I landscape, You landscape, We landscape..

Recently I attended Street View – An evening with Jesse Alexander. He examined themes from his book Perspectives in Place whilst contextualising the work by clients of the Sheffield Cathedral Archer Project.

The Archer Project is a holistic service designed to help homeless people improve their lives. The OCA worked with service clients and Off the Shelf festival to create photographs of Sheffield. The participants were given disposable cameras and asked to create a series of photographs. The results unveiled unfamiliar perspectives on Sheffield’s people, buildings, streets and open spaces.

As a non photographer attending a photography talk I was a little bit tentative at first, luckily Jesse began the talk by speaking about Constable. In particular his Haywain painting. Jesse’s first encounter of the painting was as a child, then later at university Peter Kennard’s photomontage ‘Haywain with Cruise Missiles’ hung outside the darkroom at UCA as he waited for prints. As an adult he became more fixated on detail, in particular the figures in the background. He noted the need to recognise a scene as a scene, everything in it’s right place. The national image of the great British landscape – patriarchal and cliche.

John_Constable_The_Hay_Wain

But what happens when your values and experiences conflict with this? In order to look at landscape differently it is necessary to dismantle the traditional, Jesse spoke about artists like Ingrid Pollard, Jo Spence and Terry Dennett who challenge social constructs.

We have an innate urge to represent the world around us, but how can we do this in a unique, original way? It seems we are all psychologically drawn to the same thing – the picturesque. One of the questions that was asked was the effect of mobile phone photography and the range of images we see. Jesse spoke about artist Penelope Umbrico who for her ongoing work ‘Suns from Flickr’ appropriates images from the site. The first installation in 2006 was titled ‘541,795 Suns From Flickr’ and it ranges to ‘8,730,221 Suns from Flickr’ in 2011. The work comments not only on our obsession with sharing and consuming images but our similar tastes.

flickrsuns

One of the things that resonated with me when reading Jesse’s work was to not think of landscape as a noun – but rather a verb. How you as the photographer intervene and interact with the terrain. The ability to create a narrative within the work, a subjective statement – political, social, cultural and to successfully communicate it. Jesse says put simply Landscape is turning a space into a place.

The fundamental process of photography is the ability to control and manipulate to create the image you want to be seen, as technology grows it is so easy to alter images in an instant – Photography as truthful, accurate representation could be considered a myth, however the participants of this project were only equipped with disposable cameras – their photographs are honest, authentic.

Within his book Jesse speaks about Robert Adams who breaks landscape down into three fundamental principles: Geography, Autobiography and Metaphor. Bearing this in mind it makes it easier to read and contextualise the body of work created for the project.

Another thing Jesse addressed in his writing which for me is relevant to this series is the notion of the road. Symbolic of journey and liberation but for the photographers of the Archer Project – the road is their home. When examining the photograph below Jesse described the barrier poles as being a two finger salute to the development behind it. He also commented that barriers were a common theme in the images, so perhaps the road as a liberating place isn’t true for all.

ParkHill

This image of a plant/weed growing in the concrete was for Jesse a very powerful metaphor for the struggle and perseverance of the participants, their determination despite restriction.

Treetrunkwithplant

Jesse closed with the image below. He commented that he saw the wooded area as a threatening space where perhaps illegal and disturbing activity took place but when he spoke about it with the the photographer they saw it as a getaway space, an oasis in the city. I wonder do we have a preconceived notion of place based on who the photographers are and their personal situation, by having this information to hand does it alter our reading of the image?

Treesandsigns

Street View – An Exhibition of Photographs by Clients of the Cathedral Archer Project will be shown at the Winter Garden in Sheffield from the 26 – 31 October.

Images: John Constable, The Haywain, 1821.

Penelope Umbirco, Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr, 2006 – ongoing.

‘Park Hill’, ‘Tree Trunk with Plant’ and ‘Trees and Signs’ by users of the Cathedral Archer Project, created for ‘Street View’.

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7 comments for “I landscape, You landscape, We landscape..

  1. 20 October 2015 at 8:55 am

    Thank you Joanne for your interesting reflections.
    I went to a talk by Jem Southam which was lead by Jesse, too, if I remember correctly.
    Jem was highlighting many of the same considerations about landscape, but perhaps from a slightly different angle. The notion of interaction with the place was certainly something I came away with. Jem visits the same places repeatedly, and photos the exact same view (as far as is possible), providing a photographic documentary of the passage of time upon the landsacpes or places he visits.
    I will be following up on the links you have provided to other artists.
    I’m not a photographer either, but was very pleased to have attended.
    Alison

  2. 20 October 2015 at 10:32 pm

    This post made me pick up Jesse’s book again and encourages me to consider the Landscape module more comprehensively.
    One question that does seem to linger is the notion of the picturesque which is essentially unobtainable since it represents an ideal. However, one cannot escape from the picturesque as long as one is making pictures which photographs are although potentially quite different pictures to those painted.
    I try to avoid making deliberately picturesque images but am still trying to communicate beauty in what I am doing and possibly romance which of course inevitably leads one back to the picturesque. Looking at Jem Southam’s photographs one feels almost transfixed by their simple nature yet they are might be considered dull in their ordinariness; his books do not sell in large numbers yet the photographs are ones one can return to and perhaps understand anew on repeated views.
    Jesse Alexander’s website Perspectives on Place (https://perspectivesonplace.wordpress.com) is worth referring to if one wants to consider the ongoing debate about Landscape!

