Assignment 5: Peer Group Critique and Feedback

This is my current selection of photographs for assignment 5, the self-directed project at the end of Identity and Place. My intent is to explore the relationship between a farming family and their environment whilst challenging two strongly embedded ideas: the myth of the countryside idyll and the veracity of documentary style photography.

My main references were John Darwell, Scott McFarland, Colin Shaw, Gregory Crewdson, Henrik Duncker and Mark Neville.

At this stage I am posting these pictures to seek peer group critique and feedback before finalising the series.

Crackmoor Fig. 01 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 01 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 01 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 02 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 01 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 03 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 03 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 04 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 04 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 05 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 05 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 06 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 06 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 07 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 06 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 08 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 08 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 09 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 10 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 10 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 11 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 11 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 12 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Crackmoor Fig. 12 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Responses

EP: Knowing that the calf in the kitchen is posed makes me wonder how much information you’re planning on giving the viewer? The challenge to the rural idyll is a very clear message, but despite the staging (particularly the indoor/outdoor shots with their clever lighting or montaging) my initial instinct was that the series is broadly “true”. Perhaps that’s your intention, but then how does the viewer know you’re actually challenging that assumption?

EP: Incidentally I can really see the crewdson influence, well done for working with what is a technically challenging style!

CB: Looks a very cohesive set and I can see how the compositional elements have been very carefully considered. I can see the challenge to the countryside idyll but not sure about the documentary reality aspect. Is that to do with the fact that some images are posed? I hope it isn’t the calf because I would love to think they actually fed it in the kitchen to keep it warm (me being romantic).
Re Scott McFarland – your view was so good that I bought the book! Maybe you should add book reviewer to your list of skills.

CW: I think the research aspects of the modules can encourage students to attempt to be too didactic in their image making. ‘Space’ needs to be left for the viewer to make up their own readings rather than have the photographer making an argument; better to make a suggestion. The images are convincing within a certain genre. They certainly wouldn’t look out of place both technically and stylistically in a Sunday colour supplement and I would mark them highly on that basis rather than them being some comment on the veracity of documentary photography; we know photography is partial anyway just by the pointing of the camera.

CW: Well I have sympathy with the basic premise, having come from a village in northwest Oxfordshire where my family have lived for generations. I’ve made two pieces of work about, motivated by the middle class flight to the country which began in the 70s, ultimately pricing the locals out of the village. One piece was as a photography student preserving locations in the village which had personal meaning for me and then again for my MA 25 years later when I went back and photographed the same locations again from the same spots as near as I could. Simply making a book pairing up the images created the narrative, i.e. the story of the fictionalisation of the village.

Professionally I’ve also colluded in that, needs must. 😀

I did the photography for a brochure for a multinational petrochemical company about delivering diesel to farms. My preferred solution would have been to have spent a few days travelling around in a tanker photographing what happened but it doesn’t work like that most of the time. The art director had designed a layout doing a thumbnail purely from his imaginings for each image required in order for it to be approved by the client. Then we went to fruit farm in Kent and recreated the thumbnails; son of the farmer offering the driver an apple and getting a pat on the head etc. The petrol company supplied their newest tanker and I remember the client insisting that the mud of the farm track be washed off the tyres. So I’ve seen it from both sides and what you have there is a sort of hybrid in that you’ve manipulated the situation in the service of a wider truth.

What impresses me most is how you’ve risen to the challenge of ‘making something happen’. Students rarely appreciate the pressure this creates. You turn up expensively to a location maybe with an entourage of five or six and they’re all looking to you for direction as to how to make something brilliant that’s going to justify your fee. I can’t fault you on that, you’ve made things happen and with an awkward technical solution too. It’s some of the most professionally polished work I’ve seen in my time at the OCA. There are also ways of suggesting that there’s more going on than there really is, often through uncomfortable and counter intuitive positioning of figures and there’s some of that going on too, perhaps unconsciously absorbed from your researches.

Finally a word about narrative, you can be mapping out an area rather than a line, which I believe you’re doing, in which case it may not matter what order the images are in as you’re not telling a chronological story you’re wanting to leave the audience with an overall feeling about what they’ve witnessed.

WR: 1-5 and 11 and 12 are my favourites. I have never critiqued and as I am only just starting out on this course I can give no compelling educated arguments, these are just my instinctive thoughts. Figure 6 is the one I am not sure on but I think with the others I am drawn into to picture but with this one I get stuck on the farmer and the way his looks like he is doing a Russian dance. I can’t undo that now I’ve seen it but my eyes don’t venture any further. I love the images where the person is inside the barns and I have to look in, I am forced to notice things such as the Halloween costume and I really like the farmer in the turquoise apron he almost looks like a mermaid which amuses me and intrigues me at the same time. I hope this helps

A O’N: 1 is great and original. 2, 11, 12 really strong as well especially 12 – can see the Crewdson influence – great control of light and composition. 3, 4, 5 really good as well 5 better than 4 or is it? 6-10 all decent but do 8,9,10 start to take the series in two directions? 10 for instance is a very straight forward image whereas 12 is full of mystery and surrealism. My advice would be – really be specific about the idea and concept of the series then be firm with yourself about what fits and what doesn’t.

I think I’d be basing the whole thing around 12 – It’s a brilliant brilliant image. Be bold. You could go 1,2,3 then either 4 or 5. 6,7 fine – is there enough light in 7 I’m sure there is, you’ll know better. You could drop 8,9,10, keeping 11, 12. Which ever way you go in the end you’ve got a great long-list well done!

How did you get that light onto the caravan? Is there additional lighting in the barn? Hope this is useful.

AO’N: Excellent Steve, this is a really great piece of work! Regards, Allan

MG: 2,4,11,12 are fantastic because of the mood and lighting of dusk and they all have variable gaze. Not keen on 8,9, 10 as they break the mood of the series and look more staged. The posed in the milking shed is excellent. 11 and 12 which are the best shots as they are Edward Hopper like in style and enigmatic. If this series is about the autumn of our farming industry and the farmer and his wife then let them be dark and moody.

