EYV 1 The Square Mile

Final selection (after tutor feedback)

First thoughts

I rarely lived in one place for more than a year as a child and have no sense of a home town, but what Professor Pearson describes in the Square Mile brief resonates strongly with me. I have intense memories of the many places I’ve lived in, which can include a visual snapshot (often of a detail rather than a whole scene), an odour, the sense of a texture, a feeling of anticipation or another heightened emotion – or any combination of these elements. These memories capture a single moment in time as well as the essence of that place and what my relationship to the outside world was like at that moment.

I also relate to the Square Mile concept. Wherever I have lived I’ve always had a clearly defined sense of my personal territory, and this has indeed comprised an area of roughly a square mile. I never consciously determine the shape of this territory, and they are soft boundaries rather than hard borders, but as I approach the edge of the area from outside I experience an emotional uplift, a feeling of being on home turf. Wherever I’ve lived, whether it’s in the middle of central London or in a small cluster of houses in open scrubland, I’ve always referred to this territory as “my patch”, and approaching it always feels like coming home.

These intimate connections with the locations of my past are not just dormant but pop up unexpectedly when I’m in a place that evokes some aspect of them, bringing with them a sense of familiarity that feels like déjà vu, and it is these kind of triggers I will aim to capture in my photos for this project. I find this a very interesting way to approach the documenting of the Square Mile I’ve been living in for the past year (Kemptown in Brighton). I feel I’ll be attempting to describe the way I relate to it emotionally instead of its visual aspects as I’ve tended to do on previous occasions. Looking forward to getting started!

Research

I enjoyed exploring the resource links provided with the assignment, and liked the fact that that some of them were secondary sources offering independent critiques of the work while others were primary, leaving me momentarily looking for an explanation and/or interpretation of the work before realising that it was up to me to analyse it myself.

Keith Arnatt
I was particularly drawn to Keith Arnatt’s work, especially his series Walking the Dog (1976–9), and from both this series and his Pictures from a Rubbish Tip (1988–9) I gained some useful insights into ways of bringing a number of images together to form a coherent series (in addition of course to the theme that links them). As Michal Goldschmit wrote in relation to Pictures from a Rubbish Tip, “Although the types of rubbish shown and their exact position within the compositions varies slightly, each is presented at an apparently fixed distance from the camera and this, as well as the similar lighting effects used across the five works, creates a sense of cohesion in the series.”

Walking the Dog (1976-9) Keith Arnatt 1930-2008 Presented by Tate Patrons 2010 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/keith-arnatt-666
Pictures from a Rubbish Tip (1988-9) Keith Arnatt 1930-2008 Presented by the artist’s estate 2009 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/keith-arnatt-666

Tina Barney, Venetia Dearden and Karen Knorr
I was interested to see the very different ways that Tina Barney, Venetia Dearden and Karen Knorr worked within their home and family environment to create something that is superficially very much like many family photo albums but at the same time shows us something universal about the nature of people and family life.

Alec Soth
A photo published in The Guardian newspaper on 26 December 2017 in an article entitled “My best winter photograph” popped back into my mind’s eye when I read the brief for the Square Mile assignment. I’m not really sure why, because it looks nothing like anywhere I’ve ever lived. Perhaps it taps into an archetypal sense of home, cosiness and belonging. I would love to be able to recreate this kind of feeling in my photos for this assignment.


South Dakota Church (2008) Alec Soth

I was driving through South Dakota in 2008, on my way home to Minnesota. I saw this tiny church, some farm equipment and a van with a For Sale sign. The light in the church matched the moon. It was a fleeting, magical moment: this vast, windswept open prairie has a sombre beauty. Like much of middle America where I live, there’s a toughness to it. I can’t imagine it’s a functioning church. There were no sounds coming from within. I think it’s a roadside art statement. I have crisscrossed America and you see religion everywhere. People make these enormous crosses, or homemade billboards with biblical passages. They may not be art, but these are humble, creative gestures.
– Alec Soth

The edit

The pictures I shot were of locations that evoke memories of my various childhood Square Miles. Alleyways and footpaths known only to insiders that take you from A to B as the crow flies. Mysterious high walls looking as old as time itself that make you wonder what’s behind them. Nooks and crannies that can be used as dens and to store treasures.

