Musings on creativity for photographers and artists by Rob Hudson

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

An Easter Tale: In Pursuit of Spring and Edward Thomas’ photographs from 1913.

As I write it is almost exactly 101 years since the poet Edward Thomas cycled from London to Somerset. Navigating via the cathedral towns of Winchester, Salisbury and Wells over an Easter weekend during the tail end of winter, in what was a late Spring. It was, he said “A north Easter". That journey was to become the basis for his prose work ’In Pursuit of Spring’. And amongst his archive at Cardiff University are some remarkable photographs made along the journey, most have never before been published. You can see the route taken on the map below; Alison Harvey at the University’s archives has geotagged the spots photographs were taken along the route.
Image courtesy of Zee Maps.

About two years ago while researching Edward Thomas’ poetry as possible inspiration for a photography series I was lucky enough to visit the University's Edward Thomas Archive. Surrounded by boxes of manuscripts, notes and letters I was shown a small brown battered Manila envelope labeled with Thomas’ home address and ’53 photographs’. Inside there were actually 60 brown, faded photographs most noting on the reverse, in pencil, the locations along the route.
The envelope containing Edward Thomas' photographs from In Pursuit of Spring, 1913.

I was entranced, my literary studies fell somewhat by the wayside as, try as I might to concentrate elsewhere, my attention was continually drawn to these visions of the past. They are not only images of a lost era, but an era that was about to change suddenly, dramatically and irrevocably in only a few short months' time. And that change was to be witnessed as much as any by Thomas himself.

The power of this tale lies in its moment in history, Easter 1913, just before the outbreak of the First World War. While there were suspicions of war, Thomas was certainly unaware of the terrible tragedy that was about to engulf the world. Thomas cycled west to rediscover a joy for life and an appreciation for nature as the seasons changed to one of hope and renewal.

It is not yet spring. Spring is being dreamed and the dream is more wonderful and more blessed than ever was spring. What the hour of waking will bring forth is not known, catch at the dreams as they hover.

Turner's Tower, Hemington, Radstock, Avon.
Escaping the claustrophobic confines of the city, and sheltering from the rain under the awning of a pet shop, his companion (or altar-ego) The Other Man buys a caged bird only to set it free a few moments later. There's a metaphor here for the escape and freedom of the journey and perhaps for the caging effect on the mind of the onset of war. Cycling into the uncertainty of a rain swept countryside "the road was like a stream on which I floated in the shadows of trees and steep hillsides".

As Thomas cycled west his mood lifted as the weather improved and the seasons began to turn. Where, finally in the Quantock Hills of Somerset  "on a glorious sunlit road the million gorse petals seemed to be flames sown by the sun", Spring finally arrives. He had found Spring and was “confident that I could ride home again and find Spring all along the road."

Nr Croscombe, Wells, Somerset.

In Pursuit of Spring was to be one of Thomas’ last prose works. Encouraged by his friend, the American poet Robert Frost, he became convinced the purer literary form of poetry was his future. Despite his four short years as a poet, Ted Hughes later declared Thomas to be the "Father of us all", meaning modern poetry, and poetry with a strong connection to the natural world in particular.

In Edward Thomas' hand "nr Tinkerswood".
One of the mysteries of these photographs is how two appear to be from Tinkiswood burial chamber in South Wales. How they made it into this selection of photographs is unknown, because it wasn't part of his route for In Pursuit of Spring. Despite being virtually opposite Kilve on the South Wales coast, a little inland from Barry, there's no evidence that Thomas crossed the Bristol Channel at this time. Written in Edward Thomas’ hand on the reverse is ’Nr Tinkerswood' which is how it was known until acquiring its non-racist recent name in the 1940s. I've included them because of the associated legend that anyone who spends a night at this site on the evenings preceding May Day, St John's Day (23rd June), or Midwinter Day would either die, go raving mad, or become a poet. Which seems rather apt in this context.

Edward Thomas.
When war broke out the following year Thomas struggled with the question of whether to enlist. Despite being, at 37 years old and married, exempt from the requirement to do so, he joined the Artist’s Riffles in 1915. His decision is often attributed, in part, to his friend the American poet Robert Frost whose book The Road not Taken was intended as a gentle mocking of indecision. Perhaps Frost (who had returned to the U.S.) underestimated the pressure to enlist in the UK and the febrile atmosphere surrounding the war. There was also a considerable government propaganda effort that must have swayed the mood of both Thomas and so many of his contemporaries.

When asked why he'd enlisted, he reputedly picked up a handful of soil, and said simply, ’For this.’ Today that gesture feels shockingly nationalistic, but perhaps that is an illustration of the skewed patriotic sentiment generated by the war, as wars have a tendency to produce. Indeed, Thomas had had bitter arguments with his nationalistic father and the poet Ralph Hodgson had accused him of being a German sympathiser. 

