Fergus Heron‘s principal artistic concern is making pictures that intensify contemplation of common places where the cultural and natural combine with the modern and traditional. His working process involves interconnected projects that acknowledge both conventions and histories of the picturesque landscape and the photograph as documentary art. The result is use of a diverse range of landscape-related subjects which are used to produce images that at first sight may look deceptively straight forward. I caught up with him to explore his philosophies and practices……….
WL: I can’t help but feel there is much to open up about your work, but can we start with your series, ‘Common’? It seems to my mind to occupy a central middle ground? I know that the subject matter is drawn from an area of undeveloped land close to the M25, if that is the visual subject – the motif – what in your mind is the work is actually about?
FH: Common is a series of photographs with which to consider the question of how a commonly encountered contemporary English rural landscape, multi-layered with complex social, political and cultural histories, can be pictured through photography. The pictures in this series were made on an ongoing basis in South East England – on Chobham Common, which is an extensive nature reserve, recreational resource and lowland heath, one of the oldest forms of British landscape. Chobham Common also has a military history and has been used as a location for many films.
The process of making these pictures involved repeated visits, long periods of walking and extended observation of the significant visual changes Chobham Common undergoes seasonally. These activities determine the choices of locations for pictures – usually at the edges of the Common where car parks enabling access are situated; along the densely wooded paths towards clearings; and the clearings themselves.
By walking, observing, and pausing to see, I establish views with potential coherence for pictures which are quite consciously absent of human activity. Absence of the human creates a heightened sense of stillness in the pictures, emphasising their photographic character.
A large format view camera is used, a technology requiring considerable time to position and set up. Such a camera slows the process of seeing, and with its precise perspective control, emphasizes the constructed character of pictures. Picture structure in these works reconsiders conventions of picturesque landscapes, towards de-familiarising ordinary nature. The use of large format camera technology also anticipates an extended and intensified process of spectatorship. The camera’s large negative size enables highly detailed printed works to be produced and the intense detail in these works extends the duration of looking at the landscape. This photographic detail is central to the duration of viewing this work and is where a tension between reality and artifice becomes focussed.
Through these methods, aspects of the Common, photographed throughout the seasons, emphasise both stasis and change, and enable views of the landscape alternately revealed and concealed. The work therefore can be read in different ways, combining history, mythology and topography. In one sense the work observes visible natural changes in a landscape that embodies histories beyond visibility – creating a space between what we know of this landscape and what can be seen within it. In another sense, the pictures aim to draw attention to our own act of seeing, as the central subject of this work is a set of pictures focussing upon a view as much as a place. Both senses aim to offer renewed possibilities for viewing commonplace rural English nature as culture.
WL: If we could put the issues of process to one side for a moment and focus on the actual images, you talk in terms of two possible interpretations. I would put both of these under a heading of ‘ways of being’. In particular ways or degrees of being ‘attentive’ to world we are in. There has been much written philosophically around this area. Thoughts must go for example to Heidegger and his musing on ‘dwelling’. more recently in the UK there is Tim Ingold, whilst its also possible to go much further back in time to say Buddhist ideas on mindfulness. Do you have any specific writings which inform or inspire your image selection or creation?
FH: The underpinning theoretical references for my work generally, and for the Common series in particular, come from Raymond Williams and his definitions of ‘country’, ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ from Keywords. Around the time I started making the series, I was also reading Jean Luc Nancy’s Uncanny Landscape from The Ground of the Image. It’s a rich essay that helped to make sense of what I’m attempting to do with this work. Recently, I’ve belatedly discovered, through Iain Sinclair, the so called ‘new nature’ writers, in particular Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, which has been productive towards thinking of commonly encountered nature as process, rather than place, and our affect upon it as humans.
WL: I know of Richard Mabey. I have also heard of Raymond Williams and have some awareness of his work. I’m ashamed to say, I know nothing at all of Jean Luc Nancy.
