The Sargasso Sea

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The Sargasso Sea lies at the western edge of the route from Britain to the Caribbean, it is encompassed by currents on all sides and has no land for its waters to break on. The currents north and south of it were responsible for the traffic that populated the islands, re-populated, welcomed and then repatriated for over four centuries.

Colonial rule, that pernicious device of the ‘Old World’ gave rise to the cultural heritage of the islands, providing the backdrop to its history and the population that was ‘peopled’ by its oppressor are left with a legacy that presented itself to me as echoes in varying forms.

These images depict and document how I ‘see’ those reverberations from the past. The patronage and subjugation, and subsequent rise of independence followed by the re-patronage through commercial dependence on the world that created an aberrant society with societal norms that had no connection with their own heritage.

‘The Wide Sargasso Sea’ by Jean Rhys is a novel about displacement, about ‘otherness’, about colonial/post colonial issues (it may also be a feminist novel and even a post-modern novel!). The novel’s situation of a white creole being ousted by her native people and then ending her days in an ‘other’ place – Britain – kept returning to me as I made these images. I saw these symbols of the changing face of colonialism and the effects of post-colonialism, The diasporas of people whose fates have ebbed and flowed, much as the seas between the two continents have, still holding those islanders in a place of dependence. And that is what I wanted to show, my reaction to the past’s inflictions on the present.

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Open and echoing

This moment of my studies has me in a lighter place with a camera, with the will to make work, even if the direction the work is unknown and un-bid. The occasion though of a holiday brings back to the fore for me the paradoxes of image making, it was (past-tense) a means to collect, it then became a means to avoid, I am now pleasantly relieved it is now an occasion to investigate. I want to make images again. I had thought recently about evacuating to the wilds somewhere and revisiting the aesthetics that had me making image after image – for the sake of the image only. I have resisted, but the impulse to craft imagery in the frame has returned.

I am testing this re-found delight in the shutter release on a holiday, once a period for intense photography, now usually a period of reflection on the state of my photography, or the recent lack of it. I have resisted the making of images on holiday for some time now; more to do with the absence of any structured intent, not wanting to go somewhere ‘other’ and make it such inside an un-researched lens. The search I made before was to attempt to record a sense of the sublime, without comprehending what the sublime might be and it was against this background that I fell away from the making of what I have referred to as ‘pretty pictures’, knowing that my intent was capture then creation. I travelled to my holiday destination with an intent to make images, pretty or otherwise.

It had been suggested by one of my tutors that I read a couple of texts; one being ‘The Open Work’ by Umberto Eco and also perhaps some of Italo Calvino’s works, so I took along ‘Difficult loves’. These suggestions have come about from my thoughts about text and image and they formed that other staple of being away, holiday reading.

I think I have always known, or at least from a time before this period of study started, that the essence of a photograph, however created, is as a vestige of the past. What I have become aware of more acutely through this period of study is the notion of the photograph both as a portrait of the artist but also as a document that despite it’s indexical link to the representation it seeks to portray, is dependant for it’s narrative on the experience of the viewer, their social background, their life until that point of looking; the ‘Death of the Author’ perhaps or indeed ‘Who is the author?’ However I wanted to make some images about something, I wasn’t sure before I left home what it would be, but the notion of what it was soon became apparent.

Reading Eco I am wondering about a number of things, about the vernacular of an Open discourse; I made a note “for the transaction to be successful, for the ‘Open-ness’ to work in delivering the transcendence – not specifically intended, but expected/hoped for – the viewer needs to be in a state of readiness, in fact to be ‘Open’? This state might therefore pre-suppose acquaintance with the syntax of ‘Open-ness’?”

As I started to take pictures on this holiday. I thought about two things simultaneously: the pleasure of the image I knew I was in the process of making – I will find out in a weeks time back in my home study, and coincident with that pleasure there was a narrative burning in me that I couldn’t shake, and decided to embrace. So I was pleased to read “..The “Reader” who, at the very moment in which he abandons himself to the free play of reactions that the work provokes in him, goes back to the work to seek in it the origin of the suggestion and the virtuosity behind the stimulus, is not only enjoying his own personal experience but is also appreciating the value of the work itself, it’s aesthetic quality.” I found this pleasing in the sense that I feel that whilst the ‘work’ is intended to be ‘Open’ it needs to be grounded in a narrative sense of its own. I was concerned, and I may still have this wrong (if that isn’t too strong a reflection on my reading of ‘Open’), that maybe to be truly ‘Open’ that the work in creation needs to be ‘Open’, that is without a defined narrative or contextual purpose.

