A5 Research: Farmwork – Colin Shaw

A Relief Worker at a Dairy Unit - Colin Shaw 1985

A Relief Worker at a Dairy Unit – Colin Shaw 1985 (https://www.colinshaw.co.uk)

I first came across Colin Shaw’s Farmwork in one of Café Royal Books’ (1 & 2) excellent little pamphlet publications that are fast creating a remarkable archive of 1970s and 80s British documentary photography. After researching the photographer and recognising that, like John Darwell, his work sympathetically expressed a deep understanding of the realities of rural life I managed to track down a copy of his 1988 book by the same name (4).

Shaw grew up in a farming community in Warwickshire, his father had been a farm labourer before the young Shaw was born, and those early experiences and his continued close association with rural villages have enabled him to represent the countryside, not as a rural idyll, but as landscape moulded and exploited by human hand as an industrial resource.

Moulded, exploited, and industrial, are not words used to subvert the myth of a green and pleasant land, indeed most of Britain is green and pleasant, but to highlight a fundamental mis-understanding of our landscape. When we look out upon Britain from the train or motorway we are seeing a manufactured landscape, every field has been carved from ancient forest; woodland preserved and modified to produce building materials, firewood, charcoal or pit props and as hunting parks for the ruling classes; streams dammed to form ponds for fish farms; rivers narrowed and channelled, deepened and rerouted to feed water meadows or mills; great pits, some now recycled as recreational lakes, where once we quarried stone, sand, clay, lime and gravel to build everything from castles to council houses. There are no great wildernesses here, even the flora and fauna of our moors and highlands have been modified by man and their livestock. (i)

Three quarters of the total landmass of Britain is farmed and every acre speaks of historical or contemporary industrial or commercial processes, our oldest industries were based on exploiting the land; the countryside has always been a place of work but the great change is that by the beginning of the twenty first century only a small fraction of the population are engaged in those activities (ii) and the inhabitants of our towns and cities have long forgotten their agrarian heritage. Colin Shaw argues that the farm worker has become invisible (4: p.10) and that the apparent emptiness of the countryside continues to promote the myth of the British countryside as a sparsely populated rural idyll where people, divorced from the economic and social challenges of the cities, pursue a simpler and, by inference, easier life.

This year whilst researching the photography of British farming I have been surprised by the comparative lack of strong documentary work that attempts either to debunk the myth of the rural idyll or to project farming as a modern industry. (see here). I have previously discussed John Darwell (here), Dennis Thorpe (here) and James Ravilious (here) who have all completed important bodies of work documenting farming but, perhaps because I am unfairly comparing different eras of photography, only Darwell consistently speaks to me of the economic and emotional challenges of the industry as opposed to projecting farming as a tough job in “beautiful surroundings”. There are some other interesting projects that I will look at over the next few weeks including Sophie Gerrard’s Drawn To the Land which “takes an intimate look at the contemporary Scottish landscape through the eyes of the women who are working, farming and shaping it.” (6)

That long introduction brings me back to Colin Shaw whose series is focussed on people engaged in agricultural work from Orkney to Devon. Most of the photographs were taken in 1985 which positions this work six years after Denis Thorpe’s The Shepherd’s Year (here) and twenty years before John Darwell’s Dark Days (here). His workers range from young adults to women in their seventies, casual labourers to farm owners, full time farm workers and casual labourers, men and women working indoors as well as in the sun, rain and snow. This diversity is the first impression; there are stereotypes included, two elderly farmers in trilbies at a cattle market, a flat capped Leicestershire herdsman or Mr Pugh the Welsh sheep farmer but these are the minority; there is no particular commonality of dress, gender or age.

Unlike the pictorialists Shaw leaves us in no doubt that the workers are his subject, they are often positioned centre frame and usually dominate the composition. I commented on Ravilious’ work that the viewer required a level of understanding to read his work, to see past the picturesque and recognise the backbreaking work in which his subjects were engaged; in this sense there is an ambiguity in Ravilious’ work that is less present in Farmwork. Nearly without exception the subjects are actively working, engaged in their labours and it is often the small details that provide insights to their environments and potentially their philosophy.

The farms are dirty places, workers are often covered in dust and small pieces of the crop they are working with, clothes are chosen for their practicality, comfort and familiarity, torn trousers, frayed collars and cuffs, straw-hung pullovers snagged and holed, herdsman’s long heavy aprons splattered with mud and worse and teeshirts once purchased for days of leisure now deeply stained after long use as work clothes; no one here dresses for attention during their working day.

Trimming the hoof of a pedigree bull, taking great care not to cut the blood vessels just below the surface of the  hoof. From the series Farmwork - Colin Shaw 1985

Trimming the hoof of a pedigree bull, taking great care not to cut the blood vessels just below the surface of the hoof. From the series Farmwork – Colin Shaw 1985

Heavy gloves protect hands from chaffing and the cold; the heavy boots of previous generations have been replaced by trainers for dry land and wellingtons for the wet. Shaw often includes the workers’ hands, these are after all photographs of people engaged in manual labour, and they are strong hands, grimy with mud or grease, skinned and scared from mishaps, firmly grasping tools and animals, fixing, carrying, birthing, shearing, feeding, dehorning, plucking, repairing, building or just rolling a cigarette; these are hands that get a heavy job done or gently test a cow’s teats for signs of mastitis or feed a new born calf.

Shaw set out to “challenge the obscurity” of farm workers, to put “people back into the agricultural landscape” (4: p.11) and because he wanted “to document the everyday life of people who are employed on farms” (4: p.8). He achieves these objectives and has created a valuable record of farming in the 1980s so it is good to see that Reading University have “600 sets of black and white negatives and contact prints, prints and mounted exhibition prints for the ‘Farmwork’ series” (7) in the archive of their Museum of English Rural Life; this is a valuable resource.

Whereas the viewer needs to work hard to read the work of Ravilious or at least to get beyond the picturesque, Shaw’s work is significantly less ambiguous, there is a strong sense of hard physical labour being carried out in inhospitable environments. In his more recent work documenting the Peak District he shows a acute sense of line, form and colour but in Farmwork he has, probably very intentionally, avoided the picturesque; many of his compositions are formal usually including the minimum of contextual background. His approach focuses our attention on the farm workers and brings us close enough to the action to read their facial expressions and to sense the physicality of their work.

In the thirty years since Shaw completed this series farm workers have probably become even more invisible and isolated, there is now just one full time farm worker for ever seven hundred acres or farmland (ii and iii). Fully enclosed cabs on tractors and combines are vital for the health and safety of their operators but on passing a field being worked we see faceless machines and few if any humans. The population continues to drift from the countryside into the towns and most of us have no contact with anyone engaged in food production. Now more than ever the 1% of the population who produce our food need to be recognised as a vital workforce who not only help to fill the shelves of our local supermarket but who maintain, manage and nurture 75% of the landmass of these islands.

In 1985 Colin Shaw gave some of these people a face, recorded a way of life far removed from the rural idyll and revealed some of the realities of farming; a followup series is long overdue.

Notes on Text

(i) Francis Pryor tells us that “if you want to understand the landscape you cannot ignore the past” (5: p.4). Traditionally we learn that the landscape was purely natural until the first Neolithic farmers began to clear land for farming but Mesolithic hunter gatherers are now thought to have created seasonal camps on the same sites over an extended period of time so it is only logical to assume that they would have created clearings, prepared crossing places over streams, perhaps cleared the woodland from places where animals would come to drink but realistically they played a limited role in shaping the landscape we see today. The Neolithic farmers on the other hand indisputably started a process that continued until the 19th century of clearing the land of trees and rocks to plant arable crops or to enclose land for pasture. We started shaping the landscape 6,500 years ago and there is no doubt that some of Neolithic field boundaries made by clearing stones and rocks still mark modern field lines.

(ii) In the twentieth century the number of people working on the land sharply declined; in 1850 22% of the population was engaged in farming, in 2014 this had fallen to less than 1%. There is also a significant decline in employed staff, as opposed to farm owners; In 1923 there were 892,000 employed farm workers, by 2014 this had fallen to 170,000 of which only 60,000 were full time staff. To put this in perspective in the 1920s there was a farm labourer for every 50 acres, in 2014 there was one full time farm worker for every 709 acres.