AF: 3,5,6,7 I enjoy as a series; the proximity to the subjects and the darkness that surrounds them. The posed shots in an unlikely setting gives them a eye-catching surreality. Reminds me of the atmosphere in some of the Martin Parr, Rhubarb Triangle work …

LK: I like 1 (sets the stage), 2, 3, 5, 11 and 12. I really love 10, but it doesn’t have the same feel and mood as the others. I’d stick with the Crewdson effect you’ve got going here. Really good series as always Steve.

KA: Running out of day here, but great shots. My choices would be the ones that show both inside and outside spaces in the same shot, I love the contrast between the electric light and the outdoor light and the indoor/outdoor textures. Really like how you’ve done these, great modern take on farming.

PH: I like the first one very much because of the play with dimension and perspective, and the others are great as well, but a slightly different style. Only in 1 or 2 cases I think a little bit cropping would draw me more in. but of course it is about “place” as well, I think.

HW: Great set, Steve. I’d stick with the Crewdson vibe too. It works really well.

PH: Your image number one still resonates with me, it´s probably an image you could put on an exhibition or sell to a Texas millionaire… – I did wonder, because I follow your photography already since some time, when you pst it here, whether you also could experiment with a frame outside the image, in case of image 1 that would probably also look fantastic.

NF:  They are great shots i love the saturation and how you have divided some frames in two and others from the window if I can only say I feel the 8th image is the weakest aesthetically but I like how one many is looking at the other as if he is waiting on a reply to something. all the rest made me smile and want to know more about the people in it . I had a sense of the identity of the people in it.

AB: Sorry I’m too late for my comment to be of any help Steve. I love the whole set, particularly the posed shots. There is a strong narrative going on in all of them though, good luck with this assignment.

EF: As others have said, it is an interesting set. Purely on sequencing, I am not sure that no.1 works well as an opening image or a good link to 2. I don’t think you need both 4 and 5. I like 4 because it echoes a number of the other images where we are looking into lit spaces and also conscious of the unlit outside. It gives a sense of humans in a relatively isolated and at times lonely and vulnerable environment.

AO’N: Agree, a good set. I like the composition and lighting. I might add an action shot or two of the people working. I think the stand out shot of non-action is the one with the green machinery in the background, so it might be worthwhile replacing some of the other standing shots with action shots. Well done overall!

BC: To me 2, 3, 4 and 5 all have a very similar rhetorical meaning, they all seem to be talking about or referring to farming as an isolated and hard working occupation and I wonder should you include them all? 2 gives a good sense of the hard work and isolation involved in farming and I agree with Eileen on no 1, I’m not sure its a good opener but it is a strong image and might make a good counterfoil to No 10. Im not sure what no 11 is trying to say? I find no. 12 an very interesting image, theres an interesting narrative going on here and its interesting that this is a woman gazing into the shed while, for example 2,4 & 5 feature a man gazing out.

HW: Great set, Steve. I’d stick with the Crewdson vibe too. It works really well.

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Three Different Approaches: Drake, Ewald and Shaw

Uyghur laborers string electric lines across Taklamakan Desert - Carolyn Drake 2007

Uyghur laborers string electric lines across Taklamakan Desert – Carolyn Drake 2007

One of the interesting aspects of this course is the opportunity to discover how contemporary photographers have found new ways to address the age-old subject of breaking down the insider – outside dynamic to explore identity and place. This essay, which looks at Caroline Drake, Wendy Ewald and Chris Shaw follows on from reviews of John Goto (here), Henrik Duncker and Yrjö Tuunanen (here) who have each devised very personal approaches to their work.

I have a tendency towards straight photography, often in the documentary style, and one of the challenges of the Context and Narrative and Identity and Place courses has been to break out from the inherent conservatism of my practice and explore new approaches and new ways to present my work. If there is one feature that marks out contemporary photography in general from work in the 1970’s and earlier it would be the wide range of, often radical, approaches to, what would historically have been, straight documentary projects.

Carolyn Drake – Wild Pigeons

At one time, and not so long ago, a radically different approach to a photographic project might have marked out the photographer as a contemporary artist who uses photography rather than a documentarist so it is interesting to start by looking at a documentary project by a Magnum Photos nominee.

Carolyn Drake became a professional photographer at the age of 30 initially moving to Ukraine to “examine cultural partitions in a country pursuing a unified national identity” (1) and then between 2007 and 2013 basing herself in Turkey whilst traveling into Central Asia to progress two long term projects; Two Rivers, looking at the region between the Amu Darya and Syr Darya rivers and Wild Pigeons which explores the status of the Moslem Uyghur people in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region on China’s Western borders.

I have been unable to source a copy of Wild Pigeons (i) so this review is based on the various, and usually small, selections from the series that can been found on line. This is an inadequate method of review, understanding the flow of a book is as important as being able to see the printed photographers, and it is especially inadequate in this case having noted Ian Johnson’s comment that “This is a challenging book. It requires paging through and studying its sequences several times before its intentions unfold.” (4)

The region is in the midst of an enforced and dramatic drive for modernisation with historic neighbourhoods cleared for the construction of modern cities and a significant influx of Han Chinese workers. A ban on contact with the press and religious beliefs that oppose the depiction of living creatures in artwork were just two of the obstacles that needed to be overcome if Drake was to document the world of the Uyghur people.

“With this project I found myself trying to tell a story about people who are forbidden from describing themselves to the broader world in their own ways; who speak a different language than me and have different religious and intellectual experiences; and who live in a place that is changing rapidly, not by their own choice. I had to ask myself how to make meaningful work considering all of these conditions. The experiments were a response to these deliberations.” (3)

The book is organised into four sections that separate an intriguing mix of straight, dreamily atmospheric and subdued documentary style pictures, collaborative collages and sketches on photographs, straight portraits and manipulated postcard-style portraits.

