Category Archives: Reflection

Objects and artefacts

I am conscious, having reviewed this blog, I have not paid proper attention to the range of artefacts and objects I have recovered and photographed as a result of my wandering on these sites…so to rectify that I include a number here:

 

These are – as far as I can tell – frozen splashes of iron or, more probably steel. that have been gathered up as waste and disposed of with the slag, and are now washing from the cliffs. Call me a hopeless romantic, but I am captivated by the colours and the fact that so many are effectively heart shaped. 🙂

The following, on the other hand, speak of a direct link back to the people that used them. I can’t help the feeling that if these were Roman or Tudor we’d be clamouring to preserve them, but as they aren’t we’re happy to see these things simply wash into the sea.

 

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More about accidents

A previous post on this blog addressed the idea of accidents in art, and their contribution to artwork. In the light of the experience of this course I thought it worth some further reflection, not least because my initial response to the question in the course notes concentrated almost exclusively on the visual artwork itself. Experience suggests that accidents can be influential in many ways.

First up – the impact of the quilt artist Ester Bornemisza…there are precious few opportunities to see international quality artists in Cumbria, and it is a matter of luck that my interest in fabric artists coincided with a quilting exhibition nearby. Her work has played a significant part in working out how to display/manage my response to the industrial sites I’ve been investigating.

Second…an assessor on one of my early courses noted something to the effect that my work was strongest when I focused on my research strengths. Precisely what persuaded them to make this comment I cannot say, but as a consequence I have always read and researched widely – not just photography but also the subjects that interest me. Without those comments, and without the ensuing research I would have missed artists like Conrad Atkinson, and his use of words in images associated with his native west Cumbria, and Mark Dion’s Archaeology, with its art/science cross-over and use of cabinets of curiosity.

i would also have missed a fascinating essay by John Ruskin on the noble nature of rust, and work by Henry Bessemer on his process for making steel, text from which I have been able to use in my final book.

Thirdly, you should always remain open to the random chances that turn up. I’m interested in the natural world and on a trip to Yellowstone in 2015 I bought a book about wolves which contains the following passage:

What have we seen here? Tracks in the snow. Hieroglyphs of struggle. Tufts of hair. Crystals of blood. What is the nature of the beast that left them? What is the nature of the world inhabited by such a beast? What’s going on here?

This is such an obvious metaphor for the feelings I get on old industrial sites that it was inevitable I should incorporate it in my finished work.

An even more extreme example is this picture by Finnish artist Akseli Gallen-Kallela which  I saw by chance in the Ateneum in Helsinki.

it portrays the death of a young girl, Aino, in a scene taken from the Finnish epic poem the Kalevala. It has absolutely nothing to do with iron manufacture, or photography….except that it persuaded me to download the poem on my Kindle…and the 9th chapter covers the genesis of iron and steel…in this case as a result of the weeping breasts of three godesses!

i didn’t discover it until after I had submitted my 5th assignment, but the passages from the poem are sufficiently relevant that i have slightly re-jigged my planned book to incorporate some excerpts.

I guess the lesson from all this is that lucky accidents are, by their very nature, unpredictable, but that if you put in the effort you can increase the chances of the accident.

 

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.