Assignment One – Contextualisation

My proposal for this assignment builds upon ideas of beauty (and to some extent the picturesque) inherited from eighteenth century painters: wide open skies, rolling hills in the background, sometimes dark trees in the foreground. However, it questions and subverts this idea of beauty by focusing upon its manmade nature – the carefully placed bench interrupting the designated “viewpoint”. It also considers the gaze: the viewer of the image is looking upon an absent viewer within the image. It is these two threads I have concentrated on for my research: manmade manicured “beauty”, and the gaze.

I have looked previously at artists who have considered the way society designates particular sites as worthy of viewing (or photographing). In my final assignment for I&P I considered the way in which I feel free when going for a walk in the countryside, but in fact I am following a prescribed path and am not truly experiencing the freedom of nature. (1) A key influence in that assignment was Fay Godwin’s “Our Forbidden Land”, in which Godwin depicts the restrictions we place upon our enjoyment of nature (2). That is slightly counter to my current focus, in that she was concerned with areas which are prohibited – in contrast I am currently more interested in areas which are positively encouraged. However this raises a critical question: why are some parts of nature pushed upon us whilst others are restricted? Is it really that some are more “beautiful” than others, or is it more about control – about ensuring shared experiences and a feeling of involvement whilst preserving the right of the few to own and restrict the remainder of the land? One can look at this in two ways – either it is the rich landowners excluding the rest of us from their club (which is an undercurrent in Godwin’s work), or it is about mankind’s inbuilt desire to conform. Looking back to the Grand Tour undertaken by anyone of good breeding in the 18th century, we can see a strong example of the way in which visiting particular locations becomes emblematic of culture and success. It was supposed to be a search for the roots of Western civilization and art, yet it excluded Greece (which was under Turkish control) – clearly the rhetoric was more important than the actual goal. It was more about being seen to have completed the tour than about actually learning or experiencing anything particular. Little has changed today, indeed social media has perhaps exaggerated the trend by requiring us to take an obligatory “selfie” at any significant location we visit. However, the location has to be “significant” in the sense of having a recognised “tag” – we cannot tag ourselves in the middle of a field, only at a location already recorded by others. To my mind this is the modern “viewpoint”.

Looking to contemporary photography, I have previously written about Simon Roberts’ series “National Property: The Picturesque Imperfect” (3). In these images Roberts shows tourists enjoying popular British locations – ranging from Stonehenge to forest land. The focus isn’t on the locations themselves, but on the way in which people enjoy them. They are beautiful spaces, but we see people milling around, enjoying each other’s company rather than contemplating beauty. This is very much a social occupation. Much of Thomas Struth’s work has a similar feel – image of tourists viewing paintings in museums or religious buildings.(4) However, in Struth’s work the visitors are usually contemplative – rather than enjoying the space they are gazing upon it. I will return to this later in relation to the gaze, but for present purposes it is the desire for shared cultural experiences which is relevant. The National Gallery holds thousands of works, but only a handful are actually displayed – a curator has decided what is important for us to view, what constitutes beauty or culture. This is an interesting metaphor for the way an ordnance survey map or Lonely Planet guide “curates” the landscape, choosing works for us to view out of the thousands of possible perspectives laid down by mother nature.

One way of carrying out such curation is through the designation of particular areas as having special significance. Keith Arnatt’s “AONB” series is gently mocking of this – photographing so called Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty in a way which highlights that they are anything but beautiful, certainly not deserving of any special attention. This is something I want to return to later in the course, in relation to so called “village greens”, which in law do not resemble in any way what we would think of as the traditional village green.

Catherine_Hyland_DX0010T_01_19.jpg

Returning to the way in which we experience nature, Catherine Hyland is another contemporary photographer interested in designated tourist locations (5). Her series “Universal Experience” showcases vast Chinese mountain landscapes, their barren inhospitability the very epitome of the sublime. Yet in each image we see the landscape tamed for the tourist: a viewing platform, a footpath or a tourist bus. On her website we are told:

There are fences and viewing points throughout Hyland’s images, marking the right spot to view from, the right picture to take… On the one hand this fencing off represents an enclosure, on the other it recognises the danger of the landscape. People are fenced off for their own protection because this is a landscape that does threaten human life. It is a desertified landscape that encroaches and invades and through history has brought death and destruction.”

