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].

Looking back into the future to the end of time: post-humanism and the photography of Hitoshi Sugimoto

Sugimoto is a significant figure in contemporary photographic practice. From his New York studio, the Japanese born photographer has produced several series of photographs that are widely represented in major collections and regularly internationally exhibited. As an art photographer, he has been hugely successful, and has combined this with a range of architectural projects, multi-media installations, collaborations and public works. Notably, his work has a strong conceptual basis, as well as being technically highly accomplished (he works in monochrome with an 8 by 10 camera, producing very large prints, and relentlessly experiments with methods of producing images and prints). Conventionally, analysis of his photographic work has concentrated on the capturing and manipulation of time, and on the dialogue between eastern and western epistemologies. My analysis will draw on this valuable and insightful work, but will depart significantly in exploring Sugimoto’s photographic work in relation to post-humanist theory (that is, theoretical work that seeks to go beyond humanism, for instance work by Rosi Braidotti 2013, Donna Harraway 1991 and N. Katherine Hayles 1999). In particular, I will explore Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s (2017) notion of ‘midhumanism’ to sidestep a linear view of time in favour of the vortex, and to dispense with the seemingly inevitable grind of passage from pre-(x), to (x), to post-(x), where we languish waiting for a new episteme to gestate. The theoretically stultifying effects of this ‘progression’ are particularly marked in the analysis of photography, which having moved with tide of western theory away from its modernist origins (as a representational technology), consigns the ever-increasing population of art-photographers to the post-modernist hopper (for sorting and labelling).

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Paramount Theater, Newark, 2015 (Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco)

It should come as no surprise that Sugimoto started his professional life as an antiques dealer (and continues to deal in antiques to this day), given that, I would argue, his work synthesises antiques from (and thus, in terms of cultural commodities, adds value to) the present. For instance, Sugimoto claims that his Seascapes Series seeks to show parts of world as the ancients saw them (Sugimoto, 2018a). He seeks out fragments of the present that can be claimed to be invariant across the human era (and, as Sugimoto observes, time is itself a human construct), and represents these in investable, portable (see Henning 2017, for exploration of the portability of photographic objects) and tradable form (limited edition large format prints). The blurred photographs of modernist buildings in the Architecture Series decouple the aspirations of the architects from the image, and allow the buildings to live on as a cultural commodity without their modernist baggage.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Fagus Shoe Last Factory – Walter Gropius, 1998

As Molinari (2015) observes, the blurring seeks out an enduring core to the buildings, which are thus allowed to escape the ravages of time. In no sense, then, is the photograph a record of a point in time; it is in not a representation of what the building once was, or will ever be, except in this particular rendering. For me, the photographs in this series are durable cultural artefacts (and thus commodities), synthesised in the present from a physically and conceptually unsustainable past. Related arguments can be made about other series. The printing of Fox Talbot paper negatives finds in the present lost moments from the past that were never realised in positive, material form, but remained latent (in a process akin to way that Sugimoto as antique dealer scours markets for artefacts). The Diaorama and Waxwork photographs allow imagined and constructed pasts to be rendered portable and available for exchange in an enhanced indexical form (a photograph), invoking and subverting the modernist aspirations for mechanical representation. Whilst Sugimoto’s account of his own work differs in many ways from my reading, he clearly recognises the subversive potential of his work, and the ironic dimension to not just stopping time, but bringing the dead back to life and turning time back on itself.

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Napoleon Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington, 1994

‘In my picture, Wellington seems to have come back to life, while Napoleon remains very much dead. I know it is unlikely, but should I win a place in the pantheon of great artists, I have this crazy fantasy of someone adding a wax figure of me taking a picture of the two great men with my large-format camera to the existing scene!’ (Sugimoto 2015: 28).

My positioning of Sugimoto in relation to post-humanism is based on a reading of his commentaries on his own work (in print, for instance Sugimoto 2015, and on film, for instance, Nakamura 2012, Sugimoto, 2011, 2018a, 2018b). In his writing on Fox Talbot, which includes reflection on his own photographic work, such as the Photogenic Drawings made from Talbot’s paper negatives, and his experimentation with static electricity in the Lightning Fields series, Sugimoto celebrates Talbot’s humanism. For instance, he notes with surprise that Talbot studied ancient languages, conducted research on Babylonian cuneiform characters and Egyptian hieroglyphs, and was translating Macbeth into Greek verse.

