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.


  1. Hi Rob,

    This is a very interesting and articulate article. The way poetry, photography and literature/creative writing are weaved together is rather wonderful.

    I do wonder about the genealogy of an image you point to here: presumably, those photographers who 'see a landscape in a particular way' photograph the landscape because 'it means something to them'. Hence, there is an 'idea' behind their photograph. Is it then different from the creative process that you refer to here?

    I must confess: I am not a photographer by any stretch of imagination. However, I am deeply interested in the creative process that goes behind photography, in general, and an image, in particular.


    1. Hi Raji,

      Thank you so much for taking the time to make a lovely, thoughtful and questioning response. It’s a great question that goes to the heart of the problem, so I've done my best to reply and it's almost as long as the original post!

      I suppose the quick and rather deceptively easy answer is that most photographers in landscape make images to say “Look where I've been.” I'm no more immune to that than other photographers, I did it just today. Although I try not to as I feel it detracts from my more “serious” work. It is, however, something photographers, like me, do almost instinctually.

      Then there are those who take some time to try to respond to what is before them and express it more clearly through a visual/and or emotional response. That again - and I'm speaking from my own experience here - isn't ’thinking’ in any way that we might normally consider it. It's a visual/emotional response. I suppose we can still put that into the category of ’descriptive’, because the ’meaning’ of the image does not attempt to transcend what is there, there is no element of hinting what may be ’beyond’ the description. That is, at least, beyond any inherent inexplicable mystery which comes with the visual medium. (“This onslaught of photography that doesn’t do much other than describing something has me a bit dismayed” @jmcolberg

      I'm not claiming that either of those is invalid - certainly not! I really am quite happy for others to engage with photography on whatever level they choose. Yet thought - ideas - can be amassed and developed over long periods of time, allowing us to add depth and complexity and, if desired, ambiguity. And I'd hope that adds something to the pleasure and complexity of response from the viewer. I always end up using the analogy of poetry (another of my loves) because I also have some little experience of the complexity of not only developing, but also expressing ideas through that medium.

      Photography isn't like music, which at least in part, can lay some claim to being inexplicable to conscious thought. (Sorry, I do realise your academic interest!). Although there are always elements within photography that might qualify for that description, which I think is one reason for clinging to a simplistic response to our visual environment. It's relying on an inherent aspect of the medium to make our claim as artists.

      Other forms of visual art would make no apologies for deploying things like allusion and metaphor, so why photography? Of course I can answer that! The camera is a mechanical device which is perceived as a barrier to ideas, the assumption being that all it can do is record. Yet of course what we choose to record and how we express through visual language transcends mere record making. Being human, our interactions with the world are both through our senses and feelings and also through thought. So it seems relatively obvious to me that art without the element of thought, or ideas, can leave us feeling unfulfilled.

      Apparently this reply is too long for Blogger format to accept - so please see the remainder below.

  2. Part two....
    I always end up criticising my former self in these posts. Although perhaps I don't make that explicit enough, because I was, in an earlier incarnation, that photographer who chose to express only on a visual/emotional level. So when I talk about ’ideas’ I am, perhaps, being a little self-deceptively simplistic. However, the difference, at least to me, between that former self producing relatively thoughtless work and the ’me’ of today who takes months, perhaps years, to fully develop my concepts and their visual expression seems like a vast gulf.

    So (I know you're asking!), what is the difference between my creative process today, and that of my former self? One of the biggest differences is I'm working within a concept. Whilst I'd admit that isn't a huge difference in itself - the work is only as good as the concept. Yet I've written over 10,000 words about Mametz Wood, most not for publication, but to decide what I think, what I know and what I don't or can't know (there's a great article on the artistic value of not knowing by Emma Bolland here . In addition I've read innumerable articles on In Parenthesis, the book itself more times than I can remember - at least 15. I realise the big numbers are in themselves irrelevant, but at least I'm not going into this with an empty head!

    One of the problems with all this research can be too much certainty, and for me not knowing, and ambiguity are important elements within my expression. Visual art that is solely about ideas isn't terribly satisfying to me. I hope others too will be looking for more ambiguous elements that they can engage with on all levels - intellectually, emotionally and through the senses. They give the viewer something an element of mystery to engage with and consider over time. One of the ways I achieve this is through creative play. The use of double exposures in Mametz Wood isn't simply to ’disrupt reality’ but also allows me to make connections I might not have previously considered. Add one image to another and the layers of meaning don't simply double, they can potentially multiply far beyond that. Make a series of images that interact with each other and that adds further dimensions.