It is this idea of the “right spot” which I am also examining. Inherent in this designation of spaces is the idea of control, of taming and commoditizing the land. That in turn leads to consideration of the gaze, the means through which we can assert our control over spaces too vast to be physically restricted. Although the landscapes I am dealing with are not threatening, the desire to possess is equally as strong and the designated viewpoints are indicative of this.

As Liz Wells notes  “Typically paintings depict land as a vista in relation to which the painter – and by extension the viewer – is standing centrally looking out over land which has become the object of his gaze thus, metaphorically, rendered subject to his ownership.”  (Wells: (2011) loc 2739). A camera, with its fixed single position, echoes this tradition and places the photographer and viewer firmly in the centre of the frame looking out. Designated viewpoints achieve the same effect (particularly where there is a conveniently placed bench) – they position the spectator in a particular orientation. Wells suggests that such tourist spots “facilitate conventional Cartesian aesthetics” (Wells: (2011) loc 1054).

She goes on to make an interesting point about the continuing attraction of these locations – “the picturesque as a constructed visual mode … feeds a sense of order and harmony which, by extension, contributes to a reassuring sense of security” (Wells: (2011) loc 1054). There seem to be competing rationales here; does the spectator visit the viewpoint in order to assert control/ownership over it, or in order to benefit from shared aesthetic sensibilities? At first I thought the two to be mutually exclusive – one puts the spectator in a position of power, the other suggests humility, but on reflection I think the two are sides of the same coin. Asserting power is what gives us security; it is comforting to feel in control, even where that control is merely an illusion. When I look out over the British pastoral landscape it is not I who is in control; I am viewing the control exerted by others – the farmers who lay out their fields, the authorities who prescribe and proscribe the locations of roads and buildings, and ultimately the control of the map makers who have sent me to this location. This is in contrast to wilder landscapes which provoke a more sublime response; I do have a sense of awe when looking out at the British countryside but it is awe at the extent of human endeavour, it is not a fear of the unknown or uncontrollable.

 

Including a figure viewing the landscape is one way of demonstrating the power relationship between viewer and land. Friedrich’s “Wanderer above the sea of fog” is one such example, but more interesting to me are the works by Elina Brotherus which are based upon Friedrich’s original painting. The images “Der Wanderer” (from the series “The New Painting” show Brotherus herself from behind, looking out over a selection of different landscapes. The landscapes are generally vast open spaces, with little definition, paling into nothing as they recede – in contrast Brotherus is a dark, bold figure forming a barrier between us and the landscape. In that way she asserts her power over the landscape, restricting us from fully enjoying it.

der-wanderer-3.jpg

Der Wanderer 3, 2004

Although we cannot see her face, her gaze draws us in, compelling us to wonder what she sees. We have two perspectives: the perspective of the camera, and the perspective of the subject within the frame, and as a viewer I find myself torn between where to situate myself. I want to share in the subject’s gaze, but I also want to gaze upon her.

There are interesting notions about power within these images. Although the central positioning of the figure and her dominance within the frame speak of power, her stance is more uncertain – she does not have the bold deportment seen in Freidrich’s image. Stood at the very edge of a precipice there is a precariousness about the images which perhaps speaks to the nature of the female gaze as depicted in art – less assertive, less about control and more about immersion in the experience. (6) However for present purposes I am most interested in how these images relate to my assignment, in particular the interaction between the two different gazes. Although my benches are empty, in many respects they are similar to Brotherus’ position in her work – they imply a gaze out over the landscape, whilst simultaneously inhibiting the gaze of the viewer of the image. I think that removing the human figure is important, as a human figure inevitably takes centre stage and we are drawn to body language, much as I was aware of the physical stance taken by Brotherus. Stripping this out avoids any issues about body language, gender, style etc and forces us to concentrate on the positioning of the bench within the landscape, and how that drives the way we view our surroundings. The sense of control remains; the bench is emblematic of a desire for control over the landscape, but I think that sitting (rather than standing) has more of a sense of seclusion from the landscape. Where Brotherus stands dominant, the notional figure on the bench is encased and protected, surveying the landscape from a position of security (much like my framed landscape discussed here.)

