In contrast to last week, this week’s focus on my practice involved the opposite of deadline/brief close working at a computer screen: yesterday was the highest tide of the year (the spring perigean) at the Severn Estuary which sees the second-highest tidal difference in the world. I had to spend a day in Clevedon, thanks in part to my involvement on a college-organised quiet day, and so a seaside watch was in the diary a long time earlier. The weekend’s eclipse, supermoon and high tide are all the sort of ancient cataclysmic events that would normally be marked with deep reverence and ascribed symbolism. Here was my small equivalent armed with a camera and a thermos.
The best day of photographing I have ever had was something similar – in 2010, I settled myself at the point on the English side of the Severn Estuary called the New Passage, and photographed the tide going out every half-an-hour between 8am and 3pm. Yesterday, at Clevedon Pier, I followed the same rule, but increased to every 15 minutes. The experience is both systematically measured and exponentially felt. I think it appeals to my right and left brain simultaneously – on the one hand, I’m constantly clock-watching and horizon-watching and focus-point watching; on the other hand, the constraints against doing anything else allow your mind to relax and tread water. More than that, I found myself exploring a spiritual exercise of retreat: even as the tide pulled out, I was imagining a real perspective on my life in which events, children, emails, jobs weren’t all piling in a big wave, and were in fact ‘going out’ on the tide.
I have yet to decide how these images are going to go together for a finished piece – possibly an animated lenticular which plays on the vertical change, rather than the horizontal change in The New Passage. But I will be trying to hold onto the verse ringing in my ears, the verse I passed on to those 7 photographers who joined me for a different perspective in their day, Psalm 18:15. To me, this verse shakes the self-absorption out the equation, because the tidal perspective is not ultimately about me.
Then the channels of the sea were seen,
and the foundations of the world were laid bare
at your rebuke, O Lord,
at the blast of the breath of your nostrils.
Nearly ten years on from when I first made this panorama, it pops up on display at Widecombe Church on Dartmoor. An interested viewer took the trouble to find out who the artist was, and got in touch (thank you DB!). It perhaps says a lot about how photographic displays are perceived in a church/tourist venue that a 4-metre-long, full colour print should not be deemed worthy of identification, which saddens me. But it’s still a delight to feel some sort of resonance from old work, in this case, my first serious attempt at digital manipulation.
In Praise of Creation was originally produced during a 6-month-residency on Dartmoor hosted by the then St Michael’s Princetown Trust (now the Tormentil Trust). The piece was originally finished with a few words from Job written across the sky (see below), which today I have removed. Ordinarily, I’m against the alteration of finished pieces at a later date, but in this case, various prompts reminded me of a latent discomfort at the presence of these words. This was not the content of the words, rather the disjunction of text within what is a particular type of image – unlike the maps I also produced for the show, which happily accommodated labels and poetry in their design – see here for all 10 pieces created.
As if over-excited by Bible-text at the time, I also included a paraphrase from a Psalm in the accompanying leaflet. I find myself, now, wondering what the text is doing and whether the invitation to contemplate scripture works alongside the invitation to contemplate a visual piece. The jury’s still out. This is what I said in 2004:
Though not espousing pantheism, the Bible resounds with delight at God’s handiwork, from the creation account in Genesis to the new heaven and new earth in Revelation. This piece invites you, like Job’s friend Elihu, to ‘stop and consider God’s wonders,’ (Job 37:14), to see if there is not his ultimate authority and agency in the turning of the seasons, the cycle of the weather, the thousands of different species of flora and fauna, and in the caterpillar found on Dartmoor.
‘He makes springs pour water into the ravines;
it flows between the hills.
They give water to all the beasts of the moor;
the wild ponies quench their thirst.
The birds of the air nest by the waters;
they sing among the branches…
He makes grass grow for the sheep,
and plants for man to cultivate –
bringing forth food from the earth.’
Commissioned for Trinity College Chapel, Bristol, in 2010, this 2.5m-wide print hung for a term in the apse of the chapel, at a time when students were studying aspects of eco-theology. Below is the transcript of my presentation of the piece at the time:
The title of this piece is a quote from the NRSV version of Revelation 21:5, ‘See, I am making all things new’. Along with a similar verse in Isaiah (43:19 ‘See I am doing a new thing!’), these words became for me something that captured the heart of the resurrection and God’s vision for creation – to do with renewal, recreation and beauty. In the larger context of my work generally, I’m thinking about landscape (and particularly, the photographed landscape) as something which is more than just a recordable feature of evolution’s development, something which, in the artistic tradition of the sublime, can point to an eternal and transcendent realm.
The bit that excites me in these Bible verses is the sense that God is saying ‘This is here, right now in front of your eyes, and I’m doing it!’ Yes, there is always the sense of waiting for a kind-of uncovering or revelation of what’s really going on (like Paul’s creation ‘groaning’), but I’ve found in my looking and playing with these photographs of nature that there’s also an overwhelming sense of creation’s wonderfulness now – to me, it’s creation ‘fizzing’.