The landscapes, both urban and rural, have a dusty, misty eeriness, somehow more Marco Polo than twenty first century. There is often great depth to the pictures even though the furthest points may dissolve into hazy horizons; they describe great spaces, grey skies and flat deserts bordering rivers and roads, human subjects are often dwarfed by the landscape. Sean O’Hagen summarises their atmosphere as a “sense of isolation and otherworldliness” (2) and it is this “otherworldliness” that sets these photographs apart from so much documentary photography. Reviewing these images provides an insight into how the public reacted to travel photography in the nineteenth and early twentieth century; this is a place that is not only far from any tourist destination but a truly forgotten corner of China’s sprawling empire. Everything from the landscape to the people and their architecture is novel and Drake’s pictures drawn us in to explore this remote and strange place.

China. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Hotan. A view in the mountains. - Carolyn Drake 2013

China. Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Hotan. A view in the mountains. – Carolyn Drake 2013

Much has been made of the collaborative art works that form the second section of this book where Drake relinquished control of her photographs to allow people to collage or graffiti the originals and how in doing so gave a small number of Uyghurs a creative and political voice that they are otherwise denied. The available examples of these collaborations are intriguing and we must assume reveal an unique insight to the Uyghur mind. Darren Byler (5), an anthropologist who edits a collaborative blog focussed on Northwest China and Central Asia, showed the book to both Han Chinese and Uyghur photographers to gauge their reactions; the Han photographers were initially struck by the mixture of high quality photographs and the overwritten and poorly Photoshopped montages but after discussion recognised that by discarding aesthetic or quality goals Drake had found a way to express the suppressed ideas of her collaborators:

“Wow, this book really is about the dreams of people. The idea is not to achieve some high standard of beauty, but to understand the desires of people.” (5)

The Uyghur photographers reacted quite differently, relating very directly to the manipulated pictures and finding narratives that reflected their own experiences.

These responses better explain the collaborative sections of the book than any detached reviewer can hope to achieve. They suggest that these parts of the book are subversive, a message smuggled out of Xinjiang that communicates the fears and dreams of a subjugated people. If we accept that idea then the whole book acquires a political edge that the landscapes and portraits might have failed to achieve in their own right.

A Uyghur taxi driver waits for customers in front of a kebab stall at the night market in Kashgar - Carolyn drake 2008

A Uyghur taxi driver waits for customers in front of a kebab stall at the night market in Kashgar – Carolyn Drake 2008

It is frustrating not to have seen a copy of this publication as I sense the interrelationship between the different styles and approaches in the four sections is important in understanding Drake’s overall intent. However, based on the available photographs, I surmise that she has used the collaborative works as the key that unlocks the meaning of her straight documentary pictures which appear more dream-like as a result. In their own right the collaborative works do not hold the aesthetic appeal of the landscapes and portraits but by offering a tiny window into the minds of their authors they help us understand the overall, sad narrative of the Uyghurs. A narrative that is common to all minorities.

Wendy Ewald – American Alphabet

From the series An African American Alphabet, with sixth grade students from Cleveland Central Intermediate School - Wendy Ewald 2000

From the series An African American Alphabet, with sixth grade students from Cleveland Central Intermediate School – Wendy Ewald 2000

Wendy Ewald’s American Alphabet continues with the themes of alternative approaches and collaboration. This project which arose from a recognition by Ewald that, in American schools, children to whom English was a second language were being taught using primers that reflected white middle-class values based on motifs and educational concepts first devised in the fifties.

Ewald identified that far from being democratic language was a barrier to progress for children from non-English speaking homes and set out to create primers based on her photographs that were relatable to various ethnic groups. Initially photographing Spanish speaking migrants:

“I asked them to think of a word in their own language for each letter of the alphabet, and to assign these words visual signs specific to their culture. I photographed the signs, objects or scenes they selected. When the negatives were developed, the children altered them with Magic Markers, adding the letter and word they were illustrating.” (6)

After working with Latinos she was commissioned by the Cleveland Centre for Contemporary Art to develop a similar project with African American children. This evolved the project from one based on an internationally recognised language to the vernacular language or dialect of black American youths.

These projects are highly collaborative with the children designing the theatrical settings, poses, props and eventually over-writing the prints. It revealed not just the distance between these minority groups and the assumptions of the wider American population but also the huge creative resource that lies latent in schools in deprived areas not just in the United States but in any developed society. Ewald has tapped into this resource to make an educational, political, cultural and artistic statement of real merit

Normal, adj. Typically describing something that is usual or conforms to the standard. From the series American Alphabet: White Girls - Wendy Ewald

Normal, adj. Typically describing something that is usual or conforms to the standard. From the series American Alphabet: White Girls – Wendy Ewald

Ewald might easily have left it there or continued to work with ethic minorities but to explore contrasts and similarities she then evolved the project by working with the students at Philips Academy, an exclusive boarding school in Massachusetts, where she had been a student in the 1960s. The most interesting feature of this series which clearly concentrates on the white middle class that “owns” the American-English language was the choice of words by the teenage female students. They selected words like “tearful”, “sentimental” and “orgasmic” to describe themselves which Ewald says revealed a “sad portrait” and an obsession with sexuality. (6)

From the series American Alphabets - Wendy Ewald

From the series American Alphabets – Wendy Ewald

In 2002 Ewald took the project to Queens in New York City to enable her to work with Arabic-speaking students. To put this in context the so-called Patriot Act had been passed into law in 2001 (ii), the Iraq war was about to start and Ewald found school principals highly protective of their Arab American students but one school cooperated and connected Ewald to a group of children from the Middle Eastern immigrant families.