It is interesting that the gaze is very much a visual experience; there are a great many ways to experience a place, through touch and physical means, through sounds and smells or even through taste. The physical is surely the most participatory, and is becoming more prevalent in our social consciousness (far from being seen as “tree hugging”, engaging with nature through forest schools and adult retreats is increasingly popular). However the visual has become the primary means of describing place, no doubt in part due to the ease of circulation of photographs as opposed to the difficulty of packaging and sharing a physical experience.

Yet the gaze is not objective, it no more represents the “truth” or “reality” than a photograph does. As Urry and Larsen note: “People gaze upon the world through a particular filter of ideas, skills, desires and expectations, framed by social class, gender, nationality, age and education.” (Urry & Larsen (2012): pg2). What a designation as a viewpoint (or AONB, National Park etc) does is direct our gaze, it marshals all those influences which we bring to bear and tells us that whatever else we feel society has deemed this particular location to be visually interesting. Urry and Larsen describe these locations as epitomising the “romantic gaze” which they deem to be “auratic” i.e having cultural capital by virtue of a title. Visitors look for locations which would look good in a painting (or nowadays a photograph), with the consequence that “the distinction between nature and art dissolved into a circularity. Landscape became a reduplication of the picture that preceded it.” (Urry & Larsen (2012): pg 100). I have been unable to establish the criteria by which Ordnance Survey viewpoints were designated; the OS themselves have not responded to my enquiry, but I have to imagine that these romantic ideals were a primary consideration. That said, many viewpoints are also sites of triangulation markers and may therefore be a simple factor of height and open vistas. The latter is far less appealing as a visitor – despite knowing that my gaze is being manipulated I would still rather visit and photograph a location which someone tells me is beautiful than one which is marked because of its pragmatic scientific characteristics.

Another photographer whose images insert a gaze between the viewer and the landscape is Suzanne Mooney (7). Her series “Behind the Scenes” (2006) digitally places a camera in the centre of the frame, forcing the viewer to see the landscape through the screen on the back of the camera. This is an enlightening commentary on modern life, in which it could be said that we all tend to view our experiences through the lens of the camera/mobile phone, rather than truly enjoying those experiences (see my third assignment for I&P here). However, it also links back to the idea of landscape being a creation of the artist, framing the particular view for our control and consumption. It mirrors the use of the Claude Glass by early tourist painters as a way of framing a view. As Jesse Alexander says: “The camera that allows us to preserve a view simultaneously blocks it, perhaps alluding to how powerful such cliched images are at imposing a definitive, enduring representation of a place.” (Alexander (2014), loc 1174).

By placing my images in frames and photographing the framed picture I am emphasizing this idea of the “enduring representation”; an image hung on a wall is both tamed and preserved, the landscape cannot grow or change (in some ways the direct opposite of the Transitions work I am undertaking). Nor can the bench ever be occupied; condemned to be purely aspirational it hints at the fact that the ultimate viewer has not in fact enjoyed the landscape but merely encased it.

 

 

(1) https://emmapocockphotography.wordpress.com/assignment-5/ (accessed 18th May 2017)

(2) https://emmapocockphotography.files.wordpress.com/2016/03/assignment5-contextualisation.pdf (accessed 18th May 2017)

(3) https://emmapocockphotography.wordpress.com/2016/08/02/simon-roberts-national-property-the-picturesque-imperfect/ (accessed 18th May 2017)

(4) http://www.thomasstruth32.com/smallsize/photographs/museum_photographs_1/index.html (accessed 18th May 2017)

(5) http://www.catherinehyland.co.uk/ (accessed 18th May 2017)

(6) see Wells (2011), loc 4128 for more discussion of gender relations in Brotherus’ work. Also Angier (2007) page 29 for a discussion of the rear view as a gender tool in Jo Spence’s work.

(7) http://suzannemooney.net/works/behind-the-scenes/ (accessed 30th May 2017)

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