Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Thoughts on assignment two (and three)

This was supposed to be a succinct post of my intended work schedule for assignment two.  It has turned in to an unwieldy rambling about 'place' for which I apologize. Nevertheless, if you bear with me, I feel it is worthy of sharing.

So for assignment two (one acre) I have two ideas, both of which I'll carry out and decide after the event which I will submit.

i. Easdale Island in Scotland.

Now I am aware of the danger of doing an assignment on holiday and the inherent dangers of coming back with a reel full of cliched holiday snaps.  However, for two reasons I will go ahead anyway:
  • I cannot currently take a picture in the Lakes without asking myself why I am taking it and what I am wishing to convey.  And that can weigh heavy sometimes.
  • I want to take photos of an area that I 'feel' rather than 'think' about, without feeling obliged to delve too deeply or think too much about or feel too involved with. Parachute journalism I think they call it.  This will be my stab at it.
ii. Home.

I have mentioned the pitfalls of the above approach and I will be carrying out a local project too that will extend beyond the remit of assignments two (one acre) and three (a linking theme) but will be used to feed them.  

Compared to the 'Domestic Sublime' concept, it will be with a more 'objective' hand that I approach this project. It will be carried out, as qualitative research, to gain a better understanding of the social and cultural relevance of living within a sublime landscape, but right on my doorstep...here in my village...and with people who live in my midst...maybe this will help inform me as to how to 'see' beyond the beauty of the Lakes. Rather than my own point of view (which essentially is what the Domestic Sublime project is), this is seeking out the views of others and exploring their relationship with where they live.

I will be looking at three aspects in particular:
  • the relationship that local residents have with the landscape in which they live
  • the notion of 'place' and the significance of place(s) on its people
  • the concept of 'time'/historic context of the landscape 
I have been thinking about the concept of 'Place' a bit recently after reading the book with the same title by Tacita Dean and Jeremy Millar.  And the definition of place is indeed hard to define but actually quite an important consideration, when it comes to inhabited landscapes, as 'place' can have greater connotations than the 'landscape'. Take these insights from the aforesaid book.
A landscape is the land transformed, whether through the physical act of inhabitation or enclosure, clearance or cultivation or through human perception.
Certainly place is something more often sensed than understood, an indistinct region of awareness rather than something clearly defined. 'Place' has no fixed identity, as places themselves do not...
Place is thus space in which the process of remembrance continues to activate the past as something which, to quote the philosopher Henri Bergson, is 'lived and acted, rather than represented'.
It is interesting to consider, for example, how many important historical events are now known simply by the name of the place in which they occurred - Hiroshima, Auschwitz, Chernobyl - although despite this, the place does not assume a dominance over the event but seems, instead, to give itself over to it wholly, as though the place can now mean little else.
This last extract struck me in particular.  When is 'landscape' a place? And so what becomes of those places not 'giving themselves over to a particular event'?

Relating to this, I've recently just finished a novel, Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks.  It is centred on the village of Eyam in the Peak District, and is based on factual accounts of the Bubonic Plague in 1666.  It only occurred to me after I finished reading it why I had had a dark cloud hanging over me the past few days...blessed are we now for antibiotics.

Without going in to too much detail the story begins with a piece of cloth and its delivery from London to a tailor in Eyam. It arrived flea-ridden and damp. It was warmed through in front of a fire, alighting the infected fleas that sought food on unwitting humans instead of rats. Carriers of the plague, the first death in the tailor came a week later, followed by neighbours in ones and twos, and then later in their scores. The villagers, under the guidance of the rector, make the brave decision to isolate the village, to stop the disease spreading yet further. Only two abscond after the pact is made. Indeed, this decision did contain the death toll to the village. The Plague Village remained isolated for over a year during which time 260 of 350 inhabitants died, their self-imposed quarantine, will have saved many more lives.  It is a harrowing tale.

Anyway, it made me think about 'place' and you will see if you google 'plague village' it is Eyam that fills the search engine. Eyam is indeed synonymous with this one event. The sacrifices the villagers made nearly 350 years ago is almost entirely unique and remains of great significance to this day.  On the the plague village website it reads:
Most stories of Eyam revolve around the plague that so badly affected the village but there's more to Eyam than just the tragic story of death.
And one suspects that this one event is such a fundamental part of its heritage that it will dominate and influence its future for evermore. Interestingly George May writes that
...some of the villagers who were in contact with those who caught the plague but did not catch it themselves was because they had a chromosome which gave them protection.  This same chromosome has been shown to still exist in those who are direct descendants of those who survived the plague, and are still living in the village at the present time. 
History can feel detached from us as it alludes to times and events that are incomprehensible to imagine. Yet we are all characters in the book of history, our chapter is currently being written.  The set or place in which we perform is intrinsically part of who we are, as it was our ancestors before us, and this social aspect of landscape I find bewildering.

And so turning my attention to the village in which I live and have lived for a short five years...an offcomer for sure. There has been no 'event' such as the Plague to calcify the character of my village. Nor would we want it to...the neighbouring village of Lamplugh, is testament to this. However, there are a good number of residents who have lived here for a life-time and it does have a rich seam of history, as every village everywhere will have and therefore worthy of exploration.  I know such studies have been carried out on sites of historic importance such as the Aushwitz work of Ori Gersht. However the study of my village will lack the prefundity for sure.  
I feel inspired to talk to some of the village's longest-standing residents and identify those places that hold a common historical resonance and personal significance. Time is always against such tasks as the eldest with most knowledge take with them the history too.  

It will involve me pursuing two lines of enquiry:
  • the landscapes of significance, past and present (assignment two). 
  • portraits of some of the existing residents (assignment three)
So this will be where my focus lies for the next six months or so...domestic sublime will be considered concurrently and I am hoping by carrying out this piece of work it will inform the other.

Oh, and yes, it's all going to done on the large format...hopefully!!


  1. Impressive Project outline Penny - not so tight as to constrain your vision. It'll be interesting to read how views of the same history might vary between people and who knows what you might uncover. Every village has its secrets after all!


  2. Strangely Catherine, I'm spending more time writing than I am photographing these days...I'm beginning to wonder...I can talk the talk, could do with walking the walk!!

  3. Yes - I'm have a similar experience but in terms of reading rather than writing or photography. It's as if I think that the more photographs I scrutinise the more they'll sink into my subconscious and make me a better photographer. Catherine

  4. I hope this is the case Catherine, although sometimes I feel it muddies the waters making it a self-conscious effort rather than instinctive. Time will tell I guess.

  5. Sounds like you've been thinking even more than writing and the village project sounds like it is well thought out and, as Catherine says, not too tight as to constrain. Looking forward to this. The plague hit our village and the village church has an area that cannot be dug over for a very long time still as the corpses were interred there. At first sight it seems not that odd that one side of the graveyard is left to grass - with sheep occasionally grazing; but when the back story is filled the area becomes a little sinister.

  6. I'm always thinking too much...away with the fairies me!!

    I must admit, I have carried the weight of the plague with me for several days...it was truly an atrocious thing to have lived through or died of.

    With regards your churchyard, it is these seemingly 'benign' landscapes that I wish to photograph. I guess the landscape was always benign, but the human aspect, in this case, mass burial ground, carries with it the perception of a far more sinister landscape. And therein lies my dilemma, because if you were to photograph this part of the churchyard, with grazing sheep, the photographic medium belies the tale you want to tell. Now you can accompany it with text but then it becomes a factual account almost. But working on the premise that images should speak for themselves, I'm not sure how you get from the landscape of today to that of yesteryear....that's where my thoughts are at the moment.