(iii) This excludes farm owners and directors and casual labourers.


(1) Shaw, Colin (2016) Farmwork. UK: Café Royal Books

(4) Shaw, Colin (1988) Farmwork: Men and Women on the Land. London: Chatto & Windus Ltd


(2) Café Royal Books – http://www.caferoyalbooks.com/about/

(3) Colin, Shaw – Colin Shaw – https://www.colinshaw.co.uk

(5) Colin, Shaw (2016) What we Cannot See (accessed at the photographer’s blog 10.9.16) –   https://www.colinshaw.co.uk/what-we-cannot-see/

(6) Gerrard, Sophie (ND) Drawn To the Land (accessed at the photographer’s website 10.9.16) – https://sophiegerrard.com/work/drawn-to-the-land/

(7) Shaw, Colin (ND) The Colin Shaw Collection (accessed at Reading University 10.9.16) – https://www.reading.ac.uk/merl/collections/Archives_A_to_Z/merl-P_SHA.aspx


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A5 Research: The Myth of the Countryside Idyll

An Illustration from Farm Crops in Britain - S. R. Badmin 1955

An Illustration from Farm Crops in Britain – S. R. Badmin 1955

Our perspective of the English countryside is as a rural idyll; a place of tended pastures, thriving crops, cottage-fringed village greens hosting fetes and flower shows whilst bearded men with pipes, and pints watch cricket from dark beamed pubs. A viewpoint that could be considered nostalgic if not for the lack of an historical reference point for this perfect rural scene (i). In truth we are more likely to find our rural idyll in gentrified Cotswold villages populated by urban weekenders, or what Joe Kennedy calls the “moneyed metropolitan elite” (7), than in any traditional working agricultural settlement or at any point in rural history.

Henry Milbourne 1781 - 1826

Henry Milbourne 1781 – 1826

Art has played an important role in creating and perpetuating the myth of the British countryside. Michael Prodger (3) describes what seems like a virtuous circle that started in the 18th century as wealthy tourists sought out the picturesque country views depicted by European inspired painters; a social trend that stimulated the British school of landscape painters including Gainsborough, Turner and Constable and the “birth of the Georgian landscape in art, literature and gardening” (3) which in turn encouraged rural tourism and created a mythologised perspective of the countryside as seen though urban eyes.

The history of British landscape painting is inextricably linked to wealth and class, the market for 19th century painters was the aristocratic landowners and their new money counterparts, families whose wealth was derived from the industrial revolution. The subject matter is often of park land or the landscape represented as parkland, agriculture and the working class appear as compositional motifs more often than as the subject, sheep and cattle mingle in unlikely herds, farm workers and their families look healthy and content. Not surprisingly the farm labourer riots of the 1830’s, caused by what Cobbett called “unsatisfied hunger” (5) occurred in a parallel reality to these paintings; not a subject to hang above the fireplace in one of the great stately homes.

Harewood House from the South - Roger Fenton 1860

Harewood House from the South – Roger Fenton 1860

Landscape photography followed in the painters’ footsteps. Liz Wells describes the “two key lines of inheritance” that were formed in the early decades of the genre; firstly straight photography with a topographical intent as exemplified by Francis Frith and Roger Fenton and secondly more poetic, allegorical and mythological work such as the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron and H.P.Robinson (7: p164). Despite having been one of the earliest war photographers Fenton’s archive of British landscapes that romantically record many of the great buildings of his time shows no hint of social criticism.

The Keepers Donkey - Henry Peach Robinson 1890

The Keepers Donkey – Henry Peach Robinson 1890

The pictorialist Henry Peach Robinson occasionally included working class people in his landscapes but, like the painters before him whose picturesque aesthetic he adopted, there is no apparrant documentary motive in what feel like tableaux vivants that continue to denote the rural idyll.

Francis Frith whose archive continues to fuel a significant contemporary business enterprise could have been the great documentarist of his time; after making his fortune in first cooperage, then groceries and finally printing he retired at the age of thirty four but soon becoming bored took up travel and photography. His archive has immense historical value, he photographed hundreds of British towns but managed to avoid telling us anything about their inhabitants; yes, we see glimpses of local industry, dress and social customs but most of his work established nothing more than the invention of a postcard aesthetic that continues to this day. In his own words he sought a “romantic and perfected past, rather than …. the bustling and immature present.” (8: p.9).

A Stiff Pull - Peter Henry Emerson 1888

A Stiff Pull – Peter Henry Emerson 1888

A small number of Victorian photographers such as John Thompson and Frank Meadows Sutcliffe (here) had begun to document the urban working classes and a number of Sutcliffe’s photographs of farms around Whitby add something to the historical record of Victorian farm practices; but, the first British photographer to build a truly informative record of the rural working class was Peter Henry Emerson. His archive is differentiated by the inclusion of people plying their trades, no small achievement given the technical limitations of late 19th century photography. Wells describes his work as “naturalistic photography” and highlights that “his concern with composition and differential focussing would have allowed him a place within more tradition; pictorialist circles.” (7: p.165) His work is lyrical, impressionistic and idealistic and it is unlikely that his intent had much in common with the documentarists of the 1930s but, although his focus was on aesthetics rather than creating a social critique he offers us a rare insight into the working practices, regional clothing and the people of East Anglia.

Your Britain, Fight for it Now - Frank Newbould 1942

Your Britain, Fight for it Now – Frank Newbould 1942

It is not just the Georgian painters or pre-WW II photographers who have created our national memory of a green and pleasant land. The notion of a British countryside is fundamental to our national sense of identity, or at least for the Anglo Saxon majority; in both the first and second World Wars images of the rural idyll were used as recruitment posters and reminders of “what we are fighting for”; inferring that it was not the industrial might of one of the World’s great economies or the largest empire ever seen, or the cities where most of the population lived that defined Britain as a nation; instead a shepherd and his flock walking across a stylised hill side in view of the English Channel was the essence of Britishness.

Hop Pickers at Work Kent 1935 - Daily Herald Archive - Edward Maladine

Hop Pickers at Work Kent 1935 – Daily Herald Archive – Edward Maladine

In the first half of the twentieth century British photography began to find a photojournalist and documentary perspective that differentiated it from the picturesque and pictorial representation of the country that had been such a feature of the previous century but photographers like Humphrey Spender focussed most of their attention on urban and industrial subjects such as his study of Bolton Worktown in 1937 with rare excursions into the countryside. The Daily Herald photographers including James Jarche, Edward Malindine, Reg Sayers, Harold Tomlin and George Woodbine whom Ian Jeffrey argues should be seen as a “national movement of some consequence during the 1930s” (9) documented the period between the wars as populist news photographers, capturing Britishness in a way that, much later, was to be accepted as an art form when pursued by Tony Ray-Jones and Martin Parr. However, like Spender their stories were more often found in the towns and cities, which is a great shame as their infrequent forays into the countryside often reveal a perspective that adds to our understanding of social conditions in rural communities before the war.

Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire - Bill Brandt 1945

Top Withens, West Riding, Yorkshire – Bill Brandt

Liz Wells mentions Bill Brandt as an example of a British photographer who approached the rural landscape and its inhabitants in a different way in the 1940s. He had already established his documentary reputation with photographs of the home front during the war, one contemporary reviewer complimented his ability to get ” straight to the core of the reality of the industrialised world, of life on the dole, in a series of magnificent documentaries” (10: p.175). Paul Delany points out that before 1940 Brandt had rarely taken pictures of landscapes but as discussed above the war changed the relationship between the British and the land; the countryside became a metaphor for national identity, the thing we were fighting for, and created what Delany calls a “primal emotion: to defend the land from being invaded and desecrated by Nazism” (10: p.197). Whilst as Wells argues  that his Over the Sea to Skye series includes workers and thereby suggests an interest in the direct relationship between people and the land his landscapes are more reminiscent of the nineteenth century pictorialists with careful attention to composition, form and, notably, the weather. Delany describes how Brandt would wait for hours for landscapes to empty of people or for the right combination of sky and land to occur (10: p.198), he would often visit a location on several occasions before he found the right conditions.

