What does it mean to experience a place and then to communicate that experience to someone else? I’m preparing for a study abroad course I’ll be teaching this June in Siena, Italy. Over three weeks, a group of students and I will work through this course I’m calling Photography and the Italian Landscape, and I will ask them to create photographic work about this place. None of my students have visited Siena, or Tuscany, before, and most have never been outside of the country. Siena is a hill town, and every surface is brick, or at least it appears to be. A city of clay rising out of a hilltop, its central piazza slopes down towards the city hall, and the layers of buildings radiating outwards seem to be protecting this precious heart. With a pedestrian city center, the only way to really see Siena is by walking. Which is fine with me – I truly believe one of the best ways to experience a place is to walk it.
I have been thinking about the kinds of questions I can ask my students in order to encourage them to consider the concept of place, and how they might specifically explore this city/country/environment in particular. I want them to move beyond their first thoughts, filled with anticipatory pleasure - beyond the images they have already formed in their minds. The anticipation of a voyage creates a set of expectations – the reality of the voyage or trip is quite another. When we recount an experience, we’re picking and choosing what to display to our audience. So many tiny moments and details combine to create the whole; many of these we immediately forget, or just ignore in order to focus on what we deem important. The memory version, like the photographic one, becomes yet another iteration of this voyage, one in certain elements are highlighted and others are suppressed. But there are so many more ways of talking about place beyond the, “I went here, and I saw this.” Or, “These are my best pictures of ______.” I hope this summer experience for my students can involve less the idea of the tourist passing through rapidly and hitting the high points, and more of that someone really investigating something and creating a meaningful record. How do we even begin to think about the idea of place? Where can we look to find some inspiration?
Whenever I think of work about place, my mind immediately goes to one of my favorite writers, William Least Heat-Moon. His book, Blue Highways, is a memoir of his epic journey along America’s back roads. But in PrairyErth (1991), Least Heat-Moon researches one specific place, exhaustively. Chase County, in the Flint Hills in Kansas, is located almost exactly in the geographic center of the US and is the subject of his scrutiny. His subtitle for the book is “a deep map.” It’s a marvelously complex but very idiosyncratic portrait of a place, spanning time and space, and including geology, ecology, history, and gossip.
This phrase, a deep map, is just marvelous. When I first encountered Barbara Bosworth and Margot Anne Kelley’s The Meadow (Radius, 2016), I knew I was looking at another version of a deep map. The authors, a photographer and a writer, have been studying a meadow in Carlisle, Massachusetts over the course of ten years. Their collaborative work is the result of years of looking - seeing the same place over and over again through changing perspectives. The passage of time is a well-used element in work about place – William Christenberry’s photographs in and around Hale County, Alabama come to mind. The photographer becomes an historian of sorts. He selects what is important to him, and through patience and dedication, returns to a thing, or place, over time, and the subsequent intervals of time between photographs are what create a series of images. The thing being photographed need not be significant; it is the passage of time that renders it so. But in Bosworth and Kelley’s work, I think they create a more evocative record of a place. They weave together images, essays, poetry, field notes, maps, and arcana, forming a cornucopia of data that is at the same time informative and emotional. In an essay from the book, Margot Anne Kelley introduces the reader to things they encountered both precise, such as a bird door (you have to read the essay and see the images), and more elusive, like her idea of meadow-ness. “A meadow is a pause, a breath, an exhalation that reveals the relationship between a people and a place in that moment. Meadows are fleeting, subject to change … But always, a meadow is more than a swath of grass.”
The complexity of this record makes me think of another portrait of a place, again one depicting both a type of place as well as a specific location, but spare and mysterious instead of replete with detail. John Gossage’s elegant book, Nothing (Waltz Books, 2014), is comprised of photographs taken on a trip to The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1983. The introduction to the book is delightful, and the only text accompanying the images:
Abdullah asked me what I might like to see in The Kingdom.
I told him that I would like to take some photographs out in the desert.
“You know there is nothing out there.”
“Yeah, that was sort of what I was looking for.”
The book is a double-fold construction, so when it is opened, you are confronted with three sections – two booklets at left and right, with the center section a 12-image central foldout. This section is solely images of empty desert, creating an eerie panorama, while the booklets contain images from his travels: doorways, fences, palm trees, monuments, figures, trash, and rocks. It’s as if they are the records of the to-and-from, the journeys to get to the nothing. In describing Nothing, Gossage said, “You can sometimes go so far from home, and what you know, that your pictures have to teach you what they are about. In this case that process took almost thirty years.”