I sensed very early on what these new images were about, I wasn’t immediately sure how or whether I could articulate my thoughts, either visually or verbally, but behind each frame, and I’m not sure if it was conscious or sub-conscious, was a growing sense of an echoing in the frame.

Eco goes on to say: “Similarly, the free play of associations, once it is recognised as originating from the disposition of the signs, becomes an integral part of the work, one of the components that the work has fused into its own unity and, with them, a source of creative dynamism that it exudes. At this point, the viewer can savour (and describe, for that’s what every reader of informal art does) the very quality of the form, the value of a work that is open precisely because it is a work.”

This notion of ‘a work’ enthralled me to some extent, this idea of an anchorage to a subjunctive text, because without it I was feeling a bit lost. I had supposed that maybe the ‘Open-ness’ was an expression of the creator of the text and that if that creator had a narrative then the text couldn’t be ‘Open’. Or as Eco has it. “… And even if the reception is left open – because the intention itself was open, aiming at a plural communication – it is nevertheless the end of an act of communication which, like every act of communication, depends on the disposition and the organisation of a certain form. Understood in this sense, the “informal” is a rejection of classical forms with univocal directions but not a rejection of that form which is the fundamental condition of communication. The example of the informal, like that of any open work, does not proclaim the death of the form; rather if proposes a new, more flexible version of it – form as a field of possibilities.”

Some of the frames that I made took me aback, somewhat startling me with how I felt about them, others I started to look for, there became a sense of knowing of what I wanted to depict, what I wanted to narrate through these images. The more frames I took, the more the ‘work’ started to take shape, started to take over.

I have now edited some forty or so images from the memory cards of two cameras knowing what it was that impelled me to make the decision to release the shutter on each occasion; the making of these images seemed to have me in a sense of heightened awareness which I felt enthralled about, knowing, sensing and feeling that the work was revealing itself to me, or maybe that I looked and therefore saw.


I felt the ‘echoes’ in these images, though that wasn’t what I had foregrounded in my mind as I made these images but in part I recognised the reverberations, that sense of the past seeping into all of the images I set out to achieve , so I’m content with that part. I decided to check with my tutor whilst I was away about the nature of ‘Open’ work and I was relieved to have a reply almost straight away which confirmed some of my understanding of the form. I am now also very much aware of how poor the ‘blog’ is to present images. As single items they are limited, landscape oriented images are under-privileged compared to portrait oriented images, though I have scaled them all to the same long edge dimension. However the coupling of images in a diptych or triptych is a nonsense. I haven’t structured the edit yet, though I am very much aware that the narrative – as I read them – will be dependant, to some extent on, having occasional complex statements of more than one image coupled at a time – that will have to happen after printing and I may show them to my tutor at some time.

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Personal Project & Study day, Penarth

Original print and text orientation

We make the Path.

The Study visit to the ffotogallery in Penarth to view the work of two landscape photographers – Paul Gaffney and Michal Iwanowski became more interesting than I thought, or hoped it might be. In another course (Gesture and Meaning) an exercise had me documenting ‘where I live‘ and I stuck rather rigidly to the brief and produced some images; I remember at the time considering how little I was presenting of the environment, it’s people and it’s history.  I had thought at the time, about twelve months ago to re-visit some ‘places’ in the village that are mentioned in the local history group’s archive – and maybe reinterpret some of the photographs from the extensive library. The ‘light’ project which I started some time ago has provided me with an opportunity to develop some of those thoughts and I have turned this into a personal project – here and here. I presented the first prints of this project at the ‘Study day’, as we were encouraged to bring some on-going work to critique and it was suggested that I ‘post’ them here as the project has moved on from those initial thoughts. The presentation in print form is unsuited to digital projection on a screen – even if I enlarge the image for the screen the text, which is a vital component of the work, is diminished beyond recognition – see above; so I have restructured the images to reflect their different circumstance. The original prints were made on A3 Canson Infinity Baryta Satin finish paper – the image size was 32 cms X 21.5 cms and the text printed at 10pts in Cambria body font. The decision to choose that text size was to separate the text from the image somewhat and encourage both a connection with the image at a distance and then with the text close up – neither could be encountered at a similar distance thereby creating a tension. I was also aware that I had provided text to all the images, whereas in another setting – a gallery wall or a book – I could afford either images with no text or text with no images, but since I was presenting individuals images that strategy wouldn’t have worked I felt.