Despite the influence of the pictorialists Brandt’s view of the British countryside is not pastoral and he stands separate from the painters and photographers who have mythologised our land as a serene rural idyll. His romantic compositions, often from low angles, describe the relationship between the surface of the land, what we might call the agricultural layer, and the rocks that lie beneath and the weather as represented by wind-blown hills and threatening skies. His work is romantic in the sense of being a representation of Bronte or Hardy country but it reports the hard reality of hill farms not the soft and nurtured landscapes of Fenton’s parklands.

The Road at South Lochboisdale on South Uist - Paul Strand 1954

The Road at South Lochboisdale on South Uist – Paul Strand 1954

Sometimes it takes an outsider to see a place clearly and Paul Strand’s 1954 study of the Hebridean islands is an interesting alternative but still romanticised view of Britain. As previously discussed in regard to his series on Luzzara (here) after exiling himself from an United States gripped by McCarthyism Strand was searching for what he saw as the perfect socialist society. By the time he reached the Hebrides he had already photographed rural life in France and Italy and according to Sean O’Hagen “He was drawn to the remote island community perhaps because it symbolised a simpler, more self sufficient life in contrast to the post-industrial thrust of the cities on the mainland.” (11: p.66) Strand saw the islander’s struggle to maintain their way of life as a metaphor for the wider struggle between socialism and capitalism and uses his formal straight pictures to emphasise the remote, windblown landscapes, solid vernacular architecture and ordinary people shaped by hard weather and hard work.

There are similarities between Brandt and Strand’s work, from both we gain a sense of the wilder side of Britain, but whilst Brandt is interested in the land Strand is primarily interested in its people. He uses the landscape to describe a facet of the Hebridean character, he is neither beautifying the landscape nor exaggerating its harshness, he offers a matter-of-fact description of how man and their livestock find their place in this hard land.

It is not until the seventies and eighties that the British landscape starts to be more frequently represented as something other than a rural idyll. It is beyond the scope of this essay to trace that development and, in any case, the green and pleasant land is so embedded in our collective national psyche that  the work of Simon Roberts, Chris Steele-Perkins, David Hurn or Don McCullin is unlikely to change that perception.

Current Visit Britain Campaign

Current Visit Britain Campaign

The Victorians and many of the photographers who followed them were involved in what Jesse Alexander calls “pastoral imagery” which he defines as a “performance of the countryside, a generally idealised representation of uncomplicated rural life.” (1: p.143) For the pictorialists their mission was to capture the British landscape as picturesque, they had no desire to find the realities of rural life that lay beneath the surface. For the photographers of the seventies and beyond the problem was how to represent that reality in what was often a beautiful landscape whilst knowing that the myth of the British countryside was so embedded in our national culture that it could easily subvert any social documentary intent.

Fay Godwin wrote:

“People are let out into the country … there are nice benches and lavatories, but they don’t really experience the country and they don’t experience the problems of the countryside”. (1: p.144)

Roberts highlights the eccentricities of the English in the landscape, McCullin finds the wild and dark side of the weather dominated land and explores his personal relationship with the Somerset moors, John Darwell juxtaposes the beauty of Cumbria and the disaster of the foot and mouth epidemic and Chris Steele Perkins investigates the relationship between man, animals and the landscape in the north of England. In these examples the photographers lift their work beyond the clichéd and simplistic view of the countryside and country life.

Eating from a Trough - James Ravilious 1974

Eating from a Trough – James Ravilious 1974

The more difficult work to interpret comes from practitioners such as James Ravilious who documents country life but in doing so often resorts to capturing exactly the type of pastoral scene that continues to promote the myth of a simple rural life. In many ways Ravilious’ work neatly encapsulates the challenge of understanding British landscape photography since 1970. Many of his wider landscapes appear as direct decedents of the nineteenth century painters that opened this discussion and it comes as no surprise that he originally trained as a fine artist. In this light we could accuse Ravilious of sustaining and promoting the rural idyll but Ravilious is no urban dwelling, camera-toting, tourist visiting the country to expand his portfolio. He is neither promoting nor suppressing a particular view of country life. By working in a single and contained area of North Devon he developed a deep understanding of the land and its inhabitants. Peter Hamilton argues that he had “a profound and humanistic complicity in the lives of those who passed in front of his camera” (12: p.11) and as a result his photographs “weave together artistic, social, economic and political concerns” (12: p.13).

I see in Ravilious’ work something that can also be found in David Hurn’s Land of my Fathers; concerned social documentary hiding behind formally composed and carefully executed photographs which, at a time when a significant amount of contemporary photography announces itself as “serious” by avoiding formality and aesthetic allure tempts the critic to discount Ravilious’ work as superficial and lacking in social criticism.

Colin Shaw, a photographer particularly interested in representing the countryside in realistic terms, offers a well balanced view of Ravilious.

“I have no problem with what he did and it certainly showed what living in the countryside was like. Maybe it is the way that the work has been interpreted in later years that is the problem. It seems to have slipped into some mythicised view of the rural where everything is perfect. Any hint of hardship is overshadowed by the pictorial and I am left with the feeling that living in beautiful surroundings somehow compensates for the daily grind of near subsistence farming.” (13)

Filing Sacks with Apples, West Park Farm, Iddesleigh, Devon, James Ravilious 1986

Filing Sacks with Apples, West Park Farm, Iddesleigh, Devon, James Ravilious 1986

The vast majority of the population lives in an urban environment (ii), so logically the majority of photographers and critics are city or town dwellers and we are all indoctrinated by a few hundred years of green and pleasant land propaganda that projects the countryside as a huge theme park for urban populations to visit. These factors combine to pervert our interpretation of rural photography and potentially lead to Ravilious’s work being misunderstood.

We can read Filling Sacks with Apples as an idyllic bucolic scene or understand the back breaking labour of fruit harvesting, the workday dictated by sunrise and sunset, the constant moving of ladders which are climbed and descended dozens of times in every hour, the chilling cold of autumn rain or the annoying sweatiness of being over dressed when the sun comes out, the heavy sacks that have to be manhandled to the tractor only to be unloaded again into the barn and at the press. (iii) The workers are rewarded with the minimum wage and the farmer might be lucky enough to make a small profit for a year’s work.

The best rural photography is produced by practitioners who live amongst their subject matter and whose understanding of rural life allows them to see the reality that lies  beneath the surface; Colin Shaw and John Darwell both come to mind, but this may not always be enough to bridge the gap between the ignorance of an urban audience and the harsh realities of farming.

Jesse Alexander correctly argues that “we have lost consciousness of the artifice of pastoral representation, amounting to to a myth of a countryside idyll that overshadows the actual complexities of rural life” (1: p.143) but we should take care not to dismiss representations of rural life as superficial and meaningless without considering and understanding both the subject and the intent of the photographer. Otherwise we condemn ourselves to viewing photographs that avoid aesthetic allure to such a degree as to forget that the British countryside is a beautiful backdrop to one of our most important industries and to a wide range of social, economic and political issues. The challenge for the contemporary photographer is to reflect both sides of this coin.

Notes on Text

(i) George Sturt, writing at the turn of 20th century documents a rural population living from hand-to-mouth reliant on casual harvest work and a meagre income from gardening, odd jobs or taking in laundry for the middle classes who had begun to move from the towns to rural villages. Eighty years earlier William Cobbett’s Rural Rides (5) describes rural England in the early 19th century as a place of inequality, starvation and hopeless poverty where the average farm labourer’s wage of seven pence (3p) a day purchased less bread that the ration for convicted felons (6: p.226). 

(ii) In 2014 83% of the population of England lived in urban environments and a further 9% lived in rural towns, just 4.5 million of us live in villages, hamlets or a “sparse setting”, a mere 8% of the population (2). The industrial revolution and the enclosure acts in the 18th and 19th century initiated a process of rural depopulation that, as rural industries decline and farming becomes more mechanised, continues to this day.