    • 24 October 2015 at 11:16 am

      Hi Amano, Thanks for the plug for my blog!

      I think the picturesque – or the idea of idealisation more broadly – is something that so many of us find ourselves straying towards, even when we try studiously not to be lured towards! I think that as ones practice and, more importantly – ones appreciation for the potential of others’ practices – develops in maturity and sophistication, I think our ideas of ‘beauty’ change from something that is affirming and soothing, to something that it maybe more challenging – there can be beauty in an uncomfortable truth I think, or just in something that we can’t quite articulate or explain.

      But anyway – that’s a pretty massive topic in itself, so let’s not go there – here at least!

      I basically subscribe to Robert Adam’s definition of beauty (in his lovely book ‘Beauty in Photography’) which is that – very roughly – truth is beauty. And I see a lot of that in the photographs from the Streetview Project (see the blog by the way for it, now live… http://streetviewuk.me )

      Also, will just take this opportunity to plug an event I’m going to in Bristol in 2 weeks (Saturday 7th Nov) – tickets still available I think and it will be great, I promise – and Jem Southam is speaking http://www.photobookbristol.com/index.php/forthcoming-events

      • 25 October 2015 at 12:46 pm

        already booked for the Saturday event in Bristol at the South Bank Club; photography being shared by the likes of Jem Southam and Susan Derges in a relaxed setting … yes, the picturesque is a massive topic but thanks for banging in another nail on the subject Jesse.
        One aspect that interests me is the transcendental! A dated concept perhaps if one thinks back to Kant and slightly more recently Ralph Waldo Emerson yet if one reconsiders it not so much as a concept yet more of an experimental understanding which I find implied by the work of Richard Long then it takes on a different aspect. The transcendental evoked by the picturesque is to me rather sugar coated.
        Enough said!

  3. 21 October 2015 at 10:16 am

    Thank you Jo for your write up. I would have liked to have been able to go. Like Amano I am doing Landscape so am interesting in the ongoing debates about what is or is not a landscape!

  4. 24 October 2015 at 1:23 pm

    What an interesting perspective on landscape! I was particularly struck by the fact that two people could look at the same subject, a stand of trees in an otherwise urban setting, and feel such different responses to it. Jesse Alexander’s take on the wooded area was that it was that it held threat and that it was to be avoided because of potential danger, whereas the photographer saw the space as being a an oasis of calm and escape. I am with the photographer on this one and I find it hard to understand Jesse’s position. My natural tendency would be to make for the beauty and intimacy of the wooded area in order to avoid the stark, inanimate and impersonal environment of the buildings.
    I guess that if one is brought up with a love of nature and a sense of belonging in wild settings then one will have a very different response to woods than someone brought up in an urban environment.
    It is easy to lose sight of the fact that when a viewer looks on anything, be it a landscape, a person, an object or whatever, they inevitably bring themselves, their background and their experiences to bear on their appreciation and emotional response to the subject. This will at least in part explain the different responses of individuals to any art work, be it sculpture, music, painting or photograph, and will inevitably mean that a dislike of, or discomfort with, a particular depiction does not necessarily denigrate or negate the work.
    One is then led on to consider the artist’s purpose for the work of art and the purpose of the viewer in looking at it. If the artist is trying to create beauty and connection and the viewer is looking for challenge and discomfort, there will be a friction and mismatch. Equally so if these aims were reversed. Traditional landscape artists have tended to seek to depict the beauty, balance and harmony of their subject to produce connection, peace and pleasure in the minds of their audience but many 20th Century photographers and artists have sought other perspectives which have left many viewers with a sense of loss or bewilderment. Is this indicative of a change in lifestyle, environment and sense of belonging in the modern era? This is clearly a subject that would reward greater time and attention than I am able to give it at the moment!

    • 26 October 2015 at 11:46 am

      ” Jesse Alexander’s take on the wooded area … was that it held threat and that it was to be avoided because of potential danger, whereas the photographer saw the space as being … an oasis of calm and escape.”
      Jem Southam made the point (I am not writing verbatim but from memory) that a photograph or even any picture that has an open expanse of water along it’s base line might evoke in the viewer feelings of discomfort, that they are “out of their depth” – this was for me an interesting point and I decided to reprint one photograph with land in the lowest part of the frame rather than water. The result is to me more contemplative, the viewer is more secure and hence finds it easier to reflect upon the scene.
      However, I also feel the certain unease produced by the presence of water along the baseline can help to add drama to an image.

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