This project was significantly different from those which proceeded it as Ewald set-out to create an Arabic language as opposed to English primer. To that end the students chose words to represent the Arabic alphabet. In the same way that Ewald saw the Latino, African American and White Girl’s choices revealing cultural and social under currents she  was surprised by the sophisticated choices made by the Arab American children; jar (neighbour) for the letter jim to represent “something like kindness, which is what people must show in the world” (6), fekr (thinking) for the letter fa because “It’s a good symbol. It represents me. I’m a good man because I’m smart” (6).

In hindsight and now understanding the long term impact The War on Terror had on relations between Muslims and non-Muslims in America and Europe we can understand that this project was revealing the underlying fears of young Arab Americans as they saw themselves becoming demonised by ill-thought-through government policies and media attention that verged upon hysteria.

In many ways it is the Arabic series that is the most moving, the strange script and language emphasises the isolation of these young people; their faces, attitudes, poses and clothing mark out their similarities with any group of students but their otherness is highlighted by the foreign script of their language, a language that Ewald points out many of them do not even speak.

Chris Shaw – Retrospecting Sandy Hill

From the series Retrospecting Sandy Hill - Chris Shaw 1986 - 89

From the series Retrospecting Sandy Hill – Chris Shaw 1986 – 89

With no disrespect intended to any of the parties involved Chris Shaw is the antithesis to Ewald and Drake. Instead of being a white, middle-class, college educated American he is a British Northerner who felt so alienated by the “rich kids at college” he lost his way, turning to alcohol and becoming a disruptive element in the late 1980’s at what is now UCA Farnham.

He found his release valve documenting the Sandy Hill housing estate in nearby Aldershot. As a long term resident of the area I can confirm that Sandy Hill was never a pretty place but it was here that Shaw was able to engage with what he describes as “normal people” (7) This project was collaborative only to the extent that Shaw gave away photographs as a way of connecting with people, which, of course, led to more photographs. He created a scrap book of the pictures but lost it on a train to London and it is only recently that he has recreated the scrap book and published it as Retrospecting Sandy Hill.

It took me some time to connect to this series. The scrapbook aesthetic, which Shaw calls “anti-aesthetic” (8), initially looks a little clichéd, although not forced or contrived but it slowly reveals itself as a illuminating way of describing a run-down post war housing estate with its low-rise sixties architecture clustered around urban wasteland originally conceived as an amenity but now scarred by neglect. Shaw’s felt tip graffiti captions and edge-torn prints capture a moment in time, perhaps a mood, where political correctness was far in the future. His captions are often insinuating and suggestive of socially unacceptable behaviour but he avoids patronising or ridiculing his subjects.

As a documentary diary it held my interest, partly no doubt because of the local connection, but were the eighties a period when we were so obsessed with cars? or was this just Shaw’s connection with the residents. At one level it is pure documentary but the informal presentation, casual compositions and printing defuse any political or social messages. He likes his subjects and they are relaxed in his presence, they relate to each other, ordinary working class people pictured without the intellectual smirk that we sometimes think lies behind Martin Parr’s work or the political statement that is inherent in so much British documentary from that same period. I find this refreshing and it allows me to absorb the series without searching for the subliminal message.

From the series Retrospecting Sandy Hill - Chris Shaw 1986 - 89

From the series Retrospecting Sandy Hill – Chris Shaw 1986 – 89

So, given all the differences, where is the connection between Drake, Ewald and Shaw? The answer lies in the most fundamental challenge of documentary photography; on the one hand we ask for objectivity but that suggests detachment and staying firmly in the position of an outsider but we also require a commentary, a subjective statement from the photographer and that only comes with empathy for the subject which in turn demands a breakdown of the insider-outside dynamic.

Despite their quite different intents and motivations Ewald and Drake have found ways to break down the barrier that exists between the documentary photographer and their subjects. Objectivity exaggerates the photographer’s status as an outsider and to move beyond photo journalism in Drake’s case or an art project in Ewald’s they needed to bring themselves and their subjects together, to create a shared intent. They have achieved this through sensitive and meaningful collaboration.

For Shaw, the relationship he developed with his subjects was part therapeutic, perhaps, as he talks of the similarities with the estates he knew in Toxteth (9), even nostalgic but this project is not truly collaborative, there is no relinquishing of authorship or editorial control. Instead he used the sharing of free prints and a common interest in cars as a way to break down barriers and become friends with his subjects, to become a partial insider. There is, in that regard, some similarity to Mark Neville’s (here) various series where his work was directed at his subjects as the audience. It is perhaps telling that Shaw only published Sandy Hill in 2015, thirty years after taking the pictures.

Notes on Text

(i) After completing this review I did find a copy of Wild Pigeon which at time of writing is on order, I may therefore update this review at a later date.

(ii) The Patriot Act or to give it its full title – Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act of 2001 – was a piece of rushed, some might say “knee-jerk” legislation as a reaction to September 11 and the 2001 anthrax attacks. It gave law enforcement agencies the power to detain immigrants for indefinite periods and search premises without the normal processes of law.