(iii) Having owned a 400 tree olive grove in Southern Italy since 2003 and having lived there full-time as an “olive farmer” for five years I sharply recall the aches, pains, cuts and bruises at the end of a long day harvesting. We would harvest several tonnes of olives every year and I once calculated that we lifted every single olive at least nine times between picking it from the tree and finally filling a bottle with olive oil. The Bertolli adverts mythologise Italian olive farming which is ironic as their oil is very unlikely to contain very many Italian olives … but that’s another story.



(1) Alexander, J.A.P (2015) Perspectives on Place: Theory ad Practice in Landcape Photography. London: Bloomsbury.

(4) Badmin, S.R. and Stapledon, George (1955) Farm Crops in Britain. London: Puffin Books

(5) Cobbett, William (1830) Rural Rides. London: Penguin Classics

(6) Ingrams, Richard (2005) The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett. London: Harper  Perennial

(7) Wells, Liz (2011) Land Matters: Landscape Photography, Culture and Identity. London: I.B.Taurus

(8) Hudson, Roger (2001) Travels of a Victorian Photographer. London: The Folio Society.

(10) Delany, Paul (2004) Bill Brandt: A life. London: Jonathan Cape

(11) Pardo, Alona and Parr, Martin ( 2016) Strange and Familiar. London:Prestel

(12) Hamilton, Peter ( 2007) The Photographs of James Ravilious. Oxford: The Bardwell Press


(2) Rural Population and Migration (accessed at UK Government 6.10.16) – https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/554917/Rural_population_and_migration_2015.pdf

(3) Prodger, Michael (2012) Constable, Turner, Gainsborough and the making of Landscape (accessed at the Guardian 7.10.16) – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2012/nov/23/constable-turner-gainsborough-making-landscape

(7) Kennedy, Joe (2013) Terror in the Terroir: Resisting the Rebranding of the Countryside (accessed at The Quietus 6.10.16) – http://thequietus.com/articles/14114-country-life-british-politics-uncanny-music-art

(9) Jeffrey, Ian (2014) British Photography: Some Pointers (accessed at Photoworks 6.9.16) – https://photoworks.org.uk/british-photography-pointers/

(13) Shaw, Colin (2016) What we cannot See (accessed at the photographer’s website 10.9.16) – https://www.colinshaw.co.uk/blog/

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Charlotte Cotton: Something and Nothing (part 2)

Sulmona, Abruzzo - Steve Middlehurst 2008

Sulmona, Abruzzo – Steve Middlehurst 2008

When Cotton (1) moves away from still life to look at deserted landscapes she introduces a number of photographers whom I find much easier to understand and relate to. Richard Wentworth’s photographs of the signs and debris of the street are very much in the tradition of found objects or ready-mades but by leaving the subjects in situ, and in situations where the found object and its location are often a juxtaposition of materials he emphasises their ambiguity and asks with wit and humour how things come together on the street, what sequence of events led to these strange combinations, how have these objects acquired new purposes and what happens next. I have discussed his Making Do and Getting By series (6) here.

Wentworth is quite exceptional and has worked over many years to develop a quirky and very personal portfolio but he is not the first or last photographer to be drawn to the strange traces we leave on city streets. Walker Evans, a photographer with an eye for unintentional street sculpture, often focussed on the evidence of human activity in the absence of human presence. In his later colour work carried out for magazines in the 1950’s and 60’s he explored sidewalk retail displays worthy of Open All Hours in his series The Pitch Direct (3), “the restless, cacaphonic design created by time, the weather, neglect, and the fine hand of delinquent youth” in his series Color Accidents and the graphic design details unintentionally created by adjacent architectural structures in his black and white studies for The Architectural Record in 1930.

What Wentworth, Evans, Wim Wenders, Anthony Hernandez, Franco Fontana and many others have in common is the knack to see what Cotton calls subjects that are “overlooked – socially and politically as well as visually” (1: p125). This is not to suggest that their intent is similar or even that they share a political viewpoint but they all investigate the human condition by focusing on the signs of our passing, the archeology of the street.

Our expectation of street photography is to see people, Arbus, Winogrand and the like explored the human condition in a very direct manner but these practitioners find that the things we create communicate as much, if not more than representations of our physical form. Exaggerating somewhat to prove the point we could argue that a photograph of an architect tells us less about him or her than a picture of one of their buildings; Wentworth’s found sculptures or Wenders deserted landscapes are so heavy with human presence, so much a direct consequence of human action that we believe they offer both cultural and social insights.

Blain 1 Southern, Berlin from the series Time Capsules by the Side of the Road - Wim Wenders 2015

From the series Time Capsules by the Side of the Road – Wim Wenders 2015

As Wim Wenders describes it:

“I am interested in what traces we leave in landscapes, in cities and pleas. But I wait until people have gone, until they are out of the shot. So the place can start talking about us.” (4)

There is a sense of melancholy in Wender’s work, the feeling of deserted places. As a photographer he appears detached from the scene, a recorder of another race’s follies, abandoned dreams and fruitless enterprises. This is not to say that his work is a clichéd representation of decaying architecture, yes there is plenty of decay, but also pristine contemporary buildings and preserved histories so his series are a much broader criticism of human impact on the landscape. As a film maker Wender is used to slow considered processes and his choice of large format cameras fits with that approach, his work is thoughtfully composed and aesthetically pleasing with echoes of Stephen Shore’s earlier road-trip work.

Wenders’ viewpoint is philosophical and psychological; he describes his process of photography as:

“What I did in all these places was to look for their company. I tried to just be there, lose myself in those spaces and listen to them, as much as possible. Yes, just listen. One can do that. We have that ability. We call it ‘sense of place'” (5: p.137)

“Places do want to talk, normally, and they do open up, if you are patient. I love to listen to them. A camera then can become a recording device (eventually, not right away), to capture the place’s story, or history, and gather details of its account.” (5: p139)

From the series The Space Between the Characters can Carry the Load - Wim Wenders

From the series The Space Between the Characters can Carry the Load – Wim Wenders

The two paragraphs quoted above are extracted from a much longer piece on the future of seeing where Wender looks at the general decline in our ability to observe and the need to relearn those skills. His approach to photography translates through to his images, there is a stillness in his city and landscapes that had to be discovered by the photographer and it offers a lesson to any contemporary photographer intent on finding a sense of place. Often on a shoot, I will put my lens cap on, stop, sit and watch to try and see what is beneath the surface, what the elements of the view add up to and endeavour to find a perspective that captures that sense.



(1) Cotton, Charlotte ( 2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames and Hudson

(2) Wentworth, Richard and Obrist, Hans Obrist (2015) Making Do and Getting By. London: Koenig Books

(3) Campany, David (2014) Walker Evans: The Magazine Work. Göttingen: Steidl

(5) Wenders, Wim and Zournazi, Mary (2013) Inventing Places: A Dialogue on Perception. London: I.B.Tauris & Co. Ltd


(4) Prospero (2015) Wim Wenders: Every Landscape Tells a Story (accessed at The Economist 29.9.16) – http://www.economist.com/blogs/prospero/2015/10/wim-wenders

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Richard Wentworth: Making Do and Getting By


Richard Wentworth OBE is primarily known as a one of the most influential British sculptors of his generation who for forty years he has used a camera as a way of making “casual notes …. of situations which attracted me” (1). He does not see himself as a photographer and his photographs speak to his self declared casual note taking, there is no particular evidence of technical skill or formal composition which Anna Dezeuze argues references his work to the conceptual photographers of the sixties and seventies such as Ed Ruscha and Sol Le Witt.

Alternatively, if we view Making Do and Getting By (2) in isolation, given the book is limited to his digital collection as captured between 2006 and 2015,  his work could be aligned  with contemporary trends in vernacular photography; an Instagram Account in print. His images are executed quickly and simply, framed and composed casually often disregarding depth of field or lighting conditions. But there are two elements that undermine any suggestion of external influence or references.

