Knowing When You're Beaten

Burial Mound, Arras Wold, East Yorkshire, SE945392

Burial Mound, Arras Wold, East Yorkshire, SE945392

I’m not much of a landscape photographer.  I’ve always enjoyed walking in the countryside but no photo ever seems to do justice to the experience.  And in a time when even non-climbers with enough money can pay to be led to the top of Everest why wouldn’t you go for the full sensurround of a physical experience rather than a photographic replica of it?  After all, the way in which you reach a place very much affects your experience of it.  If you doubt that, just try cycling to the top of a local hill to appreciate the view rather than driving up there.  So generally speaking, I don’t take my camera with me when I go walking.  I just soak up surroundings as I go along.  But a year or two ago, I decided to do a project on burial mounds in the county where I was living.  This involved a lot of research in gazetteers and poring over maps but it was very interesting and gave me a reason to tramp over the countryside with a photographic goal.  It didn’t turn out well though.  Photographing a small hump in an otherwise featureless field was pretty challenging, especially when I was possibly trespassing and also not sure if I was imagining the hump.  But it was also very moving.  For every few tumuli marked on the OS map but now farmed out there was one which generation after generation of farmers had carefully steered around so that the work of our distant ancestors might remain as a memorial of otherwise forgotten generations.  On one occasion while I clearly was trespassing on farmland I bumped into the farmer himself.  He was pretty good about it and directed me to the inconspicuous copse intriguingly marked on the OS map as “Danes’ Graves” which I was looking for.  He told me that no one knew who owned the land and no one coppiced or maintained it but he gave me directions to the exact spot where lay the graves.  When I got there I found small mound after small mound hidden away here in this corner of forgotten woodland lost in quiet English wolds.  Sunlight filtered through wind-rustled trees and bird song occasionally laced the silence.  I sat down and shook with emotion.  I knew before I even started that no photograph could do justice to this beautiful place.  Mine certainly didn’t anyway.  Several months later I managed to take the one above on a different,  open field site.  I thought that it brought out the delicate, often almost hidden, line of the barrow against the characteristic spaciousness of the region.  Honour was satisfied, I decided, and at that point brought the project to a close. 


Materiality Is One Thing, But Substance Is Another 

Some days I look through photographs I have taken and they seem to assume the form of an unruly herd of sheep.  I am the sheepdog driving them to a distant pen over the hill, but they are having none of it.  They spread out this way and that, bunching and straggling inexplicably while I dash and harry.  I snap at their heels because some instinct of mine wants order or direction but just when I seem to be getting somewhere a group breaks away and makes a run for it and that herd-shape and the sense of purpose that goes with it, is gone.  Faint dog whistles in my head drive me on then fade and I stop, puzzled.  What am I doing?  The sheep seem to know where they are going, after all.  Better maybe just to watch them.  Then a thought occurs: maybe the sheep are leading me…..?


When The Lens Sees What We Don't.

If I am photographing my own life (for what else can I photograph after all?) then how can I use a lens that does anything other than come close to standard vision?  A very long focal length or a very wide angle might show what was there in a sense – but would it be what I saw?  And if it doesn’t show what I saw then what is it?  As I stand about a yard from a window, I am just about aware of its two side uprights in my peripheral vision.  Beyond that I am aware of objects of course, almost to 180 degrees, but I couldn’t identify them if I didn’t know what they were. As I put an 18mm digital lens to my eye it captures the periphery much more sharply than my vision does since the sensor is uniformly sensitive throughout.  And a longer lens – beyond around 50mm - leaves out things that I can see clearly and so over-emphasises the predominance of central vision in the human eye. 

If a photograph is not roughly what you saw then what is it?  If not that, then what?  The only answer can be – it is invention.  It is what you wished you’d seen, what you thought you saw, what you hoped to see, what you nearly saw, what someone told you you’d see, what you thought would make an impressive photograph.  It’s a kind of dream.  With a standard lens of some kind what you fix on the sensor is some kind of reality. With focal lengths that go beyond that, aren’t we just making reality up rather than seeing it?


I review my photos constantly to see what I may find.  Sometimes it can be like assembling a jigsaw puzzle where I don't have the box lid as a guide but I can make as many pieces as I like - if that helps.  I don't know whether those pieces are needed for the big picture and I don't know whether they even fit together.  Maybe I will have to discard some of my favourites.  So it is painstaking work.  Maybe I am working on several puzzles at once and the pieces are mixed together.  I just don't know at this stage.  Laying the pieces out, surveying and arranging and sorting and coding them, pushing some together then pulling them apart, grouping and regrouping until finally some sort of design emerges and I convince myself that I have glimpsed an order of sorts.  I sit back, temporarily reassured.  Next day though, I'm back there again.  More pictures, more pieces, more frustration.