This frank admission of the uncertainly involved in making work is wonderful. It reminded me, as well, of another beautiful book, in words and pictures, Robert Adams’ Along Some Rivers, Photographs and Conversations (Aperture, 2006). The unassuming (but beautiful, as appropriate for Adams) photographs are of riverbanks in Colorado and Oregon, taken from 1985-2001, and are bookended by a collection of wonderful interviews and conversations between Adams and various photographers, writers, curators, and even a group of students. They talk about trees, the American West, priorities, past and future work, artistic influences, and political issues. The number and variety of the conversations helps create (to my mind) a very real and complex portrait of the artist and his working process, his priorities and his beliefs.
Place can also be explored in a more intimate, personal manner. One of the photo books I keep in my personal pantheon of favorites, both for its content and its design, is Dayanita Singh’s Sent A Letter (Steidl, 2008). The book is actually a collection of seven small accordion fold books in a cloth box, six labeled with a city in India, the seventh marked with the name Nony Singh, which contains photographs of the artist taken by her mother. Each volume speaks to a journey, and each one is made with a particular person in mind – either her companion on the journey or someone she was thinking of at the time. Singh creates each booklet in two copies, one for the person/subject and one for her archive, called her “kitchen museum.” Singh said in an interview in 2008 that the seven little books open into seven little exhibitions, a format she likes to look at photography in. There is no text in the book, only an extended title that winds its way around the exterior of the cloth case:
Sent a letter / to my friend/ on the way he dropped it.
Someone came and picked it up and / put it in his pocket.
The words when spoken take on a singsong manner and suggest a childhood rhyme; it’s appealing and nostalgic. It reinforces the suggestion of a simple, personal collection – the little books are diaries, letters, and memoirs.
I realize all of the artists I’ve mentioned above are working over pretty large periods of time and space, as well as fairly heavy investment in their subject matter. Getting back to my original question about making work in and about place – what happens when we, the artists, have less time to investigate, less time actually in contact with said place? How does the short-term or one time visitor to a place create a resonant record?
I came across such a book last year by the artist Yusuf Sevinçli, Walking (Filigranes Éditions, 2015). I confess I was drawn in by the title, but on further investigation I found it to be a fresh, modern take on the uncertain world of the solitary wanderer. Sevinçli, a Turkish artist based in Istanbul, spent a few months in residence in the French city of Vichy. A bourgeois spa town with a fraught history, it’s an unlikely place to imagine a young artist. The images are excessively dark, grainy, and dynamic, and it’s hard to tell in many if it is day or night. The viewer lurches through the images as if in the shoes of the artist. In roaming the streets of Vichy, capturing in brief flashes the landscapes and characters he encounters daily, he ends up fabricating an alternative reality, a dark and delightful dream world.
I do think the element of chance, and unplanned, fortuitous encounters, are important aspects in work and life. And perhaps appropriately, as I was finishing this article, I happened on another kind of work to consider. Matthew Brandt is an artist whose work I’ve admired for a long time – I love the physicality of his photographs, and the way he manipulates and conflates the materials and subjects of his work. I particularly enjoy his work using water from specific sources, as in his series Waterbodies, Lakes and Reservoirs, and most recently, his work about Flint, Michigan in Bridges over Flint. When I had a few hours to kill in Atlanta the other day, I discovered Jackson Fine Art has an exhibition currently on view of new work by Brandt. Titled 1864, the title refers to the year George N. Bernard photographed an Atlanta laid waste by the Union Army and General William T. Sherman. The Bernard photographs, discovered by Brandt in the catalogue of the Atlanta Journal Constitution, became the source material for a series of large-scale albumen prints. But it gets better – Brandt mixes his photographic emulsion with the ingredients for peach pie, a recipe he provides in a newsprint takeaway left by the door. He also created a set of still-life photographs of peaches (Styrofoam) to complement the ruined landscapes. Referencing the frothy reputation of Georgia as the Peach State, while at the same time depicting the city’s most traumatic moment is sure to ruffle a few feathers in the ATL, but it’s fun, and clever, and there are more complex conversations hinted at here about the history of this city, the legacy of the South, and the development of Atlanta’s contemporary identity. And the works themselves are spectacular – the mildly peach-tinted albumen coating, slathered over the paper, seems to add an extra layer of shimmer to the prints, making them as bright and glitzy as modern Atlanta, while hinting at a darker, hidden subtext. Maybe it takes an outsider, working intuitively and irreverently, to show us something new about a place so weighed down by its own history and self-consciousness. If you’re in Atlanta over the next month, I highly recommend seeing the exhibition. It’s on view at Jackson Fine Art through July 1, 2017.
Lauren Greenwald is an Assistant Professor of Photography at the University of South Carolina.
She lives and works in Columbia, SC.