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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Sarah Pickering and Public Order

The British Army Training Village at Imber, Salisbury Plain - Steve Middlehurst 2016 [see note i}

The British Army Training Village at Imber, Salisbury Plain – Steve Middlehurst 2016 [see note i}

Between 2003 and 2008 Sarah Pickering engaged in a series of projects that explored surreal places where the emergency and armed services prepare for their roles. At one level she simply documents training facilities but the very real and tangible structures she explores are theatres of disaster, rehearsal rooms for civil unrest, fire and warfare whose very existence questions the state of modern Britain.

In the context of this course Pickering’s photographs are examples of lifeless landscapes, man-made but uninhabited and deserted. Their emptiness evokes a post-armagenden landscape where only the traces of people are the bizarre structures they have left behind. Beyond this they are paradoxical structures, the underground railway station with no track or trains, the night club with no music, the traffic lights that never change; a non-functional urban environment whose real purpose is hidden behind superficial architectural details that suggest something different.

The atmosphere of many of the images, especially in her Public Order series remind me of Gregory Crewdson’s Sanctuary and as I believe this will be an interesting comparison to explore I will look at his book in a later essay.

I reviewed Public Order as part of Context and Narrative. At time my comments were:

“Public Order follows on seamlessly from looking at Paul Seawright’s Sectarian Murder in the sense that it is another piece of work that sets out to photograph the invisible; the viewer simultaneously reacts to factual and visible photographs of a place and the invisible events that have happened there, or in this case the implication of events that might subsequently occur but whose roots lie partly in this place.

Public Order is a series of photographs that maps the British Police riot training facilities which comprise a replica of an urban environment complete with streets, shops and even a night club. In many of the pictures we are only offered very subtle clues that this place is a set, the traffic lights are not working and there is a sense of complete emptiness, no litter, no trace of humans existing. Other images reveal the truth that the shops are wooden facades.

My emotional response evolved as I viewed the series. Initially there is a reassuring familiarity that suggests this is part of a road trip series about Britain but there is also a sense of these places being alien, not quite right, slightly off key. There are traces of violent events, burnt walls, damaged items, wrecked cars, a token barricade  which draw us into imagining the training exercises and overlaying mental pictures of real events in Brixton and Tottenham.

This leads to questioning why such places exist, how and why has British society developed to such a point that the authorities build permanent civil disorder training facilities. My parents used to live near to the villages built by the British Army in Norfolk where soldiers were training for European conflicts in the days of the cold war and subsequently modified for Middle Eastern conflicts. Somehow, this seems normal or obvious, a need to train the military to survive and succeed in the places politicians might send them. Regardless of whether we agree with the reasons our troops are sent to war we want them prepared and trained in the best possible way. However, Pickering, takes us to a place that represents something very different, this is a location where police men and women train to deal with conflict on our “normal” streets, and that clearly means it is conflict involving us, the inhabitants of those “normal” streets. ”

Notes on Text

(i) Imber is a ghostly village hidden in the middle of Salisbury Plain. It was commandeered  by the War Office during WWII and initially used to train troops for the invasion of continental Europe. After the war it was retained by the military who have built new structures as training areas for initially the cold war, the “troubles” in Northern Ireland and more recently Iraq and Afghanistan. 



Pickering, Sarah (accessed 24.1.15) Artist’s website – http://www.sarahpickering.co.uk/index.html

Aperture Foundation Sarah Pickering on Public Order and Explosion (accessed at Vimeo 24.1.15) – http://vimeo.com/11931505

Aperture Foundation Sarah Pickering and Susan Bright on Public Order and Explosion (accessed at Vimeo 24.1.15) –http://vimeo.com/11904198

The Telegraph (accessed 24.1.15) Sarah Pickering – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/6537439/Sarah-Pickering.html

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Fact or Fiction

Hampshire - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Hampshire – Steve Middlehurst 2016

At the beginning of the fifth and last chapter of the course we are challenged with a series of questions regarding our photographic practice; Do you tend towards fact or fiction? How could you blend your approach? And, Where is your departure from wanting/needing to depict reality? The questions are not as binary as they might first appear, the authors having previously argued that “Things become something else when they are filtered through the camera. They are fictionalised and transformed, telling a story that somehow stems from a real place yet becomes other”. (1: p.94) The question becomes to what extent do we use the depiction of reality to express a fiction? Simplistically the answer might very well be always.

