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.
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 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.
At a bit of a loose end we decided to go out on the Goldfields Road to Tammin. The town’s sole raison d’être is the transportation of the surrounding areas grain crops. The grain bins and railway siding around which the town is built are the key features of the town. With the increasing industrialisation of modern agriculture farms have got bigger and bigger and employ less and less people so like many rural areas although generating a lot of wealth the town is in decline.
When I first got interested in photography I was living in the South East of England which is a very verdant and prosperous region. Naturally the first photographers who caught my eye were British ones like David Bailey, Snowdon, Patrick Litchfield and Terrance Donovan.As I went on I discovered more socially aware photographers such as Chris Killip, Graham Smith and Don McCullin. I remember going to see Killip and Smith’s exhibition “Another Country” in 1985 and being absolutely blown away by the subject matter and the quality of the work – it was one of transcendent experiences and it altered my perception of what photography could be dramatically. It was quite a while before I turned my attention to non British photographers. When I first saw the work of Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Joel Sternfeld, Stephen Shore, and Robert Adams I couldn’t really relate to the subject matter. Their vision and representation of the USA was one that was completely foreign to me and outside that which the mainstream media presented. It wasn’t until I migrated to Australia and started to explore the rural areas seldom visited by tourists that the penny finally dropped. I started to see similar scenes and over time I have attempted to capture them. I’m never quite sure whether it should be in black and white or colour so I find myself fluctuating between the two mediums and never quite happy with the results.
Which brings us to the photos in this post. They are just a small sample of the photos that I took on our road trip to Tammin. At first I processed them as colour and felt that the colour detracted from the starkness that I saw and felt. I then tried monochrome. When I worked in the darkroom I liked to use Ilford Multigrade FB warm tone glossy paper and that is a look I try to replicate with my digital images albeit without much success. When Ilford’s digital media arm Harman Technology introduced their warm tone gloss baryta inkjet paper I thought that my prayers had been answered and I used it for a couple of exhibitions I did. It was a sad day when it was discontinued – I still have 5 sheets of A3+, not enough to do any proper work. So now I try to replicate the look in AlienSkin Exposure 4 which is what I have done with these photos. The problem is that while it looks OK on screen when you translate it to printed media it does work as it is not subtle enough. Perhaps the photos should have stayed in colour after all.
“Few things are as exciting as the idea of travelling somewhere else. But the reality of travel seldom matches our daydreams.”
Alain de Botton
I’ve never been a fan of mass tourism, but over the last few weeks I’ve been reading a lot about the negative aspects of it and in particular with what is happening to Venice. Apparently as many as 44,000 cruise ship passengers pour into Venice a day during the high season. That’s roughly 5 cruise liners worth. When we lived in Tasmania we’d get the boats pull into Hobart Harbour, thankfully just one at a time, and the passengers would be like a tsunami as they headed for Salamanca. I hate to think what 5 times that number would be like. Along with the negative impact that has on the local population and the environment there is also the fact would you really want to visit somewhere with another 44,000 people? It’s hardly getting away from it all is it? Then there is the whole thing of “Right you’ve got six hours in port and then we’re off to the next location”. Six hours following several other thousand people all traipsing round the same location, looking at the same few things only to herded up at the end of the day and taken somewhere else to do exactly the same thing the next day. It’s a gross version of the 1969 film “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium”. It’s worthy of Dante’s vision of hell. So why do people do it and pay a fortune for the privilege? Essentially people do it because they are bored with the ordinariness of their life and want something out of the ordinary with a touch of luxury.
When I lectured in photography one of the most common complaints from students was that there was nothing to photograph in Perth or Western Australia. They wanted something new, something exciting something that they’d never seen before. The problem was photography’s history encourages that kind of thinking – we only have to look at the photographic tradition of the road trip established by the likes of Robert Frank and his eponymous book The Americans with its hip introduction by Jack Kerouac. Stephen Shore and Alec Soth amongst others have popularised it to the extent that it has almost become a photographic rite of passage. Indeed at a portfolio review at FotoFreo my reviewer actually said I should go on a road trip as a means of finding myself. But the thing is booking a package holiday to Bali or Vietnam is not going to work as all you will see are the usual tourist attractions and maybe you’ll take some photos of poor third world people. Invariably you return home and the photos get ignored and languish in a dark recess on your computer hard drive as they look the same as everyone else’s. They are not out of the ordinary. The British philosopher and writer Alain de Botton in his book The Art of Travel said “Then I realised that the problem with going away is that you take yourself with you.”
I would suggest that if you want to produce interesting work look to the ordinary and easily accessible. Many photographers have taken this path. Robert Adams documents the changing American landscape and in particular the spread of suburbia. Chris Killip,Sally Mann, and Larry Towell are all photographers who have done projects about ordinary things on their door steps and have produced extraordinary images. The American photographer Minor White once said “…all photographs are self-portraits.” so thereis no need to travel to find your self just keep exploring with your camera. The frequent retort from my students was that everything around them had been photographed before well White also had an answer for that “Everything has been photographed. Accept this. Photograph things better.”.
So what have I been doing photographically for the last week? Well I’ve been out to some local nature reserves, I’ve visited them many times over the last 14 years and it never ceases to amaze me that I always find something new. So I was delighted to find these two flowers.