‘Low-level Landscapes’

The series ‘Low-Level Landscapes’ is part of the Foreign Eyes on Fryslan commission and essentially comprises of a focussed body of work which deals with the low lying terrains of North Fryslan. My objective was to find an appropriate way to represent the topographics of the area in question. The landscapes themselves are ‘claimed’ from the sea and are implausibly flat. Looking at the horizons themselves caused a bit of a disconcerted feeling in truth. It seemed difficult to find a sense of scale or distance. There was a sense of repetition to the way that each area of land was separated which led itself to a certain approach which I decided to adopt.Control and organization is the key here. The actual landscapes themselves are controlled. One of the underlying themes of the projects I did was that command over nature that is an important part of the physical reality of rural Fryslan, and indeed part of the Fryslan rhetoric. One thing that was made clear to me was that every inch of land is used, well organized, well controlled, well managed and each has a distinct purpose. Further to this every natural resource is utilized to some degree. Easy to see that we here in Ireland could learn a lot from these methods of land use and resource management. I have carried this control element through the approach that I have taken – a rigorous geometry which I feel represents the landscapes of the north of Fryslan best. The work adopts a more ‘German’ approach to documentary. But it also keeps within Dutch landscape traditions – subverting them in a way. The representations of landscapes in Dutch pictorialist traditions keep a low horizon approach to draw attention to the epic and sublime cloud features. My approach is to draw attention to these consistently flat and compact areas of land. This approach means a more neutral, debased skyline and an emphasis on the topographic differences. The approach follow interconnecting photographic (and artistic) traditions which have informed much of my work to date. Firstly, they are photographed in a tradition of Neue Sachlichkeit, or ‘new objectivity’ – a more detached and objective approach to documentary which dates back to the 1920’s Germany. This approach uses, for instance, grids and ‘typologies’ to display their images in a formal order (for instance, subjects and objects photographed in a similar manner and grouped into ‘types’ which allow comparative study between each). This approach displays a minimalist quality which was prescient to later photographic work that appealed to the Conceptualism of the early 1970s (my work has adapted elements of Conceptual Art). Such approaches can also be found in the work of the generation of American photographers, such as the ‘New Topographics’, who have since come to be understood as marking an important shift in Landscape practice; offering a ‘re-thinking’ of landscape traditions in the 1970s. Interesting that this movement can, to a degree, be seen as a reaction to the pictorialist, utopian photography of, for instance, Ansel Adams who adamantly depicted the American landscape as an entity of unscathed and organic beauty. In effect, the photographers of the New Topographics movement strove to show the rapidly increasing imprint that man was imparting on the landscape. They turned their cameras towards newly built tract houses, industrial parks, expansive highways and commercial strip malls as proof of man's impetuous development. These approaches have informed my Midlands work and, to a degree, the recent continuation of this project - ‘Suspended State’ and I found that this approach is a fitting way to represent the landscapes of the north of Fryslan.

On Process: 'Notes by an Open Window' (from Foreign Eyes on Fryslan - Part 1 of 5)

This little sequence was taken mid-process, while I was trying to tease out possible ideas for my 12 days in Fryslan. These notes to self were an attempt to assess my work to date - little ideas and reminders that I keep, as I work, of where I have been and what I had being doing. Above all else, the notes are part of the struggle with trying to find a direction for the following days.

These images (of the notes) are essentially about the process of making work. Maybe there is a touch of reflexivity or self-reflexivity within this collection. They are part of the evolution of ideas - the notes which move the ideas and the process along which then become part of the finished work. (I have incorporated this approach into my practice over the last year or so – visible in, for instance, my on-going ‘Photo Course’ work).

The title also references the famous Vermeer painting “Girl Reading A Letter By An Open Window’ (just to pull the work back into a Dutch context). The light that illuminates the paper is the beautiful evening sunshine which is radiating through the open window in my studio apartment in Leeuwarden. It made me think of Vermeers work – the never changing position of his array of subjects beside his studio window, the warm glow on the letter or objects or subjects themselves.

In, Around and Afterthoughts (On The Fryslan Commission)

I have been meandering around the north of The Netherlands for the past four days, in a beautiful place called Fryslan, on my first proper European commission. The experience so far is a mixed bag of feelings and outcomes - its stressful at times, its tiring at times, energizing at times. It's lonely, its 'nomadic'; I suppose I feel like an outsider coming into the unique atmosphere of the north sea. This is the idea. I have been trying to get a sense of place and then respond to it. The project 'Foreign Eyes' (on Fryslan) suggests that someone somewhere prompted the idea that maybe the region has been represented in a similar way through photography for too long and they want an outsider to trespass and re-negotiate it.

