Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Mametz Wood article for Kwefeldein Magazine.

This is the article for the German magazine Kwerfeldein, which they kindly translated from English for me. If your German is better than mine, you can read it here

·      Late -flowering dog-rose spray let fly like bowyer's ash,
                    disturbed for the movement
                    for the pressing forward, bodies in the bower
                   where adolescence walks the shrieking wood.

I came to landscape photography from a background as a street photographer. Back in the day my heroes were Josef Koudelka and Cartier-Bresson. So I approach landscape from a similar perspective, that there's no point in making photos unless we have something to say in them, what we might generically and perhaps lazily call the ’meaning’ of the photograph.

And so till midnight and into the ebb-time when the spirit slips lightly from sick men and when it's like no-mans-land between yesterday and tomorrow and material things are but barely integrated and loosely tacked together.

If there were one criticism I'd make of much of contemporary landscape photography it's that it has nothing to say beyond describing how it was seen by the photographer. That, in part, is why I describe myself as a conceptual landscape photographer. It's important to base my work around ideas, both because I need to understand them in order to clearly communicate them and, also, so that I can delve into areas that I don't fully understand. There's little challenge as artists simply following what we already know. And there's little interest for the viewer without that element of ambiguity that not fully knowing can reveal. Sometimes it pays to be honest with ourselves, it can reap artistic dividends and be a more fulfilling creative experience.

I also love literature. In fact, I've been known to describe the way I develop my concepts as similar to that of a creative writer. If you ever want to understand what you're trying to say in your photographs, then write about it. Writing is the art of deciding both what you think and what you don't or even cannot know.

One of my greatest influences is the poetry book ’The Remains of Elmet’ by Ted Hughes with photography by Fay Goodwin. Whilst Goodwin’s photos are undeniably beautiful they should perhaps be better described as illustrations. They don't seek to be relevant to the poems other than by showing where they were written about. Yet there's a lot more depth to the poems than simply being a description of a place. If we seek to be more of an artist than an illustrator we need that process to be a two-way interaction. The resulting images need to ’feed’ off the poems, to find inspiration and expression from what they say.

·      as to this hour
      when unicorns break cover
      and come down
      and foxes flee, whose warrens know the shock,
      and birds complain in flight - for their nests fall like stars
      and all their airy world gone crazed
      and the whole woodland rocks where these break their horns.

·      A whole unlovely order this night would transubstantiate, lend some grace to.

I suppose Mametz Wood is a culmination of all these influences: photographs that try to say something other than simply being descriptive, the poetry element (and titles) provided by David Jones, from his long modernist poem ’In Parenthesis’ written about his experiences in the trenches of the First World War.

·      Dead-calm for this Sargasso dank, and for the creeping things. You can hear the silence of it.

Mametz Wood was in many ways a typically futile battle in a futile and pointless war (Is there another sort?). With great loss of life this one mile square woodland was taken by the British, a week later the Germans retook it. What is unique about it was that there were a remarkable number of poets, writers and artists in attendance. For the English-speaking world it has come to symbolise the tragedy of the wider war.

One of the poets who was there was David Jones, a private not an officer, unlike so many of the others. Jones grew up in London, but was of Welsh decent and his poem ’In Parenthesis’ embraces many influences from ancient Welsh literature and folklore. (I am also from Wales.) Mixing these myths and legends together with the reality of the first industrialised war generates what we in the modern era would describe as ’magic realism’.

·      You can't see anything but sheen on drifting particles and you move forward in your private bright cloud like one assumed who is borne up by an exterior volition.

I strongly believe that photography cannot only embrace imagination, but I've also sought to find that magic realist element in the photographs I've made here. I've used double exposures to disrupt reality (the purely descriptive part of photography) and also to introduce complexity, ambiguity and layers of meaning. By which I mean that each layer of exposure should in itself have meaning, and in the way they interact should reveal something more.

·      But sweet sister death has gone debauched today and stalks on this high ground with strumpet confidence, makes no coy veiling of her appetite but leers from you to me with all her parts discovered.

·      His eyes set on the hollow night beyond.

These photographs are dark, both literally and metaphorically, there’s no disguising the tragedy of what happened. But then I'm also interested in challenging the notion that visual art should be always uplifting and cheerful. Art to my mind can, and should, explore all the facets of our lives. Although the war was in many ways industrialised and mechanized, in this battle, by the time the soldiers began fighting within the tight confines of the wood it was dark and much of the fighting was (terrifyingly) hand-to-hand and using bayonets.

·      Like an home-reared animal in a quiet nook, before his day came... before entering into the prison of earth.

Part of my inspiration for the project was how the horror of war changes our perceptions of what is around us. The way those with a traumatized mind might see from the corner of their eyes those things that could bring back fraught memories. One of the key features of what was then known as shell shock and is now more commonly known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is the constant reliving of the events that led to the psychological trauma. I am also a recovered victim of PTSD, and this brings a greater insight into the work.

·      Suffer with us this metamorphosis.

David Jones survived the battle (he was shot in the leg and sent home), but he was deeply traumatized by the events he witnessed. He suffered two mental breakdowns after the war, and didn't complete In Parenthesis until 1937.

·      You drop apprehensively - the sun gone out,
                     strange airs smite your body
and muck rains straight from heaven.

·      Your fair natures will be so disguised that the aspect of his eyes will pry like deep-sea horrors divers see.

By then the world faced another tragic war, and perhaps the mood of the world at the time wasn't ready for this particular telling. For that reason it has long been a forgotten, overlooked work. David Jones, incidentally, went on to be far better known as a painter having studied under Eric Gill and for some time living in Gill's early version of an artists’ commune deep in the countryside of the Black Mountains of Wales.

There's an intimacy with the landscape in Jones' poetry, born both of the tight confines of Mametz Wood and as a eulogy to what was lost, it often becomes a metaphor for the tragedy that befell so many there. Yet it also comes to symbolise hope, that despite everything this is but a small part of the wider history of a place and of us.

·      Fear will so condition you that you each will pale for the other, and in one another you will hate your own flesh.

·      When the quiet came again with the sudden cessation – in the tensioned silence afterwards you couldn’t find a rag of them.

·      In the regions of air above the trajectory zone, the birds chattering heard for all the drum-fire counter the malice of the engines

He took comfort in the great sweep of history, that despite this being one of the greatest tragedies to befall mankind, that battles have occurred throughout the our history and yet somehow we (at least as societies) come through it and survive. Maybe in some lucky cases even flourish. It's the ’magic’ element of magic realism in my photos (and Jones’ poetry) that I hope gives small glimmers of hope, of the unquenchable imagination of the human mind. Because we humans are greater than war.

·      So many without memento
                    beneath the tumuli on the high hills
                    and under the harvest places.