James Dobson

University: University of Brighton

Graduation: 2015

Genre: Landscape

Websitewww.jamesrdobson.com

Artist Statement: I’m a photographer based in Brighton, making work in the South and South East of England. To put it broadly, my work is about the English landscape and the imagination. I’m currently working on a project named This England, Old Already, which is a body of work made up of interrelated series’ of pictures looking at particular kinds of ancient built structure. I’m interested in how archaeology might be used as a lens through which to read the landscape; as a tool for deconstructing the ways in which we are programmed to respond to particular kinds of landscape. More specifically, the subjects of each respective series, at this stage in the project’s development are tumuli (sepulchral monuments dating as far back as the Neolithic), rural churches and scratch dials (obscure, rudimentary sundials scratched into stone, dating as far back as the early medieval period).

 From the series  This England, Old Already

From the series This England, Old Already

What are some standout moments from your time at university? I completed my MA in Photography at the University of Brighton in 2015. Most valuable to me was having a diverse community of photographers and lecturers with which to discuss ideas and show pictures to. That community and conversation has extended beyond university and is ongoing still. 

Which photographic genre do you consider your work to fall into? Landscape. However, the work is conceptually driven - I’m more interested in making work about the representation of landscape than the fabric of the land itself. Landscape is a concept, something that hovers between reality and perception, I like to think I make pictures that emerge from that foggy space in between. 

 
 From the series  This England, Old Already

From the series This England, Old Already

 

In the series, This England, Old Already, you’re aiming to shatter the stereotypically thought of ideas of the English countryside; talk us through the process of finding these places to photograph, why you chose to focus on churches, dials and tumuli and how you think these findings present themselves in your photographs. The ideas are found whilst walking. The tumuli, for example, started off as vague, incomprehensible points in a landscape, lingering on the edge of perception, glimpsed momentarily whilst aimlessly walking, yet sticking somewhere in the back of the mind. But over time they have gained significance to the extent that they have become the nodal points of planned routes. I don’t make these pictures during walks, however, I use my phone camera to make a record and then return in the car with the 8x10 camera and step ladder when weather conditions are appropriate. The individual subjects themselves are found through research which involves a mix of walking, studying both Ordnance Survey and Google maps, and reading. 

These subjects have become focal points for this project each for their own reasons, but collectively they all suggest a landscape that is layered, complex, dark and deceptive.

  • Churches for their visible strata - I have chosen to only photograph rural churches with specific characteristics, churches that are ancient in part, yes, but have been patched up, knocked down, rebuilt, added to, churches that betray what we expect of them as symbols by virtue of their structural fluidity. They are buildings in flux, contrary to how we are supposed to imagine them; as emblems of a “timeless” rural England. 
  • Tumuli for their relation to the common notion of an English landscape of rolling hills, green and pleasant, that they serve as a counterpoint to. But also because of their existence at the intersection of natural and cultural histories - they are built of the land itself and as such are subject to the same phenomena that govern the appearance of our landscape through the seasons; plants grow on them, sheep graze them, rabbits live in them. 
  • The scratch dials are a kind of photographic footnote to the Church pictures, their purpose is to form associations between the church on which it is carved and the passage of time and its application for the exercising of power and control. Also the scratch dial itself, or the idea of it, seems to occupy a multi-dimensional temporal space; the time it took to carve suggested in its arc, the human time it measures, the time passed since its carving, and the deep time it suggests.
 From the series  This England, Old Already

From the series This England, Old Already

As the body of work, This England, Old Already is ongoing, but what will be your next subject matter? This is hard to say, I have some ideas as to how the project will grow, but nothing concrete. It will involve the coast of East Anglia in some form or other. 

Can you tell us about any visual and theoretical influences you had whilst making this work? The two most important photographic influences would be Mark Ruwedel’s Pictures of Hell and Jem Southam’s The Shape of Time; both photographers dealing with representation of landscape and the intertwining of nature and culture.

The two most important literary influences would be W G Hoskins’ The Making of the English Landscape and W G Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Both being books that in some way deal with the English landscape as a vast and rich archive. But also books that contributed to a complete perceptual shift in my approach to landscape. 

