A Sense Of Place part 1

Not a quaint English village but a museum. The Weald and Downland Museum at Singleton in West Sussex.

 

The other night I had trouble getting off to sleep so I had a look at Australia’s National Broadcaster’s – the ABC – catch up TV service on the internet which is called iView. I was looking for something not too exciting, that would be soothing and comfortable. So I was trawling through the arts documentaries and I found a program called the Repair Shop and the one particular episode that appealed featured the restoration of a 1930’s portrait of Shihan Yukio Tani who is the man largely credited with introducing and establishing Japanese martial arts in England so I tuned in to watch. The history of the painting and its restoration was vaguely interesting but it was the location of the filming that was particularly engrossing. It was filmed at one of my favourite places – The Weald and Downland Museum in Singleton, West Sussex, England. The museum is comprised of a collection of fifty vernacular buildings from the south-east of England that were built between 950AD and the 19th century, along with gardens, farm animals, walks and a mill pond.  I was last there in 1991 and so the the TV program was a huge nostalgia trip for me.

 

The market square with from left to right Horsham Medieval Shop, Titchfield Market Hall, Crawley Hall and North Cray Medieval House.

 

As a consequence I started thinking about the museum, the village it is based in and when I worked there in 1981. The next morning I scuttled off to look at my photo archive and find some pictures that I took on my last visit. It was really nice to revisit through those photos, it was almost like reliving the past. Gerry Badger the photographic curator and critic in his 2007 book “The Genius of Photography – how photography has changed our lives” said that there were “basically three photographic subjects – people, things and places” (page 131). So obviously my photos of the museum fall into the places category. However Badger goes onto quote from the American landscape photographer Robert Adams who said:

“Landscapes can offer us, I think, three verities – geography, autobiography and metaphor. Geography is, if taken alone, sometimes boring, autobiography is frequently trivial, and metaphor can be dubious. But taken together … the three kinds of representation strengthen each other and reinforce what we all work to keep intact – an affection for life” Robert Adams (p 154, Badger, G: 2007, The Genius of Photography)

 

The mill pond

 

The geography is simple the museum is located in Singleton which I’ve always regarded as the quintessential Sussex village. Well it was until the mega rich started buying rows of cottages and knocking them into one large house only then not to live in them but visit once in a blue moon. The village is roughly seven miles north of Chichester, the town where I lived from age 10 to 23, on the South Downs. The autobiography is that I went to work at the museum as a summer job in 1981 with my then girlfriend. She worked in the tearooms and I was a general dogsbody. It is the job I’ve enjoyed the most out of all the jobs I have done and I really enjoyed working with the people there. The dubious metaphor I suppose is that the museum presents an idealised view of what the ideal English village should be like – quaint old buildings nestled among bucolic rolling green hills inhabited by happy people. But all that doesn’t matter in many ways because to me it was and is a special place and the fact that 57 year old self still appreciates it as much as my 18 year old self is important.

 

Bayleaf Tudor Farmhouse

Temporal Concepts

Holy Trinity York in Western Australia

 

Time – it is a difficult concept to get to grips with. When I was a kid time used to go so slowly. When I grew up and started working time at work went so slowly and my days off went so quickly. Now as a I edge towards sixty time just seems to keep on accelerating. Time isn’t a constant. Then we have the phenomena of how people interpret time within societal and cultural associations. This was brought home to me the other day when talking with someone about what they considered an old building and they were stating that Holy Trinity York was a very old, historical building that needs preserving.

 

Holy Trinity Bosham, West Sussex, England.

 

Here in Western Australia Holy Trinity Church in York is considered an old historic building. The Anglican Church was was established in York in 1831, and the building work on the current building began in the 1850’s. So I guess if were being generous then that’s 189 years.  In terms of white colonial Australia that is old but in the big scheme of things it’s just a drop in a bucket. I spent my formative years in Chichester, West Sussex. Down the road is the little town of Bosham and it has a Holy Trinity Church as well. The differentiation is the first church in Bosham was mentioned in an account written by the Venerable Bede about Bishop Wilfrid’s visit in 681 AD – that’s 1339 years ago. The earliest parts of the current building were built in the 11th Century under the patronage of Godwin, Earl of Wessex who was one of England’s richest and most powerful of men. You may have heard of his son Harold Godwinson, better known as the King Harold who was poked in the eye by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 (apparently his last words were “Oi William! Be careful with that thing or you’ll have somebody’s eye out.”). Indeed there is an illustration of the church in the opening scenes of the Bayeux Tapestry with the accompanying text ‘Ubi Harold dux Anglorum et sui milites equitant ad Bosham. Ecclesia.’ Translated, this reads ‘Where Harold, Earl of the English, and his retinue ride to Bosham. The church.’ The church has historical associations with another king – King Cnut. Yep he’s the one that tried to turn back the sea as a demonstration to his courtiers of how insignificant his power was. Well it is believed that one of his daughters is buried in the church – local tradition has it she drowned in the nearby millstream aged 8. That’s a lot of history and it was all recorded. The big thing was that when I first saw these buildings they new and fresh to me. It was only as I became more familiar with them did I start to have any inkling of their historical significance.

 

A marker for the gravesite of one of King Canute’s daughters.

 

Does something that has been around longer become more valuable than something newer? Does the cultural and societal significance of something increase as it ages? Well I suppose the fact that the church in Bosham has parts of it that have physically been there for a thousand years makes it kind of special. Then add the fact that it is associated with key figures and events in history that makes it somewhat unique. Then stir into the mix the fact that it is still a central part of the community and then you have something really important. It is not just a dead building, a mausoleum to a bygone age, it is something that has come to help define a community over a long period of time and will continue to do so well into the future.

