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A given spot

September 2010
A Given Spot [1]

Places are freighted with meanings and significance based on their history, their location in physical space, their ownership, their political or bureaucratic delineation, their topography, their culturally-defined importance as well as more personal experience. When we locate ourselves we are placed by a variety of features, physical, historical, social and psychological. Such a view is hardly new - ‘Archytas, the Pythagorean contemporary of Plato, proclaimed that “all existing things are either in place or not without place”. To be is to be in place’ [2].

My current project has developed from two previous pieces of work. One concerned the memorialization of road accidents in the form of the shrines that are set up at the site of a fatality in the immediate aftermath of the event. The other related to the idea of landscape as a genre in art (photography in particular) and the process by which land is transformed into landscape that itself becomes transfigured into Art [3].

The death of Princess Diana was marked in many ways, but amongst the most powerful features were images of layer upon layer of flowers and and other tributes at various places linked with her - places that she had visited or lived in, places that were associated with her presence. The visual impact of these floral displays was, perhaps, not what the givers intended. Rather than a glorious natural display of colour and scent, the sun glinted off the cellophane hiding the flowers within; enclosing the blooms accelerated their decay. As Andrew O’Hagan so perceptively notes ‘the British have not learned to love handling flowers; they still come in cones of cellophane’ [4]. Whilst not on the same scale, we see a similar sight now - displays made up of wrapped flowers, stuffed toys, football shirts whose gaudy colours fade quickly to leave the rather forlorn detritus of dead flowers and weathered wrapping. As long as there are some remnants of the display, however small, the place is marked, made special, transformed from something ordinary into something extraordinary. The locating of the place of death is important - we ask whether someone died at home or in hospital, for example, as there is an added layer of sadness knowing that someone died away from their home in a strange, unfamiliar place. The bureaucracy of death requires siting - as with our arrival in the world, our departure from it requires a location to be noted and certified.

Not every such site is marked, however, and the location of an event, whether a death or something less significant, may be known only to a few by dint of specialist knowledge or personal experience - a historian, a worker in the emergency services, a bereaved relative. These places are mapped in a personal atlas of experience and events, located in a multi-dimensional space of geography, history, relationships and emotions. They are ignored by others, not included in their personal gazetteer, passed by and ordinary, unworthy of note. It is these places that are the subject of one part of the exhibition.

Sites is a series of back-and-white images of locations at which fatal road accidents have occurred, presented along with some minimal biographical information about the victim and a few bureaucratic details. The flatness of the images, the banality and ordinariness of the location and sparseness of the information are in stark contrast to the significance of the event to all those involved. The chosen sites were photographed when the streets were deserted, not so much to portray ‘the presence of absence’ (I have no personal knowledge of those who died), but more in attempt to demonstrate a ‘charged emptiness’ in the ordinariness of the locations.

Making photographs of ordinary and everyday places is not new - one only has to look at the work of Daguerre and Atget for example - and has been re-invigorated by photographers associated with the New Topographics [5]. Deliberately making images of the (then) contemporary environment, photographers such as Steven Shore and Bernd and Hilla Becher produced photographs as distant from the majestic landscapes of Ansel Adams as they could be. In the UK, Raymond Moore’s quiet and subtle images of parts of Northern England show places that we might otherwise take for granted and overlook [6].

Recording the aftermath of traumatic events also has historic as well as contemporary referents. Simon Norfolk’s haunting imagery of the aftermath of conflict in Afghanistan and Iraq [7] was predated by Roger Fenton’s images of the Crimean War and Matthew Brady’s of the American Civil War. in the specific context of this exhibition, the poignant images of Joel Sternfeld’s fifty places where violent crimes had been committed combine powerful colour photographs and simple, factual text in a powerfully moving testament to loss [8]. My images which are smaller, monochrome with much less explanatory text, give a sense of how tragic events are compressed within a bureaucratic format.