‘Talbot, I realized, had a deep understanding of the spirit of those ancient civilizations, when man (sic) first lifted himself out of ignorance’ (Sugimoto 2015: 34).

Sugimoto’s work is strongly humanist in its orientation, having collapsed time, extracted the past out of the present, projected it into an unknown future, and related his images to a supposed invariant human spirit. Central to this orientation is recognition that time is a human construct, and a sense of the passage of time requires a human consciousness. The desire to stop time, which he sees both in the work of the founders of photography and in his own work, is thwarted by that consciousness: while there are humans, there will be time, and our attempts to stop time will always be in time. He states that

‘The day when mankind will realize our deep-seated desire to bring time to a stop is coming inexorably closer. Time exists only through the agency of human perception. Only when mankind vanishes form the earth can we truly claim to have halted time’s progress. It is not long now.’ (Sugimoto 2015: 40).

In this distinctly post-humanist statement he recognises both the limitations of the aspiration to stop time, and the fruitlessness of the desire to produce timeless artefacts. Sugimoto has taken this further in his 2014 show at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Aujourd’hui le monde est mort (Lost Human Genetic Archive), in which he imagines the end of the world. He claims ‘Imagining the worst conceivable tomorrows gives me tremendous pleasure at the artistic level. The darkness of the future lights up my present.’ (quoted in Searle 2014).

Hiroshi Sugimoto, Tyrrhenian Sea, Conca, 1993

Whilst the Seascapes Series might help us to imagine we see the world as the ancients saw it, it will not enable us to see the world as it is, or was or ever will be. We, ourselves, are in, and entangled with, that world, and can only imagine (assisted by photographic or other technologies) standing apart from it (in the same way we can only imagine photographing Wellington viewing the corpse of Napoleon, or a moment that captures the duration of a film). Jeffery Jerome Cohen’s idea of midhumanism provides an interesting and potentially productive way of understanding, and appreciating, Sugimoto’s work. In this, human-centric narratives of history (that everything has a birth, a life-course and a death) are abandoned (Cohen 2017). The human is entangled with, not apart from, the world (though may aspire, and continue to attempt, to rise above the world). The human is enmeshed in and continuous with the world, and in striving to manage that embeddedness ‘all kinds of becomings are possible, and are not harnessed to trajectories of commencement and termination’ (Cohen 2017). This is the ‘midhuman, where human is difficult to tell from world, macrocosm and microcosm entangled rather than parallel’ and where we have to ’embrace the problem of human middleness, explore its implications, stay with it, stay with the world, think rigorously about the unexpected environmental consequences of human actions, midhumanism’ (Cohen 2017).

Sugimoto’s work, in its subversion of time, does not have, or exist within, a life-course enclosed by commencement and termination, except in the invocation of the end of humanity. The various series of photographs do not constitute a progression, and, although distinct, the series remain open, with the possibility of adding further images. His experiments (for instance, with static electricity) do not represent progress towards more advanced knowledge, but rather resonate with and supplement the experiments of the founders of photography. The images subvert the linearity of time and thus thwart human-centric western enlightenment, and modernist, aspirations, whilst potentially enriching our sense of entanglement and continuousness with the world.

In looking to my own practice, Sugimoto’s work is instructive in its conceptual clarity, and the manner in which successive projects develop rhizomatically from earlier work. From this, he is able to construct an overarching, unifying account giving the total body of work a high degree of coherence, with each series having a distinct visual (in terms of both the formal composition of the images and the method of production) and conceptual identity. Sugimoto has also been able to construct an exemplary contemporary (distinctly male) artistic persona, contextualising and positioning his work (artistically and commercially) and creating a network of interlinked activities which cross seamlessly between western and eastern cultural practice, each casting a light on the other.

References

Braidotti, R. 2013. The Posthuman. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Cohen, J.J. 2017. ‘Midhumanism’. Critical Posthumanism. Available at:
http://criticalposthumanism.net/genealogy/midhumanism/ [accessed 30/12/18]

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]

Haraway, D. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.

Hayles, N.K. 1999. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Henning, M. 2017. Photography: The Unfettered Image. London: Routledge.

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]

The Universal Photographer

Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy, Gemeentemuseum Den Haag, Projects Gallery, 15th December 2018

A one room exhibition dedicated to the ‘universal photographer‘, a project by Dutch photographers Anne Geene and Arjan de Nooy.