FH: Nancy argues landscape is opposite to ‘Country’. Where country is an idea of place based on belonging, landscape, in his words, is ‘properly speaking, place as the opening on to a taking place of the unknown’. In relation to belonging Nancy’s essay involves a theological dimension – and the land itself as presence. Change occurs when land becomes transformed by industrialisation and urbanisation. Nancy describes the consequence of this transformation as a withdrawal of presence. In his own words, ‘Meaning is no longer a matter of presence but of another regime, suspended between pure absence and infinite distancing’. Therefore, with distance comes estrangement, an effect of which is uncanniness. This implies a conceptual distance involved in our understanding of land becoming landscape. However, there is a tension between this distance and a desire to make pictures, which necessarily involves embodiment – actual experience of place. Embodiment and distance are perhaps in complex relation in this work.
WL: In asking my last question, I had in mind a visual exploration of a specific way of living…the question seeking to tease out what if any mantra you had. Each of the sources I quoted set out to describe a way of being which as I read them, goes beyond what words alone can portray and hence opens the possibility of a revelation through visual exploration. Instead, consistent with your comment on learning from Mabey in defining nature as process, the Williams works – and I am assuming Nancy’s also – very transparently set out to remove ambiguity and ambivalence in the concept of phenomena. In reading them I think we feel, do we not, clarified as to what each phenomenon should be anticipated to be but not informed as to how we should approach each of them. I wonder therefore whether your work is more a search for a personal way of being which is meaningful to yourself. Indeed dare I say it a search to understand and, in vernacular jargon, find yourself? Its driver is your seeing of yourself?
FH: The reading I do feeds into the process of critical reflection upon the work – how I make sense of it and talk about it. However, texts, whether theory, philosophy, criticism or history do not really form any kind of programme for my practice. When I work (both with the camera and printing) its something very instinctive – I’m not thinking about theory at all – just doing what I need to do and what I feel is important and meaningful as a picture maker.
I’m open to any kind of conversation the work might generate, but I’m not sure I’m following a particular mantra, making work about a phenomena, or a way of living. I certainly don’t think of the work as personal or in any way about myself, other than that I make it.
When I state that the work aims to draw attention to our own act of seeing, I mean that it attempts to say something about photography itself. Photography is not a transparent means through which to see the world, but that it is a complex process that might determine how we see it.
WL: Your talk of ‘just doing what I need to do’ reminds me of a book I read recently,‘Art Beyond Representation: The Performative Power of the Image’ by Barbara Bolt. She’s an Australian painter/academic who argues for an embodied stage in the creation of a work of art – how its not just Jackson Pollock who ‘looses’ it during the image making. Does this idea from Bolt make sense or have any resonance to you?
FH: Interesting you bring in questions of embodiment and walking to the discussion at this early stage. I don’t know Bolt’s work, but look forward to investigating. Walking plays a huge part in my work, especially for the Common pictures, and more recently in newer series Hammond’s Pond and Harland’s Pond. I’m also making new work on Horsell Common that is different to existing pictures made there due to the process of walking.
In these works, I consider walking to be important in itself as an experience of place, as well as the means through which views that eventually form pictures are discovered. Walking is also how I get from my start, usually a car park, to where I make pictures. I do walk without the camera, to make ‘pre-visits’ to locations (and to experience a place more generally). Once I think I know where and what to make a picture of, I also walk in more concentrated and subtle ways once the camera is set up – not to get somewhere, but to adjust the position from which I see. I walk around the space in which the camera is positioned to make sure its where its needed, making light readings, etc. walking into the space of the potential picture and out again. Perhaps David Green and Joanna Lowry’s essay From Presence to the Performative is useful here, the idea is that the act of photography itself is considered as a performative gesture that draws reality into the image.
WL: Have you come across the young Irish guy, Paul Gaffney – he’s figured in a number of galleries following publication of his first book?
FH: Yes, I’ve seen some of his work
WL: He walked 2,500 miles during which he made those 40 pictures in the book plus 1,000 or so others. This sounds like a very different experience of walking to yours. The camera was almost interfering to his ‘performance’ of the walk……….
