Fen Landscape – Paul Hart

North Fen, Rampton, September 2020

Paul Hart (see post 20th September 2020) has a very distinctive take on Fen landscape, published to great effect in his three books Drained, Farmed and Reclaimed.  But he’s not impartial.  He shows a controlled, ordered, utilitarian landscape, a social, historical and political landscape that humankind has appropriated from nature.  The work reads as a polemic against the modern world in general and farming in particular.

I think this is entirely right at a time when the natural world is discounted against growth.  The introductory essay to Reclaimed by Isabelle Bonnet ends with a quote from Slavoj Zizek: ‘The paradox is that it is much easier to imagine the end of life on earth than a much more modest change in capitalism’.

North Fen, Cottenham, April 2020

However, Hart’s approach leads him to an appreciation of the visual qualities of the fenscape that is distinctly different from my own.  This shows itself in two particular ways.  First, the predominant placing of the horizon across the middle of the frame, which follows from Hart’s concern for the land in landscape, the ‘mud’.  I think one of the defining characteristics of the Fens is the dominance of the sky, ‘huge, oceangoing’ as Ian Parker described it, which is how we experience it – we scan a greater expanse of sky than land when we raise our heads to look up.  I most often put the horizon in the bottom third of the frame.  Second, Hart sees a sombre, crepuscular land of flat skies where no skylarks rise up to sing on bright days, his vision is low key photographically.  Yes, the Fens can be like this, but just as often the great skies are filled with light and towering skyscapes.  The Fens are not devoid of chiaroscuro lighting.

I don’t think there is a definitive vision of Fen landscape, a dominant gaze.  We see what we want to see, as in most things.

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Shingle Street 24

Shingle Street, September 2020

Is there a single word that expresses Shingle Street’s sense of place?  I’ve described it variously as curious and haunting, alien and austere, words associated with its remoteness, the overwhelming size of the shingle bank and the always threatening presence of the sea. Perhaps ‘strange’, in the sense of otherness, sums it up best, for it is indeed like nowhere else, unique in form and spirit.  The strangeness is reinforced by a feeling of transience, of precariousness. The vast shingle bulwark, behind which the village lies, ostensibly protects it from the sea, but it’s an unstable defence that is continually shifting, evidenced by the ever-mobile percolation lagoons, and is likely to change shape in the next storm.  And the village is barely a village, it has no amenities, apart from a telephone box (working?), and never recovered from its wartime occupation and destruction.  It lacks signs of sustainable vitality.  When was the last baby born there?

German Ocean Mansion, Shingle Street, September 2020

Strangeness attracts visitors, of course: a transient population, for whom the remoteness is a blessing, takes over the holiday cottages in the summer; and a trickle of day trippers arrive to picnic, sunbathe, fish, swim, walk, birdwatch.  But there is no sand for castles, signs warning of strong currents discourage swimming and there is no welcoming pub or cafe.  Like the swallows, the visitors leave as the days shorten and in winter it’s left to a handful of residents and those who look for solitary contemplation with the wind and the gulls.  It reverts to its haunting strangeness, the place apart at the end of a road going nowhere.

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Edgelands – Paul Hart

Press release about the new exhibition of work by Paul Hart at the Fen Ditton Gallery.

Paul Hart, Macmillan Way, 2018. RECLAIMED

‘Few artist photographers have turned their critical lens on the Lincolnshire Fens: one of the most productive yet haunting agricultural landscapes in the UK. A land that is, in art historian Isabel Bonnet’s words, “disfigured by (the) brazen productivism” of modern life. Yet, for the past decade, the Fens have become for Paul Hart, the central focus of his art resulting in three major photo essays/books, published with Dewi Lewis, Farmed, Drained and now Reclaimed and a growing sequence of compelling black and white images that have won him major awards including the inaugural Wolf Suschitsky prize in 2018.’

‘Fen Ditton Gallery and independent curator Amanda Game have worked closely with the artist to select key images from this journey to print and present in this new exhibition Edgelands. Each of the selected black and white images – carefully composed with medium and large format film cameras, hand-printed by Hart on fibre-based silver gelatin paper – reveals the artist’s characteristic ability to focus attention on an overlooked everyday beauty of this intensively farmed land. But his observations are also acute in other ways, exposing something of the unstable relationship between land and man in this ever-shifting, reclaimed waterland.’