Edward Thomas in military uniform.
He died on the fields of Arras on another Easter; Easter Monday, 9th April 1917. At 7.36 am he was killed by the concussive blast wave of a shell as he, reportedly, stood to light his pipe. A concussive blast wave doesn't, as we might imagine, blow a person to pieces, but it sucks the air from their lungs and stops their heart. Life was literally sucked out of one of the English language’s greatest literary talents, as it was from so many millions.

The photographs themselves speak strongly of travel, of movement through the landscape. They are of (car free) roads and paths, views, and buildings discovered along the way. Far better literary experts than I have tried and failed to tie the photographs to passages in the prose. Which leads us to wonder at their purpose - were they an aide memoir a method of illustrating his journey to friends and family, or simply a record made from the joy of photography and traveling itself? Perhaps a mixture of them all.

The authority of the photographs lies as much with who made them as of the depictions within images themselves. They are ’journeyman’ photographs, in the both senses of the word. Yet, of course, one of the joys of photography is its accessibility, its democracy. And in 1913 it was becoming widely practiced and Thomas had only taken up photography two years previously.

An unnamed road along the route. 
To profess the images as art would be to risk the veracity of history. And, yet, the question of what is the art of the photographic record or document is one that goes to the heart of photography itself. As Gerry Badger wrote of Eugene Atget “one can be enveloped in reserves of poignancy, for which the extensively modest functions of the not prepare.”. And I think there's as much poignancy for us for that lost era before the First World War as there was for views of Atget’s pre-Haussmann Paris.

There is something in Thomas’ photographs of what Walker Evans describes as the ’projection of the person’. They reflect his passions and preoccupations, the English countryside as seen by that particular poet. If they are common preoccupations, those shared widely, then that is in part what the photographer who doesn't apply himself fully to the craft will generally produce. Despite that there is undeniable photographic skill here, and if it is necessary for every good photographer to be part poet, at least Thomas had that advantage already.
Castle St. Bridgwater.

Even the visual failings add to the poignancy. The darkness of some of the early images (a result of poor weather or technical errors?) creates for us, with the benefit of hindsight, a feeling of foreboding. As the journey progressed and the weather improved the photographs noticeably lighten. This was surely not intentional, but it does add to our viewing experience from the perspective of history. These are shadowy glimpses into the mind of the photographer and history obscures as much as it adds the false perspective of time.
Unknown location.

Indeed, the majority of the images were made at the end of his journey, 30 (out of 60) of those identifiable were made in Somerset. So it seems that as the weather improved and his mood lifted he was happier making photographs, as the growing happiness is also revealed through his prose.


Appears to read "The Darns nr Salisbury".
We will never know the internal motives of these images, we can only speculate. Perhaps they were the result of the simple joy of looking? I’d suggest they illustrate a more personal relationship with the land and the journey itself because photographs are inescapably personal. Even if we try to make them otherwise our choices in subject, framing and atmosphere define them as ’ours’.

Of course he should be better remembered by his poetry, such as In Memoriam, written only two years later, at yet another Easter, in 1915:

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

And that is the final connection with Easter for this story; the Easter of 1913 when he set out In Pursuit of Spring; The Easter Monday 1915 of In Memoriam; and the Easter Monday, at Arras where he died. Easter, of course, is when we traditionally celebrate The Resurrection, and it is perhaps fitting that Edward Thomas’ words and now his photographs outlive him.

All photographs by kind permission of Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University, and the Estate of Edward Thomas.

I've added the remaining images below, please click on them to enlarge. 

Above Nettlebridge.
Appears to read "Warren near Laughton".
Approaching Edington, Somerset.
Arlesford, Winchester.
Bishops Sutton, Hampshire
Bradford Canal, Wiltshire.
Bradford on Avon.
Brook, Timsbury, Bath, Avon.
Croscombe, Somerset. 
Croscombe, Somerset. 
East Quantoxhead, Somerset. 
Edington, Somerset.
From Polden Hills, Somerset. 
From Polden, Somerset.
From Polden, Somerset.
Headbourne Worthy, Winchester.
Kilmerston, Avon. 
Kilve Priory, Somerset.
Leathered, Surrey. 
Mendips, Somerset.
Nr Froyle, Hampshire.

