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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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’.