Surveying The Terrain

One of the benefits of undertaking a PhD is the increased amount of time I spend looking at new photography and contextual sources. Having realised that I had arranged a supervision meeting for a Thursday at the end of June, I was able to attend the private views for the first photography week at Free Range for the first time since finishing my MA.

It will come, as no surprise that an awful lot of the work on display at degree shows is either very self indulgent, or carbon copies of whatever is the current photographic zeitgeist. I don’t want to spend too long exploring the reasons for this, but it firmly has something to do with the lack of funding in higher education leading to increased intake numbers, and digital technology meaning any university or college can now offer photography courses without needing the money or skill set to deal with traditional analogue methods.

I always feel it is unfair to judge third year work, as increasingly students spend 2 years playing with their craft, trying to fill in the weak points from A-level and foundation courses, and then spending a final year trying to hone their voice into a cohesive body of work. In many ways it would be fairer to run a 4 year program, either with a foundation year at the beginning to introduce the subject, or a final year leading straight to an MA. Three years is not enough time to understand your subject and find your voice. I can testify to this having dicked around for two and half years and then rolled straight into a two year MA program after my graduation as I felt that my BA project was the start of something, not the end. I am only just starting to reconcile my intentions from that point, and it is 9 years since I left Falmouth.

Looking through the online graduate showcases on Source or the walls of the Truman Gallery, normally confirms the fact that the best work consistently comes out of the universities with the strongest reputations, Brighton, Bournemouth, Newport, UAL. However in the last few years I have been gobsmacked at the work coming out of University College Suffolk based at Ipswich (reason enough to doubt it). Their output consistently outweighs their current reputation. Having taught A Level students for a number of years and had a large input into their UCAS applications they normally act very surprised when I recommend this small college. However its modest size allows it to keep its group sizes at the point they should be (30-35) unlike one university who proudly told me that had 600 enrolled in their photography degrees, sharing 5 studios and a colour darkroom for 12 people. The small size also means that they are able to curate a group that shares similar photographic interests, creating a cross pollination amongst students.

The work that normally speaks to me is the work I would describe as quiet poetic landscape, the large format shots informed by the New Topographic show, and the work of the American colour photographers of the 70s, or pyschogeography inspired bodies of work.

This years Free Range was very short of this kind of work, and I get the feeling it is slowly moving out of fashion again after years of carbon copy Alec Soth wannabes. It was still on display in the UCS show, and when done well still carries a huge amount of power.

The rest of my choices are either because I have an interest in the subject matter, (the Beeching Act, infrastructure, post industrial landscapes), or because they are areas I know, and in a couple of cases have photographed.

Three UCS students stood out for me, not to say their work was better than the rest, it just had more resonance to me.


Alastair Bartlett – Here We Are (2014)

Here We Are is set in the Cambridgeshire fenland. This is a place that, for most, is not a destination in itself. Rather, it is a place that is on the way. I like to drive around the unfamiliar and take photographs. Sometimes, certain places call to me. Other times, I have to look harder. Cambridgeshire is familiar enough so that I am comfortable in its presence, yet it is still foreign. I like the solitude. I just like to drive and take pictures.

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Tom Owens – Edgelands (2014)

Owens has been fascinated by light, colour and his surroundings since childhood. The official labelling of designated areas of beauty has made him question what is beautiful in the countryside. Seeing the same places over and over again at either end of the day tugs chords within him and scenes bathed in morning or evening light take on a transformation from the dull and uncared for environment. Mankind has shaped the countryside for millennia yet nature will subsume our efforts to abuse it. These edgelands are a constant reminder of the tension between rural and urban environments where nature will eventually outwit us all.

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Henry Huxtable – The Pits (2014)

An aspect of my photographic inquiry is the topographical documentation of the landscape. Much of my work focuses on how the landscape is transformed. The visual markers of this process, often overlooked or ignored, form the basis of my work. In particular, gravel pits fascinate me, and the tension between the visually compelling and the extraction process. This resource material is often used for development projects that also further eradicate and alter the landscape. When this process is finished the pits are left to flood or lie dormant. The place, slowly and over time, is reclaimed by nature eventually absorbing but never removing the remnants of our human presence.

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The only other body of work that interested me, that I saw at Free range this year was from the University of Roehampton.


Mari Boman – Dry The River (2014)

Dry the River is a documentary landscape project exploring the complexity of a contested space, the Turia Gardens – referring to notions on space, representation, the truth and the everyday. The project tracks the development of a dry riverbed in Valencia, which has been turned into a park and recreation grounds. It follows the ongoing journey of local people from past to present and looks towards an uncertain future. Using own photographs mixed with found items, texts, archival materials and postcards, a complex collection of voices emerges in the book.

