There is a sense of vacancy throughout. In the last couple of years, on the final day of college, I have become accustomed to the ritual of ‘hanging around’ – waiting until everyone has left the building and I have an overwhelming feeling of being alone. It provides some space – to think, to reflect and to photograph. I contemplate the year(s), the people, the conversations, the activities and the struggles of the preceding months. The natural thing for me to do, at this point, is to photograph. The approach is studied - meditative, maybe. The physical surroundings and minutae within it are photographed when it is bereft of the energy and synergy of students and tutors. There is always, in my mind, the reality of times relentless melt - the passing of years and the subtle changes to the environment left by the transience of people. Thus, the work speaks of ‘detachment’.
The work is also about subtle and ephemeral micro-events which happen in the duration of a day, a week, a year, which become part of the history of the building. As we move forward we create and we construct. We develop and perform ideas and discourse physically in and on the environment. We shape that environment through our mental and physical interactions, day upon day, year upon year. We also destruct. Destruction is part of the creative process. In my practice I have always been attracted to subtle traces of destruction, be it in this project or other projects (Note to self: Perhaps it is the balance of construction and destruction, the cycles of each, that are the core of this and other work).
The act of photographing these traces, these physical detachments, this gentle destruction, actually helps me to grasp and ‘possess’ the illusive feelings and losses that I experience at this time. Photography becomes a kind of meditative process, a process which helps me to psychologically bridge these transitions (Note to self: Is it all about loss?) It speaks to me, in a profound way, of a certain reality of these transient, ephemeral relationships which are built year upon year between myself and my students and, in a less profound way, of the relationships between (photographic) discourse, practice and the environment (of photography).
Song of the Silent Snow
‘Generation to Generation’ (proposed title) is a complex exploration the relationship between myself and my rural background, my sense of heritage and the obligation of tradition connected to the landscape. I have been exploring that delicate and uncomfortable balancing-act between belonging and disassociation. I find myself longing to connect, or reconnect, to the place or with the landscape. Yet, the overriding impression or feeling is one of ‘distance’.
“…and living roots awaken in my head"
There are virtues which ennoble the rural character, at least to those of us who have grown up with the conditional rhetoric of ‘The Land’ ingrained into every part of our individual and collective psyche. These virtues of labour, of heritage, of tradition; of generational cycles, of possession, of culture and the preservation of each, give the landscape a value and a meaning beyond its physical state. On the outset, I am not questioning these virtues or these traditions - I value them beyond reason.
I see my ‘role’ as someone who can (visually) express something about the nature, the complexities of generational gaps, the complexities of a sense of heritage - which is bound by head, by heart, by tradition, to feel an obligation to the landscape.
It is easy to say that I am a typical example of my generation who has turned his back on rural life and is, in a very insolent manner, betraying my heritage. I am aware of these perceptions. I have heard all the local mutterings I can stomach. Yet, this does not scratch the surface of the complexity of the condition. Yes, there is a lingering sense of guilt in breaking inherited traditions of farming, of labour, of connection. But this is ‘the condition’ that I have the absolute necessity, above all else, to explore. This is my impulse, this is who I am.
I consider, to sidetrack a little, John B Keanes ‘The Field’ – where the darker side of this attachment is acted-out in a malevolent and eventually violent way. Through its main character – ‘The Bull McCabe’ - there is a stubborn assertion of selfhood and identity, through ownership, which leads to the act of murder of one man by another - both of whom have competing claims to “The Land”. The larger questions raised, for me, by this powerful work are interesting ones: is the culture of ‘The Land’ in McCabes world psychologically corrupted through this necessity of ownership and is it essentially worth preserving. In a sense, this question expresses something dark, petulant, unnecessary with the ideology of attachment. There is a glorification of sacrifice – sacrifice of morals, of friends, of family, of community, of reason, to hold onto and assert ones heritage; which at times is imaginary. The brutality and assertion of fixed beliefs, of loyalty to these ideals, open up questions of what we have become and of the darker side of possession and tradition. This ‘darker side’ is not one I wish to explore at this point, yet, I concede does exist in my world in various manifestations.
I feel I am working with, and exploring, a ‘real’ psychological condition that exists with many of my generation of rural people who, possibly, do not feel the necessity or sense of connection with rural life or with the world of their father. Heaney, Kavanagh amongst others have expressed this condition and this complexity with words. To express it visually allows for me a re-negotiation of, not just self, but of the density of the photographic language. I concede that photography is a limited form of expression. We rely on surface - on grain, and how we use it determines the meaning we are trying to communicate. Just as the feelings and emotions can not manifest themselves within any ‘pallette’ of given words – guilt, responsibility, hatred, revulsion, love, freedom, possibly. Close. I am also limited to the expression of these complexities through visual means – through the camera. Here, the sensations manifest themselves within a whole new syntax: guilt, aperture, insecurity, exposure, framing, anger, light, focus, love, tripod.
Visually, the latest direction of my work has a strong sense of atmosphere and an aesthetic I am trying to push – the aesthetic of whiteness (its colour photography, as close to Black & White as possible – or simply ‘White’ photography?). This is, for now, a winter project. In this particular body of work, the whiteness of the landscape, for me, fits perfectly with the sense of detachment, with capturing the landscape at a point in its seasonal cycle when it has its least growth, its least value. At this moment, I feel a freedom of the correct expression of the condition I want to explore – no past, no future, no memory, no pathos, no nostalgia - just there, dealing with the emotion and non-emotion of the ties that bind. I cannot make sense of the landscape in any other way. I cannot make sense of a reason to photograph the landscape in any other way. I also cannot make sense of the ideology of the virtues of rural life as ‘grounded’ above the virtues of other ways of life, nor of the necessity to repress an artistic spirit and my personal sense of the absolute value and necessity for expression in opposition to this way of life. They co-exist in my world. This expression is located somewhere deep within contradictory impulses – the need to create and the need to bow to tradition, the need to be there and the need to escape, the need to be self-determining and to be my fathers son. I feel that the work comes from a place – a territory that is physical and emotional. It comes from the inside of this place. One conclusion could be read is the re-assuring fact that I have a deep attachment to this place, to what it means and to expressing this through the only means I know how.
For now, I work on the land in this way, for now.