‘Too often the model of landscape photography has been to manufacture rural idylls or Romantic dramas. The precision of Hart’s work has created a new and more critical potential for photography of land.’

The opening times are: Friday 18th – Sunday 20th September, 11am – 5pm; Saturday 26th & Sunday 27th September, 11am – 5pm. Other times are available by appointment. Contact here to book

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Joy of Prints

Processed film and prints arrived from Harman (Ilford to me) yesterday.  To quote Jason Langer (jasonlanger.com) from Black+White Photography No. 244: ‘I noticed my own feeling of indifference in viewing online photography.  I found and still experience it as cold, non-interactive and essentially ephemeral.  I feel it is simply a richer and more intimate experience holding photographs or physical books in one’s hands.’

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the others

the others, a stimulating new book from David Runnacles, showing what he says ‘are the leftover pictures, the others in all their otherness’. A hundred brilliantly seen pictures with so much to explore, so many intimate little interactions, in every one.  It’s a joyous view of the world and a salutary reminder of what has been lost to Covid-19 over the past six months.  The compact format and full bleed pictures add to the overall dynamism of what he has achieved.  Excellent print quality too.  David’s leftovers are what most of us would be happy with as the main course.

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Corona Diary

Are we about to go into coronavirus lockdown again?  It sometimes feels that we might, but I hope not – the hundred plus lost days from late March to early July now seem like a bad dream.  Most of my dreams, good and bad, are forgotten as I wake, but I recorded this one in my diary.  Why did I keep a diary, why prolong the misery?  Well, I’ve always kept one to make up for my selective memory.  Then, it was a unique experience (thus far!), so it felt worth making a personal record of how I experienced it.  Writing a diary, however brief it may be on some days, helped to pass the time – it became a way of structuring otherwise unstructured time.  As the weeks began to blur into each other it was helpful to have a reminder of what I had been doing, my preoccupations – it is the diary as aide-memoire. Finally, a record of both the trivial and significant events can help to put things into perspective retrospectively, and it has.

I put a photograph, or other image, on my blog each day, 103 in total, in parallel with writing the diary.  The photographs were taken during lockdown, though not always on the day they were posted.  Most of the pictures are, snaps, aides-memoire, like the diary – even leaving aside the lockdown restrictions on movement, I don’t have the talent to make one good picture every day.  There are perhaps a dozen that I’m satisfied with, things a little out of the ordinary that have made the discipline of finding a daily picture worthwhile.

I’ve now put words and pictures together in my Corona Diary. It is an honest record as I see it.  Others will have seen things differently.  Should anyone read it, they may conclude from it what they will.  I draw no conclusions.

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Shingle Street 23

Tidal Lagoon, Shingle Street

Shingle Street now has two tidal lagoons.  A new lagoon has formed to the north of the original one, close to the cottage known as The Beacon, since I was there in December 2019.  At high tide today it was an irregular silver-blue crescent of still water, the mirror surface hiding any sense of its depth.  The first lagoon is increasingly filling with mud – dunlin and ringed plovers fed there and it is being colonised by samphire, sea purslane and green algae.

House Martins, Shingle Street

Roy Hammans’s place of ‘solitary contemplation’ was not a place of solitude today (see post 19th August 2019).  Visitors staying at holiday cottages opened windows and doors and breakfasted in the welcome autumn sun.  Trippers and their dogs trudged across the shingle to the sea.  Visitors of another kind, hundreds of house martins, flocked around the Martello tower soaking up the sun and twittering excitedly in a last hurrah before taking off on their mystical trek to Africa.

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Madingley Hall

Madingley Hall, Cambs

Sunny breakfast with DH on the terrace at Madingley Hall, looking out over the meadow and Capability Brown’s serpentine lake on the 10th. We puzzled over the architectural history of the house. I checked with Pevsner back home. The main part of the Hall dates from the 16th Century, between about 1540 and 1590 with additions and alterations throughout the period. A north wing was part of the earlier structure, but was restored in 1905 by J. A. Gotch, ‘an authority on Elizabethan houses’, which is why it has that distinctly Edwardian feel. The gateway to the stable court was from the Old Schools in Cambridge, begun in 1470 and demolished for the rebuilding of the Library in 1754.

