‘Into the Woods’ – An Interview with Rob Hudson / Part One

Jo Mazelis

Born in the Rhymney Valley in 1968, conceptual landscape photographer and photography writer Rob Hudson turns 50 this year. Now living in Cardiff he has developed a vision for landscape photography that embraces ecological concerns and seeks to develop our appreciation of our land through sharing ‘the stories we tell each other of our experience of the land’. Immersing himself in his local surroundings enables him to both develop new ways of expressing these experiences and to critique the way landscape has hitherto been portrayed. 

His work is often influenced by poetry, which allows him to explore ideas about metaphor and narrative in his photography. In 2014 he was the first to realise the significance of the photographs made by the poet Edward Thomas during his 1913 journey from London to Somerset that became Thomas’s prose work In Pursuit of Spring. Little Toller Books subsequently republished an edition of the book including those photographs. 

He is a co-founder of the landscape photography collective the Inside the Outside group whose stated aim is to ‘mediate the liminal space between the words before and within us’. He has exhibited across the UK, and is hoping to exhibit with the Inside the Outside group later this year. He has written extensively for a wide range of books and magazines. 

Jo Mazelis: You often reference poems in your landscape photography, does poetry offer a starting point for a series of images or is the relationship deeper than that?

Rob Hudson: It took me a long time to realise that what really interested me about the landscape wasn’t its physical properties—the mountains, rocks and trees—so much as our relationship to it. Collectively, not just my relationship, but the stories we tell each other.

That presented a problem for me, someone who fell into landscape photography without knowing a great deal about the land itself. I don’t conform to any countryman stereotype; I can’t name most plants or flowers or birds despite the best efforts of my late mother when I was a boy. I live in a city, but fortunately for me, quite close to the edge of the conurbation, so I can find inspiration on my doorstep. I still find the landscape itself remarkably mute and rather chaotic. I find the land to be inspiring, somehow magical, a great consolation and, at times, beautiful, yet it is the fundamental mystery of this relationship that is my playground.

I do not associate myself with that masculine stereotype of expressing authority over the landscape. Conquest, mastery and other such macho notions seek to strip the land of its inherent mystery, to explain, to reassure us of our dominant position over the natural world. It is important that we acknowledge the space between the land and us. We are of it, but it is not of us.

The notion of landscape art as sublime buries that distinction somewhat, because of its overt emphasis on a celebration of the natural. This leaves me dissatisfied both intellectually and emotionally as it fails to acknowledge the reality of our situation. I see my job as one that triangulates between human and nature, revealing how we and the land are mutually dependent.

Yes, poetry is a starting point in my photography. But it’s also about reflecting that human relationship as well as exploring photography’s capacity for metaphor and that sort of peculiar strangulated narrative, which maybe also enables a launch pad into that nether world of visual imagery that is somehow beyond the capacity of language. I also hope in some small way this might illuminate something of our shared humanity.

One of my formative influences was The Remains of Elmet by Ted Hughes with photographs by Fay Godwin. I immediately fell in love with it. I identified strongly with the post-industrial landscapes of that corner of Lancashire, relating them to my experiences growing up in the similarly post-industrial Rhymney Valley. However, I reasoned that Godwin’s photography didn’t relate to Hughes’poetry in any meaningful sense, which I later discovered Godwin openly admitted was true. Godwin’s photographs were illustration rather than interpretation and that struck me as shirking the possibilities inherent in such a collaboration.

In response to this apparent distance between word and image I began exploring how I could relate my photography to poetry; primarily through visual metaphor. Initially it was perhaps an overly literal interpretation of individual lines within the poems, for example in my work based on Owen Sheers’ book Skirrid Hill. Later, this broadened into wider, but hopefully more cohesive concepts informed by both poetry and life experiences in such work as Mametz Wood and North.

from Mametz Wood.

JM: In your images for Mametz Wood you seem to be photographing something which is almost impossible —namely the violent past of a World War Ibattle —and in doing so you have created an almost dreamlike imagery with plants that look like galaxies, tree branches that might be limbs. How did you go about creating these images.

RH: The ‘how’(double exposure) is perhaps less interesting than the ‘why’, although I did attempt to maximise the inherent possibilities in double exposures by making single images and combining them later. This creates a far wider range of combinations and allows for an even greater range of serendipity. For me, photography has a capacity for imagination. I’m sure most of us have experienced the feeling of being transported elsewhere by a photograph and that’s maybe led to some form of reverie.

The imaginative potential exists, but hasn’t been explicitly explored in recent years, and where it has, it has had a tendency to be stuck in a fairly obvious form of surrealism, which the rest of the art world had left behind about a century ago.

I suppose I believe nothing is impossible in photography just as I believe nothing is impossible in other forms of visual art, or in a novel or poem. Photography, to me, is just another form of visual expression, there’s nothing special accrued because it’s a form of mechanical reproduction, save that there’s a kernel of reality in there which lends it an extra magical edge. When subverted through double exposures photography creates a new reality out of existing reality, which to me is a wonderful thing.