 From the series  This England, Old Already

From the series This England, Old Already

What attracts you to ancient built structures? The feeling of simultaneously inhabiting a place remote in location as well as time – these structures embody that duality. Structures at the epicentre of these particular dimensions have a somewhat dizzying effect on the senses that photography cannot replicate. But what photographs lose in terms of their representational ability, they gain in metaphorical scope; a series of pictures of ancient structures can say something completely different and unique about Landscape than what the senses can translate from being out in the world. These structures contain hidden narratives that permeate their environment; they are catalysts in the process of land becoming landscape. For example, a bell barrow could initially have been a funereal mound in the bronze age, then appropriated by sequential waves of cultures – secondary interments by Saxons, a meeting place for a particular parish a few hundred years later, a site for a gallows pole in the 18th century, a spooky hangout for teenagers a couple of hundred years after that. There’s a tension between what these focal points in the landscape embody and what the photograph can represent that I find interesting as a photographic subject.

 
 From the series  This England, Old Already

From the series This England, Old Already

 

Why have you chosen to represent or explore the landscape through these chosen subjects? Components of the landscape that disrupt the contour of the land, churches, tumuli, charismatic natural features – particular trees, rivers etc, features that draw in the landscape from around them, seem to me to be the parts of our rural environment that contain stories and ideas that can be reflective of how we read, imagine and respond to the wider landscape, in a different way from, say, a topographic view of a particular place. But also it’s a way to locate landscape in a historical context, and to offer some kind of counterpoint to a prevalent view of the English countryside that is drenched in nostalgia for a synthetic past. Churches, for instance, are at the forefront of a utopian vision of English history that we call Merry England. I show the church pictures in groups or grids, and in so doing hope to draw attention to particular consistencies: the roughness in their construction, their layers, and the idiosyncrasies in their design. Most of the churches with the characteristics that I’m interested in are located in the South East, in historically less economically fortunate regions. Being built of inferior materials, often flint and rubble, they can exude a sense of lowly self-consciousness, that perhaps allows for some of those more suppressed narratives to surface, those narratives that run contrary to common notions of rural England that are so persistent in the collective imagination.

Where did the series title arise from? The title is a phrase from Edward Thomas’s poem The Manor Farm. It’s an extraordinary poem in which time is drawn out and stillness is palpable. I like the phrase because it suggests both a layering of history, and past, present and future time, in four words.

Pick one of your images, what does the subject say to you about its surrounding landscape? 

One picture cannot say much, but in this picture alone there are seven individual tumuli, four different kinds of boundary and two different kinds of path, one of which predates everything else in the landscape that isn’t sky or the hills themselves. The picture sets all of these ingredients in relation to one another, and from these clues one could determine, in part, how this stretch of land has been used for the past 5000 years or more. Or it could be nothing but a mound of earth in a field, it depends on what filter an individual looks at landscape through – there’s a great short essay by D W Meinig entitled The Beholding Eye: Ten Versions of the Same Scene, in which he reflects on the ways we interpret landscape according to different fields of knowledge.

 From the series  This England, Old Already

From the series This England, Old Already

How have you or would you present this body of work? Do you find yourself categorising the tumuli, churches, and scratch dials, or do the images and subject matter have a relationship? The series are interconnected in terms of their subject matter, so I think a deeper layer of meaning is created in their being set in relation to one another. That being said, I hope they begin to work as individual series in themselves. I’m moving away from a kind of practice that involves making projects with a clearly defined beginning and end - I like the idea of series that evolve into different manifestations as they grow. Practically speaking, the church and dial pictures are printed on a smaller scale and are meant to be seen in a kind of configuration whereby they speak to each other closely. Last year they were shown in a grid of four churches, hung next to a single dial. I haven’t shown the Tumuli pictures yet, but these are made with a larger scale in mind. But, all of this would depend on the context in which they’re shown.

The lighting in your images lead us well into your chosen subjects, especially towards the churches. Was it a conscious decision of yours to shoot in this way, and leave only subtle hints of the landscape behind? The church pictures are all made 5 minutes before sunrise or 5 minutes after sunset, when the sky is clear. The negative is over exposed slightly so the quality of light in the picture is one that does not exist in reality - it’s actually pretty dark at the time I press the shutter. It’s a very conscious decision and it requires a lot of patience, and involves a lot of wasted journeys – cloudless mornings and evenings in England are few and far between.

Would you recommend studying in Brighton? Absolutely, the university has brilliant lecturers and technicians, it's a really nice community and environment to work in.