Thursday, 10 April 2008

Rural photography - the shaping of aesthetics

 I've just been reading Rural myths, #12 - a theme issue of the defunct photographic journal Ten.8 that came by the bookshop where I work.

Ten.8, founded by a group of Birmingham-based photographers and journalists including Derek Bishton, explored an alternative/activist agenda on photography in relation to areas such racism, unemployment and social unrest, along with an general brief of analysing the meaning of photography. Who photographs and what influences their topics? Who benefits from its display? And so on. If the Rural Myths issue is representative, even if you don't agree with the politics this is a thought-provoking approach and one unusual in photographic magazines, which largely focus on the nuts-and-bolts of hardware and technique, and, at most, practical issues of the rights and responsibilities of photographers.

Rural Myths contains several essays on the same theme: how photography of rural scenes has been shaped, from the start, by the social and political agendas of those taking the pictures. For instance, John Taylor's "The imaginary landscape" looks at how 19th century photography portrayed as "natural" a landscape that was actually radically transformed by agriculture and, especially, how it omitted rural poverty; and Stevie Bezencenet's "Landscape - Image - Property" looks at how photography's view of landscape as a prompt for aesthetic pleasure almost never confronts the reality of the land as property. Terry Morden's "The Pastoral and the Pictorial" and Peter Dormer's "Fantasy Island" both look at how photographic conventions tie into maintaining a certain reactionary status quo about the countryside: as a place that is expected to remain picturesque for the benefit of viewing by those who don't work there.

There are interesting asides about how conventions alter in relation to current opinion: for instance, how the 19th century's traditional artistic convention of offsetting salient features became modified by early 20th century didactic tourist publications into centralising objects of interest. It's somewhat embarrassing, as a photographer, to find yourself repeating the conventions described, such as the urge to eliminate modernity, concentrating on the folksiest parts of town and country. It'd be naive to deny that such conventions work in the sense of pushing the right buttons - any number of my own photos fit into the stereotypes of the "Englishness" of a scene, and I wouldn't have taken the picture if making the composition didn't have that effect on me quite intensely. But at least that self-knowledge might make me think a little more about breaking out of that script.

This aesthetic I think runs deep in the English collective pysche; it applies not merely to photographing rural landscapes, but is also a factor in shaping policy about land use. Attitudes to rural land are not permanent fixtures; historically, parts of rural England were intensely industrialised, such as the mining districts of Cornwall and West Devon, Even the quintessentially rural Kent, the "Garden of Engand", contained the Kent Coalfield (which remains surprisingly little-known despite the last pit closing as recently as the late 1980s).

A Kent coalfield would be inconceivable now, as would many other projects such as building a new railway tunnelling through spectacular coastal scenery, as Brunel did at Dawlish. We've moved now into an era where conservation is the dominant philosophy, where the aesthetic appearance of English rural landscape is a major factor in the debates over, for example, polytunnels, windfarms and new towns. It's right to consider the local and regional impact of such developments, but Rural Myths is interesting in highlighting the role in such considerations of ingrained and sometimes simply untrue memes of what kind of landscape rural Britain was, is, and should be.

- Ray

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