Our interview with the inspirational Cardiff-based photographer continues…
Jo Mazelis: Photographers like Andreas Gursky and Hannah Collins produce massive, almost life-size prints of their work to create images that are almost immersive — yet with most of humanity now seeing all images on their mobile phone screens do you think something has been lost along the way?
Rob Hudson: I confess I’m not a fan of oversized prints, I find them overwhelming, confusing and difficult to digest. This isn’t to say that size doesn’t matter, but perhaps the greatest loss from seeing photographs on our screens is that we no longer perceive them as physical objects. The print is the final destination for my work, even though the vast majority is created digitally. Printing not only completes a work, it also solidifies it, transferring it from one realm to another.
There are good arguments for smaller prints, which can also translate to viewing on a screen — that of the individual viewing experience — intimate because it’s not shared with others. And I wonder if the idea of scale lending weight to an image isn’t also partly a result of the technological possibilities and, also of the commercial imperative of the high-end art market where so much is destined to be displayed in the lobbies of merchant banks, or bought as investments.
What we lose when viewing on an iPhone screen is primarily detail. It seems somewhat ironic that most oversized prints aren’t really about detail, just as my work, unusually for a landscape photographer, is rarely about revealing the details of a landscape. There are other stories to tell, ones about us rather than illustrating a place.
JM: In Songs of Travel you’ve used what look like double or triple exposures to create photographs that look like pencil drawings or etchings. Others, like those of the sea are so fugitive as to be almost abstract, does this reflect an urge towards the painterly? And are you influenced by painting at all?
RH: Actually they’re rarely less than eight exposures, sometimes many more. I try to find influences in as wide a range of the arts as possible, both visual and verbal. Actually I’m uncertain how I could avoid them, they are part of me, part of our collective consciousness, so it’s inevitable that if I’m to communicate with a contemporary audience elements from beyond photography play a part in my photography.
I have a particular love for the art of the first half of the twentieth century. Yes there was a great deal of abstraction produced then, but what really appeals to me as a conceptualist is the way so many new movements, ideas and manifestos kept repeatedly bubbling up, seemingly every few years. That’s reflected in the way I create constructs for new projects.
Songs of Travel is one such construct; it was an attempt to find a visual language for our experience of moving through the landscape and how that relates to memory.
I realised that most people’s experience of the landscape was primarily through journeys, everything from walking the dog, going for a run to travelling by rail or car. And that our memory of such journeys tends to become blurred, mixed up and incomplete. So while Songs of Travel is related to movement through the landscape, it also questions whether the notion of stopping and staring, so beloved of artists and photographers, isn’t actually the oddity, the rare experience we seem determined to raise above all others in the face of contradictory experiences. It is also chipping away at that other construct — the sublime.
JM: The pictures in Songlines use close-up textures derived from nature that are difficult to read; some could be satellite photographs of the Earth from space or microphotography of an insect’s wing. Do such images demand more of the viewer than ‘straight’ photography?
RH: I’d imagined that they are ‘straight’ photography; the series Songlines are colour negatives of tree bark, and if we’re aware of the days of film then the negative is a fundamental element of straight photography.
They aren’t macro by any normal definition (i.e. greater than human vision). I was determined to avoid that particular form of abstraction because part of my motivation was to reveal the extraordinary in the ordinary. The stuff we miss by not looking hard enough at our everyday environment.
As the author Bruce Chatwin explained in the book of the same name (the naming wasn’t accidental) according to the beliefs of the indigenous peoples of Australia: ‘A “song” is both a map and a direction finder. Provided you knew the song you could always find your way across country. “So the land must first exist as a concept in the mind. Then it must be sung. Only then can it be said to exist.”’
This was also, incidentally, part of a growing realisation of how important photographing my local landscape was becoming. It’s easy to miss stuff by not looking closely enough, so by immersing myself in the woods during regular visits I’ve gained a closer relationship and deeper understanding of place.