The work on view at the ffotogallery by both artists investigated the notion of a journey, which is what I feel this personal project is all about. Paul Gaffney, whose journey was as much conceptual as it was physical and Michal Iwanowski whose work described the very personal echoes in a land that had been trod by two of his predecessors during WWII. The study visit allowed a great deal of conversation about the twin works and what those works communicated to each of the visitors on the day. My personal readings were mediated both by the intents of the artists but also how the conversation on the day coloured that view. Gaffney, who uses meditation as part of his practice, decided to walk and use the meditative process of walking to lead him to make photographs, whereas Iwanowski wanted to re-tread and retrace the escape that his grandfather and great uncle made on foot from Russia to Poland. Gaffney ‘found’ the title for his work in the poem by Antonio Machado “Traveller, there is no path” …. two lines from the poem:

“Traveller, there is no path,
The path is made by walking.”

This seems a perfect analogy for the work that Gaffney undertook – his intent was to walk for 30Km a day – which was to ‘walk and by that process make some work’ . The gallery was at great pains not to reveal any information about the specifics of where Gaffney walked other than to say it was Southern Europe, in his book he mentions France, Spain and Italy – if I remember correctly. The routes he chose all had reasonable trails and overnight stops, but the process of travel, without seemingly a destination in mind, perhaps only a means to an end, seemed to be the purpose:

“By walking the path is made
And when you look back
You’ll see a road
Never to be trodden again.”

And interpreting this text I saw the images he made as either short term staging posts – in the long journey – or as views to the future. I feel that text anchors to the notion of a sort of carpus diem and a letting go of the past, not wanting it to hold him back, the relentless distancing by the continual monotony of the stride. Gaffney’s reflection came before him and not behind on the 3500 Km journey. Further reading here from Photomonitor.

Iwanowski, on the other hand, purposely had a destination in mind and he carried the past with him as luggage on his journey. Though he never retrod the complete distance, some 2000 Km that his forebears did as a means of escape , there was ample evidence of the echoes of his past haunting the journey he made. This work was all about looking back, maybe to reclaim some form of lost inheritance or even to lay some of it to rest – his Grandfather has passed, though his Great Uncle lives on. I was more immediately moved by these images than I was with Gaffney’s. The conceptualness of Gaffney’s work presented itself as more distant, less emotionally charged than Iwanowski’s. And again text was a key element in the amplification of those emotive charges. Iwanowski didn’t have a lot of text, but those that were available in the room were those taken (and sometimes edited by the artist) from the diary of those two escapees in 1945. This anchorage provided a real sense of the personal in this work, it seemed to charge the images with both the echoes of the past and the artist’s present tense reaction to it.

We were told that Gaffney had provided a very clear set of instructions as to how the images were to be presented, their elevation, their proximity to one another and of course their order. This was then a very prescribed order and, as I have said earlier, no hint as the geographic reference of the images. The spectators to Gaffney’s work were invited to accompany him on a very specific journey, I commented on how certain images provided punctuation marks in the series and when I later looked at this work in two other forms, the book he has made of the work and the artist’s website, I note that there are no two layouts similar. The end image (one of those punctuation marks I noticed early on) was the same for all three layouts, but the images were differently sequenced and that made me think about both what the artist was creating. It seems to me now that his purpose for the differing, very specific excursions, was to illuminate alternate narratives that the artist derived from his investigations – no one journey having primacy over another, just a different way of assimilating the information provided by the imagery from the same expedition. As Foncuberta might say, the truth is not in the image it is in the fiction we create from their association.

