Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Map of Love: Dylan Thomas' landscapes, you and me.

I don't know about others, but my most common experience of the landscape is being overwhelmed. Sometimes I'm overwhelmed with sensations, sometimes the visual overwhelms, and there are times when it's so overwhelmingly callous and indifferent that it inspires fear. Sometimes it's as overwhelming as love. Mostly I'm overwhelmed by its mystery, its unknowableness, its otherness.

The Map of Love series was conceived as my way to try to understand and express these feelings and to wonder at how a poet is shaped by the landscape, as Dylan Thomas obviously was. And, also to find a way of expressing that swirling miasma of impressions we receive from being somewhere. There is the experience of now, the experience of time, of growing up and being shaped by our environment and, later, of finding our reflection within it. The series is named after Dylan Thomas’ first volume of poetry.

It’s as much as about Dylan Thomas’ places as it is also about our places. There is, I hope, to be a universality rather than a specificity. A joining together not a pushing apart. That's one thing visual art can do well - bring us together in shared understandings and shared insights. The communal, the human is something that's important to me in my work as a landscape photographer. It's not that I'm dismissive of the landscape as a physical entity, but that I believe we really see and appreciate it through the ’lens’ of both our own and other’s experience of it.

Cwmdonkin Park is somewhere I once knew well. More years than I care to remember have past since I lived just around the corner. These were my green days (as Thomas would have it), I was a student and it was a time when I actually had time.

I spent a lot of time in that park; it had a magnetic pull above the desire to escape the cold, damp and loneliness of my student digs. (Although it was a time when going for a walk was often the cheapest way of getting warm.) Part of that magnetism for me was its history - of the part it played in the childhood and the shaping of Dylan Thomas who grew up at 5 Cwmdonkin Drive, literally across the road.

Walking was also part of my makeup. I'd been a dog owner and my regular routine was a mile in the morning and five miles in the afternoon after school. I wonder if there's a connection between dog ownership and landscape appreciation and landscape photography? The dog (a Lassie style collie) had to stay home when I went to Swansea; there was no room in those digs. I regretted that, but walking was so much a part of my routine that it didn't cease abruptly.

That park on my doorstep became a regular part of my life. And it was such a wonderful park, nothing like the ill-mown scraps of dog-shitty grass with a few scrappy trees that was familiar from my past. Not only was it the park of Thomas’ childhood it was like a child’s imagining of a park. There was the old fashioned drinking fountain, a green painted metal scallop shell with a little brass tap. There was the mock-Tudor pavilion, all half-timbered black and white yet clearly Edwardian like the surrounding streets. The paths wound in great sweeping curves around the hills that seemed to shelter it from the world outside. And there were trees; not scrappy afterthought trees, but deliberately chosen, varieties, mature, graceful and trees. Sheltering, obscuring, enclosing trees that said this part of the park is mine even on the rare warm days when it was busy. But my greatest memory is that view. Swansea being a city on a hill overlooking a large sweeping bay that stretches out the Mumbles, is dominated by this view. It's inescapable and it's completely transfixing.

The park frames that view; it's a bowl shape scraped out of the hillside and at the far end, through the trees lies the ocean, once again framed by the three ’islands’ of the Mumbles. Inevitably I took my camera - I'd already been a keen photographer for a dozen years or more. And it was in that park I made my earliest steps in self-expression through photography; albeit, in retrospect, naive, romantic steps. I'd had no formal education in art (I still don't) neither did I have a great insight into art at that time. Although the brash colours of the Glyn Vivian Gallery were beginning to suggest something important beyond and maybe within.

I'm not really a photographer of views, views are a sort of lowest common denominator of landscape photography, they place one in the landscape nothing more. And even then I can't remember photographing the view. I knew I had to include it when I returned 27 years later (yes it's been that long!).

The park today is sanitised, theme parked; the local authorities have tried (and to my eyes failed) to make it a tourist destination on the Dylan Thomas trail. In my day it may have been rusty and down at heel, but at least it retained its connection with the past. It seems to have lost those quiet, intimate corners, replaced by plazas of ’artist’ designed paving and a Dylan Thomas lookout (read inappropriate triangular shelter). Even the toilets have been rebuilt in an easy to clean and utterly antiseptic modern style.

It threw me; I'd gone with a preconception that was dashed. I had to return a second time when I'd recovered from the tremor of not knowing, or maybe misremembering. So, although this may not be an award-winning (ha!) image that lights up social media (ha again!), it's sure to be my most personal in the series.

In truth, I made a simpler, more accessible image here, but it failed to express what I wanted it to say. It's my past, Dylan Thomas’ past thrown together with a sadness at ’progress’. I can't think of a better way to represent the multiplicity of thoughts than through the multiple exposure; disrupting reality and time and the complexity that suggests being overwhelmed. And, of course, the one thing they can't change is that view.
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