Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Landscape photography books of 2014, a personal selection: Scattered Waters by Thomas Joshua Cooper.

The following are in no particular order of preference, but might be in the order they fell through my letterbox.

Scattered Waters, Thomas Joshua Cooper. Published by Ingleby Gallery, Edinburgh. 96 pages, hardback, RRP £30.

Here's a photography book for photographers, it speaks the language of photography quietly and elegantly. It's a remarkably unshowy, contemplative work, which, while not exactly referencing other photographers manages to speak in their tongue, in tone, rhythm and in the pure joy of the surface of the silver print. Okay, it's a book, so they aren't silver prints at all, but it seems to retain many of their qualities.

There's nothing clever or original about the concept - following rivers from source to sea - yet it would be a lesser book without it; it is the gel that binds it together much like the binding of the spine. Perhaps it's a little stale, safe, comfortable? He doesn't attempt to redefine the language of photography, but to utilise it as poetry. There are worse sins. And maybe, just maybe it’s better for avoiding such ’youthful’ concerns.

The question I'd ask is how many others can pull this off so successfully? I fear my reply might be few if they allow themselves to be defined by their tools rather than expressing themselves through them. This is the complacency of photography today, which Cooper does much to promote in his controlled public image. It seems odd for a professor of photography to have so little to actually say, at least in public. The emphasis on analogue tradition seems designed to appeal to ’photo world’, while saying nothing about creativity itself.

Having said that, the pictures do speak of more; there are so many distinct representations of the forms of the water as it evolves along its journey. A visual hymn to the river, with a visual integrity many of us would do well to follow. Its apparent simplicity is also, perhaps, its poetry. That musicality of the hymn is mirrored in the rhythms, the gentle tonality and the wash of the waves. Because if there’s a secondary, underlying concept, it is a visual mimicry of the sounds of the river. It's that which raises it up above so many wannabes. As ever, it is ideas and their expression which breathe new life into old language.

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.
Click on the image to see it larger

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.

Sunday, 26 October 2014

New directions: Cwm Blaen Taf Fechen.

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 clich├ęs, 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.