Sources

Books

Internet

(1) Drake, Carolyn (ND) Carolyn Drake (accessed at the photographer’s website 29.11.16) – http://carolyndrake.com/About-2

(2) O’Hagen, Sean (2014) China’s Wild West: Photographing a Vanishing way of Life (accessed at The Guardian 29.11.16) – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/dec/10/china-west-photograph-wild-pigeon-carolyn-drake

(3) Tototazo (2014) Interview Carolyn Drake (accessed at Tototazo 30.11.16) – http://www.fototazo.com/2014/11/interview-carolyn-drake.html

(4) Johnson, Ian (2015) China: What the Uighurs See (accessed at The New York Review of Books 29.11.16) – http://www.nybooks.com/daily/2015/04/13/wild-pigeon-what-uighurs-see/

(5) Byler, Darren (2015) Xinjiang Thoughts on Carolyn Drake’s New Book Wild Pigeon (accessed at Beigewind 29.11.16) – https://beigewind.wordpress.com/2015/07/24/xinjiang-thoughts-on-carolyn-drakes-new-book-wild-pigeon/

(6) Open Democracy (2006) American Alphabets (accessed at Open Democracy 30.11.16) – https://www.opendemocracy.net/arts/ewald_3346.jsp

(7) Farnham Herald (2016) Paris Photographers Love Affair with Sandy Hill Estate (accessed at the Farnham Herald 30.11.16) – http://www.farnhamherald.com/article.cfm?id=105909&headline=Paris%20photographer’s%20love%20affair%20with%20Sandy%20Hill%20Estate&sectionIs=news&searchyear=2016

(8) L’Oeil de la Photographie (Chris Shaw at Garlerie di Jour Agnés b. (accessed at L’Oeil de la Photographie 30.11.16) – http://www.loeildelaphotographie.com/en/2016/02/01/article/159888556/chris-shaw-at-galerie-du-jour-agnes-b/

(9) O’Hagen, Sean (2015) Chris Shaw” Art college was full of rich kids so I used my camera to speak to normal people (accessed at The Guardian 30.11.16) – https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/nov/29/chris-shaw-photographs-normal-people-retrospecting-sandy-hill-interview

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Homage to Colin Shaw

Greg Kellaway, Crackmoor Farm - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Greg Kellaway, Crackmoor Farm – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Despite being particularly interested in post-war British documentary photography I rarely work in black and white. However, this picture was inspired by Colin Shaw’s 1988 series Farmwork (see here) so it seemed only appropriate to process it in monochrome.

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A Journey

One of the final exercises in this unit is to photograph a journey that we regularly make. My journey, which I make a little less frequently than I should do, is our regular walk around the block with the dogs. The area to the northwest of Farnham might be considered an idyllic English landscape, in fact the rolling farmland is more reminiscent of Wiltshire than the Surrey and Hampshire borders. However, it is also home to one of the largest displays of large electricity pylons in the area; they march across the farmland dwarfing the isolated houses and patches of woodland that have survived between the pastures and arable farmland.

Pylon #1 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Pylon #1 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

As discussed previously (here and here) the British countryside is a manufactured landscape, cleared for farming, forestry and other industrial or agricultural purposes; however, we appear to measure the beauty of a view on a common sliding scale depending on whether the manipulation of the landscape meets the accepted criteria of a rural idyll, the aesthetics of a traditional  pastoral scene or whether it has been blighted by acts of industrialisation.

Pylon #2 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Pylon #2 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

I have lived with these pylons for many years. one towers over the lane in front of our house, varyingly hissing in foggy weather, providing a safe haven for roosting birds or casting its shadow over the grazing cattle in the field opposite. An industrial monument out of context in the lush pasture of a farmer’s field, subverting the pastoral scene.

Admittedly they are comparatively new features in our landscape, the first pylon in Britain was constructed only eighty-eight years ago (i) and although they were once viewed as a statement of modernity and despite it being nearly impossible to imagine life before the days when electricity was delivered to our door we continue to see them as an alien feature, a blot on the landscape.

Pylon #3 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Pylon #3 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

We differentiate between the unacceptable steelwork of the pylons and the corrugated steel of a dilapidated farm building; both are industrial constructions and comparatively modern inventions but the barn fits into our perception of what should be here whilst the pylon does not. It spoils the view and devalues nearby property, the rich urban-centric buyer is seeking a panorama from their living room that meets their expectation of rural life, the national grid needs to find a more acceptable route to their rural retreat.

Pylon #4 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Pylon #4 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Colin Shaw has photographed the quarries of the Peak District arguing that they are “normally thought to despoil the landscape” (2) but to understand the countryside we need to see both beyond the false perception of the rural idyll and understand the commercial and economic functions of the land. Shaw’s series Quarried (2) brings the scars of industrialisation to the art gallery, treating the quarries, cement and lime works as subjects worthy of his art.

Pylon #5 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Pylon #5 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Our perception of the picturesque  landscape has been handed down from the Georgian landscape painters to modern and contemporary landscape photographers with little or no change to what is acceptable to include or essential to exclude. We illogically accept an agrarian landscape as natural despite it being cultivated or populated with animals that have been bred solely for the purpose of producing food because it fits within an accepted template of the countryside as a rural idyll.

Pylon #6 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Pylon #6 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

This series evidences our historical exploitation of the landscape, cleared fields, coppiced woodland, houses built for farmers and a now lost rural workforce, fences and hedgerow trees planted to manage domesticated animals or to shelter our homes; the accepted features that form part of our national identity; an English rural scene. The pylons are merely a later addition to the scene, part of the infrastructure that supports us as much as, or probably more so than the fields planted with rape or ploughed ready for cereals and the pasture where a handful of beef cattle still graze.

Notes on Text

(i) Outside Edinburgh (1)

Sources

Books

Internet

(1) National Grid Timeline (accessed at National Grid 75 5.12.16) – http://www.nationalgrid75.com/timeline

(2) Shaw, Colin (2016) Quarried (accessed at the photographer’s website 5.12.16) – https://www.colinshaw.co.uk/projects/quarried/artists-statement/

 

Posted in 2 - Places and Spaces, Exercises | Tagged | 2 Comments

The Workshop as Still Life

Workshop Still Life 2 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Workshop Still Life 1 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Workshop Still Life 3 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Workshop Still Life 2 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Workshop Still Life 4 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Workshop Still Life 3 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Workshop Still Life 5 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Workshop Still Life 4 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

Workshop Still Life 5 - Steve Middlehurst 2016

Workshop Still Life 5 – Steve Middlehurst 2016

At the end of my essay on Scott McFarland’s studies of shacks (here) I remarked that the shack, cabin, shed or workshop has been mythologised in recent times, with a changing contemporary nomenclature that has reclassified them as man-caves, hideaways and rustic retreats; a strange shift in perception that romanticises humble and functional architecture projecting it as a desirable accessory within contemporary lifestyles.