    No doubt people will be expecting me to draw a line between photography about ideas and photography that doesn’t contain them, but in truth I don’t know what the answer is, I’m not sure there will ever be a clear line of demarcation. But that’s the joy of art, many people bringing many different forms of self-expression to the table. There are as many photographers and artist that I love that steer well clear of ideas as there are those that work within them. And there are times when a series of images develops a concept through a simple approach taken over a long period of time.

    So yeah, I am a bit contradictory, masses of research, contemplation and idea development combined with creative play that helps generate previously unseen ideas (or interpretations). But that's what you get with us confounded artists. It's actually the exploration of those contradictions that, in part, stimulates the work.

    I suppose this is the point I should weave all my contradictions into a nice neat conclusion as if to prove I had the benefit of a good education. But in truth I'm a barely housetrained and somewhat feral landscape photographer. And the sun is shining. And I want to go for a walk. So I'll let it hang here. For now. But thanks for asking.

  3. Thank you, Rob, for taking time to respond to my question. As we discussed on twitter, I don’t see your blog as a metanarrative on photography, at all. Rather, what is striking here is the subjectivity that you point to in your evolution as an artiste. Before I say anything more, two things: a) I really liked the phrase 'feral landscape photographer'- it points to certain rawness in your evolution and acquiring the ability to be street (or landscape?) smart; b) thank you for addressing my research interest. In addition to music being my research interest, I am also a trained South Indian classical musician. I wrote my thesis on it and having deconstructed it to that level, I have now 'actively' moved away from music and exploring other creative ways for self-expression. Hence, I am confronted with questions on the process.

    The discussion we had on twitter was very interesting: subjectivity is a very tricky issue. But as I had said, it makes the creative process intriguing. Also, isn’t subjectivity ubiquitous? I don’t think there is an ‘objective’ way of expression or representing anything, really. Yes, fog is an interesting analogy to use to refer to the ambiguity created by such subjectivity. The ambiguity you point to in the blog post above (whether deliberate or not) is due to one kind of subjectivity I think. However, I also wonder if ambiguity is inevitable in any form of artistic expression. Due to politics of interpretation, as audience we can never know what the artist(e) intended at that precise moment of producing that image/music. There, thus, ambiguity not only in the image but also in the process, I think. Whilst fog is a helpful analogy, a specific image comes to my mind on subjectivity and the ‘messiness’ it creates (which, of course, includes ambiguity on different levels). It is this:; the ruptures that are created that makes the process seem ‘messy’. I think the idea/intension behind this image was quite different and yet, I see this as a representation of the ‘messiness’. The use of this image as an example here, in and of itself, makes my point on ambiguity, I think.

    It is useful to look at these processes as ‘ruptures’ or ‘foggy’ or ‘messy’ without trying to clear it, as it were. Because then it becomes problematic: like photographing sunset/sunrise (something I mentioned on twitter)- the process gets demystified. I am not fetishising creativity as the 19th century idea of something bestowed upon us by the ‘Supernatural’. Rather, this rupture/messiness or whatever we call it ought to be seen as what they are- ambiguous processes that are subjective.

    1. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, as I mentioned on Twitter there's barely an idea within that I would disagree with. Yet I think some points deserve further exploration and perhaps from there it may provide further illumination.

      I don't think of my writing as a meta narrative either, my writing is, for the greater part, for myself. There are occasions I share it when I think I've made a step change in my understanding or perhaps expressed an understanding in a better way. Yet, I also believe that as I've discovered ’a way’ of self-expression then it is beholden upon me to share it. Not because it makes me sound superior, but because I feel that this ’way’ is far more personally satisfying than my previous work. I also hope it may address some of the issues regarding layers of meaning, which to my mind, and from my previous experience is an inherent problem with photography, and especially landscape photography. I'm not really sure I'm doing a very good job though! Hence the need to keep exploring and writing.

      Whilst I'd agree that both subjectivity and ambiguity are inherent in any art form, and the visual medium of photography presents us with an interesting case, being both time limited and expressed through apparent ’reality’. Yet they are the result of a far more complex interplay between intent, understanding, expression and complexity. There are differing levels of these at differing levels and uses of photography. The greatest challenge of the subjective is to understand the subject - oneself! Of course there's no simple answer, it's the pursuit of a lifetime, and sometimes the shifting sands of our foundations can surprise us.

      Of course nobody can know what was in the head of the photographer at the time of taking, but photography is like other art forms something of a window into the ’soul’ of the maker. It can equally reveal evidence of the lack of thought as it can hint at something greater. Resolving that challenge is part of what makes photography such an obsession for me. Some of us are pushing to make headway whilst most are burying their heads in the sand and pretending it's not an intrinsic question of the medium.


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