Obscure Passages – A beginning
One of the toughest things about photography is focus. I don’t mean sharp images or depth of field, I mean clarity of ideas and discovering the right visual strategy. Perhaps it would be easier if I knew what kind of photographer I’m supposed to be – a street photographer say, a war reporter, or maybe a landscape pictorialist. As it is – and I’m guessing I share this with a lot of photographers – answers don’t come easy to questions like: What do I want to say/show? How should the image look? If it looks likes this in my head, what will it look like in a photograph (pace Garry Winogrand)?
So, when we started the Fabricate Collective, to work towards a joint exhibition on ‘fact and fiction’ or ‘fictional narrative’, I really was at sea. This kind of work was usually of marginal interest to me; I was more interested in exploring how things are, not make-believe. So I started thinking about the ‘fact’ side of the equation, about the disparity between differing perspectives, the stories we tell ourselves about how the world really is. Not making up stories, but raising questions about what kinds of truth stories tell.
Even so, where to begin? This could mean almost anything. Worse still, I had no sense of how such a vague idea could be turned into something visual. Begin with what you know may be the soundest strategy when charting unfamiliar terrain. So, history, landscape, human presence, human traces.
I had been working in a small valley in Derbyshire’s Peak District, trying to document the connections between these facets of the experience of place. I had also been reading about perception and ‘attention.’
It is of the essence of attention that it is selective. We can focus on something in our field of vision, but never on everything. All attention must take place against a background of inattention. A heightened awareness of reality as such is something mystics may dream about, but cannot realise … To see at all, we must isolate and select.
– Ernst Gombrich Meditations on a Hobby Horse, 1963.
It is very hard to see something that has no shape or name.
– James Elkins
We understand place in many ways, but visual impressions often dominate our experience and memory of places, and permeate our ways of understanding. We pay attention to some things and not to others; we see things through the filter of what we already know. I wanted to bring together the ideas expressed in this obscure passage about perception with a visual exploration of my own. With the help of my good friend and fellow photographer (and model) Kevin Percival, this is where the project began to take shape.
This wooded valley has been a place of industry since at least the 18th century; in the 19th century, it became a popular tourist destination for city-dwelling ‘country-goers’ and is now prized for its nature conservation value.
From this point on, the project felt like a strong one and, ever since, I have been scouring my book-shelves for obscure passages to distil an idea that relates, for me at least, to some particular place, and discovering other visual and textual materials that might offer alternative perspectives on place, and the ideas places generate.