Photography’s relationship with reality is has always been much discussed and never more so than in the digital age; but Geoffrey Batchen argues that the advent of digital images has cast doubt on the veracity of the photograph not because they are more manipulated that their chemical-based predecessors but because “the much heralded advent of digital imaging simply means having to admit it” (2: p212) “it” being that photographs are by their very nature a manipulated medium; photographers, editors and publishers have always selectively rationed the reality represented within the frame or the page. However, if we push the digitised image, the constructed artificial photograph-like picture, to one side the chemical or digital image cannot avoid being evidential of something having existed. Batchen makes the point that “Reality may have been transcribed, manipulated, or enhanced, but photography doesn’t cast doubt on reality’s actual existence.” “As a footprint is to a foot, so is a photograph to its referent.” (2: p.212)

The original question remains far from being answered because if we accept that a photograph’s referent is reality or, as Berenice Abbott suggests photography “is at home and in its natural element: namely realism – real life – the now” (3: p.179) then we are actually discussing how realism is interpreted by the photographer and to what end. However, the photograph, even when it appears “straight”, is inherently ambiguous, a notoriously slippery medium that transforms itself as time passes and its context changes. John Berger argues that “all photographs have been taken out of a continuity.” (4: p.93) The continuity from which they are taken might be history in the case of a public event, or a life story if it is more personal, or in the case of a landscape light and weather; he concludes: “Discontinuity always produces ambiguity.” (4: p.93). I raise this point to highlight that we cannot be dogmatic regarding how a photograph was, is or will be interpreted, anchoring its meaning with text is, at best, a short term measure as we have seen with how easily Dorothea Lange’s so called Migrant Mother has slipped away from its original caption (here).

With all this in mind I will (at last) return to looking at my own practice. In over forty-five years of photography my motivations have varied immensely but on face value my work generally falls within the documentary style, with the occasional foray into reportage and more frequent explorations of landscape which, in any case, I closely associate with documentary. This might suggest that my intent is to record not to interpret, to present facts as opposed to expressing a fiction but I would argue that this far from the case.

The archive can be seperated into three groups; the family album and holiday pictures; explorations of place and course work.

Sharon - Steve Middlehurst 1979

Sharon – Steve Middlehurst 1979

Let’s start with the family album. Mine extends to thousands of photographs that record the family from my honeymoon in the seventies to my grandson playing football last Saturday. Ray Davies wrote “People take pictures of each other, Just to prove that they really existed” and there is an element of true in that idea, we seek confirmation of a loved one’s existence by fixing and keeping a representation of their appearance, an historical record, but it goes far deeper. My wife’s grandmother, when unable to express her love for a great grandchild would resort to wanting to “eat them all up”, a love so intense she had a desire to consume the subject of that love, gobble them up, fix them in that moment for ever. As an emotionally repressed male with far too many Yorkshire genes the camera has always been an important way of expressing my love for the family, gobbling them up, fixing them for ever in that moment when they were at their most perfect …. or seemingly so.  Of course, the magical moment captured is selected from a less than perfect family life. The grumpy child bribed into sitting still, the winning smile coaxed from behind a tantrum, the happy couple acting the part at a boring party. The family album falls well short of a comprehensive or accurate document of life, it is not just selective but highly edited propaganda, it matters little that its audience might be restricted, it is a marketing device potentially referencing the model of the family promoted by advertising. Even as an album in a forgotten cupboard it was a book with a message; in the Facebook age it is even more an aspirational publication, the wider the audience the greater the need to editorialise the family memories into a projection of perfection. Not that any of the photographs are fictitious, all have reality as a referent, but the family photographer is selecting their images to such a degree that the overall archive is as fictional as a Mills and Boon bodice ripper, a record of momentous occasions and happy times extracted from the mundane, the stressful and the sad, a deception by exclusion.

Kos, Greece - Steve Middlehurst 1978

Kos, Greece – Steve Middlehurst 1978

Less easily analysed is my archive of travel photography, within which I include foreign places visited on vacations rather than places where I have lived abroad. From my earliest efforts in the Greek islands in the seventies to recent visits to Italy where we once lived, I recognise in my intent the desire to describe a place to an audience elsewhere. This suggests working in the documentary style with a pure, and by that I mean straight approach to recording and in this regard, as Graham Smith puts it, I saw my photographs “as passports to distant places” (5: p.10), sharing the experience of Hong Kong or Japan with the folks back home. This intent may now appear somewhat dated, harking back to the work of John Thomson who documented expeditions to Southeast Asia and China in the 1860s and 70s; his photographs that emphasise the exotic landscapes, architecture, people and even the fruits of the East now appear as historical documents but in their day satisfied the desire of the Victorian armchair traveller to explore the orient.

