from: Material Memories; A Conference Presentation
Delivered at the University of Newcastle 2015
Subsequently published by Cambridge Scholars (2017)
Some thoughts on Photography, Landscape and the Post-Industrial
Since its initial conceptualisation the idea of a ‘post- industrial landscape’ is an enduring one. It aligns the collapse of modernism with a contemporary re-evaluation of Positivist philosophies (as the defining movement of the late C20th) and provides a useful platform from which to consider the positioning of landscape as an art practice and as a cultural palimpsest, providing visual evidence of our economic structures, culture imperatives and of society in general. On the ground, much of what constitutes ‘post-industrial landscape’ has matured into something resembling a post post-industrial landscape, a condition that struggles to synthesise form and function in a meaningful way when compared to the relatively straightforward iconic images of industrial design. This new landscape is the province of the developer and the unfettered free market economy and it aligns more readily with high modernism viewed together with earlier technocratic ideas manifest in the post-world war era and developed by successive governments throughout the so called ‘white – hot era of new technologies’ in the 1960’s and 70’s. How, then to consider and to represent these major developments within an art context? What might these considered responses be, is a response important and appropriate and how do we make it coherent and accessible, not to mention interesting, through the various media that we favour?
When I first approached making images in the North East, the representational legacy had been a nostalgic view of working class life and a celebration of the industries native to the North of England, such as coal mining and shipbuilding. This tradition grew to prominence in the Victorian era both through local painters such as William Bell – Scott and photographers such as Lyddell Sawyer. This mode of representation is still strongly evident, and is characterised through populist painters such as Bob Olley’s images displayed on the Metro system of ‘Andy Capped’ workmen ably supported by an invisible ‘her indoors’ ( I am not comparing the quality of the work here, merely the subject matter) and an unfortunate (and , I am sure unintended) legacy of the excellent Ashington school of painters. In some ways this echoed the Socialist Realism so favoured by the Soviet Union particularly during the era of Stalin. Much of this photography was a celebration and an appreciation of local, mostly working-class culture but was, in the main, nostalgic in its worldview and its effect. Photography in this period tended to follow along these stylistic guidelines and when exhibited, was invariably small scale and monochrome offering little to excite the eye and less to stimulate and to engage the intellect. Undoubtedly much of this photography was instrumental in both informing the public but the aesthetic strategies employed were rooted in the technology and documentary approach outlined by people such as John Grierson and Humprey Spender in the 1930’s. I had been one of those new generation of fine art students who had attended art schools in the sixties and seventies and believed that art has an important function in engaging the world culturally and politically. This was mediated through the adoption of emerging aesthetic strategies such as conceptual art and performance art as well as adapting the new media of photography and film for concerns more traditionally linked to painting and sculpture.
The exhibition ‘Futureland’ was an attempt to change the way that the North of England had been represented and to focus on a whole set of new issues. These new issues were developing as a result of the Conservative government of Mrs Thatcher (although it would be wrong to think that she was their sole reason for existence). The de – industrialisation process happened quickly, almost before there was really an attempt to reflect upon what was occurring and to understand its consequences. As the North was the first to industrialise, so it was the first to de – industrialise creating a broken environmental and economic legacy evidenced by deserted shipyards, coal pits and factories.
A new landscape had emerged, a post – industrial landscape readily visible around our previously industrial centres. The governments of the day moved speedily to erase the evidence of what went before. It was always going to be a sensitive reminder to its inhabitants of the rapid removal of a way of life for many and the Government moved quickly to eradicate most of the industrial remnants as they were concerned that worker’s takeovers would become an issue for them. ‘Futureland’ became a way to look at these events and to frame them in order to encourage reflection of the region in a new critical and reflexive context. The result was an exhibition that borrowed on the legacy of artists such as John Martin and John Constable and (looking further back) the Dutch landscape paintings of the 17C and sought to re-examine the representational legacy evident within landscape (which was considered to be ‘non political’) and to establish this subject matter as a critical one – something that could invoke the spirit of Graham Sutherland and Paul Nash, whilst at the same time more directly addressing important political, social and economic concerns – as opposed to the dominant mode of representation of neo – romanticism developed partially as a response to the English Lake poets made popular by prominent photographers such as Edward Weston and Ansel Adams.
At the time of writing any photographic magazine available in the local newsagents will focus largely on how to create and to appreciate the beauty of a highly romantic approach to landscape, particularly where digitisation can intensify the ‘natural’ beauty of its subjects through compressing tones and super saturating its saccharine colours with the application of digital ‘improvements’. In the 1970’s, there existed the prevailing idea that photography in the ‘documentary style’ had some claims to objectivity and truth, indeed the term ‘documentary’ came to mean something that was authentic and un-mediated (the term ‘documentary’ was never applied to images of landscape) but what had emerged was a challenge to this rather simplistic view and a new kind of documentary photography began to emerge that was avowedly subjective (as opposed to its earlier ‘objective’ status.
The new style mediated to offer commentary and opinion of its subjects. It did this by virtue of challenging the representational orthodoxy of photography and through the wide – scale introduction of colour, large – scale imagery, narrative, and installation together with the incorporation of new materials and texts alongside a developing body of theoretical and critical material such as ‘Ten-Eight’ magazine . It also engaged the public not just through exhibition but included publication and publicly sited works together with publication. The exhibition ‘Futureland’ was developed by myself and (now Professor) Chris Wainwright with the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle upon Tyne, it was intended as a vanguard operation that introduced the construction of the landscape as a focus to explore a number of key political and cultural concerns and to focus them through the mirror of landscape and its traditions alongside offering a challenging aesthetic view and new ways of working within the broad umbrella of photographic practice at the time.