My perspective is of working spaces, examples of industry within the landscape regardless of whether it is a gardener’s potting shed or an artisan’s factory. As such these spaces represent not just the activities that currently take place within them but the personality of their inhabitants and, nearly regardless of their age, they become the repository of discarded projects, redundant equipment, off-cuts and kept items, “it will come in handy even if I never use it”, abandoned futures and evidence of the current inhabitant’s and the building’s history. A rough, unpolished place where an artisan works with his hands to create a tangible product. The space is full of strange and familiar equipment which is somehow pertinent to a arcane processes.

These small workshops are magical places where unexplained objects collect dust for years neither revealing their original purpose nor hinting at their future. My own workshop is full of such objects, some inherited from my father’s workshop, some found in junk shops or in sheds and garages acquired when buying houses. The farms I visit all include sheds or parts of barns where pieces of machinery have been carefully stored, sometimes for decades, waiting to be reborn or just left to rust. Each piece has a history that we might never know, no one recalls placing them there or knows who tied that rope over the beam or when or why but over time each piece of now redundant material settles into the dust and debris to become a dormant part of the building itself.

They feel like archeology in the making waiting for the structure to collapse around them and the earth to drift over before being found and dusted down in another millennium to puzzle their finder and to be explained with that default designation of having  “an unknown ritual purpose”.

This exercise (5.1) was an opportunity to test out some ideas that may prove relevant to assignment 5. These still lifes are my equivalent of Nigel Shafran’s washing up (see here); an arrangement of mundane items constructed to maximise the storage space or to be on hand when needed in uncoordinated and often unintentional sculptures, three dimensional patterns of shape and colour. Even when looking at my own space I am taken by the fact that every item has been consciously placed yet the grouping and positioning appears random and chaotic. Every item has its own little history, has played a part in some long forgotten project or awaits its moment to become useful.

The pictures are quite formally constructed, using a DLSR and tripod; #5 is a long exposure using ambient light. #1 and #2 mix ambient with flash, whilst #3 and #4 are flash.

Posted in 1 - Absence and Signs of Life, Exercises | Tagged , | 2 Comments

A5 Research: Scott McFarland – A Layered Multiplicity of Time

2016-11-03_17-52-14My previous research for assignment 5 has been concerned predominantly with subject matter; specifically the representation of farming and the rural landscape but, whilst Scott McFarland touches on these subjects, I am more interested here in his photographic processes and the aesthetics of his final images.

McFarland studied at the University of British Columbia under, amongst others, Jeff Wall and Ray Arden starting his professional career as Wall’s studio assistant before becoming his main printer. (1) McFarland’s work is a complex mixture of conceptual art, analogue photography, staging, time elapse techniques, combination printing and digital manipulation often with strong references to both painted art and the history of photography whilst his subject matter is equally broad including rustic architecture, gardens, zoos, street scenes, photo labs, landscapes and sky-scapes. This cocktail of techniques and subjects makes him satisfyingly difficult to pigeon hole so I will make no attempt to do so. Nancy Tousley makes the key point when she says “McFarland thinks of the pictures he makes not as photographs but as works of art on paper …….. (this puts) the emphasis on his role as a picture maker, which is what he is, as opposed to a picturetaker.” (1)

Orchard View with the Effects of the Seasons (variation #1) - Scott McFarland 2003 - 2006

Orchard View with the Effects of the Seasons (variation #1) – Scott McFarland 2003 – 2006

A significant proportion of his work starts with multiple, traditional large format photographs taken from a fixed position over the course of many hours, days, months or even years as shown in Orchard View above. The negatives are scanned into a computer to become fragments in Photoshop montages that are often constructed from hundreds of photographs. His depiction of seasonal effects are particularly striking examples of how this process combines the indexical nature of the photograph and what Grant Arnold calls “a skepticism towards the claim to truth long associated with the medium” (2: p.11) This ambiguity makes reviewing his work an intriguing challenge, an investigation, an exercise in code breaking as the viewer approaches what appears to be a photograph in the documentary style that only begins to reveal its mysteries as out of place shadows, changes in light, seasonal changes and the multiple appearance of individual human subjects challenge the initial impression.

McFarland points out that ‘the idea of combining multiple exposures is not new to photography. It goes back as far as Gustave Le Gray’s seascapes in the 1850s.’ (3) In practice photography’s relationship with truth has always been challenged by artist photographers as evidenced not just by Gustave Le Gray’s combination printing  (i) but more ambitiously by Oscar Gustav Rijlander’s Two Ways of Life in 1858 which combined thirty-two negatives (ii). Montaged or combined prints are, if not common, extensively used by contemporary photographers; at times as with Jeff Wall’s A View from an Apartment where Wall has captured the interior and view of the exterior as two separate images as a way to solve much the same problem that confronted Le Gray. (iii) At the other extreme we can find Joan Fontcuberta’s photomosaics (here) or John Goto’s theatrical composites (here) which, like McFarland, contain strong references to painted art.

Whilst McFarland’s complex processes intrigue me and offer inspiration for future projects it is his seemingly simpler images that are directly relevant to my current research. The images in question fall into three groups: combined prints of inhabited spaces, shacks and interior details.