I began the process of shortlisting the images by editing intuitively. In the first place I actively selected the ones I particularly liked and/or felt had captured more of what I set out to capture. Then I put those into a shortlist folder and looked at them all together, culling those that didn’t seem to fit so well in this grouping.

Each time I removed an image the overall shape and feel of the collection changed slightly, so it was a process of continually reassessing the cohesion and feel of the edit until suddenly I removed one and it felt right. I had not determined in advance how many images I would submit, but there were nine in this final edit, and that felt just right too. It was only then that I noticed that the edit contained three images in each of three categories – pathways, dens and walls. This too felt right and confirmed my choices, so my Square Mile submission was ready to go!

(My contact sheets can be seen here.)

My selection

Reflection before tutor feedback

I approached the assignment as an attempt to make images that capture something of the feeling that accompanies childhood memories – a kind of nostalgic longing. When I looked at the images from my first shoot, I noticed that the places I’d chosen fell almost entirely into one of two categories – pathways or dens. I considered whether these might be features of an archetypal landscape – the pathway representing opportunity, perhaps, and the den a stand-in for the comfort and security of home – which would go some way to explaining the endurance of their emotional power.

On my second shoot I consciously looked for other kinds of locations that also felt like places from childhood, and did find a few, but discarded most of these images during the edit because the series felt more coherent without them. Eventually I ended up with three types of image in my final edit – pathways, dens and walls. I briefly considered calling the series Run! Stop! Hide! but decided on reflection not to give the series or any of the individual images a title.

I was influenced in the way I shot the photos by the work of modernist photographers like Alexander Rodchenko, Albert Renger-Patzsch, Iwao Yamawaki and André Kertész, especially their compositional emphasis on shapes, textures and lines, which appeals to me personally and also seemed appropriate for this project in order to give a degree of abstraction to the images and thus help to convey the sense that they are intended as representations of an idea and not depictions of an object. For the same reason I decided to use b&w images (though I shot in colour), and this also helped to give the series more cohesion as the original images were shot on one cloudy day and one sunny one.

Overall I feel that for me the final images and the series as a whole do express something of what I set out to capture. I don’t think they will convey the same message to other viewers as they do to me, but that’s probably the nature of any form of subjective self-expression. My main criticism of the series is the lack of originality in the style of the images, but I’m not going to beat myself up about that because developing a style of my own is one of the things I hope to achieve by doing this course.

Reflection after tutor feedback

Following the feedback from my tutor, I decided to change my edit to focus on the theme of pathways. Although I don’t like the overall look and feel of the series as much, I do see that by focusing on a single theme instead of my original three (paths, dens, wall), the final set gives a stronger sense of what I’m trying to convey – the feelings I associate with the landscapes of my childhood. These tunnel-like pathways represent a freedom to roam wherever the road goes, long summer days stretching endlessly ahead, the excitement of exploring an unfamiliar destination, and perhaps even that first journey down the birth canal.

References and resources

Arnatt, K. (1976–9) ‘Walking the Dog’. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/keith-arnatt-666 [accessed 13/01/18]
Arnatt, K. (1988–9) ‘Pictures from a Rubbish Tip’. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/keith-arnatt-666
The Art Institute of Chicago (2006) ‘So the Story Goes’. Available at: http://www.artic.edu/aic/exhibitions/story/barney.html [accessed 13/01/18]
Dearden, V. (2018) ‘Home’. Available at: https://www.venetiadearden.com [accessed 13/01/18]
Knorr, K. (2018) ‘Belgravia’. Available at: http://karenknorr.com/photography/belgravia [accessed 13/01/18]
Siddons, E., Fleming, A., Richards, S. and Sawa, D. (2017) ‘My best winter photograph’. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/dec/26/my-best-winter-photograph [accessed 13/01/18]