Mine was the first generation of ordinary working class people to travel abroad for pleasure and we became evangelical promoters of the foreign experience; poorly composed and often poorly exposed photographs of Greece, Italy and Spain were destined for the family and friends slide show; the “wine-dark seas” of the Aegean, the ruins of ancient temples and market stalls of, what then appeared to be, exotic produce described a world that seemed unreachable and exciting to the stay-at-homes whom we educated with our pictures and dreary, Alan Wicker inspired, commentaries. However those slide shows of the Greek Islands are far from a complete record of either the journey or the place. The fiction lies in selectivity of framing and editing, an intent to show places in the best possible light not just as unpaid representatives of the Greek tourist board but more to prove our sophistication in visiting an obscure Greek Island rather than the more accessible Costa Del Sol, a statement of one-upmanship, boastful and self-applauding. There are no photographs that I can recall of crowded ferries stinking of diesel and the fruits of sea-sickness, or the despair of searching for rooms on over-crowded islands, the bad food or the bed-sized hotel rooms.

In my mind there is a distinct separation between those early holiday photographs and the more considered explorations of places both home and abroad. There is, of course, some overlap as like many parents, much of my photography has been undertaken with an often bored family in tow. My adult son doesn’t own a camera and my daughter teaches photography so the experience of waiting for Dad to take yet another photograph appears to have had an inconsistent effect on my children.

Hong Kong - Steve Middlehurst 1986

Hong Kong – Steve Middlehurst 1986

My most interesting work was probably carried out in the 80s, a period when I lived in Hong Kong and the Philippines and travelled extensively around the Pacific rim.  More recent studies in Italy have recaptured some of the spirit of that earlier work. The best of this work is exploratory, not in terms of style, but in the sense that the camera was a tool of investigation, part of the process of gaining an understanding of people and place. Photography of this kind is a virtuous circle as my understanding of a place developed the images improved. This intent behind these studies is at several levels; there is apparently a pictorial foundation to many of the individual photographs in the sense that there is an obvious search for the aesthetically pleasing and whilst the photographs sit within series many were destined to be stand-alone framed pieces which is an attribute more associated with painting and thereby Pictorial Photography than Contemporary Photography.

Jesse Alexander says that pictorialism “implies two things: firstly, that the thing might need to be appealing to look at (which much contemporary photography – in itself – is not) and secondly; that the thing is meant to stand alone, without the company of other photographs.” (6) Pictorialism with its connotations of artful manipulation and its emphasis on beauty, tonality and composition in the painterly tradition seems so far removed from both modern and contemporary photography that to classify one’s work anywhere within this definition feels like a confession. It seems that some Contemporary Photography, in a search of new forms of expression, has jettisoned many of the building blocks of historical photography which is not a problem in itself but in some circles the absence of these values has become a necessity if the work is to be taken seriously. In simple terms a view that there can be no message of any worth if the image is aesthetically pleasing or explores colour, form or light in, let’s call it, a traditional manner.

Tokyo - Steve Middlehurst 1988

Tokyo – Steve Middlehurst 1988

The work of dozens of acclaimed contemporary photographers quickly undermines this viewpoint; Joel Sternfeld or Alex Webb’s use of colour, Franco Fontana’s landscapes which are some of the most aesthetically pleasing photographs of the last twenty years or Stephen Shore’s carefully composed and structured investigations of our relationship with the landscape. In each case these practitioners have something important to communicate, they are using the medium to explore the major themes of humanity’s relationship with the world but they also exhibit their technical and artistic mastery of the medium. I cannot pretend to have been inspired by any of these men any earlier than in the last few years but I humbly believe we share certain values. Whenever I touch on this subject a quotation by Stuart Freedman comes to mind:

“I want to see a return to a storytelling in photography as rigorous in thought and research as it is beautiful in construction and execution. It should have self knowledge and a human centre but understand the tradition from whence it came.

Then and only then we will be judged not just on our photography but our humanity and approach.” (7)

I am always concerned in my own work if I sense that I am adopting a contemporary approach as an excuse for not striving for, albeit rarely achieving, a photograph that is beautiful in construction and execution. This concern extends to my view of other photographer’s work.

Clark Airbase, Luzon, The Philippines - Steve Middlehurst 1988

Clark Airbase, Luzon, The Philippines – Steve Middlehurst 1988

As an example my photographs of Asia are documentary in style and occasionally aesthetically pleasing but more importantly they explored a rapidly changing world where some of world’s most important trading and financial centres were creating a new class system of rich and poor and where colonial architecture that evoked images of the Raj, or in the case of the Philippines Spanish or American rule, cowered beneath the edifices of the new order. In this work I was not intentionally creating fictions although truth in photography is such a slippery subject that even our perceived truths are so selective as to be fictional. I was intent on capturing pieces of reality that communicated the juxtaposition of ancient and modern cultures, wealth and poverty, colonialism and rampant capitalism and the replacement of political empires with commercial and financial invasions that had created societies that were forming new and often westernised identities so quickly that the culture that had been their foundation was in retreat. Asia in the eighties was out of balance and I endeavoured to express these ideas.