They have aligned found images with trends in photography over the lifetime (1955-2016) of the fictional universal photographer, who becomes the embodiment of responses to changes in photographic technology, an unfolding life-course and trends in art and photography (practice, theory and critique). The primary outcome of the project is a book, which includes extensive quotes from the work of major theorists, commentators and artists relating to the forms of photography covered, and fictional quotes about the work of the universal photographer and their work alongside a biography of the universal photographer (the pdf of the book can be downloaded here). It’s an impressive and entertaining project, and an exemplary exercise in post-modern irony. The project guides the viewer through the development of art photography and theory over the past half century, raising questions about the relationship between esoteric art and everyday life (the images are very much ‘everyday’ and naive, but articulated with the evolving art practices of the time) and rendering both faintly absurd, and strangely engaging, in the process. The project thus speaks both to the gallery visiting public and the to art world, questioning the relationship between the visual products of both. In presenting the work of the the universal photographer as art, the work also pulls art into the everyday and opens it (and the associated academic and artistic commentary and analysis) to common scrutiny and assessment.

In looking at the images, it is not a case of ‘we could have done that’; we actually did do it – these are our images, from our photo albums and boxes of family, event and holiday prints. In my own project, I have created a degree of insulation between forms of image making: this work removes that insulation in a gallery space and plays with the distinction between the sacred and the profane. And it’s all shot through with dry humour and parody. In the development of my project, it’s clearly important to the think about other mechanisms for bringing these different domains of practice into the same space and into constructive critical dialogue.

Geene, A. & A. De Nooy. 2018. The Universal Photographer. Rotterdam: De Hef.

Literacies and photographies

Steff’s use of (and preference for) the term ‘photographies’ (rather than photography) in the introductory webinar brought to mind the genesis of the use of ‘literacies’ rather than literacy. It also resonated with my concern (expressed in earlier posts) about the tendency to abstract the idea of photography from the contexts of production and circulation of images, with the effect of treating very different practices (for instance, casual mobile phone images of events on the one hand and commissioned photo-journalism on the other) as the same (in the sense that they are both ‘photography’). This tendency is particularly marked (and unproductive) in debates about the threat posed to professional photography by the ubiquitous production and circulation through social media of high resolution images, and the development of AI systems to select and edit images.

The dismantling of a singular view of literacy began with the exploration of social literacy, through social anthropological style studies of how, and where and for what, people use literacy, or engage in ‘literacy practices’ (see, for instance, Grenfell, 2012; Heath, 1983; Street, 1995). The study of literacy in practice brings to the fore the multiplicity of forms of literacy, each distinguished, and shaped, by the social context and the purpose of reading and writing. The study of literacy in different cultures and contexts not only raises questions about the extent to which a single term adequately describes a multiplicity of forms of practice, but also makes clear that these (literacy) practices involve engagement with and production of more than just text (sound, image, video, media, gesture and so on). So we have multiple literacies both in relation to the uses and contexts of literacy and in relation to forms of literacy (beyond just text). Hence, literacies, not a singular (cognitively defined and culturally invariant) literacy (commonly called the autonomous model of literacy, see Street, 2003) .

Likewise, photography is used in a variety of ways, in different contexts and for different purposes (culturally, socially and economically). Forms of photography (in terms of modes of production, technology and circulation) have also diversified. Hence, photographies.

This immediately raises the question of the relationship between different photographic forms, contexts and practices, the establishment and maintenance of hierarchies within and between these forms and the need for critical visual (photographic) literacy (for both consumers and producers of images). The point of this post, though, is to reinforce the idea of multiple photographies, and to form synergies with the study of the social basis of other areas of practice, such as literacy. My project proposal involves three forms of image making, which in themselves constitute three different ‘photographies’ (as social research tool, as advocacy and as art) and therefore provides a context for further exploration of these relationships.

Grenfell, M. 2012. Language, Ethnography, and Education: Bridging New Literacy Studies and Bourdieu. London: Routledge.

Heath, S.B. 1983. Ways with Words: Language, Life, and Work in Communities and Classrooms. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press.

Street, B. 2003. ‘Autonomous and ideological models of literacy: Approaches from new literacy studies’. Current Issues in Comparative Education. 5. 1-15.

Street, B.V. 1995. Social Literacies: Critical Approaches to Literacy in Development, Ethnography and Education. London: Longman.