Firstly, whilst the photographs neither reference nor act as references to his sculptures there is an obvious  alignment of philosophy and output in the two mediums. Secondly, his choice of subject is not only a very personal perspective of urban life but has been consistently and deeply explored for four decades. We can be tempted into over analysing his photographic work and align it with various movements in contemporary photography but in reality the only relevant reference is the artist himself. This in itself makes this series unusual, it has been created outside of and in parallel with the mainstream of photography history, uninfluenced and seemingly unaware that the mainstream exists; in the interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist that introduces the book (2), he discuses sculptors, architects and writers; photographers are notable by their absence.

This is a generous book, 750 photographs of found street sculptures, presented in sets that suggest a series of journeys, urban walks but that often jump between cities. Wentworth himself suggests that the viewer shouldn’t “dwell on a page”, it is best absorbed at the pace of a walk, steadily turning the pages, going back and forward as we make connections and begin to see the categories that many of the pictures fit into.

Hastings 2009 - Richard Wentworth

Hastings 2009 – Richard Wentworth

Given the volume of pictures the range of subject matter is unsurprisingly huge but the majority fit very neatly under his Making Do and Getting By title, Wentworth is intrigued by the “very high material intelligence” (1: p294) of people, a natural practicality and ingenuity that he believes is disappearing as we move further from our agrarian roots. Kevin Henry describes a discussion with Wentworth about the tendency for a farmer to close a field gate with string rather than using something that has come through an industrial process (3), anyone who has spent any time around farms knows that binder twine is the universal material of repair; in more industrialised or urbanised environments its role has been usurped by cable ties and gaffer tape. On the farm, in the workshop or on the street people revel in solving problems and fixing things by usurping the materials on hand, modifying or reconstructing them to suit new purposes; an act that Paul Carey-Kent calls “non-conformist inventiveness” (4) and Wentworth both investigates and celebrates these little acts of intervention.

“I grew up in a world that was held together with string and brown paper and ceiling wax and that’s how it was and I probably fantasised that I needn’t be like that but then I slowly realised (it) actually is somehow the underlying condition of the world.” (3: p18)

Some of these appropriations and repairs are casual, an item on-hand put to a new use, but often and quite intriguingly there are often signs of care and craftsmanship, a desire to make a “proper job” of it.

Istanbul 2006 Richard Wentworth

Istanbul 2006 Richard Wentworth

There are other deeper levels to this series; as a sculptor, Wentworth is sensitive to the juxtaposition of materials so many of the photographs explore chance meetings of textures and contrasting forms. In Istanbul 2006 there are several of these contrasts, the rough texture of asbestos sheeting against the smooth concrete and finished steel, wavy versus linear, soft versus hard, sophisticated industrial techniques versus a simple manufacturing process, temporary against permanent, the lines incorporated and fixed into the production process of the door against the repetitive lines created by the human intervention of stacking the sheets . Wentworth sees these relationships as “little circumstantial geometries or comedies” (2: p.8)

Wentworth proves himself to be an accomplished analyst of his own work; the interview with Hans Ulrich Obrist includes a walk-through of a small number of the images. Wentworth sees complex relationships between objects that few others would notice. He describes the thinking behind the photograph of a tomato in front of a car tyre as:

“It’s the fact that the tomato is like a cartoon – we know that it is fundamentally a squishy thing. The tyre is also a vegetable product, substantially still connected to trees and oil, and the tomato has been fertilised, probably with oil products, and is a vegetable (or technically a fruit)” (2: p.14)

In essence it is the serendipitous nature of relationships between objects and of Wentworth noticing and photographing them that makes the series so compelling. The straight yellow no parking lines in parallel with the pavement creating visual tension with the half round table tops lent against the vertical black railings of an urban fence; the perfect asterisk formed by tyre tracks on a snowy street; or a bicycle saddle left at the exact centre of formica cafe chair. It is, as Wentworth suggests, “full of humans” (2: p.10), but without a single human subject. We are left considering which of these street sculptures are intentional and which are part of the random nature of people’s interaction with their environment but beyond that each of these structures documents a little human act, the making, fixing or modification of the environment and in that sense as a series is as much a historical document as Atget’s scenes of old Paris.

Colindale 2007 - Richard Wentworth

Colindale 2007 – Richard Wentworth

The book includes a glossary, a list of words that particularly appeal to Wentworth and that describe the “ingredients of the book” (2: p.9): the fact the glossary runs to over 250 words provides a sense of the breadth of his subject matter and provides a clue to the way his mind works. Wentworth is interested in language and how words have been forged and then used, he not only enjoys the subtleties of our language but how those words describe the found situations he photographs. I would argue that Wentworth, if not unique, is certainly unusual in that his photographs and the way in which they are presented combines photography, documentary, language, architecture, sculpture, social and cultural anthropology and archaeology. At a superficial level each image raises questions about how the situation came to pass but the context of this series also suggests we are conscious of found sculpture, of patterns of behaviour that describe aspects of common traits and individual personalities.

An interesting question would be whether this series is conceptual art? Undoubtably the ideas behind the work take precedence over any traditional notion of aesthetics but Wentworth often identifies pleasing patterns created by light and instinctively recognises strong colour combinations and compositional forms. And whilst it is not sophisticated or accomplished at a technical level there is no sense that Wentworth is actively building a vernacular snap-shot aesthetic into his work, the photographs just happen to be that way. In some ways it is a companion book to John Pawson’s A Visual Inventory (5); Pawson, an architect, has collected over a quarter of million images that record landscapes, buildings and architectural details that inspire or just intrigue him. Like Wentworth he uses the camera as a note book, a visual diary, and whilst he is more often investigating form and the juxtaposition of colours and patterns his work is similar to Wentworth’s in that it reveals the thought processes of an accomplished practitioner in an art medium parallel to photography.



(2) Wentworth, Richard (2015) Making Do and Getting By. London: Koenig

(5) Pawson, John (2012) A Visual Inventory. London: Phaidon.


(1) Dezeuze, Anna (2013) Photography Ways of Living and Richard Wentworth’s Making Do, Getting By (accessed at Acedemia 30.9.16) – https://www.academia.edu/5269475/Photography_Ways_of_Living_and_Richard_Wentworths_Making_Do_Getting_By_Oxford_Art_Journal_36.2_2013_pp._281-300

(3) Henry, Kevin (2007) Parallel Universes: making Do and Getting BY plus Thoughtless Acts (mapping the quotidian from two perspectives) (accessed at Acedemia 30.9.16) – https://www.academia.edu/4353804/Parallel_Universes_Making_Do_and_Getting_By_Thoughtless_Acts_mapping_the_quotidian_from_two_perspectives_

(4) Carey-Kent, Paul (2011) Interview with Richard Wentworth (accessed at The White Review 30.9.16) – http://www.thewhitereview.org/interviews/interview-with-richard-wentworth/

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Michael Kenna: The Evidence of Humanity

Homage to Michael Kenna, Rocca Calascio, Abruzzo, Italy, 2007 - Steve Middlehurst

Homage to Michael Kenna, Rocca Calascio, Abruzzo, Italy, 2007 – Steve Middlehurst

In her essay Something and Nothing (1) Charlotte Cotton considers a number of contemporary photographers who have investigated the evidence of humanity through uninhabited city and landscapes. This is an area of photography that is rich in examples, I have already discussed Gregory Crewdson’s Sanctuary (here) and Sarah Pickering’s Public Order (here) who have worked in man-made environments that mimic reality and now want to look at Michael Kenna to explore this theme in the context of fine art landscape.

Kenna has achieved significant success in the book and fine art print markets but his work is often criticised for being “overly romantic or atmospheric” (2) and for the inclusion of pictorial elements or for, what might be called, a painterly approach. This leads some critics to suggest that his typically formal minimalistic approach, which indeed has the tendency to remove detail and imperfections from the landscape, takes precedence over any socio-political meaning or conceptual challenge. These arguments have merit but whether we wish to read his landscapes as nothing more than aesthetically appealing abstractions or as a long investigation into the margins between the natural and man-made environment or even the fictionalisation of reality it is hard to be ambivalent about his carefully composed and exquisitely printed photographs.