Photography has always concerned itself with representation with social realism as a part of its ontological destiny. Its public face and usage is perhaps better understood by most that of its comparatively recent existence within a fine art, gallery context. Contemporary public sculpture belongs to another tradition and when located within the visual context of the post – industrial landscape offers a reclaiming of ownership and a shift of territories from one class association to another and a refocusing of imperatives within the existential environment. It is perhaps a part of a necessary re-branding and consideration as we move into a post – post – industrial reality. The new landscapes are the landscapes of ownership and financial power, of developing infrastructure and globalisation together with the compartmentalisation of our lives as we increasingly define discrete public and private concerns and struggle to position our Northern cities within a contemporary economic reality that has seen epic growth in London and the South – East but relative stasis in the North and in Scotland. London has de facto detached itself from the rest of the UK and its world super – city status is an embodiment of modern global capitalism where production and consumption have become isolated.
Fewer and fewer young people, and those with families, are able to sustain themselves and remain within the capital but themselves become economic migrants. A national housing shortage and soaring rents are forcing the issue. It is hardly surprising that in Scotland, nationalism seems an attractive substitute for an elite southern-focussed government that is increasingly irrelevant in places such as the North of England and Scotland and is unsurprising that many would find common ground with those favouring self – government north of the border rather than in the south of England. For the North, it will take more than an improved rail network (faster to London!) to change its fortunes but a sustained focus and investment in its economic future. Sometimes it seems that the only real growth is in the University sector since the onset of fee-paying students….
‘Futureland Now’ is an exhibition and book publication (ISBN 9781841023236) initiated in partnership with the Laing Art Gallery in Newcastle (sept 2012 – feb 2013) published by the University of Plymouth. The project involved myself and Professor Chris Wainwright (who sadly died this year) as arts practitioners together with Professor Liz Wells from the University of Plymouth and Dr. Mike Crang from the University of Durham as cultural theorists and commentators. Through this exhibition and publication together with a conference held at the Laing Art Gallery, we collectively explored new ways through which to consider the representation and understanding of the post – industrial environment and its associated condition. ‘Futureland Now’ was a re-visit to an earlier exhibition at the Laing that was made at the time the major impacts of de-industrialisation were being felt, particularly in the North East of England but also, to a lesser degree, around the UK in general. This exhibition was a major touring show that visited many parts of the UK and did much to establish the currency of the ‘post –industrial landscape as well as foregrounding photographic arts practice in a new light.
Both of these events were funded by the Arts Council. (For which I am extremely grateful) Many works from the exhibitions are now in major collections such as the British Council, The National Media Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Then, as now, the work consisted of mostly large-scale colour photography that used the British tradition of representational landscape painting and appropriated much of its language. It referenced John Martin’s paintings of the sublime landscape together with the shattered psychological spaces painted by Graham Sutherland. At all times the projects strove towards using innovative forms and ways of re-considering our relationships to places and spaces and to the landscapes that we create through art practice and thinking of ways that these images might be engaged by contemporary audiences. The original exhibition included images that were displayed as billboards and ‘Futureland Now’ comprised photography, billboard images, moving image and sonic works. It also incorporated a significant conference at the Laing Art Gallery that was the result of an important partnership between the University of the Arts, London and the Universities of Durham, Plymouth and Sunderland and Tyne and Wear Museums.
The journey for photography has been spectacular. Walter Benjamin is perhaps the central figure in discussing the unique capacity within photography that has enabled it to become a truly mass media, but even his appreciation of its potential did not anticipate the current situation where moving from the mechanical ‘analogue’ world of Benjamin to the digital image. The commercial exploitation of the photograph has developed exponentially with trillions of photographic images being made every year and ‘available’ to us all in the ‘developed’ world online. Now, we are all (frequently unknowing) contributors to the commercial on-line takeover of the world and such concerns as exhibition spaces can seem folksy and arcane but to individuals such as myself are nevertheless central to the quality of our lives and experiences.
Hubert Damisch described (admittedly analogue) photography as ‘the process of rendering observation self-conscious’ He argues that the true content of a photograph is invisible and that in this photography is closer to painting and music. This ontological framework was at the heart of ‘Futureland’ is definitive in its approach to subject matter and to why photography is seen as the appropriate medium for this work.
Such images are intended to offer a space for consideration, contemplation and reflection. They reveal the presence of time, frequently developing narratives that change over an extended period. It is intended that they give pleasure through their aesthetic structures and strategies and that they create ambiguity and engagement (as with music) . It is further intended that they present and describe the narrative intentions of their author (in as much as this is possible) and that they might generate discussion and be viewed within the context of other works offered for exhibition.
The tem post-industrial has been used to describe a particular period in our history. To those of us who can even remember the industrial era with its exploitation, dangerous working practices together with the growth and development of the nuclear family and the development of wealth within our society, it is not always helpful in understanding that which has replaced it – the so called ‘knowledge’ economy has not created knowledge or wealth for all. It has led to development of a ‘super elite’ and a celebration of ultra capitalism, most of which the vast majority of people have little access to and even less understanding of. These are the challenges that we need to consider. The engagement with the landscape as a place in which society and culture is reflected and organised is a central one and it continues to be important to engage with a visual representation of our landscape that explores its links to ownership, capitalism, consumption, exploitation and globalisation whilst at the same time considering its bio-diversity and ecology and how we might consider new imperatives towards sustaining it in the transition to a post – post industrial representation regardless of what ever we eventually end up calling it.
Newcastle upon Tyne 2015