University: University of Sunderland
Genre: Documentary Landscape
Artist Statement: Rain is a temporary thing. Commonplace, but not the norm. It is an inconvenience, something we endure, for as little time as possible. Rain is transformative. Its effect on the landscape - and our behaviour - is profound. We run for cover. We hide indoors. We leave the outside vacant. Rain is an intervention.
The car acts as mediator between myself, the rain and the landscape. It opens up the possibility of new locations. It provides shelter from the rain, facilitating a more considered image-making process. But it is also a hindrance, as framing an image is contingent on my ability to manoeuvre the vehicle within any given location. I choose to photograph the rain and by doing so I invite uncertainty into the process. The rain intervenes on the landscape and my method, but also on the photographic image. As it pools on the glass, it distorts and obscures the landscape.
What are some standout moments from your time at university? I’m not sure there were any standout moments, but overall the course was such an enriching and positive experience. I learnt so much, not just new knowledge and skills but I also learnt to have more confidence in the abilities I already had. There is always the worry that you will go into that environment and find everything just goes over your head. And it is like that to begin with, it takes time for pieces to start fitting together, but when they do, that’s when you realise the hard work was worth it. I’m a very different photographer to the one I was before the MA.
Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into? I consider myself a documentary photographer, I bring the methodology of documentary image-making to my work and although it’s predominantly landscape based, what I’m really interested in is the relationship between people and places. So, there is a strong sociological angle to the work and I think of the work as social documentary landscape photography, but for brevity’s sake I often just refer to it as documentary landscape.
What themes do you find yourself exploring? My work is highly autobiographical so the themes are often quite personal. I’m not ashamed to admit that I have experienced metal health problems throughout my life and much of my work is a response to this, specifically issues surrounding anxiety and avoidance. I grew up in a deprived area of Gateshead, one that was hit hard by deindustrialisation in the latter half of the last century. Although I never connected it at the time, this had a profound impact on my relationship with the area. I felt disconnected from it, I stopped thinking of it as home. It wasn’t until I moved to a village in rural Durham, an ex-mining community, that I began to connect deindustrialisation with this sense of detachment. Coincidentally, at the same time I discovered the work of Dr Geoff Bright at Manchester Metropolitan University. He was exploring the lingering effects that the closure of the mines, the strikes and the resulting clashes had on mining communities in Yorkshire. This introduced me to Social Haunting, the notion that negative events can linger in the consciousness of a community, affecting generation after generation. This has now become one of the main themes of my work.
Tell us a little about your MA. What encouraged you to study at this level? I’ve been photographing on and off since I was 16. I’ve worked across many different creative disciplines, but I’ve always kept away from photography professionally. I spent a lot of time helping other people make work at the expense of making my own and I decided about 4 years ago to start focusing more on myself. During my undergrad I signed up to a few modules in Photography and there was a crossroads moment when I could have done a BA in photography but choose media production instead. Still, I’d gotten an idea of what I could get out of an academic photography course. I got to a point recently where I felt I had taken my work as far as I could with my existing skills and knowledge. I had no real connection to the photography world, I knew a lot of creative people but hardly any photographers. I needed to be part of a photographic community, have people who I could talk to about photography, bounce ideas off, get feedback from. I knew the MA could provide that. There were also a lot of holes in my critical and contextual knowledge. Two years ago, I crossed paths with the lecturer who ran those photography modules. Twelve years had gone by, but he remembered me and even expressed a little disappointment that I hadn’t chosen to do the photography BA, as he thought I had potential. That solidified my decision to do the MA, and it’s that kind of support and encouragement from staff that really makes Sunderland such a great place to study photography.
Why did you decide to make these images from inside your car? As I said, I’m interested in the relationship between people and places. Much of my previous work has been about that being a close relationship. Long term studies, being out in the environment I’m documenting, feeling the cold, the rain, the mud under my boots. The MA drilled into me the importance of self-reflection and critical evaluation. I have this reflexive, heuristic method of working. Each piece of work is answering questions raised by the last and hopefully generating new questions for the next project and so on. My previous series The Clearing, was about being in a landscape, having that personal connection to a place. But the themes were also existential, so I was questioning a lot of things, playing devil’s advocate, and one of things I questioned was that close relationship. I wanted to see what effect it might have, on the work and on my process in general, if I distanced myself from the landscape. So, the car became a barrier, between myself and the land, like a little bubble in which I was shielded from those elements that previously connected me to the landscape, the wind, the rain and the cold.
What does the distortion of the landscape from the rain through the glass add to your images? Do we need to be so aware of the conditions you made this work in? The distortion of the landscape is about uncertainty, as is the action of photographing in the rain. However, it is also about contingency, so it is important that we are aware of the condition the work is made in. The work could only be made when it was raining, I made that choice in order to give up some control over the process. I was challenging the way I work. There were frustratingly long periods when it didn’t rain for weeks so I couldn’t work, times when it rained but I’d already made other plans.