Not mere views, the other part of my presentation, contrasts with Sites. One important theme within landscape art is that of the picturesque. Although largely discredited and devalued in contemporary art, it has an important place in art historical terms and, it may be argued, in the sale of postcards, painting and other souvenirs of views of spectacular places. However, as with sites that are singled out as locations of traumatic events, so an area noted for its scenery and ‘natural beauty’ may harbour histories at odds with a sense of peace and tranquility that is often associated with such scenery. Such responses are not the only ones that such a viewing may engender - mixed emotional responses to dramatic landscapes are a key element of the concept of the sublime. My interest is not in the effect of the topography itself, but rather in events that may give a similar sense of unease as a consequence of unpleasant human activity. However beautiful and spectacular the scene, however aesthetically pleasing may be the picture, a place may have underlying histories that are anything but peaceful. The images are presented as full colour large prints of places that have some reputation for spectacular and dramatic scenery. They are deliberately shot in an almost (but not quite) ‘chocolate box’ style that is the stuff of coffee table books or ‘tasteful prints’ on living-room walls, in hotel lobbies and doctor’s waiting rooms. The locations, however, are all sites where murders have taken place or where bodies of murder victims have been dumped.

As elsewhere in the visual arts, a photography has to contend with the historical burden of what has gone before and with asking what is still worth doing. Photographing place in general and landscape in particular is as old as photography itself - ‘the most enduring activity in the history of the medium.’ [9]. The genre’s historical trajectory in painting has been different: both Biggs [10] and Ross [11] note that landscape has been assumed to be an ‘anachronistic genre, part of an old, privileged tradition’ (Biggs) or that it is ‘seen now as being akin to flower arranging’ (Ross), although both argue very strongly for its contemporary importance both visually, theoretically and politically. Many artists, critics and writers argue that the concept of Landscape is a created, culturally contingent one. Gerry Badger goes so far as to state that for contemporary landscape photography ‘In photographing place, we are never just photographing nature. We are always photographing culture’ [12]. Contemporary photographers are just as likely to include industrial wastelands and urban estates as they are rural idylls and bucolic, idealized arcadian scenes. Edward Burtynski, for example, verges on the sublime in his large scale images of equally large scale human inscription on the land left scarred by mining or the waste of a conspicuously consuming section of our world. In his own words, a predominant theme in his work is ‘nature transformed through industry’ images of which ‘are meant as metaphors for modern society’ [13]. Stuart Franklin’s photographs of recent European landscapes set out to ‘capture both beauty and menace at the same time’ [14]. Roberts Adams’ quietly contemplative duotones document the changing face of the American West [15]. John Kippin, working in colour rather than black-and-white, choses to record a side of the similarly changing British landscape, emphasizing those elements which would not appear on on tourist board website [16]. It is difficult now to be a landscape photographer without referencing what we now chose to call The Environment and be more than a recorder of space and place.

There is, however, a further set of issues which question the role of photography. All my locations will have been photographed before by those whose job it is to record and document for the sole purpose of collecting evidence - the police and forensic science photographers who use the medium as both a medium of record and of analysis. This is deliberate and purposive image making for a specific institutional function. For some of the locations (such as the Lake District), others will have taken photographs as souvenirs to remind them of a pleasant trip or an inspiring view - a different, more personal function with the aim of enjoyment and recreating and experience rather than annotating a trauma. In addition, some of the locations will have been photographed and filmed by the news media, and images (both still and moving) will have been recorded and transmitted, the physical presence of the reporters, photographers and camera crews at the actual site being an apparent necessity for the reader’s/viewer’s need for authenticity, if only vicariously. The site of an untoward or exceptional death is now an intrinsic element in the currency of cultural recognition and subsequent memorialization. There are also questions to be raised about the over- aesthicisation of horror and suffering [17].

The photographs in this exhibition were taken with a deliberate and conscious sense of the events that led to their making. These are neither random nor staged, but mindfully selected because of their history. But they were also taken with reference to aesthetic principles such as composition and form. Part of the mindfulness is also about the photographer asking “Is this good image?”. The image itself cannot tell the story underpinning the photographer's choice of location so it is left to the viewer to question their response by reference to the additional textual information in the form of the bureaucratic details (Sites) or the captions (Not mere views).