To try and communicate something of this multi-faceted beauty, I decided to construct an abstracted pattern of new creation from what amounts to about 30 photographs of different types of landscape. On the micro-scale, these make up what could be an ornate piece of jewellery – each scene has its own shape and cut, its own absorption and reflection of light, its own brilliance of colour. This world is uniquely precious and uniquely designed, way beyond our capacity for creation and imagination, and the harmony of the whole is a parade of supernatural beauty and value.
But I also wanted meaningfulness in the content, as well as the form, so there is an attempt to represent an unfolded origami-like map of the world on a macro-scale. Look closer and you’ll see that there are deserts, plains, forests, seas and mountains surrounding a cityscape, which in turn surrounds the bejewelled cross. When I read Tom Wright’s Surprised by Hope last year, his emphasis on our understanding of resurrection hope when we consider the cross really struck me, and ever since producing a series of 12 stations of the cross for display in Bristol Cathedral in 2006, I’ve wanted to do a 13th ‘resurrection’ one – without really knowing how on earth to go about it.
And it’s precisely that phrase ‘how on earth’ I go about it, which sums up what I’ve ended up focussing on in this piece. John’s vision in Revelation tells us that all will be renewed – the earth and human lives are God’s canvas for creation; nature and culture in all their diversity are headed towards resurrection perfection, not just replacement. God does not make junk, and neither does he junk what he has made, which includes what we’re part of now. It’s so urgent that we don’t lose sight of this: the goodness, the wonder, the joy, the sheer fizz and sheer exuberance of God in the world and its future.
As the opening lines of a famous Gerard Manley-Hopkins poem say: The world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.
The Severn Estuary has the second highest tidal range in the world. Last Wednesday and Thursday were the perigean tides for the autumn – meaning that point in the year (another in the spring) when the greatest difference can be observed due to the moon’s closeness to the earth. In this case, nearly 14 metres difference between low and high tides. At the Severn Estuary, where I’ve spent a lot of time watching the water, I love the dramatic effect of these extremes, and this week I went at night to try some shooting in the dark.
Baleen Bridge and Pencil Bridge express the differences I also feel between the Second Severn Crossing and the old Severn Bridge. The first is a construct of concrete lumping through the waves to Wales, something about it is imposing and solid, a transverse trunk of manland. It seems to filter the elemental water and air through a baleen wall of stone. It’s humanity solidified in vehicle, crane and train hidden on the underside of the road surface. Pencil Bridge is, by contrast, a thin line of luminescence, white-winged over the world, with the arch of a transport that is more spiritual than earthy. You feel this when you drive over it, it’s incredibly uplifting. This is humanity etherealised in space, light and curve.
As for a high tide, these are for my Mum, that butterfly view under the canopy at a morning and evening swell…
The most pressing issue in the photography of place is a site’s history, how it has been affected by time, by climate and by mankind. Landscape photography has become political, not necessarily in terms of environmental causes – although many photographers are directly concerned with such issues – but in terms of the meanings it asks us to consider. Since the 1970s, the best photography of place does not simply expect the viewer to inhabit the depicted space. It asks that the viewer think more deeply about how a place came into being, how environmental and social pressures may change it, and the way people use it. Landscape photography still takes us ‘there’, but the contemporary photographer also recognizes that a place, and its depiction, is a complicated matter – every site is acted upon by both nature and mankind. In photographing place, we are never just photographing nature. We are photographing culture.
Gerry Badger, in The Genius of Photography, p.154.
The heritage industry tends to rely on a kind of freeze-framing of time in order to present the tourist and visitor with a reordered, partial, tidied-up account of what happened at any particular site. Edgelands ruins contain a collage of time, built up in layers of mould and pigeon shit, in the way a groundsel rises through a crack in a concrete floor open to the elements. They turn space inside out, in the way nature makes itself at home indoors, or in the way fly-tipping gathers at their former loading bays, behind obselete walls. Encountering the decay and abandonment of these places is to be made more aware than ever that we are only passing through; that there is something much bigger than us.
England’s edgelands are the next big thing in photography. After all, photographing gritty urban locations is now likely to lead to arrest on suspicion of planning a terrorist attack, and if you photograph rural Britain you are on very well-trodden ground. This is not to say that edgelands are untouched by the lens. Far from it. Great photographers like William Eggleston and Bernd and Hilla Becher have built their careers on these overlooked landscapes. But their edgelands were in the southern states of America, or in Germany. Eggleston’s notion of the ‘democratic’ function of photography, to step aside from received ideas of what is beautiful or romantic, has influenced a generation of art-school trained photographers. But it has sent most of them into the city. … In the early Seventies, [the Bechers’] attention turned to cooling towers, and they printed the images like sheets from an inventory, nine or ten towers to a page. The effect of this repeated pattern was very powerful. A single cooling tower may look beautiful, but nine cooling towers on one sheet looks like a series of ancient monoliths, or temples, or plinths for statues of long-forgotten gods.
Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, p.157, 194.