The work thus far is arbitrary. I cannot visualize a single coherent project. So far, I believe I have the 'bones' of several potential bodies of work; though it is difficult to command an approach when you do not have any printed material to assess (one problem with the analogue process, I suppose). One such speculative body of work which has appeared is called 'Broken Landscapes'. These are taken from places which are allocated as viewing decks for scenery. My views deny the audience the actual landscape itself - broken up by obstacles and seperated by, for instance, glass on bus shelters, my car window, etc. I am imagining these will have a painterly-like effect which might be interesting. Another proposed project is one I have entitled simply 'Low-Level Landscapes' - more of a 'Becher-type' approach to documenting these consistantly flat and compact areas of land seperated by canals. I am torn between this 'German' approach (meaning a more neutral, debased skyline and an emphasis on the topographic differences) and referencing the classic Dutch landscape style (which, for example, also contain lower horizons which made it possible to emphasize the often impressive cloud formations and unique variations of light that are so typical of the region).

Another project in its infancy is a series from (outside) abandoned shops and factory units - adapting a more abstract approach to the space. They are monochromatic, visually interesting and illusionistic in effect - a kind of 'trompe d'oeil' outcome. This 'trompe d'oeil also references seventeenth-century Dutch traditions - it enabled artists of the time to render objects and spaces with playful eye-fooling exactitude and raise questions about the nature of art and perception. The idea here is to respond to the empty space and propose a series of exhibitions in these spaces in October (the sponsors seem to like the idea).

But, above all, it actually makes sense that I am doing this - both the assignment brief and the space allocated. It is challenging to work within given limitations (spatial and otherwise), and still feel a certain amount of freedom to stay true to ones own artistic dispositions. These things cannot be forced. Though, having said that, I am of-loading 10 rolls of film a day, and the impulse to produce is determined and fresh right now.

In, Around and Afterthoughts (On The Photographic Impulse)

My feeling, in essence, is that it makes sense to me that I should be here in Fryslan doing what Im doing at this point in my life (photographic life that is). And in a way re-assess my journey here. I was prompted to do so recently in a Dutch (again) online magazine interview ahead of my trip here. It went something like this:

"I started my relationship with photography about ten years ago. The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh once said that he ‘dabbled’ in verse and it became his life. I am similar to this: I ‘dabbled’ in photography and it became central to my life. It has become the means of getting to know the world in a new way. I feel that photography has given me a new way to comprehend life; a way of recognizing and grasping the intangible meaning in the world. There is a moment when photographing, from time to time, when there is an overriding feeling of revelation - finding a zen-like harmony with the elements of nature, the ambiguities of human life and the labors of society to organize and articulate a meaningful world. It is a difficult feeling to explain. The visible surface of the earth comes alive with ethereal sensations – full of meaning, history and contradiction. The 'act' of photographing attempts to make these sensations tangible. It (the act) encourages and permits a quiet comprehensive musing over the most seemingly banal and ordinary of things. It offers an invitation to scrutinize, to ponder, to connect with whatever piece of life it privileges."

This was a short reflection on the 'act' of photographing - the impulse to do it and the purpose of the whole enterprise. It is something I feel I really would like to express in words. Though trying to fix that experience with our primary language is impossible and maybe, to a degree, pointless. Maybe photography offers a kind of ‘inter-subjectivity’ that transcends words and other ways of knowing.

I have seldom found photographers who tackle this idea of the 'act', or the 'impulse' or the 'ritual' (to quote earlier blog posts) in a real way. There are not many significant writings which express the feeling of an artist struggling to understand and comprehend their own impulse to photograph. Perhaps my tutor in Dun Laoghaire David Farrell has, from memory, in his lectures, or in his recent blogsite writings, offered an insight. I know Jeff Wall does to a degree. I once read an interesting and insightful interview with Wolfgang Tillmanns which explored the photographic act. Similarly by the artist Phil Collins. Simililarly by Ryan McGinley. Similarly by Joel Meyorwitz. All of which have written accounts of the psychological processes of photography and all of which have produced work which has hit a tone with me. But, recently I found this affecting quote. It is by the incredible Walker Evans (the photographers photographer). Speaking in 1971, he is reflecting back to his 'American Photographs' of 1938 - which resulted from his 'subsidized freedom' (as he saw it) from the auspicies of the Farm Security Administrarion and its ideological mission and working constraints. Whats amazing about it is that towards the end of a life dedicated to photography, even Evans seems to accept that he cannot find an answer, or cannot rationalize the complexities of the photographic impulse:

"I now feel almost mystical about it. I think something was guiding me, was working through me. I really do. And, without being able to explain, I know it absolutely, that it happens sometimes, and I know by the way I feel in the action that it goes like magic - this is it.! Its as though there is a certain secret in a certain place and I can capture it. Only I can do it at this moment, only this moment and only me. You become a kind of a medium.. Some things are sort of done through you somehow. Thats a hell of a thing to believe, I believe it or I wouldnt act it!".