Reflections on Project 1: form and evocation and how others speak visually about landscapes

I introduced myself to some of Godwin and Burtensky’s some years ago and so will not repeat my thoughts from back then here. However I do think it’s worth spending some time comparing and contrasting their styles and approach as this can help inform my approach.

Godwin’s approach to photography in Our Forbidden Land[1] was to support her contention that most land is not accessible to the general public. She sites the lack of political interest in access, private ownership of land and the trend of privatisation of utilities as all reducing access to much of the country. Her photos were for the most part aimed at evidencing her contentions made via the written word. Yet what was interesting was if you compare her photographic approach with that of Edward Burtensky.

While Godwin’s images in her book were monochrome and realist with no strong unifying aesthetic form, Burtensky’s images in his book Oil[2] offers a similar polemic but he use photographs and form to lead and articulate the argument rather than support a written contention. He used a very strong unifying aesthetic in his imagery and I think this makes them compelling and obvious (in a good way) in their statement whereas Godwin’s range from those that are less mutable – especially those with signs – to those that could be interpreted without any reference to access.

Some of Sophie Ristelhueber’s work chimed with both Godwin and Burtensky. For example, her aerial shots of bomb scared landscapes and her images of scars offered an aesthetic that resonated with Burtensky while her ground level shots where much more mutable and less formalised and reminded me to Godwin’s approach.

I suppose that a balance has to be struck about whether the photos lead or support the statement. For example, John Davies’ images in A Green and Pleasant[3] make much more sense after reading the accompanying essay. Powell begins by noting how Davies links two transformations: industrialisation and deindustrialisation and the ordinary and extraordinary terrain. He notes that the way we think about the landscape is defined in part through its historical connotations “freedom nature, tradition and history and eternal truth” (Powell 1987) and in this way the approach the viewer takes in interpreting the images is set.

In another book[4] that Davies populated with photos the imagery is more realist and lacks a cohesive aesthetic form and acts to support the written word. In that book the author – Minton – argues in a way that is much closer to that used by John Berger in About Looking[5] where the interpretation is structural and we are told that in order to interpret and gain or attribute meaning to an artefact we have to understand its production.

Berger sites numerous examples in his book but the one that captured my attention was the chapter considering Lowry’s famous northern townscapes and the fact that few discuss Lowry’s work in terms of its social, political or historical meaning. Viewed with these perspectives in mind the pictures offer a commentary on Englishness, northernness, the time in history (the clothes subjects wear are 1930s at the latest) and that the artist’s vision exaggerates the feeling of changelessness and hints at loneliness, industrial decline and humour. These points appeared to me to offer quite a different interpretation of the role of art in society than say Gombrich’s Art and Illusion[6] where art is presented as a sort of progressive linier force.

Thoughts – the politics of space
The problem with the argument that art can only be seen ideologically misses its dynamic role in negotiating values and challenging dominant ideologies. Art is – or at least can be – polemical. Thus the question for my work is how do I present my values and view in a way that challenges dominant ideological views that define disability and impairment as one and the same thing? (That is the medical model of disability). How can I emphasise and articulate visually about the social construction of access when the issue is so hidden an embedded within the physical environment as to be invisible to most viewers?

Next steps
I think I should try developing a set of images that are straight, graphic and formal in their aesthetic and offer greater direction to viewer connotation through their subject matter as a way of evoking understanding. This should be subtler and clearer than the work so far as it will be less reliant on processing and more reliant on framing.


[1] Fay Godwin, Our Forbidden Land, Published by Jonathan Cape, 1990

[2] Edward Burtynsky, Oil, Published by Steidl; 1 edition, 2009

[3] John Davies, A Green and Pleasant Land, Published by Cornerhouse publications 1987

[4] Anna Minton, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First-Century City, Published by Penguin Books, 2009

[5] John Berger, About Looking, Published by Writers and Readers Publishing Co operative, 1980

[6] E H Gombrich Art and Illusion: A study in the Psychology of Pictrorial Representation, Published by Phadion Press 1960 (1987 fifth edn)


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
This entry was posted in Project 1: Public Landscapes and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s