FH: You’re probably well aware of Rebecca Solnit’s, Wanderlust. Solnit describes how walking enables slow engagement, slow movement, a different sense of time. Walking enables human eye level views that are different to sitting in a car or on a train. Also, it enables detailed and intimate knowledge of terrain or place, that’s where place does come in. She also talks about how body, mind and eyes work together most effectively, thinking becomes rhythmical, and walking brings together past and present. This is what’s really interesting in terms of time, particularly history, whether it’s ancient, references what is ancient, in the kind of architecture of shopping centre interiors that refer to classical antiquity, or the common land, which is a very old kind of English landscape. Walking brings together the past and the present. It’s an ancient activity but it’s also a continuance of place and time – walking is a means of reclaiming continuity that was lost from the industrial age on. Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital is very influential – that he’s walked the M25.
So yes, walking is central to how I work, combined with other forms of immersion, it’s certainly involved in how I make pictures.
WL: If you compare that to say the Paul Gaffney style, the camera is his interest but it’s also an interference with the prolonged walking that he’s doing. But the purpose of the walking isn’t to take pictures, the purpose of the walk is to undergo a sort of meditation, the camera is there to somehow record that visually.
FH: That’s interesting. Isn’t the show called ‘the line made by walking’ or something like that?
WL: ‘We make the path by walking’
FH: Make the path, yes….in a way I guess the implication is that the walk is something that goes through, yes?
FH: What I do is very different, and again that’s probably where, I suppose – although we work with different subjects – the work’s closer to that of Jem Southam in the sense that the walk is within. The walking happens within a very defined place. It’s an intensified experience of walking which may not be necessarily about getting from one point to another.
WL: Can you talk us through the role of ‘place’ in your work? You say it is subsidiary to the view. Can you expand?
FH: I think I would stress view more important than place in that I don’t attempt to depict place in a way that attempts to say something about that place in a simple way. In considering questions of place, my influences are historical, I have strong interest in how the documentary tradition in photography and landscape art intersect. The most obvious example is the 1975 ‘New Topographics’ exhibition and much of the work that to a greater or lesser extent was influenced by that exhibition. In the UK I am thinking of artists like Keith Arnatt, Paul Graham and Jem Southam. Place is important in so far as it enables particular kinds of views. I am not trying to express any essence of place, my work is more an exploration of different possibilities of seeing place. So yes view is more central
WL: That gets me thinking about Henri Lefebvre and his ideas of space and culture being spatial thing, because there seems to be some element of that in your work – the views do have a distinct spatial quality. They appear to be describing a space, filled with various things, that seem to me to be distanced from the consumptive space which we typically surround ourselves with and which Lefebvre, I think, would argue is necessary to maintain the consumptive culture that we have got into. To me, that seems to apply in spirit even when your subject is a shopping centre – you handle it in such a way as to distance it from an affirmation of consumption.
FH: Yes, but my knowledge of Lefebvre’s work is limited.
WL: He put forward the idea that in order to maintain a culture you have to create a space in which to live that supports that culture. Similarly having created that space then its difficult to change the culture whilst living in that space. My interest was roused when looking around and realising everything seems to be set up so that we consume, so surprise surprise we have problems relating to the environmental challenges we have which run totally counter to ever increasing consumption. Your images, whatever the motif, seem to present spaces so that they are inviting alternative behaviour to contemporary consumption?
FH: In the Shopping Centre Interiors, the viewer enters symbolically into an unusually solitary privacy, at odds with the public experience more common in the spaces they depict. The shopping centre interior is a paradox regarding the public and private; it is where public or communal belonging is defined by the process of consumption, rather than by any notion of a community of consumers. The Common pictures have been worked on in a developmental way since the late 1990’s, quite soon after I had consolidated the first pictures in the series Charles Church Houses, which explored the idea of landscape as property. I have always been interested in that tension between what you describe as something perhaps ‘other ‘ – a way of looking at nature – or seeing nature perhaps more precisely, a kind of release from the organisation of our environment according to particular kinds of demands such as property or real estate. The architecture in those houses is very specific to particular kinds of architectural histories, and from that series, I had photographed shopping centre interiors, exploring another kind of extremity, interior space organised wholly according to contemporary consumer desires. These places are expressions of a late 20th century consumerist visual order that is very much situated at the local level.
The first shopping centre interiors which started working were of the Peacock Centre in Woking. I was also fascinated by the common areas around Woking – Horsell Common and Chobham Common. There were these two opposites; space that was absolutely organised in terms of consumerism in one case and that around an idea of nature in the other.