Although ostensibly about the First World War battle of Mametz Wood, the subtext is about experiencing the landscape through the ‘lens’of what we now know as post-traumatic stress disorder. Having read In Parenthesisand some biographical details I wondered if David Jones had suffered some form of that affliction. Since completing the series a new biography about Jones by Thomas Dilworth has confirmed this suspicion. The role of double exposures then takes on a new aspect, to disturb and disrupt reality. We can’t be sure what is real and what is imagined, just as the victims of PTSD cannot help vividly recalling the terrible memories of what they experienced.

As such, the experience of PTSD isn’t fixed in time, it is a current malady suffered by many, and not just those who’ve experienced combat. So the act of creation isn’t related to a reality at a fixed point in time or space, but is about something more universal, an element of the human experience.

JM: You’ve written extensively about your work with landscape photography and also that of other photographers. Do you find this enhances your practice, bringing about new ideas or solidifying what was perhaps felt on a subconscious level while you were taking photographs?

RH: Writing, reading and researching are an essential element of my practice. Although it takes two distinct forms: one for developing ideas for my own work; and secondly attempting to find common threads and a degree of intellectual cohesion in the broad range of work with the artist’s collective I helped co-found —The Inside the Outside group. Sure, these distinct threads feed into each other, it would be difficult to avoid some form of cross fertilisation, but they begin from different perspectives and intents.

The writing and research for my own work doesn’t simply help develop or solidify ideas for my work, it also plays an important role in helping educate my subconscious mind to be aware of what to look for when confronted by the myriad of possibilities when photographing in the field (or more likely a wood in my case!) I can’t claim to fully understand that process, and I’m fairly certain it would be undesirable to do so, but I know it’s there. Think of it as creating a picture in my mind even though I don’t necessarily know what the picture is until I see it.

JM: One of the early discoveries of photographers like Paul Strand and Edward Weston was that even the most banal objects could be transformed by photography into beauty; a picket fence, a pepper, even a toilet. By the same token, images of ugliness and war such as those by Robert Capa and Philip Jones Griffiths also manage to create a sort of savage beauty. Does still photography retain its power?

RH: It does for me. I could cite pretty much anything by Josef Koudelka or Cartier-Bresson or many others as continuing to have great power over me, a mysterious form of witchcraft that will often stop me in my tracks. Plus photography plays many roles, some of which are outside the traditional art definitions. Who doesn’t still today photograph their children, family or pets, to create a treasured archive of memory, often with immensely powerful personal meanings and emotional weight?

The problem we face today is the sheer volume of imagery we’re confronted by in our daily lives, and how to navigate the waters between what is personally significant and that which has a more universal appeal. The latter isn’t as clear-cut as many would imagine as demonstrated by found photography and the reappraisal of many personal archives for publication and exhibition.

In no way does my disruptive work with double or multiple exposures seek to undermine the potency of the still image. This is perhaps the most frequent misapprehension about my work. It is simply my way speaking in new forms; an attempt to find the possibilities inherent in the medium and to express something as yet unspoken.

Having said that, I confess that the single image is beginning to have less weight for me. Many of us in modern photography have realised that the old canard ‘a picture paints a thousand words’ isn’t completely honest. So we tend to work in series or bodies of work, which gives room for the work to develop and suggest a greater range of ideas.

I tend to look back to the work of John Berger and Jean Mohr in their book Another Way of Telling or to practitioners like John Blakemore who emphasise the possibilities for visual connections between images in developing a new language for photography. These ideas were at the forefront of photography a generation ago and are all too easily forgotten.

The newest definition of such ideas has been termed ‘extended documentary photography’. This also embraces differing forms of display such as multiple projections or the addition of props, or the incorporation of other art forms or text. Our work with the Inside the Outside group was featured as part of a course on extended documentary photography at The Photographers Gallery last year, primarily as a result of the way we use words and ideas in our conceptualism to express ideas beyond the photograph itself.

The reverence of the single image in photography strikes me as a strange modern phenomenon, which has come about in part through social media, in part because of the excessive emphasis on the ‘greats’in the history of photography and in part due to photographers themselves playing the fame game. They can’t be held entirely guilty for this phenomenon as the structures of recognition through competition tends to reward those whose skills are primarily those of composition rather than the more complex and less immediate and accessible aspects of narrative, metaphor and suchlike. My good friend, the photographer Chris Tancock is fond of reminding us that composition is only one element of the art of photography; that in literary terms it is the grammar of photography, not the substance of meaning itself. I suggest that seeing is insufficient, and that we need to make work which embraces ideas if it is to be both compelling and satisfying to viewers who are both emotional and intellectual beings.

Even back in the day when most of the ‘greats’of photography’s history were working, the images were often made to be seen in context with others; either in exhibitions or, in more journalistic spheres, in publications like the Picture Postor the Sunday supplements. So the modern world is in essence stripping images of their context while celebrating an image that was never expected to be seen in isolation.

from The Secret Language of Trees.

See The Lonely Crowd on Wednesday 8th for Part Two of the interview. The full interview was originally published in Issue Nine of The Lonely Crowd, alongside several photos by Rob Hudson. 

© Jo Mazelis, 2018 Images © Rob Hudson, 2018.