Hampshire - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Hampshire – Steve Middlehurst 2016

More recently my practice has been influenced by a broad church of established photographers and I have become increasingly interested in finding fragments of reality that individually or when working with other elements express a wider idea of people or place.

To return to the original questions I can identify significant sections of my work that use reality to promote aspirational or purely fictitious concepts of perfect people and places and on the other hand can highlight work that uses reality to communicate my understanding or subjective view of those same subjects.  How ever much we step back from our subject, create space between us to suggest objectivity or avoid formal manipulation to the same end photography remains subjective, the act of taking a photograph is a process of exclusion and inclusion which ultimately is only an opinion. Perhaps my whole archive uses reality to depict a fantasy of how I want to see the world.



(1) Boothroyd, Sharon and Wood, Keith (2015) Identity and Place. Barnsley: Open College of the Arts

(2) Bachen, Geoffrey (1997) Burning With Desire. Cambridge MA: MIT Press

(3) Abbott, Berenice (1951) Photography at the Crossroads (first published in the Universal Photo Almanac) – From Classic Essays on Photography edited by Alan Trachtenberg (1980). Sedwick: Leete’s Island Books

(4) Berger, John & Mohr, Jean (1982) Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography. London: Bloomsbury

(5) Smith, Graham (2012) Photography and Travel. London: Reaktion Books


(6) Alexander, Jesse (2014) A Question About Contemporary Photography (accessed on the writer’s website 13.9.16) – https://jessealexanderonphotography.com/2014/06/24/a-question-about-contemporary-photography/

(7) Freedman, Suart (2010) Ethics and Photojournalism (accessed at EPUK 13.9.16) – http://www.epuk.org/the-curve/ethics-and-photojournalism


Posted in 1 - Absence and Signs of Life, Exercises | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A5 Research: Denis Thorpe – The Shepherd’s Year

Harvest - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Harvest – Steve Middlehurst 2016

I have been broadening my net looking for photographers who have produced notable studies of farmers. My tutor suggested looking at Denis Thorpe’s 1979 book The Shepherd’s Year (1) on which he collaborated with the journalist Alan Dunn. I was luckily able to find a second hand copy of this compact but interesting book.

The Shepherd’s Year was commissioned by The Guardian as journalism with Thorpe and Dunn assigned to follow a hill shepherd, Ray Dent, and his family for the full cycle of a farming year. I have found no record of whether the project was conceptualised by the editors or the two journalists but the very existence of such an extensive series on a single subject is historically relevant. Ross Collins, a photojournalist who became an educator, believes that 1975 was the end of the golden age of photojournalism, a time in which not just picture magazines but daily newspapers would run “many photo-pages with minimal copy, stories told through photographs” (2); by the mid-1980’s newspapers began to use a single photograph to illustrate a story.

From the series A Shepherd's Year - Denis Thorpe

From the series A Shepherd’s Year – Denis Thorpe

The Shepherd’s Year therefore comes right at the end of an era in which the photojournalist was story teller, reporter and documentarist, set into the field with the license to study a single subject over an extended period of time. As someone who grew up when the great picture magazines were in their heyday and who remembers the launch of the Sunday Times Colour Supplement my instinct is to be nostalgic for this, so called, golden age of photojournalism but there is something very soft about Denis’ series.

Artillery Range, Mynydd Eppynt from the series Land of My Fathers - David Hurn 1973

Artillery Range, Mynydd Eppynt from the series Land of My Fathers – David Hurn 1973

In trying to understand why this was my initial reaction I turned to David Hurn’s Wales Land of my Fathers (3), a series of around one hundred photographs of which about half were taken in the seventies. Even ignoring the industrial landscapes Hurn presents rural Wales as a hard land, often beautiful, but an unforgiving environment whose inhabitants look worn down by life. Both Hurn and Thorpe are faithfully documenting an inhabited landscape away from the “soft south” of England but the photographers have chosen to frame a quite different perspective of rural life.

In Perspectives on Place Jesse Alexander discusses the term “pastoral” in the context of visual culture.

“Pastoral imagery is essentially a performance of the “countryside” a generally idealised representation of uncomplicated rural life.” (4: p.143)

A description that fits well with A Shepherd’s Year; there can be no doubt that to be a hill farmer in North Yorkshire was and is a hard life but despite the inclusion of snow covered hills and photographs of physical labour overall it presents as a perpetuation of what Alexander calls the “myth of a countryside idyll” (4: p.143). Hurn has a self declared emotional relationship with Wales, his choice of title makes this clear, and his photographs express this deep-rooted bond. When discussing Brandt’s landscapes Liz Wells talks of pictures that “crystallise the emotional dimension of our relation with land” (5: p.166) and I feel that Thorpe’s work falls short of this.