Incidentally all of the Common areas are usually only accessible by car! Unless you are prepared to do some walking and alight at a small station called Long Cross just to the north of Ascot and served by a line from Waterloo to Aldershot. The only thing at Long Cross for a long time was the Defence Research Agency, but I think its now used as a location for television drama and film. It feels very remote as a station, and is the only way you can access Chobham Common, or parts of it, by public transport.
All the spaces are dependent upon the car for access. They are also associated with contemporary literature and television culture. The Common pictures are partly ways of seeing and through that seeing, thinking about a landscape that is complex. One that on the one hand looks like wild nature – though often the spaces being very strategically managed to look wild in a particular way – yet also a space of contemporary leisure, another form of contemporary consumption. The pictures, I hope, embody some of that complexity – or least enable certain questions to be asked about the relationship which we have to nature in an era of late 20th/early 21st century consumerism.
WL: Particularly in the narrative that you’ve just run through, you’re very close to an cinematic approach which uses sequences that hold the camera shot still for a long time on a subject, the idea being that it gets the viewer to engage with an everyday object?
Within the critical ecocinema world there seems to be a debate as to whether such an approach is actually worthwhile in the sense of who will it actually engage – if anybody? The approach is contrasted to the mass impact of Hollywood blockbusters which it seems are likely, though it is not their specific aim, to provide a means for the creation of popular opinion. Whatever the viewpoint it’s a very robust debate fuelled by a universally held motivation in students of ecocinema of effecting change in environmental consciousness. I think that I see two similar opposing strands in your work – one is almost like a cold academic study of how photography sees, the other involves emotion evoked by the work and subject. Are you conscious of living with those two things – I am certainly hearing of the first from you, but am I inventing the other, the emotional environmental one?
FH: No, I think that’s reasonable. To go back to your point about film or the moving image, one of my biggest influences is Patrick Keiller. Some of his subjects – Horsell Common, the Bentall Centre in Kingston, Brent Cross Shopping Centre in North London and Merry Hill Shopping Centre just outside Dudley in the West Midlands – feature in my work. I remember first seeing both Robinson in Space and London. Both films are important in slowing down the process of looking. Although Keiller works in the moving image, a similar sort of slow, immersive engagement is what I look for; images which encourage different experiences of time give experience to think in a different way.
In relation to the second part of the question about the work being cold, I think, again the influence of the Bechers is key to my work. The work encourages an analytical reading, and is unsentimental about place. But there’s a commitment to specific places. I’m drawn to those places for reasons that I’m not quite clear about. I don’t know if I really need to be clear; it’s what keeps me going back to those places to make pictures. I want to imagine in those places. Imagination cannot be completely separated from understanding or analysis. In a way that is where my work emerges – somewhere between the emotionally immersive and a desire to make unsentimental pictures that encourage an analytical reading of place. Be it ‘nature’ or a shopping centre interior, I have a fondness for the places in which I make pictures. Some of the locations are places in which I partly grew up.
Much of the work is made within the orbit of London. This is an area that I’ve always had an intense fondness and fascination. However I never wanted to make pictures which are overtly celebratory, although they’re certainly not derogatory. It’s where some recent literature focuses. For Example, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts’ book, Edgelands, and Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside. What I like about these books is that they are measured in their appreciation – Edgelands is celebratory, but quite mischievous in its celebrations. With Mabey, there’s a deep commitment to an experience of nature and to its description, but it’s unsentimental.
WL: Do you think it’s your academic background that causes you to lead with the idea of the prime interest being how photography sees or are you trying to retrain perceptions?
FH: That’s a good question. My background is within art schools. After West Surrey College of Art Design I went on to study at the Royal College of Art. I became interested in academic disciplines – or certain strands of academic disciplines – through some of the historic and critical study theory on my courses. My background is as a maker. I’m interested in history and theory but it certainly doesn’t determine my practice and I spend a lot more time making pictures than I do reading. What feeds into the work is a mixture of texts. The work is measured and unsentimental, but not, I hope, without the possibility of pleasure in its encounter
WL: I found your work while doing my MA in Sunderland. Marjolaine Ryley simply directed me to it as work that was beautiful but unsentimental!!
FH: That’s interesting.
