Cwm Blaen Taf Fechen is my new long term project. If you don't know the area it's the valley immediately below the peaks of the Brecon Beacons above the Neuadd Reservoirs. After the tight, claustrophobic confines of ’Mametz Wood’ it feels vast and empty, it is a wind-blasted wilderness and I'm finding freedom there.
It's an area I know well; I visited it frequently many years ago for what was probably my first ’proper’ series, the Islands Project. This, though, will be different.
I learnt many things from Mametz, not least the limitations of social media - how dare I share art that's dark, difficult and metaphorical. Art has no more reason to be uplifting and cheerful than TV should always be Downton Abbey.
So I'm thinking yet again of changing my relationship with social media; people there, for the most part, don't want to be challenged, it's leisure time and they'd prefer cat videos thank you very much. I'm not yet sure how this will pan out, but you can expect more posts to be in the form of blogs and less of them.
The second, and perhaps more pertinent thing, I learned from Mametz was the value of photographing a small area, repeatedly over a long period of time. It's not exactly the first time I've approached my work like that, but it was perhaps the first time it really sank in -just how valuable it is to an artist.
Also, if we listen to the advice of Mike Jackson
and Chris Tancock who are in my humble estimation both producing ground breaking work in landscape photography (if you'll forgive the pun), then long term devotion to a place is the way forward for the more serious landscape artist.
I'm disinterested in the ’low hanging fruit’ of new locations that barely scratch the surface. They tell me nothing about the place, the photographer or the way we interact with our surroundings.
If we stop to think about how many (perhaps the majority) of us first became interested in landscape photography - by recording the places we've visited or hiked past - then perhaps it's unsurprising that so few stop to question this approach. It feels entirely natural, organic and of course easy.
Yet what if there was a way to not only improve the depth and originality of our photography, but also find it more satisfying? For that to happen we have to question our assumptions and ourselves. It won't be found on the ’well trodden path’. Art has the potential to tell us something about ourselves, those tiny insights can be a great nourishment to the mind, something no end of pretty sunsets can ever hope to accomplish.
Cwm Blaen Taf Fechen is (for now at least) conceptually free. That's a major challenge to someone who's worked for many years within the bountiful confines of conceptual ideas. I'm going there without preconceptions, ideas or external motivations, but to explore through the artistic space of not knowing. Of course, you'd be right to say that is, in itself a concept! It's something I feel I need after 13 months of exploring the psychological trauma of war and it is something I need to do for the furtherance of myself as a landscape artist.
The artist and writer Emma Coker in Tactics for Not knowing: Preparing for the Unexpected (2013), wrote
‘Artistic practice recognises the practice of not knowing, less as the preliminary state (of ignorance) preceding knowledge, but as a field of desirable indeterminacy within which to work. Not knowing is an active space within practice, wherein an artist hopes for an encounter with something new or unfamiliar, unrecognisable or unknown’.
(Emma Bolland has written a great piece on this.)
One of the difficulties with finding that “field of desirable indeterminacy” is breaking down the barriers of received perception. Breaking out of the way of seeing and expressing ourselves through what we've seen, made or been told previously. The feeling freedom of that vast area is one of the hindrances; it's so easy to stride purposefully onwards ignoring the detail of what is there. Repeated visits are the key here, to break that mindset, to get the clichés, assumptions and received wisdoms out of my head.
I've been visiting the area now for about a month, and haven't shared any images because they felt stale, uninspiring and from someone other than myself. Finally I feel I'm starting to find that space where I can start to think afresh, and more critically see afresh.
I've been delving deeply into the art of not knowing and there is light at the end of the tunnel - just barely glimpsed. I've no idea how this will progress (which I should think of as a good thing) it may falter at this one image, it may take a wholly divergent path or I may find images to complement this one. The one thing I do know is that after a month I've barely scratched the surface. So for now, here is my first image from Cwm Blaen Taf Fechen.