This is not intended as a judgement on Thorpe’s work,  it is merely a comment that his instincts appear to lean more towards pictorialism than the depiction of, what one assumes are, the harsh realities of hill farming. Thorpe’s work is not readily available on-line and I am at risk of appearing to judge his work on one series of about fifty photographs and that is not my intent.

From the series A Shepherd's Year - Denis Thorpe

From the series A Shepherd’s Year – Denis Thorpe

In fact I like many of the individual photographs included in the series, particularly his quite abstract pictures of sheep which combine movement and pattern. The series does document a family at work and at rest and is effective in doing this, there is a sense of the year unfolding and the agricultural milestones of mating, birthing, shearing and showing that punctuate the seasons. As a historical document it has real worth.

From the series A Shepherd's Year - Denis Thorpe

From the series A Shepherd’s Year – Denis Thorpe

Each time I look through the book I return to the portrait of Ray Dent holding a lamb, in the same way that Mohr’s final portrait of Marcel the herdsman (5: p.39 & discussed here) seems to summarise his whole persona, this single image captures more of Dent’s nature, or at least my reading of it, than all the pictures of him walking or working with his sheep.  It includes perfect details like his shepherd’s crook hanging on the fence, his well worn hat that seems personal and carefully chosen in the land and era of the flat cap and his shirt and tie which reminds me of my Yorkshire born father whose only concession to the weekend was to dig the garden in a soft shirt and tie as opposed to the pressed white shirts he wore during the week. But, more than any detail it is the look in his eye, the critical stare that suggests a mind analysing livestock despite the distracting presence of two reporters from London.



(1) Thorpe, Denis and Dunn, Alan (1979) The Shepherd’s Year. Newton Abbot: David and Charles

(3) Hurn, David (2000) Wales Land of My Fathers. London: Thames and Hudson

(4) Alexander, J.A.P. (2015) Perspectives on Place: Theory and Practice in Landscape Photography. London: Bloomsbury

(5) Berger, John & Mohr, Jean (1982) Another Way of Telling: A Possible Theory of Photography. London: Bloomsbury


(2) Collins, Ross (ND) A Brief History of Photography and Photojournalism (accessed at North Dakota State University 22.8.16) – https://www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~rcollins/242photojournalism/historyofphotography.html

() Archives Hub (ND) Denis Thorpe Photographic Collection (accessed at Archives Hub 22.8.16) – http://archiveshub.ac.uk/data/gb2726-dth

Posted in Assignment 5 - Self Directed, Research & Reflection | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

A5 Research: John Darwell – Dark Days

Farm Entrance, Southwaite from the series Dark Days - John Darwell 2007

Farm Entrance, Southwaite from the series Dark Days – John Darwell 2007

The Emperor Nero is rumoured to have fiddled (i) as Rome burned, some suggest it was an act of disinterest, others argue that he set the fires to clear the site for his new palace or as an excuse to persecute the Christians. Whatever the truth of the story the Emperor practicing his scales with Rome in flames beneath the Palantine is a powerful and enduring image; it has become a symbol of the delusional ruler ignoring the realties of an environmental and human disaster unfolding on his doorstep. How easy it is to find parallels two thousand years later, politicians fiddling as their constituents suffer. In John Darwell’s Farm Entrance, Southwaite it is “Blair Fiddles as Cumbria Burns”

Young activists probably see environmental issues as a contemporary political movement but as far back as the late 1940’s scientists began to report that we were poisoning the planet. In 1962 Rachel Carson published the Silent Spring, a book condemning the unregulated use of pesticides and the catastrophic damage they caused; it arguably became the catalyst for the creation of the modern environmental lobby. Pressure groups, the scientific community and journalists have all worked to keep environmental issues on the political agenda but it is often the role of the photojournalist or independent documentary photography to put the issue in the public eye, to create pictures that stick in the mind, force us to think and bring the issue to our door.

Many writers argue that we have become a social-media-led society dependant on pictures as our main means of communication but the change from the pre-internet world to now is only in volume and ease of distribution rather than a switch from spoken or written word to pictures. Apart from their ability to communicate complex information quickly and efficiently, photographs have a remarkable ability to implant themselves in our memories, some argue that we remember photographs of people better than direct visual memory, and it is this attribute that makes photography such a powerful documentary and journalistic tool.

