Category Archives: Reflection

Photography Matters

Any short conference that sets out to “…map out areas for discussion in photography’s relationship to the everyday lived experience, visual culture, evolving technology, archiving and history, news media, education at all levels and public perception.” (Joanne, 2016) is setting itself a huge challenge, and inevitably going to be a series of deep dips into various aspects of the medium, and so it was with Photography Matters at CAST, Doncaster on 21 May 2016.

Three of the lectures were from artists who either expressed themselves, or supported their interests through portraiture in some shape or form.  Of these, two  shared the common aim of presenting/re-presenting a community to itself, Les Monaghan’s Desire project (Monaghan, ND) and Keith Roberts’ Hardman Portrait (hardmanportrait, 2016). Both deal with archives – one self generated, the other existing and open to interpretation. There was much to enjoy in both these lectures. However, of the two I felt more affinity with Roberts work, perhaps because it was free of the political polemic I sensed in some of  Monaghan’s lecture and which I have a tendency to bridle against. I’m not sure that filtering out “for their own good” the views of extremists when re-presenting a society to itself is entirely consistent with presenting a community to itself either. I’d happily concede though that it fits with the idea of fairness and not wishing to harm the subjects that Monaghan espoused – and the implication that at least some documentary photography does its subjects a disservice is one I’d wholeheartedly agree with.

By contrast, and perhaps because he is still trying to establish the precise value of the Hardman collection, I felt Roberts’ work to be cooler, more analytical and as a result more personally interesting to me. He also showed a couple of examples of images of the same individual taken several years apart. Discussion following the lecture highlighted that we were using the time gap in some way to inform our reading of the images – perhaps even to create a meaning – which seems a very relevant observation for my work.

I find intelligent comment on Dawn Woolley’s presentation difficult…anything which seeks to provide a “pathology of capitalism” is likely to raise my blood pressure, not least because it effectively sets out by telling you the answer, and then seeks to justify it, which feels entirely upside down to me. This is my failing, rather than hers, and there were aspects of her presentation which struck a chord..such as the use of false personas to sell products through social media. However the basic problem I have with any such analysis is that it starts from the basic premise that we are all unwitting tools of big bad business. It is by no means clear to me that this is either true..or fair…and may well do the subjects of the analysis a dis-service.

The afternoon session consisted of two presentations. The first, from Rachel Smith, (Smith , 2011) examined  the materiality of the photo, which raised a couple of questions for my own personal work:

  • If I write on the surface, am I disrupting its transparency (probably yes) and what impact does that have on the reading?
  • Should I include images of the archive material, or actually incorporate the originals? Does the materiality of the postcards etc enhance or distract from my meaning?

The final lecture of the day, Derek Trillo’s examination of alternative paradigms for architectural photography seemed to have the impact of time as a core theme. While the buildings themselves are essentially chronostatic they depend for their utility on a whole range of time dependent phenomena…people moving in and out, traffic moving past, variations in lighting during the day and night and seasonal variations in their surroundings, goods deliveries and so on. Incorporating these into representations of buildings opened quite a wide ranging discussion, including a brief one on whether this was a limitation of photography and that other media were better suited to such representations.

In running through a number of ways in which buildings can be represented, Trillo mentioned a work by Somekawa (Somekawa, 20112) which involved removing buildings from images and re-assembling them as groups elsewhere. While the latter part of this is interesting intellectually, the first part, cutting things out of the image, offers the thought that I might try that as a way of photographing the absent.

Summary

Overall I found this a thought provoking and worthwhile day. Some interesting ‘hooks’ to my own work, a chance to catch up with some old acquaintances and a chance to put a real face on some virtual friends and chat photography at a level it is difficult to do elsewhere.

References

hardmanportrait (2016) There then: Here now – home. Available at: http://hardmanportrait.format.com/2317785-home (Accessed: 22 May 2016).
Joanne (2016) Photography matters. Available at: http://weareoca.com/education/photography-matters/ (Accessed: 22 May 2016).
Monaghan, L, (no date), Les Monaghan: The desire project  Available at: http://lesmonaghan.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/the-desire-project.html (Accessed: 22 May 2016).
Smith, R. (2011). Rachel Smith. [Online]. Available at: http://rachelartsmith.blogspot.co.uk/p/home.html [Accessed: 22 May 2016].
Somekawa, A. (2012). Hyères 2012. [Online]. Available at: http://www.villanoailles-hyeres.com/hyeres2012/index_en.php?cat_id=4&id=19 [Accessed: 22 May 2016].

A touch of Romanticism

Ozymandias and furnace core

Needed to get this one off my chest. One of the feelings I get as I wander around these sites, even the ones which are built over, is “What was it all for?”

This is scarcely original – ruins have been used as a salutary reminder of out short time in the light for a good couple of hundred years, if not more, and the idea of combining this particular bit of romantic poetry with the remains of a blast furnace core is so obvious I need to work it through, if only to prove to myself that I’ve done it and rejected it.

The basic technique however is worth considering. The text colour is similar to an oil paint produced with ore from the Cumbrian iron ore mines, and the supersition onto the original image points , I think, to the absent referent, the iron and steel industry which is no longer there.

