic chronicler of our changing natural world’. The Guardian. 31st May [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2005/may/31/guardianobituaries.artsobituaries [accessed 30.12.18].

National Media Museum, Bradford. 2011. Fay Godwin: Land Revisited. Exhibition. 15 October 2010 – 27 March 2011 [online]. Available at: https://www.scienceandmediamuseum.org.uk/what-was-on/fay-godwin-land-revisited [accessed 30.12.18].

Sillitoe, A. & F. Godwin. 1983. The Saxon Shore Way: From Gravesend to Rye. London: Hutchinson.

South Bank Show. 1986. Fay Godwin. Season 10, Episode 6, 9th November [film]. Available at: https://youtu.be/4JE8I44Ak7o [accessed 30.12.18].