Background, influences, research and development of ideas
Normally when working on a photographic assignment I start with a mind map to sort my thoughts and identify exactly what form the project is going to take. In this case though, I had already been thinking about his sort of project before I started this course. As a result as soon as I read the brief I already knew roughly what I wanted to do and so have not gone down the mind mapping route, or any of the other methods I use for generating ideas.
Nor have I really needed to do much research to arrive at the final proposal. The following research and influences have though helped to refine my thoughts. The research that I have done has otherwise been useful in confirming that I am happy with the ideas I had otherwise developed independently.
From the very outset I knew that I wanted to do a series of images of the locality where I live, literally within my square mile. Having lived here for more that ten years my outlook and the way I see and react to my surroundings has changed significantly having recently acquired a dog. I am now walking certain routes daily, instead of weekly or less frequently, and as a result have started to see the area in a different light. I see, for example, how places change day by day with the seasons. The way I interact with fellow villagers also out walking, with or without their own dogs, or riding horses, has also changed, particularly the dog walkers, some of whom I now see on an almost daily basis.
I have for some time been inspired by the work done by Document Scotland (www.documentscotland.com), for whom the whole country and ideas of Scottishness are their “mile cearnach” (square mile in Gaelic). In particular I have been affected by the work of Sophie Gerrard with Scottish women farmers in her series “Drawn to the Land” (www.documentscotland.com/portfolio/drawn-to-the-land/).
Of the suggested sources in the brief I was also struck by the work of Karen Knorr and, even more so, Venetia Dearden whose work seems to me to have more parallels with what Gerrard is doing. Both seem to work from the point of view that a locality is not just a physical environment and that the character of a place is significantly affected by and to an extent dependent upon the people who inhabit it. In some ways the people become more important in defining the place than its physical reality. My own experience has been that the physical nature of my square mile has not changed significantly over the last decade but the way that I perceive and experience has changed to some extent as a result of my new encounters with other locals.
My initial thought was to concentrate on those other dog walkers and take portraits of them wherever I normally encounter them. As they are people from different walks of life, and different ages, with a variety of different dogs (though not unsurprisingly as this is at least a semi-rural area, there is a preponderance of working dogs such as Labradors and Spaniels) the resulting images should be quite varied. I have though decided for now not to go down this particular route for the purposes of this assignment. The primary reason for this is purely practical. Because the meetings with these people are mostly random (a few can be relied upon to be in the same place at roughly the same time each day but by no means all) I anticipate that it would take a not insignificant amount of time to make enough encounters to produce a sufficient number of images. Issues such as consents and releases, which should at the very least be considered, are also likely to slow down the process. There is of course no guarantee that people will agree to be photographed in any event! Realistically it is not going to be possible to walk my dog and take pictures at the same time (imagine trying to use a camera while at the same time controlling an excitable very active ten month old Border Terrier who just wants to play with the other dogs!) so that I would have to set aside extra time for this activity alone. Practically speaking that is going to be difficult to manage adequately. I feel rather that this is a project that would be better suited to being set up, arranged and executed over a longer period of time if it is to be at all worthwhile.
Location and activity
The other idea that I had already been toying with that seems to me to be more workable in the short term focuses on two other particular elements of my Square Mile. One is location and the other is activity.
As I have said above, walking through parts of the area on a regular basis has made me more aware of how they change, or take on a different appearance, from day to day. There are obvious changes across the seasons (this area is heavily wooded so there are stark differences in the appearance of the trees in summer compared with the winter) but the same places can also take on different qualities from day to day just depending on the weather and the quality of light at any given time. What I have in mind therefore is a series of images of particular places and locations with the area. For the purposes of the present assignment they will have to be just one set of views taken at one particular time. For the future though I think it would be an interesting project to revisit the same locations over a prolonged period to note and record the seasonal and other changes.
One artist whom I particularly admire and whose work I have had in mind in connection with this idea, the changing of specific locations over time, is that of Tom Phillips, particularly his “20 Sites n Years” project.
Phillips, T (1992) Works and Texts. London: Royal Academy of Arts
20 Sites n Years: A film by Jake Auerbach, 2016
In this Phillips revisited and photographed twenty locations in his neighbourhood, each at a set time, on the same day, over a period of twenty years, producing a fascinating record of how that part of south London has changed over the years.
Of the sources mentioned in the brief, Jodi Taylor’s work also strikes me as relevant in this regard. She is concerned not just with location but the memories associated with those places. As it does not seem to me that she has taken repeated images over time of the same places it nevertheless strikes me as implicit that she is, for herself at least recording the fact that these places have changed. Only she can see the changes but she is nevertheless telling us that they have. At the moment I do not have well developed sense of memory associated with my places but over time I can see that they are going to become imbued with similar sort of associations.