Photography and film/video are art forms that deal in part in capturing and expressing time in a way that other art forms have trouble articulating. You can speed it up, slow it down. You can show the effect of change. You can preserve things and memories. Over the last 150-200 years humans have come to see photos as an adjunct to their memories. I have photos and videos of some of my dogs playing, they’ve been dead a long time yet I find them very comforting and my memories of them somehow seem more real, more valid. Photos can, of course, also evoke sad/negative emotions and memories. A photograph can also be just proof of existence – either the subject or the photographer actually existed. For instance without these photos many of you wouldn’t be aware of these two churches having being built.

 

My great great grandmother with her dog

 

This is all getting a bit too metaphysical so lets change tack. If we stop and consider the two photos of the churches they were taken 29 years apart. Things have changed enormously photographically speaking between those photos. The photo of the church in Bosham was taken at the height of the film era using what was then already rather dated equipment – an Olympus OM4 with an Olympus OM Zuiko 35-105mm lens shooting Kodak Kodachrome 200 ASA reversal film. The photo of the church in York was taken well into the digital era on a Canon 6d with Canon 24-70mm lens. So not only are the photos snap shots in time of two churches, but they are all snapshots in terms of photographic equipment and trends. But I know that all said and done how they were captured will matter to very few people in the future. What will matter is that they were captured at all. I have a photo of a relative taken back in the 1880’s. I have no way of knowing what was used to make the photo nor whether it was considered cutting edge at the time. I just know that this woman and her dog existed at some point in time and she is one of my family and that is what makes it so important. I don’t know who she is other than my great great grand mother as there is no one left in my family who remembers who she was. But the important thing is that she existed and we can see that she liked dogs – a trait that still runs in our family. The important thing is that someone decided that wanted a photo of her and her dog as a keepsake and consecutive generations have kept it.

Time. It is a difficult concept to consider or explain but maybe we shouldn’t try. Maybe we should just mark its passing with photos and videos and leave them as gifts for those in the future to make sense of. 

Familiarity

Chichester Cathedral
Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, England. Olympus OM2n with Sigma 28mm f2.8 lens with Cokin Pink Graduated filter. Fujichrome 100. 1986.

I lived in Chichester, West Sussex, for 16 years and the cathedral was an ever-present presence. It has dominated the town and much of the surrounding countryside for nearly a thousand years and from the moment I took up photography I tried unsuccessfully to capture its likeness. Each time I tried I felt I got nowhere near what I felt it meant to me. I left England in 1988 and moved to Australia, but I continue to visit as I have friends and family there. Each time I visit Chichester I have another crack at the Cathedral

 

Chichester Cathedral
Chichester Cathedral viewed from the behind the gates of the Deanery. Chichester, West Sussex, England. Olympus OM4 with Olympus Zuiko 35-105mm lens. Fujichrome 100. Scanned and converted to black and white using SilverEfx. 1991.

 

The pictures here represent several attempts over the years from the mid 1980’s Cokin filter phase to the start of the digital revolution in 2007.  I have more, older and more recent (I figured there’s a limit to many I can post!) but none of them capture what I think is the essence of the building.

 

England 2007
Chichester Cathedral, West Sussex, England. 2007 Canon EOS 300D DIGITAL with Sigma 18.0-50.0 mm f2.8 EX lens with circular polarizing filter.

 

The problem is that I am too familiar with it. I have a picture in my mind’s eye of what I think it should look like and that preconceived idea prevents me from exploring the possibilities. Next time I visit I’m going to have to put aside my preconceptions and actually work on getting the shot.

 

Photography …

The Monument to The People’s Heroes, Tiananmen Square, Beijing.

… is a bit of a strange pastime really. It is supposed to be about making images, artistic expression and all that sort of stuff, but the reality is that it is more about the gear than we care to admit. When I first started down the road of making photography a hobby I became brand aware. I saw that the photographers that I admired used a particular make and model of camera and certain lenses. I didn’t realize that they were paid endorsements and  my flawed logic was that if I had one of those cameras and those lenses I would instantly become a better photographer. So I gave the credit card a good bashing and my pictures still sucked. Over the ensuing 32 years I slowly learnt it was more important to have a good mix of technical knowledge and artistry than have the latest and greatest camera. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still afflicted by large bouts of techno-lust and I would in many ways love a new camera, computer, printer, and scanner, but I just don’t have the financial means to go out and satisfy those urges. I have to make do with what I’ve actually got and this has made me focus on what photography really is – making images. In fact I’ve come to the conclusion if you have too much stuff it actually gets in the way of making pictures because you become wracked with indecision about what equipment to use.

Shiny techno-baubles

A couple of weeks ago I was sat down reading Black and White Photography Magazine and came upon an article by Tim Clinch (www.timclinchphotography.com) and he was basically saying that if you invest all your money in equipment you won’t have the necessary folding to do anything with it. If I look at my Lightroom library I can see that the majority of my photos have been taken within a short distance from where I live, but if I look at the most memorable ones then they have come from dedicated photo trips away. So I believe what Tim Clinch is saying is true, you can have a lot of top-notch gear but no money or time to use it, or you can have stuff that is adequate for your needs and the time and money to actually go out and create art. I know which one I’d sooner have.

Topiary at the Pavillion Gardens Cafe, Brighton, England.