This isn’t simply a rejection of the exoticism of so much popular landscape photography, but a realisation that it was also beneficial to me as an artist, allowing me to see past the ‘new’ and the obvious beauty of a place and to focus my mind inward. It allows me to break free of preconceptions, received wisdoms and unwanted visual influences by working through them over long periods of time until I eventually find insights and a way of representing them in a visual form.
Practically it would be impossible to do this at any distance from home, because it requires so much time and regular visits. The fact this also coincides with a growing green consciousness that I should limit my travel and impact on the planet, is both fortuitous and underlines many of the hypocrisies of the way I may have worked in the past. For if a landscape photographer doesn’t care about the future of our environment then who will? So, you see, ‘the song and the land are one’.
Ease of consumption often relates to the fast food of photography, it’s neither [ful]filling nor satisfying. A bite and it’s gone in an instance, all too easily forgotten. To take the food/cooking analogy further, the more we put in [of ourselves] the more we get out of it.
I feel beholden to make work that stretches and challenges the viewer because otherwise what is the point making of art? It should be something that is nourishing to the soul. I hope the fact that I’m learning about myself and nourishing my own soul in the process of making the work will somehow be translated in the viewing.
JM: When you were working on North Towards the Orison; In the Footsteps of John Clare part of your interest was the poet’s state of mind — does this explain the hallucinatory quality of these images?
RH: I don’t really know that John Clare suffered hallucinations, there’s still much debate about the form his mental illnesses took. The diagnoses of the time included one doctor suggested he suffered from ‘an excess of poetising’. This doesn’t easily translate into our ‘scientific’ notions of understanding mental illness.
The inspiration for North Towards the Orison came from a number of different elements of the life of the poet John Clare. In essence the work is a visual retelling of the walk he made from his asylum in Epping Forest to his home, Helpston, in the Fens. The 80-mile journey, on foot, without money for sustenance or shelter took Clare four days to complete. That he was returning home to find a woman who he believed to be his wife but was long dead and when he was in fact married to another woman gives some insight into the parlous state of his mental health.
In many ways it’s an extension of the ideas about journeys and memory I first explored in Songs of Travel. Indeed it uses a similar technique — multiple exposures — to illustrate those ideas, albeit in colour rather than black and white.
The choice of that particular colour palette came from two lines of Clare’s writing: ‘In the blue mist the orisons edge surrounds’ and I had imagind that the worlds end was at the edge of the orison & that a days journey was able to find it so I went with my heart full of hopes, pleasures & discoveries expecting when I got to the brink of the world that I could look down like looking into a large pit & see into its secrets the same as I believed I could see heaven looking into water.
As Simon Cooke wrote, ‘That conflation of “orison” (prayer) with “horizon”… speaks of the indivisible closeness of Clare’s vision with a sense of place.’
My idea was to illustrate the journey through the ‘blue mist of the orison’ as if seen through water. It is an expression of both his parlous mental health and a eulogy to the joy he felt in experiencing the countryside. In many ways I think of it as the antithesis of the work I made inMametz Wood. It still explores the issue of mental health, but this time the landscape isn’t darkly terrifying, it is a source of strength and wonder. It is a journey in search of orison [prayer], one where the other orison, the horizon, is never visible, never quite attainable. So although the journey may have been nourishment to Clare’s mind, it didn’t finally resolve his mental health issues.
I’ve attempted to relate that solace of the landscape to a troubled mind through some eighty images that followed the course of day into night and night into day. There’s little detail, but I hope it’s more hypnotic than hallucinatory.
It was made in the very same wood as Songs of Travel, and again illustrates both my commitment to working in my local environment to have as little impact upon the planet as possible. Obviously it makes no attempt to document the places of Clare’s actual journey; again it is an act of imagination. I have doubts about the definition of photography as ‘documentary’. If we take the root of the idea ‘to document’ it implies that an objective truth can be found using the camera. I doubt it is possible for people to be objective, furthermore, I don’t think it would be desirable in visual art.
