Walter’s Wanderings is a blog linked to a research project, (Re-)Enchanting Landscape?, which I am carrying out under the auspices of the WALK Research Centre at the University of Sunderland and which is exploring the use and representation of landscape in 21st century fine art photography. In particular it is examining the possibility of the emergence of a photography which has much in common with the ideals of the Romantic period in terms of its analysis of our sensual relationship with the world around us. In the late 20thcentury landscape in fine art photography has been represented by the New Topographics approach – and has largely been a polemic on the state of the environment. Is there something emerging which seeks to re-engage our senses with the world around us, and does the immersive powers of walking play any role? Output from the project will appear initially in this blog, Walter’s Wanderings.
During the latter half of the last century, landscape provided the inspiration for only a very limited amount of critically engaging fine art, be it photography or otherwise (which, just to be clear, is not in any way to decry that landscape art which was produced such as that of the Land Art movement). Rather landscape continued the slow decline in relevance to fine art seen since its hey day in the 19th century. A number of substantive conferences (such as that represented by the collection of essays edited by James Elkins and Rachel Ziady DeLue in Landscape Theory) failed to identify clear opportunities for the land to be restored to its previous critical prestige. This is in stark contrast to the popularity of landscape within vernacular art in the form of the trite postcard view with its inheritance of the sublime and pictorial from the heyday of critical landscape.
However, there are perhaps signs that the 21st century is heralding a kind of renaissance. In particular landscape-inspired poetry and creative writing currently looks healthy with a number of prodigious authors such as Kathleen Jamie, Thomas A Clark and those showcased in Ground Aslant, a collection of contemporary land-inspired poetry edited by Harriet Tarlo. Some, such as Robert MacFarlane, have even achieved best-seller status (The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot). In addition, a substantial network of research-based visual artists who actively draw on the land for inspiration has developed in the guise of the academic LAND2 network. Moreover, such moves are matched by major works in the academic humanities and social sciences which theorise our relationship with the world around us and in particular promote a more sensual lifestyle, key exemplars being Tim Ingold (Being Alive) and Jane Bennett (The Enchantment in Modern Life).
(Re-)Enchanting the Landscape is seeking to explore the emergence, or otherwise, of such a trend in photography. During the later half of the 20th century photography did perhaps buck the trend of declining use of landscape in fine art with the emergence of the New Topographics and related genres which sought to highlight the erosion of environments unspoilt by human hands. This was though a very documentary mode of photography, it offered little compared to the above by way of alternative ‘ways of being’. The continuation, indeed probably escalation, of the environmental crises which we face provides an opportunity for work which seeks to project alternative approaches to consumption based capitalism. Are photographers taking up the challenge and opportunity to match the sensual and meditative approach from literature and others? If so, what are the tools in their kit bag, and from a WALK perspective is the immersive and contemplative powers of walking playing a role? Within such immersion, how is beauty being handled, after it has been so clichéd, and rendered superficial, by the postcard of vernacular photography?
Photographer and WALK Research Associate, Walter Lewis, is in the process of working with WALK and the Northern Centre for Photography in compiling a number of interviews with notable photographers who can be said to be currently developing a photography practices which draw upon walking and landscape and are opening issues of sensibility and personal relationship with respect to the word around us.