WL: Does that not touch on the fine line that you seem to walk between the unsentimental and what you might describe as beautiful – though that’s not a word that you’ve used. Linked to this, you say you are inspired by the New Topographics movement, but your work is not a view which shows how bad things are or how something is disappearing…..it is a positive view?.
FH: Yes, very much so.
WL: A modified world but not a world that’s being eroded as in the New Topographics?
FH: There is a very fine line in the New Topographics; a particular focus on the destructive forces of late 20th Century capitalism. In Britain you have a very different kind of landscape to work with. Different subjects produce very different effects, and there are also conventions that you can’t easily get away from – particularly in England with the picturesque which I actively embrace.
Some of the writing that has influenced my work to varying degrees, sometimes problematically labelled ‘psychogeography’, can sometimes explore the edges of cities as places that embody destructive forces. However, there is writing that re-engages with the urban rural interface as a site of imaginative and creative possibility that can also be analytical in approach. In places of this kind that interest me, the effects of land management processes can be visible in subtle ways. This presents one of the challenges involved in working as a picture maker.
In connection, during a conversation with Jem Southam recently about the significance of where our work is made, Jem talked about how he could never really work in the south east of England because it’s too manic. The processes by which land changes are so rapid yet often concealed from view. So in a way what I’m working with are particular kinds of effects – the effects of land management and construction, particularly in the houses pictures. My work partly deals with landscapes that are associated with leisure, with recreation, but the effects of their making and management are not easily visible. I don’t know whether there’s a beauty in that!
However beauty is something that I do look for as a picture maker in terms of structure, and certainly in printing. I think I’m making work that invites questions but also encourages something positive or hopeful out of that experience. I’m not interested in making pictures that dwell on a dystopian sense, but it is a fine line. Whether I do it or not, whether I’m conscious of it or not…… I don’t really know. It’s the kind of interesting thing that comes out in conversations like this…I guess there’s always a tension that one explores.
WL: But it’s coming out as a conscious decision not to engage with the beauty, which I think if you look at Jem Southam’s latest book, River Winter, he’s almost going the opposite way, isn’t he? That work seems to be quite a conscious engagement – or even a flirting – with traditional ideas of beauty. He’s left out all the social elements of earlier work and it’s just pictures of trees and a river, some of them with lighting that is very close to the photography club aesthetic?
FH: The cycle of seasons is central to that work. There is a risk that one takes….. but I don’t know, maybe the question of beauty is being re-engaged with. Through the ’90s and 2000’s, beauty was very unfashionable. It was certainly rarely in photography education – or if it was it was used ironically. But I think that what has re-emerged is the importance of visual engagement and maybe pleasure in looking, the kind of necessary lure that a picture needs in order to engage a viewer critically. This is something that beauty can initiate. Beauty is not necessarily the antithesis of something more critical or more analytical, I think that they can coexist.
WL: But you can’t get away from the fact that it’s clichéd, can you? No matter how beautiful it is it’s done and done again, over and over, in every camera club right across the land?
FH: Critically engaging work unfolds over a series where maybe an image that might appear to be from a camera club context is offset. That’s partly why artists work within series. The process of working involves an ongoing exploration, like Paul Graham’s A1: Great North Road. There are pictures in that book – for example, the picture of the poppy fields – which are very beautiful, but then you turn the page and there’s a car sales yard. I think that beautiful pictures can work in the right context – their presence doesn’t necessarily make the whole work clichéd.
WL: In terms of creating each series and in terms of being a large format photographer how important is the editing stage to you? I don’t think you’re going to produce hundreds of plates then edit the prints?
FH: No. John Darwell’s interview with you is very interesting. I read it with great interest, particularly in terms of thoughts on the quantity of images. I will go out typically with four slides loaded because I have a limit to the amount of equipment I can carry – lenses and light meter and all kinds of peripheries and film holders. So, I only have material for eight pictures.
But…… I do also use a digital compact camera for working out picture structure and framing, to which end I do spend a lot of the time on pre-visits to spaces without the large format camera…….so looking often precedes photography. We are going back to walking again. Walking is a way of enabling eye level views – slow views even. It enables the possibility of stopping and contemplating and thinking and to anticipate a camera and a tripod as devices through which you to make pictures. There’s a kind of editing that happens before rather than after for me.
