’So many men, so beautiful.’ David Jones described the rationale for the title ’In Parenthesis’, his long, modernist poem about the First World War, as ’being in the space between’. In many ways I want my photographs to inhabit that same space; the space between day and night, the space between life and death, the space between sanity and madness, the space between sleep and awake. Most of all the space between love and loss. They aren't about war - or this particular battle of Mametz Wood - but the imagined effects of war upon the mind. When our subjectivity is overtaken by a darkness so all encompassingly, unimaginably dreadful that our very vision of the world becomes skewed.
Beginnings. I started work on this with some very vague ideas indeed. I went to one of my favourite woods with the idea of looking for some equivalent of abstract expressionist composition on the forest floor. That is the more complex, gestural forms of Pollack for example not the simple forms of Rothko. The environment is quite sufficiently complex to say the least! So I came home with a range of images of leaves, tree stumps, grasses and bushes. It wasn't until I began to process them that I realised they reminded me of some previous work I produced for Owen Sheers’ Skirrid Hill poem Mametz Wood. In this he describes the shock of seeing, in a newly discovered grave, skulls, their jaws ajar as if they'd just breathed their last breath. "As if the notes they had sung have only now, with this unearthing, slipped from their absent tongues."
Mametz Wood, Skirrid Hill.
In this picture I re-imagined that event as both the last breath - the last song as Sheers put it - and the last, dying vision of the soldier as his sight began to fade and his hold on life slipped away. His eyes slipping to the last light of the horizon. Realisation. Of course it wouldn't be long before I tried experimenting with double exposures - combining these images - and I was astonished that the combined results could create a whole new reality. Simply putting two well chosen images together completely changed the feeling and emphasis of the images. The bodies of men emerged from twigs when combined with grasses, a snake like stump became enraged and explosive when combined with another clump of grass. There emerged a dreamlike magic realism, combined with the nightmare like distorted figures, that reminded me in some ways of a picture that has long occupied my subconscious; Francis Bacon’s Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion.
Mametz Wood 2
Conclusions. In my new Mametz Wood series the pictures are half caught visions in the half light, memories, nightmares and the twisted trees intermingling and playing off one another to deceive an exhausted mind. The pictures aren’t taken at Mametz Wood itself, they are an imagination, an idea, an illustration. I have no desire to document a place and I have no personal connection with the place to draw me there. Just the same way as a writer has no need to be in a place to describe it, photographers have no need to be in a place to describe an idea about it. Mike Jackson creates whole new worlds in a fish tank, so I don't feel I'm taking a liberty by creating them in another woodland. There's also a sort of unity, taking them in a Welsh wood when so many Welshmen died at Mametz. I've long said that landscape photography is capable of far more than illustration, but here I want to show that it can be as creative and imaginative as any other form of art, that we can imagine small worlds from within the landscape and that we can take ideas and make them new by expressing them in a visual form. Commemoration. As I'm sure you are all aware there are plans next year for a national commemoration of the outbreak of the First World War. There's been much debate around this particularly from those who accuse the government of being too celebratory in its approach. I tend to agree with that argument, but I disagree with the way the debate has split between those who wish to concentrate on why the war started and those who say we should concentrate on the personal stories. I have no problem with personal stories, I do have a problem with the concentration of them being on heroism. There are plans to lay stones in the towns where Victoria Cross awardees were born, for example. I don't doubt that there was heroism, but feel I must assert that the common experience of war and this war in particular was not one of jingoistic pride, but of terror, misery and loss. If in some way I can begin to redress that balance and allow even a tiny insight into the genuine experience of the horrors and madness of war, then I will allow myself a small measure of satisfaction.