Not for the first time I find myself in agreement with Bill Jay:

“The reason I like Michael’s photos is because they’re antithetical to the unemotional, deadpan work of his contemporaries. He’s a pictorialist, in the modern sense of someone who creates pictures with real feeling.” (5)

Fifteen Poles, Yamanaka Lake, Honshu, Japan. 2001 - Michael Kenna

Fifteen Poles, Yamanaka Lake, Honshu, Japan. 2001 – Michael Kenna

The abstraction in his work makes his interest in the traces of people less obvious than the approach of say Win Wenders whose uninhabited landscapes usually have a more direct reference to human intervention. In Kenna’s case he sees the landscape as an empty theatre:

“I prefer to photograph the stage before the characters appear, and after they leave. At those times, there is a certain atmosphere of anticipation in the air”. (3)

Although he sometimes photographs pure, natural landscapes his stage is often located where the natural world is juxtaposed with man-made structures but this regularly features an ambiguous trace of human intervention. Fifteen Poles is typical of this type of work, posts and poles in lakes or snow are repetitive motifs across his portfolio, the viewer is drawn first to the form of the black posts against the faintly sepia tinted (i) pale water that is rendered milky by long exposure but retains enough texture to suggest a natural environment. If we had only one word to describe Kenna’s work in Japan and Korea it would be “tranquil” but I suggest that his photographs are more complex than this simple description of mood and atmosphere.

Glastonbury Tor, Study 2, Somerset, England, 1990 - Michael Kenna

Glastonbury Tor, Study 2, Somerset, England, 1990 – Michael Kenna

Part of the complexity comes from his highly attuned sense of place, not just in geographical terms but in respect of culture, history and specifically photography history. For his photographs of Britain Bill Brandt is an obvious reference, there is a brooding darkness that evokes William Blake, heavy industry dominating bleak landscapes, great works of engineering spanning rivers, church spires, boarding schools, castles and prehistoric monuments that, when viewed as a collection, describe a particular perspective of Britishness within a unique landscape that many would relate to. The British landscapes are often crowded, if not with detail, with large compositional black shapes very much in the mode of Brandt. This contrasts to his work in Japan which, even when evidential architecture is absent speaks of Japanese culture. There is a repetitive theme of emptiness, of simple forms and contrasts that Kenna himself relates to haiku poetry (4), a cultural form unique to Japan where the whole idea is expressed in three highly structured lines:

“I don’t need to describe everything that is going on. I like to suggest one or two elements and use those elements as catalysts for my own imagination, and hopefully for the viewer’s imagination”

Kenna achieves this sense of place not through pre-planning and research, although he now doubt does both, but more by forming a relationship with the landscape. His Japanese agent, Naya Ishwata, says: “He’d see a place that he’d return to the next morning or late afternoon by himself, but not necessarily to take pictures. Sometimes he just wanted to say thank you to the trees.” (5) Everything about Kenna’s photographs is slow; medium format cameras, film not digital, long exposures including night shots with exposures measured in hours, hand developed and hand printed images made in his darkroom long after the photographic expeditions are finished. This pace allows him to attune to the landscape in a way the contemporary photographer rarely experiences.

Appellplatz, Mittelbau-Dora, Nordhausen, Germany, 1999 - Michael Kenna

Appellplatz, Mittelbau-Dora, Nordhausen, Germany, 1999 – Michael Kenna

There are many examples within his extensive portfolio that suggest his agenda goes beyond the purely aesthetic and occasionally moves to towards socially aware documentary but none more so that his long study of Nazi concentration camps undertaken between 1989 and 2000. This is perhaps his most varied portfolio, including nondescript landscape, Nazi architecture, memorials, evidence of torture and murder and the small items left by the victims. Collectively they form a somber series that describes the fate of the Nazi’s victims from entry to the camps to their mass graves. Every preserved building, archeological trace, found object and memorial to the dead has the emotional charge of a war grave as well as being metaphors for one of Europe’s darkest periods; photographs of the camps run the risk of becoming insensitive clichés. Kenna’s dark images convey the time he invested in making them, his slow dedicated style communicating the importance of the subject and the respect he paid it.

The way Kenna approaches industrial landscapes, places where human intervention have overwhelmed nature, leads some critics to suggest, as mentioned above, that his aesthetic concerns take precedence over any socio-political meaning. As a cynic, having seen no such criticism of Don McCullin or Bill Brandt’s northern landscapes,  I wonder whether Kenna like Salgado is a victim of his own commercial success. If we are looking for complete answers or coherent arguments in socio-political landscape the best practitioners will continually disappoint us. Kenna’s haiku approach to the abstractions of the Japanese landscape can be seen in a different form in his series on Dearborn Michigan; he shows us the industrial architecture often in silhouette, the pollution, mountains of waste or raw materials and the desolate landscapes of large industrial complexes. Even his intimate landscapes are uninhabited but there are few signs to indicate whether the factories and mills are working or redundant. He leaves the viewer to imagine the detail and to provide their own context.

In this sense his work is not directly critical, he expresses no obvious opinion of the decline of the River Rouge plants, we can interpret his pictures in any way we choose and to that extent Kenna targets multiple audiences; we can appreciate his work on purely aesthetic grounds, explore the phycological concepts behind his form of minimalist pictorialism, or engage with his studies of industrial  decline and political history.

He is especially relevant to any discussion on the absence and signs of life because it is at the heart of his practice. The empty stage relating the narrative of man’s intervention past or future and the abstract and often minimalist forms providing the space for his pictures to develop as representations of cultural, social and political movements.

And, why is this essay headed up with my photograph of Rocca Calascio, which by the way is one of the one beautiful castles in Italy? Well the answer lies below. Although I am intrigued by the two little windows that have appeared on the keep.

Castle and Sky, Rocca Calascio, Abruzzo, Italy. 2016 - Michael Kenna

Castle and Sky, Rocca Calascio, Abruzzo, Italy. 2016 – Michael Kenna

Notes on Text

(i) Kenna describes his darkroom process as: “All my prints are sepia toned gelatine, made by me in a traditional darkroom from negatives. My print size is always about 7 3/4 inches square.” (3)

(ii) The Ford motor plant at Rouge River Dearborn once employed 90,000 workers and sat alongside General Motors, Chrysler and all the motor industry’s associated suppliers and trades. The American motor industry has been in catastrophic decline since the 1980s and Detroit and Dearborn are now some of the poorest and most socially challenged cities in America with Detroit filing for bankruptcy in 2013.



(1) Cotton, Charlotte ( 2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames and Hudson

(6) Kenna, Michael & Meyer-Lohr, Yvonne (2015) Forms of Japan. London: Prestel

(7) Kenna, Michael ( 2010) Images of the Seventh Day. Milano: Skira


(2) Umma (2014) Urban Landscape (accessed at the University of Michigan 28/9/16) – http://umma.umich.edu/education/university/objects/portfolio-guides/art-and-environment

(3) Pro Cameraman (2012) Michael Kenna (accessed at ProCameraman 27.9.16) – http://procameraman.jp/Interview/overseas_file08_201207.html#top

(4) Jenson, Brooks (2004) Interview with Michael Kenna (accessed at the photographer’s website 27.9.16) – http://www.michaelkenna.net/ivlens.php

(5) Sykes, Claire (2003) Michael Kenna (accessed at the photographer’s website 27.9.16) – http://www.michaelkenna.net/ivform.php

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Gregory Crewdson: Sanctuary


Before looking in general at photographs that use the absence of life as a metaphorical technique I want to look more closely at Gregory Crewdson’s Sanctuary (1). Sarah Pickering’s Public Order (here) was referenced as an example of this kind of work and I wanted to consider how other photographers had developed series in places that might be loosely termed fabricated realities.