Inhabited Spaces

Reshoeing, Farrier James Findel with Assistant on Southlands - Scott McFarland 2003

Reshoeing, Farrier James Findel with Assistant on Southlands – Scott McFarland 2003

If I was looking to review McFarland’s work in general Reshoeing would probably be a poor example as it is not obviously a combined print; I make this point with some trepidation as I have been unable to find any background on this image or on the series from which it comes. However, what interests me here is the strong narrative that has been achieved through the, seemingly staged, composition. The forge in the back of the farrier’s truck moves to the assistant shaping a red hot shoe and onwards to the farrier fitting the shoe; one could even argue that the horse’s head and her owner provide an ending to the story line. The placement of the four elements from left to right, i.e. in the natural direct of reading, strengthens this sense of narrative.

There are a number of other pictures included within either Scott McFarland (5) or Snow, Shacks Streets Shrubs (6) that have this strong sense of narrative. Some, like Stables on Dr. Young’s Property 2006 are more obviously combined prints and his garden series often convey the use and nature of these spaces over time. If we take these seemingly straight documentary style photographs as a group there are a number of common characteristics that differentiate his work:.

On the Terrace Garden, Joe and Rosalee Segal with Cosmos altrosanguineus - Scott McFarland 2004

On the Terrace Garden, Joe and Rosalee Segal with Cosmos altrosanguineus – Scott McFarland 2004

Strong light: especially noticeable in his garden pictures – accentuates the foreground subjects whilst emphasising the strong accent colours that are often included in the compositions.

This strong light also introduces crisp shadows that, by falling in contradictory directions, often provide the code to unlock how the picture has been constructed from multiple negatives.

It seems unlikely that all this lighting is natural and I surmise that McFarland uses large cinematic lights or large LED panels to accomplish these results. However it is achieved, the effect is to bring a cinematic and staged atmosphere to many of his pictures; an effect that is not only referential to Jeff Wall but bears some similarity to the work of Gregory Crewdson or Anna Fox.

Embers, Late Evening - Scott McFarland 2002

Embers, Late Evening – Scott McFarland 2002

Ambient light: it is also notable that McFarland is interested in using ambient light for his interior shots.

He makes the point that “with the cabin images in particular the real subject for me was the light sources and their ambience to the space.” (6: p.144) He goes on to say that by using these available  light sources the image gives a “truer sense of the environment through its mood”.

This use of light temperature as a compositional tool is indeed prevalent in his cabin pictures but also appears as an accent in the farrier’s forge in Reshoeing.

In practice it appears that for many of the cabin pictures there is a mixture of ambient light and photo lights. This is clearly seen in Sugar Shack below; the (red) central fire and a (yellow) work lamp are complimented by a strong overhead white light which is probably a LED panel or strobe lights.

The Granite Bowl in the Berlin Lust Garten - Scott McFarland 2006

The Granite Bowl in the Berlin Lust Garten – Scott McFarland 2006

Historical references: one might argue that in contemporary photography there exists what my father’s generation called a classical education. McFarland shares with Jeff Wall, John Goto, Mark Abouzied, Christian Louboutin and many others  a deep understanding of historical painted art and this forms the basis of a number of his compositions.

The Granite Bowl in the Berlin Lustgarten - Johann Erdmann Hummel 1831

The Granite Bowl in the Berlin Lustgarten – Johann Erdmann Hummel 1831

The Granite Bowl in the Berlin Lust Garden references an 1831 painting by Johann Erdmann Hummel. (2: p.26) but the relationship between the two pictures is more complex that their subject matter; McFarland explains that Hummel was interested in how the newly installed, and then highly polished bowl, reflected the people staring around it; “His painstaking effort to accurately depict those reflections was like a mirror ….. like a lens.” (6: p.145) McFarland sees its current state, chipped and marked by the events that have flowed around it, as a “sculptural reflection” of Berlin’s history. (6: p146) McFarland is paying homage to a proto-photographic artist by capturing Hummel’s lens with his lens after a two hundred year interval.

Martin Barnes draws our attention to the skys in McFarland’s Hamstead Heath series as being influenced by John Constable (7: p.77). Once again his interpretation is complex; he explains that Constable painted multiple versions of the same Hampstead Heath scene changing the sky to meet the requirements of different customers; McFarland has not only used similar locations but has produced a series where the sky was changed to react to to the subject in the foreground.

After Candide... (frontside) - Scott McFarland 2015

After Candide… (frontside) – Scott McFarland 2015

Staging: to expand on this point, where people are included in his pictures there is often a sense of theatrical staging.

One senses that in scenes like After Candide each person has been very carefully placed. This is obviously essential when combined printing or stitching is the intended process. However, even ignoring the same subjects appearing multiple times in After Candide, staging nearly always brings a particular feel to a picture, a sense of unreality that challenges the documentary style of the image.

Panoramic: After Candide is also an example of McFarland’s very typical constructed panoramas. his technique, using a 5×4 camera, is to take a series of shots by rotating or panning the camera and to combine them in Photoshop. This approach creates pictures that more closely replicate the way we view a scene providing a more intense or complete idea of a locale. Mcfarland describes his intent was to “return the image as much as possible to its original appearance as seen by the human eye.” (2: p.15)

The panoramic approach is also a form of time elapse photography so the sense of narrative is emphasised by the acquisition of images over time. By combining all these elements McFarland moves beyond straight documentary style photography; paradoxically by introducing the unreality of staging, combined printing and time lapse the end result is a more complete record of a place, a representation that is not static but a more fluid narrative of how a place is inhabited and used or how changing light or the seasons impact a single environment. In essence a cocktail of unrealities that create a super reality or even a surreal depiction of place. Kitty Scott describes his photographs as:

“a sophisticated compound picture which simultaneously represents a layered multiplicity of times, an intensity of detail and an uniquely texted spatial quality.” (6: p.33)

Shacks

Boathouse with Moonlight - Scott McFarland 2003

Boathouse with Moonlight – Scott McFarland 2003

McFarland has returned to small buildings and their relationship to the landscape on several occasions. He approaches these structures as working, economic entities not as kitsch rural architecture, this is an important distinction in the context of avoiding representing the landscape as a rural idyll (see here). As mentioned above McFarland sees light as the “real subject” in these studies but, if this is the case, the end results go way beyond his intent. The shack, cabin, shed or workshop has been mythologised in recent times, with a changing contemporary nomenclature that has reclassified them as man-caves, hideaways and rustic retreats; a strange shift in perception that romanticises humble and function architecture and projects it as a desirable accessory within contemporary lifestyles.

