Friday, August 24, 2012

Songs of Travel: an explanation

I race through your head in my dizzy dissolve. 
Edwin Morgan.

Photography has a strange effect on our perceptions. I came to landscape photography through a love of walking in the countryside, I loved the feeling of passing through a place - the feeling of timelessness that walking inspires. Yes I stopped and looked at the views as we all do, but hiking is different, the views are delightful, but they are only part of the context of a journey, especially in the poor light of memory.  And yet, in my photography, even though I wanted to share the sights I found, they became a series of detached elements, lacking the interconnection of traveling, lacking if you will the context of the journey. At best they feel like vignettes. 

In the landscape we are occupying the space between two worlds, our own inner landscape and the outer landscape that surrounds us. And it is this space between that I want to examine in my images. Susan Sontag wrote that a photograph "is not only an image ... an interpretation of the real, it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real, like a footprint or a death mask". Suggesting to my mind (amongst many things) is that there is something beyond, there are possibilities beyond the simply literal.

It's one of the strange paradoxes of landscape photography that although we see a picture of the landscape it's not landscape as we experience it. As John Berger wrote "The violence is expressed in that strangeness. It records an instant sight about which this stranger has shouted: Look!" In landscape the camera can become "an estranged god".

We don't sit still seeing compositions all around, unless you're an experienced landscape photographer anyway! We are alive to the senses of movement, the wind, the cold, the damp and our eyes rarely sit still, our attention is flung from one thing to the next almost imperceptibly. Add to that the mists of memory of the journey, the pulling sensation of traveling forward, the almost meditative sense of detachment - and you will begin to understand what I wanted to explore. As TS Eliot said "Footfalls echo in the memory". It is the echoes that excite me.

For some time now I'd been puzzling in my mind over how to represent a journey in a photographic terms, not just through snapshots of particular beauty spots or even the path itself, but the spirit of the journey, the feeling of moving, of time passing as we travel through a landscape. If you have seen my previous blog you will have seen some of my early attempts.  In one of those strangely fortuitous coincidences that can at times light the creative spark, I had also been considering a return to film from digital work and was, at that time, thinking about what is special about film.

Of course I knew that film could capture time and movement through a double exposure. But it had been twenty years or more since I'd made use of film and being somewhat unsure of exactly how I would realize the idea, I decided the cheapest route would be to experiment digitally before returning to capture the desired effect on negative, if and when I found something workable. So with notebook and camera in hand I headed to the Wenallt, beech woods near my home, with the idea of conducting a 'scientific' experiment. Noting the distance traveled between each exposure and the number of exposures in each frame. I wanted to explore the possibilities, to gain an understanding through practice of what is possible visually and what fails.

My intentions started well. I wandered the woods for half an hour trying to find a suitable subject and as I was just starting to think this was an unpromising forest, I meandered off the path and spied, far off in the distance, a singularly bent tree seemingly framed by its more ordinary, straight cousins. I started slowly, just moving a few inches, taking a frame and gradually widening the distance until I was taking one frame for each of the longest strides I could manage. It was after repeating this perhaps a dozen strides that I realized the notebook was somewhat redundant, but more, that I had happened upon an idea.

Those photographs came together to form 61 Light, 61 strides through the trees and the subsequent series of shorter parts of that journey. In isolation they are not perhaps unique or special, but together I hope they form an insight into the journey, a slow reveal, adding depth with each addition. I began to grasp that it was the subtle differences between the images, which intrigued me, rather than the single images in isolation. It was like a compound eye view of time and travel and memory. Each image made up of many images and yet of almost the same view, bar ten paces or so, the journey providing the transition of time and place, and the metaphor of memory. 


That transition is most easily appreciated when viewed as a slideshow, please do have a look. 
The huge irony here of course is that having conceived of the idea as a way of returning to film, I have happened upon an idea that I strongly suspect can only be achieved digitally because of the sheer numbers of images involved. Far too many for double exposures I imagine, not to mention far too expensive if I use single exposures!

The title, incidentally, comes from a Robert Louis Stevenson poem, it's not a direct inspiration (I don't much care for it if I'm honest) but Stevenson’s Songs of Travel shares a plodding, ambulatory metre. It tries to capture a sense of movement in the structure of the poetry. There are obvious similarities with the idea I'm trying to convey within the structure of my images.

Since starting my mind has been ablaze with ideas - the notebook finds its true use - only lacking the time and energy to pursue them. This remains a creative, rather than scientific experiment, so who knows where it will take us? And now the weather has closed in on my only free day this week. I can only imagine what I could be creating, what journeys I could be undertaking. But it does mean I can finally put my thoughts in writing.

You can see new additions to this project on my Flickr page.

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