Iwanowski’s work didn’t have a prescribed starting point, the viewer could enter the walled space and turn left or right, the book of the work of course has a start and an end, the gallery on the artist’s website equally so, so I found it a trifle confusing that the artist and gallery didn’t prescribe a direction of travel. Nevertheless the singularity of purpose of Iwanowski’s work was seemingly key for me, much as the arbitrary walking of Gaffney had perhaps too many layers to it for me. I wandered around Gaffney’s work trying to find a purpose, I thought I noted an impelling forward looking narrative, but this was somewhat diminished when I saw his other sequences. It was Iwanowski’s work that evoked a connection with my personal project. The text that he used (despite an acknowledgement of some editing) stemmed from the past, a personal reflection that seemed to the artist to find an echo in the images he felt compelled to make along the journey. The ‘light’ series have similarly provoked a response, marking a space that have held a history that was important enough to be recorded textually by someone in the past. I wanted, somehow, to be able to bring those moments from the past to ‘re-surface’ them, make them relevant, or gain some relevance once more. Some of the texts have socio-political references, some are about the trivia of everyday life whilst other reference some of the major cultural changes to the land and the those that peopled it in a time perhaps almost forgotten. What follows is an attempt to display the selection I took to Penarth with the text more accessible to this blog structure:

My loving wife Joane shall have the use of all my Goods and furniture in the Chamber where I now usually lye and alsoe of four pair of Sheets one table cloath one dozen of Napkins two hand towels two Little barrels my second best brass Kettle two pewter dishes six pewter plates the metle pottagepott and Such Other of my Goods and Chattles as She Shall have Occasion for and desire not Exceeding the Value of Forty Shillings and from after the decease of my Said Wife the Said Goods Chattells and furniture to said two Children Joseph and Sarah to be equally divided between the Share and Share alike.

My uncle used to make the fizzy drink. It was a funny machine that he had, it was a funny contraption, more like a treadle. He’d only got one leg and it was something you had to work with a pedal and then you put something into it to colour it or to make it fizz. I can remember when he first used to do it the bottles they had – you’ve seen them bottles where there was like a glass marble you pushed down – it used to be that sort.


The meeting was attended by nearly every labourer in the parish. After the warrant of appointment had been read, William Windus, one of the labourers, desired to know how the Rector and parish officers became trustees of land which was common land. This was explained by reading part of the Enclosure act. A lengthened discussion then took place and several labourers present stated their determination never to pay rent for their allotments nor to quit.

It was an obligation of the parish to provide stocks for anyone who misbehaved. The punishment being usually fixed for a Sunday. The stocks were placed at the corner of Fox Lane so that the prisoners could not only feel the scorn and contempt of people going to church but were made an unhappy target for any missiles which had been brought for the occasion.

There was, however, a lot of illness – the dreaded consumption, diphtheria, scarlet fever, head lice and ringworm were very prevalent. I remember boys wearing skull caps to hide the gentian blue on their heads after being treated for ringworm.

That gentleman, whose colleague as churchwarden I became about nine months before his death, told me that before the inclosure of 1797 he had frequently gone to tithe-cart in Middle Barton field – that is, had collected in waggons the bough-crowned tenth shocks of wheat, cocks of barley, oats, &c.,

29th September 1853. The labourers selected four of themselves to act as a committee with the agent in bringing the business into shape. The meeting which was at one period rather turbulent broke up”. It sounds as if the Peasants revolt had started.

December 14th 1650 a servant girl named Anne Green was hanged for murdering her illegitimate child. After being cut down her body was sent to the Anatomy School, Oxford for cutting up. While there she was resuscitated. In 1651 Anne Green came to live in Steeple Barton where she married and had three children. She died in 1659.

Rapid expansion of the village of Middle Barton began with the sewer being installed. Unfortunately, the Bartons have never been a tourist attraction or considered pretty villages. In October 1955 a reporter from the Oxford Mail after visiting Middle Barton wrote “It was quite the ugliest village I have seen in Oxfordshire, indeed it is the only really ugly village I have seen in Oxfordshire”.

I think I am at a point which tests the limitation of blogging and to render them better for virtual viewing I would need to post on a web-site specifically designed for photographic purposes; but like Gaffney I am no hurry, or as Machado might have it: ‘We make the Path’ by the work we do, the journey we take.