The concerned photographer is a long tradition in photography, men and women who have harnessed their skills to expose atrocity, injustice and suffering. Many would associate this form of documentary or photojournalism with foreignness, the war in Syria, famine in Africa, civil rights in the USA or in terms of environmental disasters the Mexican Gulf oil spill (ii) and melting ice caps. However, Britain has its own tradition of purely domestic concerned photography; Don McCullin’s studies of the social and economic divide (3) or The Exit Photography Group’s (iii) study of inner city poverty in the seventies come to mind. The intent behind this work is the key to understanding documentary, the concerned photographer is lobbying for change without expecting a single photograph or one series to change the socio-political landscape, they recognise their contribution as part of a steady flow of information, ratcheting up public awareness, the drip of water that finally creates an impression in the rock below.

It is in this context that I want to review John Darwell’s Dark Days. Darwell describes himself as an “independent photographer” (7) a description I rather like with its undertones of a political statement, perhaps a necessary one in the world of environmentalists. Darwell’s practice has explored a wide range of social and environmental issues from the eerie emptiness of the exclusion zone around the Chernobyl nuclear power station to, my personal favourite, Indian Ocean; forty photographs of discarded drinks cans washed up by a storm onto the coast of Western Australia and A Black Dog Came Calling “An allegorical, first hand, journey through the experience of depression” (8)

Robert, After Pressure Washing Sheds from the series Dark Days - John Darwell 2001

Robert, After Pressure Washing Sheds from the series Dark Days – John Darwell 2001

Dark Days is an extensive study, undertaken over a year, of the impact of the foot and mouth epidemic on Cumbria in 2001. In a world when politics, business and the media communicate in thirty second soundbites this is a book that forces the viewer-reader to pause and reflect. As now I was living in a rural community as the crisis developed, I recall the disinfectant troughs on local farms, the closed footpaths and the news feed videos of cattle being incinerated but until reading David Black’s essay that accompanies Dark Days I cannot pretend to have understood the extent of the crisis and its impact inside the exclusion zones that were created around livestock farms. Nor did I understand the Government agencies’ slow and misguided response and how resolving the crisis became subservient to the need to project the New Labour Government in a positive light inside the Westminster and media bubble. The farmers and their animals became yet another victim of the sophisticated spin-doctors operating out of Number 1o.

Darwell doesn’t tell us this, his series is not obviously about national politics, it is a moving study of the unfolding of the crisis, the closed off landscape of Cumbria, the brutal response to cull livestock and the depressing aftermath as farms were “sterilised”. Liz Wells describes it as a “Critical Scenario in Three Acts” (6: p.9).

The structure of the book is interesting, it opens with a short preface by Roger Breeze (iv) who presents a personal perspective on the crisis but it is not until his closing paragraphs that he highlights that the mass slaughter of livestock was a solution first devised in the 17th century, a thought that supports his closing argument that the photographs are a record of the “constant failure of governments to defend Britain, and the British rural way of life.” (6: p.5)

This is followed by a much longer essay by Liz Wells, three quarters of which describes the history of British rural documentary photography before describing the structure of the book in terms that speak to the student of photography but are unlikely to appeal to the more a general reader. The inclusion of this essay as a preface to the photographs suggests that the publisher sees the audience for this work inside the academic photographic community which questions its intent as concerned documentary; an internalisation of the argument it contains rather than it being directed at the general public. There is no doubt in the quality of Wells’ essay or of the power of the photographs that follow it but in terms of contextualising the imagery, it is a weak opening. At the end of the book there is a much more revealing personal account of the crisis written by David Black, a Cumbrian vet who was directly involved in the crisis. This essay makes it clear that the Government failed to react promptly and effectively but falls short of expanding on those short comings. (v)

In Stuart Franklin’s review of Eugene Richard’s Cocaine True Cocaine Blue he argues that: “The impact of the book was diminished however by the relegation of a brilliant explanatory text by medical doctor Stephen Nicholas to the back pages.”  (9: p 71) And, I feel that Dark Days falls into the same trap, I would have preferred to have seen Breeze’s foreword immediately followed by Black’s personal account with Wells’ more academic text after the photographs.

Closed Footpath, Kirkstone Pass Looking Towards Ullswater from the series Dark Days - John Darwell 2007

Closed Footpath, Kirkstone Pass Looking Towards Ullswater from the series Dark Days – John Darwell 2007

The photographs open with the beautiful landscape of the Lake District, an idyllic pastoral scene, but in the words of Cream’s song SWLABR

“You’ve got that pure feel, such good responses, But the picture has a moustache.” (10)

The “moustache” is the emptiness, neither humans nor sheep can be seen on the hills of Kirkstone Pass or in the stone walled pastures above Patterdale; it is agricultural land without agriculture; a national park without tourists; footpaths without walkers. Disinfectant mats and tubs, warning signs, black-bagged footpath signs, police incident tape and a solitary political poster (see opening image) begin to unfold the narrative, the explanation of desertion.