Crewdson is best known for his large scale, cinematic production photographs that I previously considered (here); his work divides opinion being seen by some critics as Jeff-Wall-Lite but I have always been intrigued with his ability to invest photographs with psychological atmosphere and narrative ambiguity. The absence of human subjects, the lack of a huge production crew seeking a single shot, and the move from colour to monochrome are all significant deviations from Crewdson’s established practice but once he had chosen to work within a different framework he retained a strong link to his earlier work by creating a series that documents the sets at Cinecittà, Rome’s answer to Hollywood.

The monumental but decaying sets that filled the backlot at Cinecittà in 2009 when Crewdson visited the site appear to be divided between Ancient Rome (for the HBO drama Rome) and 19th century New York ( for Scorsese’s Gangs of New York), a strange juxtaposition that we could invest with a commentary regarding the similarities between the two cultures but I doubt this was in Crewdson’s mind. The decayed and neglected structures offer a metaphor for the history of modern Italy from the point in 1937 when Mussolini commissioned the studios to “serve the aligned causes of cinema and fascism” (2: p.9); its heyday from 1937 to 1943 when government sponsorship funded the making of almost 300 films (3); collapse during the German occupation and its rejuvenation in the fifties and sixties with iconic films like La Dolce Vita, Ben Hur and Segio Leone’s ultimate spaghetti western Once upon a Time in the West through to its gradual but elegant decline as a studio pretty well ever since (i).

Crewdson’s declared interest was in “the blurred lines between reality and fiction, nature and artifice, and beauty and decay.” (1: p.95). And, these are indeed the overriding impressions gained from his carefully composed black and white images. The fabricated reality of a movie set will always create interesting paradoxes, real and tangible but flimsy architecture whose only function is to mimic a more solid reality. A suggestion of functionality as one thing – homes, temples, shops, forums but whose only function is a pretence of those things.

From the series Twilight - Gregory Crewdson

From the series Twilight – Gregory Crewdson

This is not new territory for Crewdson, his use of sound stages as the set for his constructed images very directly questions where the line is drawn between reality and fiction and, as seen in the example from Twlight shown above, he is interested in structures behind structures, the skeleton under the skin. In Sanctuary he is drawn to the scaffolding that supports the sets, sometimes very obviously so that we have no doubts of the temporality of the architecture but more often quite subtly so, out of context, we cannot be sure whether we are seeing the reality of Pompei or the fantasy of Cinecittà.

Both types of photographs have an aesthetic appeal and narrate the story of the studio but the more blurred the lines the more ambiguous and thereby interesting the image. It is in these photographs where reality and fiction are at their most interchangeable that I see contemporary Italy. A place where, away from the superficial glamour of Milan, the tourist funded hot-spots of Tuscany and Venice or the industrial landscapes of Turin the fabric of towns and cities decay to reveal layers of history so the open doors of a palazzo might equally reveal modernity or medieval stone work and where modern cash-strapped Rome swirls around the crumbling remains of both Caesars’ and Mussolini’s empires. A country surrounded by the monuments of its past and deeply divided and confused about its future; a culture where superficiality has been raised to become a cultural norm, our interpretation of the surface more important than an understanding of the realties that lay behind the facade. Italy is a masquerade so Crewdson’s exploration of the decaying facades of the edifices of its film industry appears appropriate and meaningful.

Plate 14 from the series Sanctuary - Gregory Crewdson 2009

Plate 14 from the series Sanctuary – Gregory Crewdson 2009

The absence of people here is as obvious as in Pickering’s work but like Public Order this is a landscape dominated by human intervention, even the puddles were introduced by Crewdson. It seems strange to talk of tension in a series that is so still and quiet but like Public Order there is tension created by the theatre being empty; one expects or imagines the actors returning to the set, the street gangs reappearing in front of the New York tenements or Marc Anthony walking around a corner; we recognise the set being ready for action and the realisation that it will never happen creates both tension and melancholy. Crewdson talks of his interest in “telling a story, in narrative and the limitations of photographs” (6: p82) and whilst on first glance this objective is best achieved in his directed work, he achieves something here that holds the narrative of a place in a broader way and retains enough ambiguity at the shot by shot level to allow the viewer to imagine fictions playing out within the sets.

On face value this series seems to be departure from directed human subjects to documentary and his straight, careful style of capture strengthens the feel of these photographs as a historical document, a record of a place important in the history of modern Italian culture that is in decline and perhaps that is the overall impression that we are left with but I would argue that Crewdson has found an intriguing balance between documentary and metaphor as well as between reality and fiction.

Notes on Text

(i) It has been suggested that the current owners of Cinecittà are more interested in developing the site as a theme park and events venue than as a film studio. (5)



(1) Crewdson, Gregory (2010) Sanctuary. New York: Abrams

(2) Scott, A.O. (2010) Essay within Crewdson, Gregory (2010) Sanctuary. New York: Abrams

(6) Bright, Susan (2011) Art Photography Now (revised and expanded edition 2011). London: Thames and Hudson.


(3) Rome File (ND) History of Cinecittà (accessed at Rome file 25.9.16) – http://www.romefile.com/culture/cinecitta.php

(4) Cinecittà Events (accessed at Cinecittà Events 25.9.16) – http://cinecittaevents.it/en/fun

(5) Povoledo, Elisabetta (2014) Investing in Fantasy to Save a Fraying Reality: Cinecittà World Theme Park Opens Thursday in Italy (accessed at the New York Times 25.9.16) – http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/22/movies/cinecitta-world-theme-park-opens-thursday-in-italy.html?_r=0

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Charlotte Cotton: Something and Nothing (part 1)

Penn's Skull, searching for a metaphor - Steve Middlehurst 2014

Penn’s Skull, searching for a metaphor – Steve Middlehurst 2014

In The Photograph as Contemporary Art (1) Charlotte Cotton includes a chapter that investigates the strategy of using inanimate objects or environments as a metaphor. In practice this chapter considers contemporary still life photography rather more than human altered landscapes without human presence but it acts as a general introduction to the subject of the absence and the signs of life.

Despite having used this book since starting with OCA I continue to find Cotton’s style a little disappointing. Her chapters tend to be high speed excursions though multiple practitioners, which at one level certainly puts a significant number of new names on the table for further research but leaves little room for in-depth analysis or contemplation of the wider issues that could be discussed; she is obviously a knowledgeable critic and accomplished writer but at each reading I am left wishing for more insight and less artists. This approach also challenges the student to discuss her writing without repeating the same photographer by photographer approach.

Photograph of the identity card of a soldier's sweetheart. Found amongst abandoned and destroyed tanks in Khadimiya, Baghdad. Artefact made April 2003, accessioned 18 - 27 April 2003 - Simon Norfolk

Photograph of the identity card of a soldier’s sweetheart. Found amongst abandoned and destroyed tanks in Khadimiya, Baghdad. Artefact made April 2003, accessioned 18 – 27 April 2003 – Simon Norfolk

I enjoy still life, it is fun to construct and technically challenging to photograph and there are a number of still life projects including some by photographers who specialise in that genre that appeal to me at both an aesthetic and a more philosophical level. On this list I would include Simon Norfolk’s Archaeological Treasures from the Tigris Valley (2) which records his superficial archaeological survey of the battle fields of the Iraq war in an attempt to answer why the Iraqi army “melted away before the great, expected Battle of Baghdad” (2). This survey resulted in finding the discarded weaponry and uniform items of the defenders whom, he surmised had divested themselves of their military status before “run(ning) for their lives”. Norfolk who respected that it would be inappropriate to remove these items from their context created a makeshift studio in which to photographed them. His stated intent was to preserve the appearance of these items so they could be studied at a later date but he achieves something more than that.

The very best archaeology brings us closer to the people whose traces we are viewing, perhaps the very best documentary photography does the same. In this series we are shown the trivial relics of modern human existence: tooth paste and sandals; the detritus of violent war: fragments of mortar rounds, exploded shell rounds; clothing, some overtly military, some personal and a wide variety of other artefacts. They have in common a sense of, not just broad history, but very personal histories, the exploded shells create a narrative terror, an American air raid and the resultant horrific deaths of tank crews; the discarded photograph of a sweetheart tells a story of a man whose only memento of his loved one is a cheap photocopy of her ID card and who lost this treasured object in the deserts of Iraq. Norfolk has used the genre of still life to challenge our perceptions of modern warfare; the Iraq war is still fresh in our memories but these simple photographs of intimate objects ask us to consider the human cost of high tech warfare that diminishes the risk to the attacker while indiscriminately destroying the defender, and as ever the fallen are ordinary people with mundane belongings and normal feelings that we hold in common.

