In the past few weeks I have been enjoying processing and posting images from my recent trip to Scotland. Almost without exception they are photographs of dramatic and stunningly beautiful scenery. Images which immediately attract attention and have the potential to be ‘liked’ on Instagram and other social media platforms. Whilst they might be very pleasing to the eye it could be argued they lack any real engagement on the part of the viewer. In other words this style of image doesn’t raise questions. There is no story or mystery, everything is there for all to see. It’s great to look at but there it stops. It could be almost be described as one dimensional.
Why is any of this relevant? Let me explain.
An exhibition has just opened at Pallant House Gallery in my home town of Chichester. Called ‘Inscapes’ the photographs are by the highly regarded photographer Simon Roberts. The panel is made up of 10 large landscapes taken in the fields, woodlands and hinterland of West Sussex. An area which just happens to be my home patch.
The images are intended to ask us to consider our relationship with the landscape. In the introductory text it asks – ‘How do we feel when we view these images? How does our natural environment affect us emotionally? Do we belong here? He (Simon Roberts) encourages a process of slow looking and landscape on our doorstep’.
This struck a chord with me. These photographs were not typical of images of The South Downs, they did not depict a dramatic landscape or an obviously beautiful scene. As a consequence each image made you stop and look – to observe, to think, to contemplate and yes, to ask questions. It would though be easy to casually glance across the gallery space and walk on by. In my view it would be a great shame if you did so. A long considered look at each photograph reveals more information and but does not provide all the answers. This mysterious element encourages you to stop, look and consider for yourself your own thoughts and feelings. In this respect a panel of images is stronger than a single picture.
Below is an image I took some time ago and before you read on, you might like to ask yourself some questions.
You might just ask why did I bother. Fine, I understand that. The scene is far from being beautiful – the telegraph pole and wires appear to be the main focal point in the very centre of the frame; surely I could have found a scene without this ugly and intrusive element. However they are a common sight in the countryside, so to exclude them is not showing the landscape as it really is. The landscape – warts and all. A documentary image not a pretty one.
You will have noticed the footpath which disappears into the trees. Where does the path lead? Does it in fact enter the wood and where does it go from there? How far have I walked to reach this point? Have I emerged from the wood and turned round or am I moving forward, stopping only to take the photograph?
There are stones in the foreground, possibly chalk or flint. What does this say about the geology of the location? The grasses on the edge of the field suggests this is farmland and crops are grown in the field. If so what was last harvested here and when?
The picture clearly shows human intervention – the telegraph pole and the clearly defined pathway. This scene can’t be too far from civilisation but what lies outside the frame? Are there houses nearby or some farm buildings, or just more of the same? And what of the wider landscape – where are we? Are we in this country or abroad somewhere?
And I could go on………
You might say none of these questions matter. That they are trivial and don’t require answers. If that’s the case then this is a rather boring image. It certainly doesn’t shout ‘come and look at me’ because the subject matter is staggeringly beautiful in its own right. It does ask questions though and therefore has the potential to engage the viewer. If a photograph has this affect then a story can be told. A photograph or series of images can take on a narrative and as a consequence are potentially more interesting and powerful. My photograph may not be the best example but I chose it to illustrate this point and this point alone. Nothing more, nothing less.
Perhaps at the heart of this image lies the question – ‘What is the photographer wanting to communicate through this image to the viewer?’.
All of this hopefully explains why I found Simon Roberts’ photographs so compelling. The locations were provided but not instantly recognisable and I did start to think a little more deeply about what it was the installation of photographs was trying to say to me. The very fact I am writing this post would suggest I found the images both interesting to look at and engaging.
Even if you can’t visit Pallant House Gallery in person do take a look at the images of Simon Roberts by visiting his website. I have also included a link below to a very interesting video about him and his approach to his photographic projects.
Next month I will be attending a one day Landscape Photography Masterclass with Simon Roberts. Walking in the South Downs, taking pictures and then discussing what we have taken and asking the question why? I think it will be an enlightening day.