Inside this issue
England and Nowhere
recent photographic project
Mike was born in 1954 in Stevenage, a New Town 30 miles north of London. For thirty years he worked in the higher education sector as a librarian (Bristol and Southampton universities) but now concentrates on photographic and writing projects. In recent years he has exhibited his photographs and book works internationally in several solo and group shows. England and Nowhere book.
The gatekeepers of photography – the gallerists, the publishers, the editors – must be rather weary by now of reading some variant of these words: "this project involved repeated visits to the same site for x years". It's become one of the mainstays of project-based photography, a simple, semi-mechanical way to invest one's ingrained photo-habits with aesthetic significance.
The cycle of the seasons, the spirit of place, serendipity, entropy... It's all there, if you keep going back, keep looking in the same place. So, it is with a certain reluctance that I must declare that, yes, my own recent photographic project, "England and Nowhere", involved repeated visits to a small area near Winchester over five years.
At the time – this started in the mid-1990s – it felt like a radical new approach, a nod in the direction of the grids and multiples of contemporary art, and an implicit critique of the apocalyptic grandiosity of much "single image" photography. Although there was a down-side: being small-scale, low-key and extremely localised – I had become the assiduous documenter of a single pond, and even certain well-favoured windows – such repetitive, sequenced images of nothing much were often damned with the faint praise that "they help open our eyes to the little things we fail to notice in our everyday lives"; a dispiriting formula that drains the juice out of any art by turning it into a facile moral fable, an annoying tendency I think of as The Gospel of the God of Small Things.
So, for the last five years I have been visiting a cluster of locations south-east of Winchester, just where the infamous saw-cut of the M3 motorway slices through Twyford Down. It's a pinch-point in the landscape where for millennia transport routes have converged, linking the ancient capital of Wessex with London to the north and Southampton on the south coast. This new work came into sharper focus as a project while we were entertaining an American friend.
I took him out on one of my habitual walks and, as we stood opposite St. Catherine's Hill, I pointed out the landmarks, like a native guide. Look: the Iron Age hillfort, the Norman cathedral built on a Saxon site, the mediaeval hospital and plague pits, the Mizmaze – possibly ancient, possibly some antiquarian's folly – and over there the chalky tops where the detectorists find Roman coins and Saxon brooches. I felt like Puck, the Oldest Old Thing in England.
But where we were standing was within earshot of the Twyford Down cutting, where 5 acres of downland and 50,000 years of history were blasted away in the 1990s, to smooth the path of traffic from Southampton to London. Back then, protesters camped out on Twyford Down to halt the destruction of this landscape – heritage to some, quasi-sacred to others – and, despite failing to stop the road, became the focus of a new awareness of the ecological and archaeological price of progress. Government and developers have to tread more carefully now. Puck is watching.
In its day, of course, the hillfort above the cutting must have been equally appalling. Dug out by slave labour, an eyesore of chalk rubble and palisades, it was a place of domination and violence. No doubt its construction violated immemorial holy springs and groves, and there will have been protests, brutally suppressed; mutilated human remains have been found in the ditches. In their turn, Saxon abbeys were demolished to raise the Norman cathedral; more domination and brutality. Later, slums were cleared to build housing estates, and fields were ripped open, scattering flints and coins and Roman roof-tiles, to pipe water and electricity.
Before the motorway, there were the railways. Competing schemes to drive a line from London to Southampton resulted in two lines, one running immediately alongside St. Catherine's Hill that ran out of funds, and the triumphant mainline over to the west. The Hockley Viaduct was constructed in 1888 to link the two lines, but abandoned in the 1960s. It still stands, thirty-three brick-clad concrete arches going nowhere, stranded parallel to the M3 in a water-meadow and straddling the river Itchen, which is itself not a natural waterway at this location: it was extensively canalised in the 18th century to transport goods from Southampton to Winchester.
I have self-published England and Nowhere as a book using the Blurb "on-demand" publishing platform, as I have done with a dozen earlier projects. Publication is an impossible dream for most photographers. Publishers and booksellers need to make a profit, and to publish, distribute and sell a book with suitably high production values by anyone, let alone an "unknown", is a gamble. Conventional self-publication is an even bigger gamble, requiring large up-front expenditure – thousands of pounds – with no guarantee of sales. I have seen 1000 copies of a book, and it is the stuff of nightmares. However, on-demand publishing is an exciting alternative model, and if you're unaware of services like Blurb, I urge you to take a look. It's a glimpse of a future where low-cost, small-scale self-publication can exist realistically alongside mainstream publishing and bookselling.
Increasingly, I think, we British photographers are celebrating our British landscapes for what they are, and not for what we wish they were. The cities where most of us live, with their monumental buildings, suburban streets and rubbish-strewn edge lands, are as much our landscape as our mountains, moorlands or coastline. The picturesque and the sublime are, after all, not places on a map, but states of mind, and most "nature" is as shaped by humanity as any weed-grown traffic-island. Even the most tranquil spots once rang with the noise of vanished local industries; foundries, mills, quarries and mines. Most of us recognise this, now, and as a consequence are more inclined to angle a shot to include that intrusive pylon or road sign rather than to wish it away, or even to seek out the touch of wilderness that flourishes beneath a busy traffic intersection. Not so much "the little things we fail to notice in our everyday lives", then, as the dynamic, long-term processes that constitute our real environment.
Trackway and Camp and City lost,
Salt Marsh where now is corn –
Old Wars, old Peace, old Arts that cease,
And so was England born!
from Puck's Song, by Rudyard Kipling