The rain is not only distorting the landscape however, it is also distorting the photographic image. With The Clearing, I used long exposures to create areas of stillness and movement within the frame, partly as a metaphor for ambiguity, but also as a photographic experiment. The pockets of blurring are intended to disrupt the normal focal depth of the image, creating a sense of disorientation, not unlike an optical illusion, revealing the two-dimensional nature of the photographic plane. Essentially making the viewer conscious of the fact that they are looking at a photograph of a landscape, not the landscape itself. With Whereness: The Landscape of Uncertainty, I realised I could experiment with this same process, not using a technical function of the camera such as long exposure, but with something present in the landscape, the rain.
Do you think you could have made the same series of work if you'd have made the images outside of the car? Would they give the same message to your viewer? I think the short answer is: No, if I wasn’t in the car then it wouldn’t be the same project. I’ve already mentioned contingency and this was an integral aspect of the project in terms of the methods of production. The car provided distance, but it also provided shelter and with that came the ability to slow the process down. Those were the benefits, but there were also drawbacks. I made the decision to stay inside the car to again relinquish some control. There is only so much movement within the car so if I wanted to change the frame I had to reposition the car. Also, it meant certain areas were off limits, if I couldn’t get to it by car, I couldn’t photograph it. I felt like I was making a decision similar to that of choosing to photograph handheld or with a tripod, there are pros and cons to each and not just technical ones, there are aesthetic and contextual implications too.
Who visually inspired you when making Whereness: The Landscape of Uncertainty? I was initially conflicted about this project. The process of photographing the landscape through the car window during the rain allowed me to neatly address all the questions I had. However, it’s a way of working that Todd Hido has firmly stamped his name on. I love Hido’s work, it featured in my critical essays and project research throughout the MA and I never found that problematic, but somehow with this project it was different. I see it as rather naive now that I worried people would think I was just copying Hido. It was reading Geoff Dyer’s The Ongoing Moment that convinced me to go ahead with the project. Dyer constructs a narrative in which the themes, subjects and methods present in the work on many of the great photographers of the last century overlap, respond and develop, like a conversation playing out through photography over time. It made me see Hido’s work not as a problem, but as an invitation to explore the same methods, to engage in and advance a conversation on the subject.
So, I decided to really engage with Hido’s work, allow it to inform my decisions. I developed my visual strategy by asking questions particularly about his framing, his use of a vernacular snapshot style and the fact that he chose to feature elements of the car’s interior within the images. Hido wants us to know he’s in the car. Voyeurism is a big theme in Hido’s work. I wanted my position within the car to be less obvious, at least initially, so I used a far more formal framing style and made an effort to ensure there were no parts of the car in the images, no reflections from the windscreen. This also informed my approach to presenting the work for exhibition. It didn’t make sense to frame the images behind glass, when I’d gone to so much trouble to remove these elements in the first place. That’s something else I learnt from the MA decisions on presenting work need to be based as much conceptual considerations as they do technical.
Also, returning to the previous question of making the work outside the car, during my research I was looking back at Naoya Hatakeyama’s Slow Glass series, which he made in 2001. Hatakeyama made the series by driving around Milton Keynes in the rain at night. However, he did get out the car to make his images, and he would set up his camera on a tripod and place a sheet of glass in front of it. Suddenly there is this element of construction to the work, which for me makes it very different to what I was trying to achieve. Also, Hatakeyama chose to focus his camera on the glass and the rain, the blurred landscapes behind are just about recognisable, but the rain seems like the subject. I wanted to do the opposite, the landscape is the subject in my images, the rain is an intervention, therefore never the focus.
Can you explain your series title? Titles are either really easy or really hard to settle on. This one was particularly difficult. I have a blackboard on the wall in my kitchen and I spent days pacing back and forth, scrawling possibilities. I spent hours in a coffee shop with a friend and fellow photographer, looking at the images, talking about the project, but we never came up with anything. Then I stumbled upon the term ‘whereness’ which is the quality or state of being in a particular place, you can also experience a lack of whereness. To me, it just sounds like a question, I actually considered just putting a question mark on the end ‘Whereness?’ but decided against it. I was concerned the term might be a bit esoteric so I added The Landscape of Uncertainty to provide a bit more context for the series. At the time I was reading The Language of Landscape by Anne Whiston Spirn - it’s not a photography book, she’s a landscape architect - and she talks about landscape not as a static backdrop to human activity or picturesque image of the countryside, but as a sphere of activity encompassing people, buildings, the land, weather etc. It’s about relationships and that’s how I’m using it in the title.
Tell us about your Artist in Residence at Durham University's Josephine Butler College. I’m really excited about the residency, I’ve conceptualised it as a continuation of my enquiry into uncertainty and relinquishing control, this time through working with others. I like to challenge the way I work and up until now that way of working has been solitary, the residency will be a collaborative experience. I plan to immerse myself in the life of the college, engaging with staff and students, treating it like a landscape in the terms I previously described.
What do you think the future holds for your work? In the short term, to coincide with the residency I will be exhibiting work at Ushaw College in Durham from April to September. Ushaw is a fascinating historical venue, it was once a college for the training of catholic priests and now houses some departments of Durham University, as well as being open to the public. Later this year I will have my first international solo exhibition in Germany. Hopefully, in the autumn I will be returning to the University of Sunderland to undertake a practical PhD exploring autoethnography within photographic practice. Also, building on the work I did for my MA dissertation I’m hoping to organise an exhibition on the Autobiographical Landscape, featuring all the photographers I included as case studies.