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’.
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.