Sticks, signs, leaves – the book, again, but smaller

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Playing with the idea of place portraits – I’ve returned (thanks to stimulus from friends) to an almost abandoned book project in the new year, now (with great sense of satisfaction) completed. It’s a miniature version of the book/artwork you can see here. I like the idea of having something you can carry around in your pocket that could be reminder of where something special happened, or a place you really like and want to show or send to a friend, or that you could look at when you’re stuck in the wrong sort of place for too long – ‘portable places’. Although this one is a project that’s been recycled (more than once!) I aim to pursue the idea further as it’s a process I really enjoy and I’ve been exploring some other prototypes and different locations that I think could work well. For now, here’s what I’ve made, if you’d like to know more, or want one of your own, please get in touch via the contact page or mail: info [at] particular.org.uk

Underneath the links and gallery below is an essay with more detail on how and why this book came about, and an insight into the title.

See also:

Woodland Wonders

Multiple – The weather from at my home and in my garden

Click on any image to open it in a separate window where you can click through the whole sequence.

The language of landscape

The images in this book are created from photographs I’ve taken in a North Somerset wood over a period of 20 years. This small wood is within walking distance of my home and the stream that rises near and runs through the wood joins the River Avon in the village where I live. I’ve visited it regularly since 1987, generating a large number of photographs along the way and in 1999 made a year-long, detailed study, both photographic and contextual, which became a Year of the Artist exhibition in 2001, visited by nearly 800 people.

Although this exhibition was a major personal achievement, one of my original aims for that project was to try to identify what I found so appealing about the place, a question for which I didn’t feel I’d found a satisfactory explanation by the end of the process, and a theme that continued to provoke me.

Since then I’d been seeking an appropriate way to convey the sense I have that within certain landscapes there is some meaning beyond the topography –  a language, a text – formed by configurations of natural features, details of vegetation, traces of humans and animals, an idea that has intrigued me since my early twenties and also noted (I discovered with much excitement while researching during the making of this book) by Thomas Hardy:

The casual glimpses which the ordinary population bestowed upon that wondrous world of sap and leaves called the Hintock woods had been with these two, Giles and Marty, a clear gaze. They had been possessed of its finer mysteries as of commonplace knowledge; had been able to read its hieroglyphs as ordinary writing; … together they had… mentally collected those remoter signs and symbols which seen in few were runic obscurity, but altogether made an alphabet.

The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy, 1912.

For this book I drew on the archive of material I had created but reworked the images to try to visually express this idea.

In common with much of my previous personal work, this is a kind of inventory of a specific location (see also Southville and Bristol /Oporto posters), but this artefact takes the concept further and attempts to create an analogue of the experience of visiting the woods where the viewer / reader of the book can ‘travel’ around The Woods ‘reading’ the signs that provide the vocabulary of place – the catalogue of the characteristics which makes each area unique and distinctive.

Developing the visual approach used in the book in combination with theoretical research, provided many clues and insights into my attraction to this location but it has also increased my understanding of the particularities of place and the value of the familiar and the local.

Arriving at the book form

I’ve been working with photography for decades now, it’s an integral part of my life and since college I have recorded and archived all my photographs, negatives and more recently digital output, in chronological order – professional work, family albums and personal practice). This automatically frames dozens of years of photographs within a linear, autobiographical narrative which I usually refer to when I make a new piece of work.

I shifted from 35mm black and white to colour in the 1980s when it became evident that darkroom use and small children were incompatible, another factor that eased the departure from monochrome was that High Street colour film processing had become affordable – and the 6 x 4 prints were easier to view than contact prints, they became the ‘means of production’ for much of my montage work in the mid 1980s and 1990s.

But up to that fairly swift ‘colour conversion’ the 35mm contact sheet was an artefact that had a strong significance in my working process, as it was the first stage in the process – that had begun with pressing the shutter – where you could clearly see what you had envisioned at the moment of image capture. For me each roll of film was a self-contained unit of time; it was finite but might span anything from ten minutes of one place or event, to (unusually) several months of diverse subjects, locations and activities. The uniformity of the contact sheet grid imposed a division and ordering of time and implied a continuity; a kind of personal index of my time and a means of making sense of the world and my history within it.

So contained within this book there’s an acknowledgement of my earlier black and white photographic practice; when the book’s sections are opened and laid out one above the other there are 6 rows of 6 images – as in the 35mm film contact sheets referred to above – an attempt both to reconcile past and present practice, and to unify the variety of experiences with the duration of my relationship with the place. The layout I devised also combined my innate desire for order with a physically more adventurous space of a loose book form – perhaps encouraged by the more private nature of viewing.

The form of this book reveals the sections of the wood in the way a deflected path will disclose a series of vistas, attempting not just to depict scenes from certain places but to re-create the sense of the experience of a visit there. The ‘chapters’ have been conceptually devised in a variable order, and assembled in such a way that they can be arranged into different sequences, once again echoing how you might take different entrances or routes on each visit to the woods.

The title – Sticks, signs and leaves

Although a pun shouldn’t need explanation (with a nod to the originator of the Eats, Shoots and Leaves joke and to Lynne Truss’s book of the same name), my title has many layers which refer to the subject, my practice, theories, ideas and approach within this project, and may entertain through some unravelling! The sticks and leaves that one would expect in a wood also allude (in the case of ‘sticks’) to my practice of assembling and sticking sections of photographs into montages, and that I’d stuck with the project for so long! The leaves are to be found in the book as pages, and as a verb, marked a point at which to move on and leave the woods for other subjects. The signs  – well, they are what I have found, interpreted and created on the pages of the book, and they too contain my own signature.

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