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Henry Moore

Two very different pictures from the Henry Moore Studios and Gardens on 9th September.

Large Reclining Figure, Henry Moore
Henry Moore, Studios and Gardens
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What’s A Camera

Thumbing through an old diary I came across this cartoon recently. It’s an image I have often recalled over the years, but wouldn’t have known where to find it. I think it captures in a surreal way the mystery and magic of photography, qualities perhaps lost in the digital age. Leonardo da Vinci wrote the oldest known clear description of using the camera obscura 1502.

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Literary Photography

Browsing through an old diary yesterday, I came across the following entry: ‘Nicholas Monsarrat has just introduced two female characters into The Tribe That Lost its Head, photographers named Clandestine Lebourget and Noblesse O’Toole, would you believe.’ (16th December 1976).

This reminded me of an idea that I had a while back, to look at how photography and photographers are dealt with in literature. When do they first appear? Presumably not before around 1837 and the advent of the Dagurreotype. Do subsequent historical novels describe the use of the camera obscura and anticipate the invention of photography? Does it appear in Dickens? I recall photographers as protagonists in Picture Palace by Paul Theroux (1978) and Sweet Caress by William Boyd (2015). Is there an alternative history of photography as seen in literature to be written? I shall do some web searches.

I hope other novels portray photographers more sympathetically than Montsarrat, see extract below – and it gets much worse.

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Classical Comparisons 5

Domitian, Anglesey Abbey

I spent yesterday morning at Anglesey Abbey filling some of the gaps in my photography of the statues – 36 pictures covering 16 figures.  Domitian was one.  This is one of the Twelve Caesars, works from Italian (Roman) School and British (English) Schools, c. 1750-1847, in marble and sandstone, originally from Lypiatt Park, Gloucestershire.  Domitian was Roman emperor from 81 to 96. He was the son of Vespasian and the younger brother of Titus, his two predecessors on the throne, and the last member of the Flavian dynasty. During his reign, the authoritarian nature of his rule put him in conflict with the Senate, whose powers he drastically curtailed.

I now have just four figures to do – they are currently inaccessible due to Covid-19 restrictions

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Swifts

Swift, P H Delamotte, Natural History of Selborne

In St Davids I noted ‘the swifts continue swooping and circling in the late western twilight’ on the 14th July.  Back home I watched them in Cambridge and Cottenham.  Friends alerted me to two breeding successes: in the Swift Tower on Logan’s Meadow; and in a new box on a bungalow at Waterbeach.  I kept a note of the last sightings from our back gardens: 31st July at Cottenham and 2nd August at Cambridge.  Swifts are one of the last migrants to arrive (mid-late April) and the first to leave.  Naturescalendar.woodlandtrust.org.uk has them still present across the country on 18th August.  The Trust notes: ‘Their departure date depends on the success of breeding. If there are lots of insects and the chicks have fattened up quickly they leave earlier. They also leave early if their breeding attempt is unsuccessful. If the summer is damp and cool there are fewer insects and it takes longer to feed up the chicks to the ideal weight for fledging and they leave later.’

Gilbert White notes that ‘Our swifts, in general, withdrew this year about the first day of August’, in The Natural History of Selborne, Letter XCVI, 9th September 1781.  One bird remained until the end of the month, apparently due to a late second brood, however.

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Classical Comparisons 4

This gallery contains 4 photos.

The four pictures posted here are an example of how the figures from the Anglesey Abbey gardens will be shown, in this case Diana the Huntress.  A description of the god and the statue will accompany the pictures. Diana (Roman) … Continue reading

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Classical Comparisons 3

Faun in Rosso Antico,
Anglesey Abbey, January 2020

There are three related aspects to this project.  First, I plan for the final work to be presented as a single image of one figure from the gallery opposite up to four images of the equivalent figure from the garden.  Second, the figures in the garden will be photographed at different times of the year and at different times of day under whatever weather/lighting conditions happen to prevail at the time I’m able to be there. Third: photographs in the gallery will be taken on one type of film using the same camera; photographs is the garden will be taken on a variety of films using different cameras.  I hope this approach will bring out the contrasts in the way the two collections are viewed.

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