Nr Shapwick, Somerset.
Nr Ashcott past Walton or at Shapwick.
Near Grimstead, Wiltshire.
Nr Kilve Priory.
Nr Kilve.
Polden Hills, Shapwick, Bridgwater, Somerset.
Rudge, Frome, Somerset
Rudge, Frome, Somerset.
Salisbury Plain.
Shapwick, Somerset.
Swell nr Taunton, Somerset.
Swell, Taunton, Somerset.
The Hog's Back, Surrey.
Quantocks, Crowcombe.
Rear of above, mentions Coleridge.
Walton, Street, Somerset.

Wells Cathedral moat.
West Dean, Salisbury.

All photographs by kind permission of Special Collections and Archives, Cardiff University, and the Estate of Edward Thomas.

Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Isn't it about time we stopped using the term ’documentary photography’?

“There is no way events in the world can be directly recorded in our brains, they are experienced and constructed in a highly subjective way. Our only truth is narrative truth, the stories that we tell each other and ourselves, the stories we continually re-categorise and refine. This sort of sharing, of communion would not be possible if all our knowledge, all our memories were tagged as private and seen as exclusively ours. Memory arises not only from direct experience, but from the intercourse of many minds.”
Oliver Sachs, from “Speak, Memory” New York Review of Books, 2013.

Isn't it about time we stopped using the term ’documentary photography’? I suppose ’Department of Narrative Photography’, or ’narrative photographer’ doesn't quite have the ring of seriousness contained the the word ’documentary’, but it  is certainly more honest given the above.

Changing the name would have wider impacts; no longer would we have to discuss the ’truth’ of photography, or read articles complaining that one image didn't change the world - and that would certainly be a relief.

It would also give a greater legitimacy to more creative expression in photography that has been been decried as mere ’pictorialism’ for generations. And perhaps, we'd be open to a more collaborative approach to better explore the ’many minds’.

If we think of ourselves as novelists or even poets instead of documentarists then a whole new world of possibility opens before us. Creative possibilities that offer a more mature and honest perspective for the future direction for photography. The possibility of imagination that might help us reconcile meaning in our lives through small insights and a sense of shared common perspective much like good literature. Hey, it might even be more fun!

In truth, this is already what the best ’documentary photography’ is doing, despite the name. But we’ll never know the hindrance of a name until we change it.

Sunday, 8 March 2015

Singing the world into existence.

Introducing a new series: Songlines. 

By some remarkable coincidences things just seemed to fall into place on Friday. Reading, conversations, seeing and photography combining to create new thinking and a new series that I suspect I will be pursuing for a long period of time. 

The first element was seeing. While wandering through my local beech woods, and looking (vaguely) for something that will progress onwards from my Mametz Wood series, I started to notice something new to me. There were strange patterns, shapes and forms in those trees that could if we recognise them as such be called simply ’art’. What struck me was that it needed a person to not only see that art, but to recognise it as such. In short, there's art out there and it's growing on trees! 

The second element was reading ColinPantall's blog about Robert Macfarlane’s new book ’Landmarks' and how important the naming of things can be to the recognition of their existence. He used the example of the ’Missing Buildings’ project by Thom and Beth Atkinson. Those missing building are all around us, but it's only in their naming that they become significant. To quote Colin “Experience leads to language and language leads to seeing. And seeing leads to photography.” And I still needed a name for the tree art I'd discovered. 

The third and final element was a Twitter conversation with John MacPherson about my Songs of Travel series. He asked if the title came from Bruce Chatwin’s book Songlines. I responded, without realising the significance at the time, that it, in fact, came from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem. And thought nothing more of it, for a while... 

It was a couple of hours later that I realised that there was a name for this tree art, one that was already in existence and that the Songlines that John had spoken of would be perfect. Naming equals significance. 

Songlines are a creation myth held by the indigenous peoples of Australia that, to quote Bruce Chatwin “...tell of the legendary totemic being who wandered over the continent in the Dreamtime, singing out the name of everything that crossed their path - birds, animals, plants, rocks, waterholes - and so singing the world into existence." 

“In some cases, the paths of the creator-beings are said to be evident from their marks, or petrosomatoglyphs, on the land, such as large depressions in the land which are said to be their footprints.” Wikipedia. 

I can't claim to share such animist beliefs, but I do feel a close affinity with trees and forests. Indeed, I wrote a poem a few years ago with the simple line “Tall trees temple” attempting to express that feeling of otherworldliness we sometimes get from being in the forest, the analogy being with a similar feeling we might experience in a church. The belief I can happily share is the need to ’sing the world into existence’ or that naming things gives them a power and maybe an existence they could not possess unnamed. 

The images are presented as negatives. As any film photographer will know the negative image can have a beauty and otherworldliness all of their own. And to me that encapsulates what I'm seeing, the otherness and the requirement for us to see in new ways. To recognise art when it's before us. What a wonderful world!

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