The other idea relates to activity. The work of Keith Arnatt struck a chord here in so far as he appears to be dealing much with recording events and activities that take place in a particular location, rather than necessarily concentrating on the location itself. For example, Self-Burial (Television Interference Project) 1969 could arguable have taken place anywhere. The specific location (I do not know where it was performed) does not appear in itself to be important. What is important is the activity of self-interment. “Portrait of the artist as a shadow of his former self” (I love the witty James Joyce reference) again seems to be more about the activity, and concepts relevant to photography than the location, though at least this image was made in a specific, known location with some significance for Arnatt.
As an aside, I was struck by how much this image resembled photographs of the shadows left on pavements and walls of people vaporised by the atomic bomb at Hiroshima, some of which I have seen during an emotionally draining visit to the city. I do not know if this is something that Arnatt had in mind at the time of making this work but I find the parallel inescapable and for me at least it adds an extra layer of burden and significance on any work that relates to place and events that take, or have taken, place there.
An artist I already had in mind when thinking originally about such a project as this who has worked with similar concerns is Richard Long. The one image in particular that I immediately turned to is “A line made by walking”.
The photograph of the particular place records, without documenting or portraying it directly, the activity of walking. It is the activity of walking that is significant rather than the place where he walked itself.
Another artist exploring similar ideas more recently is Zoe Childerley who produced a book, “The Debatable Lands”, during her residency in 2016 with Visual Artists in Rural Communities (VARC) at High Green in the wilds of north Northumberland. This documents her walk along the Scottish border through photographs of people, places, and events encountered along the way, portraying both place and activity.
Childerley, Z (2016) The Debatable Lands.High Green: VARC
Having had the pleasure of meeting Zoe, and assisting her with a workshop for a local school, I was much struck and influenced by her work. It was about the time that I met her and became aware of this particular work during the summer of 2016 that I started to think seriously about starting a project like this of my own to act as a focus for my own development and progress as a photographer
Another similar influence/inspiration has been the book “Koya Bound: Eight days on the Kumano Kodo”, self published in 2016 by Craig Mod and Dan Rubin. (www.walkkumano.com) This book records a journey along the old pilgrimage road, Kumano Kodo, to the city and holy mountain of Koya San in Japan. The images show various locations, people and things encountered on that route. Whilst being the sort of approach that I have in mind for this current assignment this work also has further resonance for me as I have also visited Koya San, though I approached by way of a different trail, the Nakasendo.
The final idea as it presently stands is therefore to shoot a series of images that will record one of the routes I regularly take when walking the dog. (For practical purposes I will have to do the walk without the dog; I will not be able to handle him and camera gear at the same time as already mentioned above!) I will record the activity of the walk by photographing certain points along the route, combining the two elements discussed above.
The particular route is marked on the map that shows the part of the Tyne valley where I live. It is a circular route, from door to door, that is coincidentally, and appropriately for the title of this assignment, roughly one mile long. I did not choose this route because of any symbolism contained within the distance but simply because it is the one that I walk more than any other and has a greater variety of topography.
Exactly where along the route I will take the individual pictures is something to which I have given further thought. Initially I thought of taking a shot at regular intervals, say, every 100 metres. This particular thought came from one of the cards in a “Photographers’ Inspiration Pack” which accompanied the magazine Digital Camera, issue 172, of January 29016, and which suggests “Walk 1km north of your home and take a picture every 100m”. One drawback with this approach that I foresee is that it might result in too many pictures being taken along certain parts of the route that will become repetitive. I therefore propose instead, at least as an initial approach, to take pictures at each point along the route where it changes direction or there is some other element of its nature that changes or is visually striking. Depending on the results I can then perhaps revisit the idea of using set, regular intervals.
Individually I doubt that all of the images will necessarily have the greatest visual impact but collectively I hope that they will flow as a set.
Although there are things to be seen off the route itself I propose though to concentrate just on what can be seen straight ahead as you walk the circuit, if only to avoid distraction and give a greater sense of movement through space. Again, depending on the results, I can reconsider later whether to include any more peripheral views. For now though my inclination is definitely not to do so.
Equipment and technical issues
I will use my primary camera, a Canon EOS70D. As I want a ‘natural’ look I am proposing to stick to a focal length of 50mm. Unfortunately I do not have a suitable prime lens available at the moment so will have to set my main 18-135mm zoom to 50mm for each shot. Again for consistency I will use Aperture priority – at the moment I anticipate using f16 to give a reasonable depth of field. (From experience I know that this particular lens does not always handle bigger f stops in low light conditions as well as I would like.) ISO will be 100 for maximum clarity and lack of noise. This does though mean that quite long exposes will be required so I will be using a tripod.
At this time of the year, January, I will have to shoot on a fairly overcast day as on a bright day, because of the low sun, a number of the places where I will need to take pictures would involve shooting into the sun. A bit of overcast will in any event, I hope, help to emphasise the slightly washed out colours of the landscape at this time of the year, which is something that I want to try to capture. Paradoxically, during summer some parts of the route are much less striking as the view is overwhelmed by the green of the leaves, which in places are also so dense as to make parts of the route surprisingly dark