Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

On art and death.

“This frenzy to be lifelike can only be the mythic denial of our apprehension of death.” Roland Barthes

The last tree - self portrait. From There's Something in the Trees. 

It might surprise you to hear that I consider myself reasonably well adjusted, if a little argumentative! Yet there's a recurring theme in my work that rises as if unbidden from my subconscious, something that I often realise only after the fact and that is the expression of my own mortality. It’s not as if I'm some teenager just getting to grip with the mysteries of existence or, at the other extreme, elderly and facing the imminent prospect of my own demise (or at least I hope not!). I'm just an ordinary middle-aged male with good health, although admittedly with a dreadful smoking habit which no doubt somewhat reinforces those feelings.

When I came across Barthes’ quote in his personal meditation on photography Camera Lucida it set me thinking. It's a typically broad and sweeping statement and yet one that is hard to deny, like so much of the book. I started to ponder the unacknowledged motivations of what is somewhat patronisingly know as ’vernacular photography’ and of course my own work.

My main introduction to the landscape was through my mother, she had a real passion for the outdoors. Despite being a polio victim with one near paralysed leg, she would take my brother and I walking in the hills above her parents’ house in Abergavenny on most weekends. Through the auto-didacticism of Observer manuals and a sort of deep cultural knowledge that seems remote to me now, she could name the plants of the hedgerows and the ways of the countryside far better than I, now at a similar age. She passed away some years ago, and it spurred me to make my first tentative explorations of self-expression through photography. In many ways her passing made me mature, as an artist and a person. Yet she also took some of that simple joy of being in the landscape with her, tempered it if you like. The landscape became both suffused with memory and tinged with sadness.

The last tree. From Memories Dreams and Reflections. 

While for most ’vernacular’ (I hate that word!) photographer’s depictions of the landscape seem to be celebratory, I wonder if the freezing of time and memory is indeed in someway linked to feelings of mortality. It's certainly linked to the fragility of memory, but is that too simple? There's little point in asking because by definition the casual photographer doesn't seek to understand or analyse their motivations to any great degree. This, if we are forced to make the distinction, is what separates Photographers from photographers.

The landscape is death and rebirth, that's what nature does and if our work is to reflect this fundamental fact then we must make ourselves aware of it, face up to it and examine it. Surely without that realisation our work as landscape photographers is partial, incomplete and slight?

So where, I hear you all clamouring, is the rebirth, the balance, the hope? For Mametz Wood this is difficult to sell, as it does indeed dwell on death, destruction, and most of all, the psychological trauma that is the almost inevitable result.

There are two ways this can be explained. Firstly, and this is very much derived from ’In Parenthesis’ (the source material for the series) it is to be found in the intensity of the moment. That despite all, we see and feel, revealing ourselves to be alive and creative individuals. For the poet David Jones the landscape is ’transubstantiated’ in his Christian frame of reference.
A whole unlovely order that night would transubstantiate, lend some grace to.
Mametz Wood. 

In my work there is another recurring theme and that is the fracturing of time while, ironically one of the key accepted elements of photography is in the freezing of it. I’m only starting to become aware of this with the benefit of time itself - otherwise known as hindsight. Whether through the process of multiple exposure, long exposure, or currently for Mametz Wood, double exposure. Time isn't so much frozen as battled, elongated and twisted. I'm fighting time and Barthes’ ’mythic apprehension of death’ - the freeze frame of the photograph.

Who under the green tree
 had awareness of his own dismembering, and deep bowled damage; for whom the green tree bore scarlet memorial and herb and arborage waste. From Mametz Wood.

For me, what might be called artistic process (the thought processes and motivations behind the work) and physical process (camera techniques used to explore those ideas) have become linked, and maybe indivisible. That is one of the reasons I don't appreciate the apparently binary arguments between digital and analogue or the often somewhat shallow justifications for the choice. It's actually important to understand physical photographic process on a far more profound level that is informed by our artistic process.

And there's one final truth here, if we don't seek to understand our artistic process we will die in ignorance. There are no easy answers. I sometimes say my work is produced from ’the shadows’ places that I've barely acknowledged even to myself. It's a process of realisation through ’artistic play’ and that is why it's so endlessly fascinating.

I shall now trail off into the afterlife of the afterword...  You see I had to get one last reference to death in. Maybe I need therapy after all?!

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