After worrying these ideas around in my head for a couple of months, and plenty of research into picturing absence I think I’m beginning to make proper progress.

Locations

My tutor made the following comment in response to my first assignment (he made more than just this comment – obviously):

Your best work should be built upon for Assignment 2 – the landscapes here. I don’t think they will all be on your doorstep and travelling is going to be a part of finding the most powerful and telling places.

So I’ve been out and about and my collection of Cumbrian blast furnace locations is growing quickly, as the list here demonstrates. To my mind few of these show a real sense of ‘something gone’ and ‘lost industry’ and that is going to be a challenge I don’t think I can meet with straight photography. The more desolate looking of these rely on gloomy weather, and the occasional bit of ruin, both of which are well established visual signs of something missing, but feel like a cliché.

A typology of ex-blast furnace locations also lacks any real conviction…generally a typology needs to show some consistency, which given the mix of fields, industrial estates and domestic settings here is simply not visible in these images. There is no clear end use which hints at former uses and in addition it doesn’t feel a terribly interesting project – at least artistically – to simply capture a series of essentially general views.

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Workington, Oldside

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Whitehaven

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Workington, West Cumberland

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Workington, New Yard

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Millom

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Maryport, Solway

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Maryport , Number One

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Workington, Lowther

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Harrington

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Distington

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Workington, Derwent

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Cleator Moor

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Barrow in Furness

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Workington , Barepot

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Askham in Furness

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Ashes to ashes

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This image is as good as any I have taken at capturing the feeling I get standing on the old ironworks sites of West Cumbria. A huge industry that employed thousands of people is essentially gone, and the remnants are being reabsorbed by the countryside from which they were carved.

I guess I could be accused of nostalgia, but I don’t believe it’s that. I didn’t live here when the industry was alive, and many of the sites were closed decades before I was born…I have no familial link to this particular past. For me at least it’s about the idea that this huge enterprise, with all it’s ambitions and early grandiose claims eventually gives in to nature – the iron runs out, the coal runs out, the money runs out or moves elsewhere – ultimately entropy wins every time.

The challenge is to capture that without accidentally making it a political point, which is acknowledged but not intended, and to capture it visually.

This image is a tuyere in the slag heaps at Moss Bay. Tuyere’s were used to direct the air into the base of the Bessemer converters that converted pig iron into steel. They were subjected to huge thermal stresses and were regularly replaced. Lime dissolved from the slag is slowly depositing on this one as the film of water that runs over it evaporates. It’ll probably be eroded from the cliff before it is fully absorbed, but for now it stands as a metaphor for the fate of the industry.

Text and images…you need some text

My tutor has challenged me to consider how I will explain and/or create the idea of something passed, or missing, and I have to acknowledge that it’s very difficult to photograph something that’s not there. I’m beginning to toy with the idea of combining text an images in some way. To do that requires some text, so I’ve started gathering snatches of poems, and other texts that feel like they might carry some of the ideas I’m trying to express.

The first handful I record below:

On the closing of Millom ironworks, September 1968, Norman Nicholson

And what’s the point of knowing
Which way the wind is blowing
When whichever way it blows it’s a cold wind now.

Christina Rossetti

Be the green grass above me
With showers and dew-drops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
And if thou wilt, forget.

Percy Shelley

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Joan Baez, Diamonds and Rust, 1975

And we both know what memories can bring
They bring diamonds and rust

Words from a commemorative poster

On this site for generations men and women worked manufacturing iron and steel.For over two hundred years they applied mans science to tame the elements.

It’s going to take some care to avoid descending into simple nostalgia but hopefully with the appropriate associations  I can catch something of my feelings of the scale of what was lost, and set that against the dreams and ambitions that set it in some kind of motion.  I need to add to my list some of the things the developers said about the ironworks when they were establishing them, and also some more technical content on entropy and the inevitability of decay.

Photography and Connection –

Back in July 2014 I visited an exhibition called Beyond the Border. I gave it a brief and inconsequential write up in my Documentary blog but like so many of these things it is only later that something of import pops back to the surface. The blog post makes a quick reference to the idea that some of the photographers at least were using photography as a way to reconnect to their roots. In particular my contemporaneous notes draw attention to Anthony Sutton-Hibbert’s “Edge of Empire” and a comment he made about using the project to reconnect after 10 years abroad.

This idea intersects in my mind with some of the written notes from Hatakeyama’s ‘Terrils’ project…in particular his discussion says that “…it is impossible for me to appreciate fully what was once here but is here no more.”

In my opening discussions with my tutor I said that I felt the old blast furnace sites I’m photographing deserved some memorial, which they appear not to have currently. His challenge was “Who is asking for a memorial?” and my initial response was no-one – which felt wrong to me. But perhaps it’s me that is calling for the memorial. Perhaps I am using my photography and my imagination to extend my memory into a past I did not experience.

I’m not a native of Cumbria…in fact it’s hard to argue I’m a native of anywhere, but I’m beginning to wonder if this project, and some of the projects I did in Landscape and Documentary aren’t my way of forcing some roots in to a location I now call home.