Darwell is a Cumbrian resident and understood that the impact of the epidemic was felt far beyond the farmers; the general absence of tourists, closed caravan sites, pubs, cafes and petrol stations denote the scale of the economic suffering and speak to the totality of the rural community effected.

If the emptiness is the “moustache” the next set of photographers represent Cream’s final chorus

“You’ve got that pure feel, such good responses. You’ve got that rainbow feel but the rainbow has a beard.” (10)

Darwell’s picture postcard landscapes are injected with plumes of smoke, the pyres of some of the six million animals destroyed in the cull.

Eden Valley, March from the series Dark Days - John Darwell 2007

Eden Valley, March from the series Dark Days – John Darwell 2007

The narrative builds as a chronological series which brings the viewer in slowly from the great landscapes of the Lake District to the details describing the impact on the economy, the plumes of smoke, the pyres and finally to the slaughtered animals. In this sense the narrative references film documentary, Darwell has been given a generous publishing space within which to work, there are nearly 150 photographs in this series, allowing Darwell to introduce changes of pace in different parts of the narrative, a slow buildup of landscapes followed by quick fire shots of dead sheep brings a sense of drama to his presentation. It is at this point that Darwell brings the first farmer into the story, a tired and distraught man in a stereotypical flat cap that contrasts with his crime-scene disposable overalls. As the human impact is introduced the caption adds a further layer of poignancy “They’re my brother-in-law’s sheep. Mine all one went last week. He won’t come out of the house until it’s all over.”

The series develops in this manner to record the whole story from cull through clean-up to the footpaths being reopened, field gates left open, a handful of tourists reappearing and concluding with the “For Sale” signs on rural cottages and farms.

As a Cumbrian resident and a documentary photographer already exploring environment issues and their impact on communities, Darwell was not only sensitive to the drama unfolding around his home but had a professional understanding of the imperative to document the event. In his excellent book The Documentary Impulse (9) Stuart Franklin writes at length about the history and motivations of  documentary photographers; in the opening chapter he summaries his thoughts as:

“The driving factors behind this impulse throughout history have included curiosity, outrage, reform, ritual, self-assertion and the expression of power. These factors encompass the search for evidence, for beauty, even for therapy – and always the search to make memories immortal.” (9: p.8)

We can instinctively see many of these motivations in Dark Days; especially the search for evidence, the sense of outrage and a desire for reform, perhaps the process of photographing the event was therapeutic for Darwell, a sense of doing something positive when feeling helpless in the face of a crisis. This could not have been an easy project; to achieve the images of farmers, pyres and slaughtered animals meant working close to both the human victims and the vets trying to complete an assignment that went against all their instincts and training to preserve life. Farmers have an unique and complex bond with their livestock, to photograph their grief might fall short of photographing a funeral but, as photographer it would be impossible not to feel a sense of intrusion into a very private situation.  It is testament to the man that the vet, David Black, describes how they became friends in the course of that year (6: p.188).

Farm Gates, vale of Lorton from the series Dark Days - John Darwell 2007

Farm Gates, vale of Lorton from the series Dark Days – John Darwell 2007

As a book this is an important record of a significant historical event, as a photographic series it is an emotionally charged narrative that slowly but eloquently unfolds across nearly two hundred pages, as a political statement it is a sad indictment of successive Governments who exhibit a minimal understanding of rural issues and whose policies in that area are typically pitched for their urban constituents rather the people directly impacted.

Captions play a vital role in this series, having criticised the layout of the book above it is important to say that Darwell’s captions add immense value to the pictures; the photographs and their accompanying captions plus the sheer scale of the series creates an unusually complete record of an event but as Paul Trevor said of Survival Programmes “To document a condition is not to explain it” (4: p17). This book represents a unique first hand account of a devastating environmental and human disaster providing  a stark reminder of the vulnerability of the food chain, of agriculture and of rural economies as well as being an important historical record of an event with significant social consequences.

As a life-long countryman with close connections to farming my viewpoint is biased, I came to this book with a broad understanding of the impact of the foot and mouth epidemic but I remain frustrated that, apart from David Black’s excellent but too short essay, I left the book without a full understanding of why the crisis was allowed to happen. To protect our farmers and their herds is arguably a greater imperative now than ever before, the dairy industry, if not on its knees, is in a state of crisis and at a time, in the aftermath of Brexit, when the whole future of British farming is unclear we can ill afford a repeat of the 2001 or 1967 foot and mouth epidemic.