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Unfortunately I didn’t get down to the second week of shows which included many of the bigger names, so these are taken from the online galleries.


Ben Darby, University of Hereford – Withdrawn (2014)

Withdrawn explores the violent nature of the relationship between man and his environment. Quarrying is an inherently destructive activity, scarring the landscape, leaving it completely unrecognisable from its original form. This series acts as an emotional response to the violent nature of man on an environment that has no choice but to alter. They set out to capture the juxtaposition of a violently altered landscape which has since become a place of tranquillity and calm. All the images were captured in a single quarry in North Wales.

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Suzanna Davidson, University of South Wales, Newport- Genius Loci (2014)

‘The ruinous landscape can demonstrate something of the other, a different moment in time, lacunae, here and there strewn with ruins, can in a fragmentary way stir up something of the past, as a support to the memory of a city.’ Jan De Graaf. Wastelands are often looked at as inane eyesores. I have always been intrigued and enchanted by the museum like qualities they hold, every barren landscape has a history to tell. In wastelands across Britain, this work tells a story of these spaces before they were left to ruin. The most profound photograph for the previous function of each desolate place is found, and projected back into the landscape, creating a juxtaposition of the past and present.

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Lottie Pugh, University of Brighton – Nieuw Land (2014)

My practice is primarily concerned with the relationship between photography, travel, landscape and architecture. When exploring the landscape, I particularly focus on the presence of infrastructure and man’s alteration of the environment. This project, Nieuw Land, is an exploration into the heavily constructed reclaimed land of the Netherlands. The photographs draw attention to the relationship and interaction between land and water, and how this is highlighted in the uses and functions of this manufactured space.

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Paul Gareth Sands, University of Plymouth – Of The Land (2014)

‘Of the Land’ offers an appreciation for Industry and Land within areas I am familiar with. It is to serve as a passive gaze. Looking at Industry and not questioning the impact it has, but showing the way Industry sits within and is part of the land. This has developed from wanting to question how land is used while also showing gratitude to the exhibition ‘New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape.’ Working with a large format camera and black and white film, I have begun a journey that I wish to continue long into my practice: looking, documenting and questioning the use of land.

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Dan Bellenger, Hereford College of Arts – Spaghetti Junction (2014)

Birmingham’s Spaghetti Junction is best known to be one of the busiest junctions in Europe. By looking into this area, it creates a different atmosphere when all is quiet and empty. Using the light provided by street lights and flood lights which is reflected between the layers of the junction it creates an aesthetic that isn’t normally seen in this type of area.

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Emily Normansell, Sheffield Hallam University – End Of The Line (2014)

This project explores the idea of non places. These are places we travel through frequently, however we never stop to engage with them. I have explored this through documenting derelict railway lines that were once a non place, and to some extent still are. I am giving the viewer a chance to experience these places without the strict time constraints, they usually observe these places within. The body of work also features the idea of our landscape being a canvas for time, through the way in which it documents how man’s neglect effects the landscape.

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William Pitt, UCA Farnham – Quickmix (2014)

All concrete supplied by C+H Quickmix, my grandfathers business. In 1965 C+H Quickmix was formed after the joining together of R.G Carters Limited and W J Hall Extractors Limited. ‘Quickmix’ was produced with geographical restrictions with all of the structures based in my home town Great Yarmouth and closely surrounding areas, and for all of the concrete to be supplied by C+H Quickmix. The project questions the idea of the banal, exploring the subtle characteristics of concrete and its form but at the same time acts as a personal document and family history.

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This is no means a definitive list of all the work, but it is the pieces that jumped out at me. Some of the artist’s statements highlight how early these students are in their own practise and many of them do emulate their contextual sources. This is to be expected at this stage in their careers, and just to stand out in the sea of images is good enough at this stage.

What is shocking is how few degree courses make it to Free Range, unfortunately regardless of what you think, London is still the creative epicentre of this country and unless students have the opportunity to show their work, it makes it very hard to break out of the provinces. Also students need to understand the importance of being represented on Source and Free Range, not uploading images is just lazy, the same as having a poorly designed website (tumblr is for cat images, food porn and digital pinboards, not for serious work you have slaved over for the best part of a year) or worst still, no website (apart from the blog, I still haven’t got round to building one).

Remember when you are at your private view, it isn’t an excuse top simply get pissed, I remember my mum telling me to go take the time to speak to people looking at my work, and several of them turned out to be very useful people to know. Your degree show is the culmination of 3 years of work, partying and sleeping, it is now time to take your career seriously (or start an MA), the myth of the student that is plucked from no where and thrust onto the art world is very rare. If you are going to make it as an artist it will take hard work and a lot of heart ache. Don’t follow trends, do what makes you happy and you will find an audience.

 

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