It’s time to ditch the term ‘documentary’ as it’s served its purpose in establishing a legitimating of photography in the historical context of the 1960s and 1970s and is too closely related to the mechanical means of reproduction for the digital age. As a conceptualist I can see that it’s just another construct. The problem is neither I nor seemingly anyone else has the remotest clue about what should replace it. Maybe ‘photography’ will suffice and we can all stop worrying about legitimacy and get on with making work in whatever form of conceptualism we choose?
JM: Your latest project is The [Secret] Language of Trees, can you explain what the starting point for this was and what your process of working is?
RH: As with most of my series the process begins with messing about with cameras. If I wanted to sound more impressive I could call it creative play and it is fundamental to my process. As I play, I discover ways of portraying the land, and I hope that I’ll also discover new ideas, which I can weave into the images and give me a focus for further visual investigation.
Bound up in this series are a whole range of ideas that are below the surface: ideas about ‘edgeland’ from my reading of Rob Cowan’sCommon Land; ideas about wilderness and wildness from reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Wild Places; my growing green consciousness about low impact local photography; but most fundamentally, and perhaps surprisingly the ideas of Peter Wohlleben on mycorrhizal fungal networks.
Wohlleben is starting to unravel the simple Darwinian assumptions that trees compete for light and nutrients. Trees, it turns out, aren’t in competition with one another, but exist in a complex web of interconnecting roots and fungi known by some as the ‘Wood Wide Web’. Wohlleben even suggests they are not only able to communicate in some basic form, but also share nutrients to sustain one another. Robert Macfarlane described this discovery as ‘part of a research revolution that is changing the way we think about forests’.
This also caused me to re-examine the way I understood trees and consider how this could be visualised — above ground. The result was a somewhat poetic response to the beauty of this idea in series I called The Secret Language of Trees.
I’d been photographing an area of edgeland near my home for a couple of years. Initially I made a short series called The Language of Trees of the trees growing alongside the rather forlorn abandoned canal without much thought beyond the idea that I’d perhaps discovered an area of true wildness — if such a thing can be said to exist in the modern UK. This was where the ideas of Robert Macfarlane came into play; he’d suggested in The Wild Places that we’re as likely to find wildness in a ditch beside a road as we are in what’s perceived as the countryside. The differentiator being whether it’s farmed or otherwise managed or somehow influenced by man. Being a landlocked steep slope of trees trapped by the canal and an old railway embankment, therefore unmanaged or farmed, these woods appeared to me to conform closely to this definition of wildness.
When I discovered Wohlleben’s ideas I began to refocus my photography onto the visual relationship between the trees. Trees tend to be depicted in isolation in photography and art, perhaps to mitigate the chaos of the land that really exists. I was comfortable with the idea of the land being chaotic, so my visual representation attempted to embrace this. That the results were perhaps somewhat abstract pleased me greatly as it embraces the otherness of the land, the space between it and us and that hypnotic effect of being in nature. It is about the soft fascination of place, the way we feel surrounded and consoled by the natural world and about how we look. It was at this point I adapted the title to show that it is a new body of work that emerged from an old one by inserting the ‘secret’ into the title.
It also marks a return to the single image, as it seeks to illustrate clearly in order to pose the underlying question of whether this relationship between trees can be seen in the way they coexist above the ground and to question the received way we have learned to see the landscape.
That this sort of ‘ordinary’ rather scruffy bank of trees could be found almost anywhere also fitted into my growing realisation that not only should I be making as little and impact on the Earth as I can, but perhaps, in some small way, it was also my job to encourage others to appreciate their local environment so that they too can practise a more green life while not feeling like they are missing out on the distant, exotic landscapes so often depicted in popular forms of landscape photography. That, maybe, there’s a role to re-educate the viewing public in some small way.
That line from Bruce Chatwin’s Songlines— ‘So the land must first exist as a concept in the mind. Then it must be sung.’ — turns out to have become something of a motto for my photography.
© Jo Mazelis, 2018. All photographs © Rob Hudson, 2018.