Notes on Text

(i) The violin was not invented until the 11th century but why spoil a good story with too many facts. The historian Tacitus, who was alive at the time, places Nero 60 km away in Antium at the time of the fire and dismisses the story of him singing about the fall of Troy when he heard the news as a rumour. 

Sunday afternoon, Mozart Street, Granby, Liverpool, 1975 from the series Survival Programmes: In Britain's Inner Cities - Paul Trevor, Exit Photography Group 1975

Sunday afternoon, Mozart Street, Granby, Liverpool, 1975 from the series Survival Programmes: In Britain’s Inner Cities – Paul Trevor, Exit Photography Group 1975

(ii) The Exit Photography Group comprised Nicholas Battye, Chris Steele-Perkins and Paul Trevor. According to Amber Online (1 &4) “Between 1974 and 1979, against a backdrop of rising concern about the converging issues of race, poverty, Exit Photography Group captured the growing crisis in the inner cities. In London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Newcastle, Middlesbrough, Glasgow and Belfast Nicholas Battye, Chris Steele-Perkins and Paul Trevor documented the scale and complexity of the situation, and the different responses to it.” 

Oil Spill #12 A ship drifts amidst a heavy band of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, May, 2010 from the series Spill - Daniel Betrá 2010

Oil Spill #12
A ship drifts amidst a heavy band of oil spilled in the Gulf of Mexico from the Deepwater Horizon wellhead, May, 2010 from the series Spill – Daniel Betrá 2010

(iii) Daniel Betrá’s aerial photographs are a shocking study of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. (2 & 5); the perfect repost to the argument that photographers should not make tragedy beautiful, it is the very beauty of these photographs that makes their message so powerful. It not only asks us to question how man can be so casual when harvesting oil in the natural environment it challenges us with the paradox of aesthetic beauty arising from an environmental and human disaster. His series on the Amazon rainforest is equally powerful and quite brilliantly conceived, amongst fifty five aerial photographs of the impact of deforestation he includes just two grown level shots, one of the perpetrators and one of a human victim.

(iv) Roger Breeze is a Lancashire Farmer and academic working with government agencies to address the threat of biological weapons and the spread of disease.

(v) I refer any interested reader to the BBC’s chronological record of the outbreak. (11) To my uneducated eye there were a number of significant errors made by not just the Government of the day but their predecessors.

  • On 19th February signs of Foot and Mouth (FMD) were identified at an abattoir in Essex. According to BBC “It is now believed that the virus had already spread to 57 farms nationwide in the days before the discovery”, the Government’s contingency plan was based on the assumption that only 10 farms would have been infected before the disease was identified. This suggests the plans drawn up after the 1967 outbreak had not been revisited and updated in 34 years. 
  • On 20th February the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff) confirms that the tests have proved positive.
  • On 23rd February the government introduces a ban on the movement of animals from affected areas.

Between the 20th and the 23rd a livestock market was held in Longtown Combria. Because  an export ban was already in place there were more animals on sale than normal. Cumbria suffered worse than any other area of Britain, 41% of all cases identified, the layman might conclude that the failure to ban all animal movements on 20th February was a significant contributory factor.



(3) McCullin, Don (2007) In England. London: Jonathan Cape

(4) Battye, Nicholas. Steele-Perkins, Chris and Trevor, Paul (1982) Survival Programmes: In Britain’s Inner Cities. Milton Keynes: Open University Press

(5) Betrá, Daniel (2010) Spill, London:Gost

(6) Darwell, John (2007) Dark Days. Stockport: Dewi Lewis Publishing

(9) Franklin, Stuart (2016) The Documentary Impulse. London: Phaidon

(1) Rigby, Graeme (2009) Survival Programmes by Exit Photography Group (accessed at Amber On-Line 19.8.16) – http://www.amber-online.com/exhibitions/survival-programmes-by-exit-photography-group

(2) Betrá, Daniel (2010) Spill (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.8.16) – http://danielbeltra.photoshelter.com/portfolio/G0000N9uDgKewQWk

(7) Darwell, John (ND) About John Darwell (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.8.16) – http://johndarwell.com/index.php?r=page/default/view&id=1

(8) Darwell, John (ND) A Black Dog Came Calling (accessed at the photographer’s website 19.8.16) – http://johndarwell.com/index.php?r=image/default/category&alias=a-black-dog-came-calling

(10) Bruce, Jack and Brown, Pete (1971) Cream – SWLABR (accessed at Song Meanings 20.8.16) – http://songmeanings.com/songs/view/3458764513820556084/

(11) BBC (2011) Foot and Mouth Outbreak of 2001 (accessed at BBC 20.8.16) – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-12483017

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