My perspective is of working spaces, examples of industry within the landscape regardless of whether it is a gardener’s potting shed or an artisan’s factory. As such these spaces represent not just the activities that currently take place within them but the personality of their inhabitants and, nearly regardless of their age, they become the repository of discarded projects, redundant equipment, off-cuts and kept items, “it will come in handy even if I never use it”, abandoned futures and evidence of the current inhabitant’s and the building’s history.

Sugar Shack, Caledon. Ontario - Scott McFarland 2009

Sugar Shack, Caledon. Ontario – Scott McFarland 2009

It is easy to accept that his shacks are studies in light and it is the relationship between the brightly lit interior spaces, often as discussed above as combining ambient and introduced lighting, and the natural light falling on their exteriors and the surrounding landscape that makes these studies so interesting. In his Sugar Shack series he includes three similar pictures, one empty and two inhabited, and it is these that I see as reference points for my assignment.

These pictures represent this small building as a hive of industry, a rough, unpolished place where an artisan works with his hands to create a commodity. The space is full of a mixture of strange and familiar equipment which is somehow pertinent to an arcane process. There is a sense of movement and activity; smoke drifts from the fire, the artisan’s hands and arms are caught mid-task, he is in shirt sleeves despite the snow that lies on the ground outside his open doors. The landscape looks inhospitable with deep snow lying beneath bare branches and is lit by just enough  ambient light to faithfully describe it as a backdrop to the industrial scene. Are we arriving to buy his wares, or are we something more wild waiting on the edge of the light watching his activity?

Interior Detail

The Boathouse Series - Scott McFarland 2004

The Boathouse Series – Scott McFarland 2004

This is one of McFarland’s less common subjects but on a number of occasions he has investigated the currently useful and the long discarded contents of working spaces. These studies are subdued in comparison with his exterior daylight work but he explores and faithfully records these places and the unintentional sculptures that hide under benches and in forgotten corners.

Small workshops are magical places where unexplained objects collect dust for years neither revealing their original purpose nor hinting at their future. My own workshop is full of such objects, some inherited from my father’s workshop, some found in junk shops or in sheds and garages we have acquired when buying houses. The farms I visit all include sheds or parts of barns where pieces of machinery have been carefully stored, sometimes for decades, waiting to be reborn or just left to rust. Each piece has a history that we might never know, no one recalls placing them there or knows who tied that rope over the beam or when or why but over time each piece of now redundant material settles into the dust and debris to become a dormant part of the building itself.

They feel like archeology in the making waiting for the structure to collapse around them and the earth to drift over before being found and dusted down in another millennium to puzzle their finder and to be explained with that default designation of having  “an unknown ritual purpose”.

Notes on Text

The Great Wave - Gustave Le Gray 1857

The Great Wave – Gustave Le Gray 1857

(i) The technology of the 1850’s imposed long exposure times on the documentary photographer resulting in the blank white sky that is a common feature of early landscapes. Gustave Le Gray took advantage of Frederick Scott Archer’s then new collodion process which allowed him to precisely cut two separate film based negatives to create a single combined negative for printing. A task that would have been impossible with Calotypes or Daguerreotypes. (4)

Two Ways of Life - Oscar Gustav Rijlander 1858

Two Ways of Life – Oscar Gustav Rijlander 1858

(ii) Significantly and obviously manipulated images were, if not common, certainly being produced even in the 1850’s. Oscar Gustav Rijlander’s Two Ways of Life entailed combining in the darkroom thirty-two glass plate negatives and is a quite remarkable and very early example of a photographic tableau which would require a non-trivial investment of time to replicate in Photoshop using digital images.

A View from an Apartment - Jeff Wall 2004-5

A View from an Apartment – Jeff Wall 2004-5

(iii) Jeff Wall explains his intent for this image as beginning with “the recognition that most of the interiors I’ve photographed are quite closed in, I don’t like to repeat myself and so I wanted to do an interior that was open, that included an outside.” The view was therefore quite obviously an important component of the picture but even with post processing it would have been challenging to balance the subtle interior lighting with the view from the window. Wall’s solution was to photograph the interior and the view separately and combine the images in photoshop.

Sources

Books

(2) Arnold, Grant (2009) Picture Work: Scott McFarland’s Recent Phoographs – Included as an essay in Scott McFarland. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery and D&M Publishers

(5) McFarland, Scott (2009) Scott McFarland. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery and D&M Publishers

(6) McFarland, Scott (2014) Snow Shacks Streets Shrubs. Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther Konig

(7) Barnes, Martin (2009) The Sky in Sympathy: Scott McFarland’s Hampstead Series – Included as an essay in Scott McFarland. Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery and D&M Publishers

Internet

(1) Tousley, Nancy (2010) Beyond Photography: Scott McFarland’s Art Links Camera and Computer (accessed at Canadian Art 1.10.16) – https://canadianart.ca/features/beyond-photography-scott-mcfarland/

(3) Reeve, Charles (2010) Scott McFarland (accessed at Frieze 2.10.16) – https://frieze.com/article/scott-mcfarland-0

(4) Willette, Jeanne (2015) Gustave Le Gray 1820 – 1884 (accessed ar Art History Unstuffed 2.10.16) – http://arthistoryunstuffed.com/gustave-le-gray-1820-1884-part-two/

Posted in Assignment 5 - Self Directed, Research & Reflection | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

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.

Books

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

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

Internet

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

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

(5) Shaw, Colin (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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