The creation and display of these images allows the viewer to look at places with a different eye. In a masterly essay on the recent exhibition of Paul Sandby’s work at the Royal Academy, John Barrell identifies the complex nature of the representation of landscape (which can apply to the more general concept of place). In this article he refers to the work of the cultural geographer Stephen Daniels who he suggests has ‘introduced a way of understanding the landscape art of late 18th and early 19th-century Britain in which places depicted are shown as contested sites, places where different interests compete for attention’ . In addition, Barrell goes on to state ‘In this way of reading them, images of landscape don't have anything as reassuring as a ‘meaning’ ‘. [18].

One of the initial starting points for this project was the experience of being visually overwhelmed by the intense reflection of a setting sun on a mass of cellophane-wrapped flowers around a tree planted by the Princess of Wales. The overpowering brightness completely masked the tributes and it was this, rather than the remembrance of the person, that abides in memory. When researching this project I was reminded of my feelings of unease and disquiet when visiting one the northern Brittany beaches on which troops landed on D-Day. Tourists were enjoying their summer holiday, children were playing freely on a beach - the given spot - on which over 6000 men had died or were wounded. As Simon Schama [19] might have said - place is never neutral, never ahistorical; events are never unplaced.


Footnotes


1. This phrase was used dismissively by Henry Fuseli in 1831 when describing naturalistic landscape painting and is quoted in the exhibition catalogue, J. Bonehill & S. Daniels (Eds.). Paul Sanby: picturing Britain, (London: Royal Academy of Arts, 2009), p. 74.

2. E. S. Casey, Representing place, (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002, p. 266 [his italics]. Similarly, Tacita Dean & Jeremy Millar , Place (London: Thames & Hudson, 2005) quote Aristotle in their introductory chapter (p. 11).

3. M. Andrews, Landscape and Western Art, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 3.

4. A. O’Hagan, ‘Diary’, London Review of Books, 3 December 2009, p.43.

5. See, for example, D. Smyth, Objective eyes, British Journal of Photography, 27 January 2010, p. 13: S.O’Hagan, New Topographics: photographs that find beauty in the banal, The Guardian, 8 February 2010, (http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2010/feb/08/new-topographics-photographs-american-landscapes): Unauthored, Manscape, British Journal of Photography, 157, 2010, p. 9.

6. N. Hanson, (Ed.), Every so often Photographs by Raymond Moore, (BBC North East/Phaidon Press, undated).

7. http://www.simonnorfolk.com/pop.html

8. J. Sternfeld, On this site. (Chronicle Books: San Francisco, 1996).

9. C. B. Schulz, Landscape Photography in R. Lenman (Ed.), The Oxford Companion to the Photograph, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 347.

10. I. Biggs, Contested terms - rethinking ‘landscape and nature’, LAND2 Texts, 1992 (www.land2.uwe.ac.uk).

11. J Ross, Artist's Statement at the exhibition Song of the earth, Dean Clough Galleries, Halifax, September 2009.

12. G Badger, The Genius of Photography (London: Quadrille, 2007), p.154.

13. E. Burtynski, Artist’s statement www.edwardburtynsky.com/ (accessed January 2010).

14. S. Franklin, Footprint: our landscape in flux,(London: Thames & Hudson, 2008), p. 7.

15. R. Adams, Along some rivers, (New York, Aperture, 2006).

16. J. Kippin, Nostalgia for the future, (London: The Photographers’ Gallery, 1995).

17. See, for example, S. James, Making an ugly world beautiful? Morality and aesthetics in the aftermath. In Memory of fire, (Programme of the Brighton Photo Biennial, 2008) (Brighton: Photoworks/BPB, 2008), pp. 12-15.

18. J. Barrell, Topography v. Landscape. London Review of Books, 13 May 2010, p. 12.

19. S. Schama, Landscape and memory, (London: Harper Collins/Harper Perennial, 1995/2004).
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