Fallen North Vietnamese Soldier - Don McCullin 1968

Fallen North Vietnamese Soldier – Don McCullin 1968

I am reminded of Don McCullin’s well know image of a fallen North Vietnamese soldier and recognise in Norfolk’s work, the same underling meaning.

McCullin’s photograph takes “absence of life” in a different and far more uncomfortable direction. By collecting and photographing the discarded paraphernalia of the peasant soldier  Norfolk uses the archeological artefacts act as a metaphor for war, death and defeat.

McCullin’s image is more direct and less metaphorical. However, the display of the deceased’s possessions, serves the same purpose. We are reminded that the dead have no politics or nationality, their belongings, even the ammunition, are potentially no different than the possessions of the US soldier who killed him.

Whilst these two approaches are radically different they highlight the power of the inanimate object to signify their original owner and the wider issues of war.

This is not the forum to engage in a detailed discussion of Norfolk’s work but I do want to highlight that no work of this nature makes it into Cotton’s extensive list. I understand and respect that her agenda is to investigate contemporary art photography but much of the work she discusses appears to be so conceptual as to have no obvious purpose. I would better understand the work of Pater Fischli and David Weiss if we were asked only to focus on their humorous sculptures of found objects or even if we were to judge the visual allure of the final images. Cotton suggests that we ask ‘How did this object come to be here? And what act or chain of events brought it into focus?” (1: p.116) but the more obvious question might be: why would the answers to these questions be any more interesting than a photograph of a courgette balanced on a carrot pushed through a grater?

So, having nailed my colours to the mast and revealed my intellectual inferiority by refusing to understand conceptual still life I will bring Nigel Shafran to my defence. Cotton refers to the idea of making ordinary objects extraordinary by photographing them; a concept that Susan Sontag suggests is inherent in all photography:

“To photograph is to confer importance. There is probably no subject that cannot be beautified; moreover, these is no way to suppress the tendency inherent and all photographs to accord value to their subjects.” (9: loc.331)

It would be impossible to appreciate William Eggleston or the early work of Stephen Shore without accepting this concept; it is so much at the heart of  a wide spectrum of contemporary photography that it has become a law of photography. However, I believe that Eggleston, Shore and the aforementioned Shafran bring more to the image than a slightly off-coloured representation of some stray domestic items. Yes, there is a narrative within Fischli and Weiss’ work but it is a story about them rather than any wider, and thereby more interesting, exploration of the human condition. Self centred art has its place and appeals to many but it runs the risk of being self indulgent and introvert and in being so fails to tell us anything new.

4 January 2000 Three bean soup, cauliflower vegetable cheese. Morning coffee and croissants - Nigel Shafran

4 January 2000 Three bean soup, cauliflower vegetable cheese. Morning coffee and croissants – Nigel Shafran

Shafran has identified a wide range of subject matter that, in common with our Swiss practitioners, is photographed in the manner of still life but he often returns to an investigation of our sub-concious desire to create satisfying structures in domestic environments; he recognises that stacking the washing-up to dry is an art, that is art with a small “a”, one of life’s strange little pleasures is to create the prefect stack, something functional but aesthetically pleasing. The narrative is surprisingly strong; I have argued elsewhere that if we want to relate a narrative photography is not the first medium we would pick so it is interesting how his washing up sculptures tell us so much about his home-life and his and/or his wife’s tendencies for structure and neatness with a distinct before, now, after story line attached.

These are ideas that Shafran returns to time and again, supermarket check-outs, charity shop contents, shop displays and building supplies to mention but a few. In each case he finds unintentional sculptures but unlike Duchamp’s ready-mades these are complex edifices of the banal and often connote far deeper meanings. Structures with a purpose and an aesthetic appeal that become an art form by the act of his photography. My case for seeing Shafran’s work as complex and full of different meanings is somewhat strengthened by David Chandler’s essay in Dark Rooms; he sees the development of Shafran’s work from being “a largely incidental, spontaneous response to things and situations” to a “more sustained, repeated attention” (4) and it is this repeated attention that adds such depth to his series. Whilst we can analyse a single washing-up still life and read some of his intended narrative we are more intrigued by seeing his subjects in series. Shafran’s work is highly subjective but it remains ambiguos, as if we never quite know how he is responding to his subjects and therefore we are left a little unsure of our own response. He best sums up his approach and to some degree his intent in an interview with Charlotte Cotton

“To concern yourself with an art, the subject is lost. To concern yourself with the subject, the art is found.” (5)

Reference to Susan Bright brings some balance to the my culturally incorrect comments regarding conceptual still life. Bright argues that much of this type of work is experimental and “less successful as one-offs and needs to be seen in sequence or in series to make comparisons between them” (6: p.108); I ought to resist suggesting that this sounds slightly defensive. However, Bright points out that these experiments “push the point of the photographic object and delight in the untapped potential of the medium” (6: p.108) which we should see as a positive. She also refers to photograph’s relationship with sculpture where objects are created purely for the purpose of photographing them, Cotton having given us the aforementioned Fischli and Weiss as examples of this. Bright’s basic point is that contemporary photography (should that be conceptual contemporary photography?) has put the historical approach to still life behind it and concentrated on converting ordinary everyday objects into art objects. This seems a highly commendable objective if the object concerned has some worth, such as Walker Evans’ study of simple artisans tools (7), or the object is elevated by the photographer’s attention and the application of his skills as exemplified by Irving Penn’s still lifes of found objects (8).

Having been somewhat scathing of much of this conceptual still life it may be contradictory to add that I understand and agree with David Bate’s argument that art is “what the artist nominates as art” (10: p.87); conceptual art rejects both historical art and modern media’s focus on beautification and is more concerned with using photography “as a means to to recognise the existence of its activities and manifestations” (10: p.87). This is fine, my issue lies in the analysis of this art to discover complex meanings that go beyond it just being an art form.

All of this fails to directly answer the question set by the course note as to whether the strategy of using objects as a metaphor is effective? It is self apparent that objects make great metaphors, in fact much of the history of still life is within the context of vanitas and momento mori which is the epitome of the metaphorical language in art.

The second question is far more interesting: when might it fall down? Susan Sontag wrote “In photographing dwarfs, you don’t get majesty and beauty. You get dwarfs” (9: loc.343) and whilst she was talking about the search for beauty at the time we might adapt this idea to the search for metaphors. – In photographing kitchen utensils, you don’t get metaphors that reveal the meaning of life. You get kitchen utensils.” And, therein lies the risk.



(1) Cotton, Charlotte ( 2009) The Photograph as Contemporary Art. London: Thames and Hudson

(3) Shafran, Nigel (2004) Edited Photographs 1992 – 2004. Brighton: Photoworks and Steidl

(4) Shafran, Nigel (2016) Dark Rooms. London: MACK

(6) Bright, Susan (2011) Art Photography Now (revised and expanded edition 2011). London: Thames and Hudson.

(7) Campany, David (2014) Walker Evans: The Magazine Work. Göttingen: Steidl

(8) Penn, Irving. (2001) Still Life. Boston: Bulfinch Press.

(9) Sontag, Susan (1971) On Photography: Kindle version of the 1978 Penguin edition. London: Penguin Books

(10) Bate, David (2015) Art Photography. London: Tate Publishing


(2) Norfolk, Simon (ND) Archaeological Treasures from the Tigris Valley (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.9.16) – http://www.simonnorfolk.com/pop.html

(5) Shafran, Nigel  (ND) Interview with Charlotte Cotton (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.9.16) – http://nigelshafran.com/interview-with-charlotte-cotton-edited-photographs/

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