Also I have to be reasonably certain that a picture is going to work when I set the 5×4 camera up…..but it’s not always the case! Some pictures that I’m really quite confident about when looking at the ground glass, when the contacts come back are mildly disappointing. Then sometimes pictures made when I wasn’t so confident but I’ve taken anyway, have worked really well.
Extensive print editing might be understood in more recent photographic terms – when I say recent I’m thinking of the hand-held camera and the process of making lots of images and then editing those images. For me the process is one of very selective exposure of film.
WL: But you’re certainly not pushing towards a Thomas Joshua Cooper situation with the one picture per location and that being part of a performance? You’re not that single one take, but you’re also not the multiple ones either – you are on the thin dividing line of only eight per trip!
FH: Yes, exactly. It’s interesting you mention Thomas Joshua Cooper. We were both speakers at a symposium on land, travel and environment that the University of Brighton organised a while ago. While I admire Cooper’s work hugely, our contributions to the symposium revealed very different approaches. There is a performative element in all photography and certainly in some aspects of my work, but I don’t take it to the extreme of one picture on which everything else rests. I think it’s a different kind of practice.
WL: Yes……I can follow that, you are close you to TJC for purely practical reasons – that you can’t carry any more – whereas I think in terms of his work it almost doesn’t matter what the picture comes out like because whatever it is, it is the work .The plate from the camera is the product for him no matter what, whereas you’re giving yourself room for edit based on you being interested in the intended content of the image?
FH: That’s certainly the case in terms of where the work’s shown and how the work is shown. In my one solo show to date there was nine pictures. Most of my contributions to photography have involved very, very few pictures. Apart from the solo show, I think the most I’ve ever shown is a set of six. I never show work in great volumes.
WL: You’re never tempted when having the digital camera in your pocket to abandon the large format?
FH: No, no, absolutely not! The digital camera is a great tool but it’s the speed at which the work is made that is important. The large format camera enables a focus on picture structure and the process of looking.
I also think it important that when the images are printed and seen in a gallery context the speed of viewing also slows down – quite literally allowing the exploration of detail from the viewer’s point of view. There’s a correspondence between inviting a viewer to look very slowly and intensely at a few pictures and the process that’s involved in making those pictures. They’re very different but they do have very strong similarities in their sort of immersion. Using the 5×4 camera, when you’re looking at the image on the ground glass you’re actually looking at an image that’s already formed, you’re not looking through like in a range finder camera. Beyond that you’ve obviously got to expose the negative correctly and then print in a way that embodies that sense of what you want the picture to look like.
WL: That’s interesting, the image is actually there….. yes, before you expose? All you’ve got with the plate is some means of making it permanent?
WL: Do you ever get frustrated with the fact that you are reducing a very multi sensual experience to a 2D visual one?
FH: Not really, no. I’m endlessly fascinated by pictures and I think the more one focuses and intensifies that looking process, the more complex it becomes. It’s very challenging and liberating to work with limitations and the limitations of photography fascinate me.
The print is a material form that I find more and more fascinating because it embodies an intensification of the experience. Also it’s an alternative to how photography is more broadly produced, circulated and exchanged.
WL: Going back to psychogeography – you’ve commented on the term being slightly problematized, but if your are not describing your work as psychogeographic, how would you describe your work in just a couple of key words?
FH: I’m interested in the common place, in pictures of places that are within the realm of experience. I’m fascinated by the visible. That comes from influences, like Patrick Keiller. His film Robinson in Space involves a provocation “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible”.
What has become talked about in contemporary art discourse as ‘the everyday’ – an encounter which avoids the obviously exotic or spectacular – or even sublime – also interests me. The effects of ordinary light, for example, stilling of the view. What interests me are pictures, the picturesque landscape and the photograph as documentary art. It is convergence of forms and histories that my work involves.
WL: ….so its the parochial view, as in its original sense that Robert Macfarlane points out, not a soured thing but an intense and local geographical experience?
FH: Re-engagement with the parochial, in the sense that you describe, with thinking about looking where one is, that is important and necessary.
For more on Fergus Heron and his work click here