People & Place Assignment 4 : A Sense of Place
A: The journey from Assignment 3
This journey has been a long one as Assignment 3 was completed at the end of January and my response to feedback on that is here . I still have to write-up the study Visit to the’ Klein/Moriyama’ Exhibition in January plus the informal visit to the ‘Cartier-Bresson and a Question of Colour’ Exhibition at Somerset House. In February I went solo to the ‘Light from the Middle East Exhibition’ at The V&A and the ‘Nadav Kander Exhibition’. In March I went on an OCA organised talk by Tom Hunter in Dalston. I’m not happy about the delayed write-ups but, on the positive side I have put together a new blog category on “Writing, art and Photographers” here and have already written about Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road”, Robert Frank’s “The Americans” and Elif Shafak, the Turkish author. Shafak writes eloquently on language and culture and how storytelling can puncture holes in the cultural cocoons that we weave for ourselves. I believe that photography can do the same.
Additionally, I’ve attended two meetings of the newly formed OCA Thames Valley Group which I’ve written about here . We’ve been fortunate to get some funding from , the OCA Student Organisation (OCASA) so that we can have OCA tutor Sharon Boothroyd in attendance. It makes such a difference to be able to meet with people for a more intense discussion on photography/photographers and share work in progress. The physical act of taking along prints and having others comment on them is so different – it’s as if I’m looking at my work through other eyes.
I’ve also begun to work with a medium format camera and written about that here It’s the kind of photography I want to continue with.
All in all, reading back on this, I think I’ve achieved more than I thought I had so that’s good. I just need to curtail the extent of my reading and be more focused instead of reading anything and everything and then thinking I have to write about it all!
Onward now to Assignment 4.
B: Assignment Brief
To draw together all the various strands explored so far, including technical skills,; observation and reaction and “the underlying appreciation of what spaces and buildings mean for people who live in and among them.” 6 images as final selection but to choose from a strong selection of 12.
Imagine that I’m on assignment for an intelligent, thoughtful travel publication (not tourist promotion) that is demanding a considered, in-depth treatment. To me this means that I will look at the less good/mediocre as well as the positive aspects of the ‘place’. The aim is to show the character of the place and people who live there with as much visual variety as possible, resulting in 6 images as the final selection, chosen from a strong selection of 12.
I intended to follow my tutor’s suggestion of sticking to my 60D.
Choosing the Location
I had carried out the Projects/Exercises for this Part of the Module in various locations in London and, at first, thought I might go back for a more in-depth look at the V&A which had the advantage of being indoors (good for the ongoing bad weather) and photography being allowed, unless otherwise indicated. However I decided on Winchester Cathedral for two reasons. Firstly, I’d been inspired by Peter Marlow’s book “The English Cathedral” (2012) and, secondly, I know Winchester reasonably well as I’ve worked there from time to time in the past. I also knew that cameras and even tripods are allowed in the cathedral subject to special Services and events.
How is the character of a place conveyed visually? What is it that speaks to me and makes me want to return to a place? A purposefulness about the people – being busy and active; animated or looking relaxed and calm; at peace with what they’re doing; therefore people at work and play; singular or interacting. It doesn’t matter whether rich or poor but a caring for and about the environment. I look for a sense of history about a place as well and so Winchester appeals to me on all these levels.
I’ve already mentioned Peter Marlow. I also looked at all the suggestions from my tutor (see response to feedback on Assignment 3) – Simon Standing and Peter Fraser seemed particularly relevant here . I also reminded myself of Thomas Struth’s work that I’d seen at the Whitechapel Gallery when I was studying AOP – all those groups of people visiting various types of places of worship and being engaged in different ways of looking. I also have a book by Karen Knorr, Genii Loci (2002) including her series on Connoisseurs as I appreciate her images that combine elegant grandeur with historical reference and a wry look at how the connoisseurs behave. Whilst at the second meeting of the OCA Thames Valley Group in April I was also recommended to look at Mark Power’s “MASS” – the work he did in Poland and the way he took the same viewpoint in each church, paired with a close-up of its ‘slot’ where the congregation are encouraged to place money.
I have read Joel Smith’s book The Life and Death of Buildings: On Photography and Time (2011) which was an accompaniment to an Exhibition at Princeton University Art Museum in 2011. Smith writes:-
Photographs are made of time. …… Because they are made of time, photographs, in the plural, are good at reflecting change, whether of a person’s maturing face or of a building as it rises, or as it disappears
.….. buildings and photographs are concrete instances of social memory in action: they are, from corner to corner and from subcellar to roof peak, impure fragments of the churn of time”
(p. 14/16 2011)
I acquired some old postcards in between my three visits to Winchester because I was interested in how the Cathedral had been portrayed earlier for tourists and how my images might compare. Here are four of them.
There are two from Francis Frith (a matt sepia) which, I think, must be late C19th/early C20th. They are unused so no postage stamp to give a clue but they are similar to images I found on the Francis Frith website . The third is a Tuck’s glossy monochrome of the C12th black Tournai marble font, that could be 1930s,again no stamp. The fourth was posted in July 1967 (glossy b+w) and is of the Presbytery. I was interested that the Frith cards seem to represent the cathedral as almost a gothic ruin, aided by the fact that there is no seating which can serve as a reminder of people (it’s only in the modern era that people are no longer expected to always stand in Services).
Winchester and its Cathedral
In his welcome to the Guidebook Winchester Cathedral (2012) the Dean of Winchester, the Very Revd James Atwell, states that the Cathedral was “the Crown of Wessex that first united the English people in a single identity” and many of the early monarchs rest in an honoured place near the high altar. The original church was started on the orders of King Cenwalh of Wessex around 645 and the present building was begun in 1079 by Bishop Wakelin at the side of the early church (which was demolished), with some remodeling in the late C14th. It’s said to be the longest Cathedral in Europe and is also very narrow. I won’t write more about its history and the famous people connected with it because it’s all summarized on the Cathedral’s website . The now ruined Wolvesey Castle was the Norman Bishop’s palace , dating from 1110 and its chapel was incorporated into the new Palace, in the 1680s of which one wing survives. The Great Hall of Winchester Castle (founded in 1067) still stands nearby. I’m mentioning this because it seems to me that those early Kings and Bishops lived side by side ruling their separate kingdoms – the temporal and the spiritual; the secular and the sacred.
The process of the assignment
The Cathedral sits within its own green space with its shop and refectory close by and the town streets a short distance away. I visited on three separate days for the purpose of the assignment. The Cathedral staff and volunteers were most friendly and welcoming and it was good to wander around for a few hours on the first day to get a sense of the place and absorb the atmosphere, including light lunch in the refectory. On reviewing the photographs I thought it was insufficient though, too bitty to get a sense of people interacting there.
I thought maybe it would be better to go into the town so I returned on a very cold day to find shoppers, street musicians. I also became more aware of the immediate area round the cathedral;
going back into the Cathedral again is struck me how much it is like a small city on its own where everything is organised and in its place. The volunteers are friendly and helpful. They walk around and stop to chat to check that you’re okay and ask if you need any information. There are regular guided tours by trained guides.
The clerics themselves seemed to drift by occasionally with an air of going somewhere on an important purpose.
I saw more clearly how this large cathedral is divided into separate areas – smaller chapels going off to one side and places where some people (presumably staff) gather to talk in twos and threes. There was a whole sense of business going on behind the scenes. I began to think how ideal it would be, if I became a well-known photographer, like Peter Marlow for instance – to be able to have access to these other areas of the building and staff to gain a real sense of how everything operates as a microcosm.
I came away, still unsatisfied somehow wanting to have more photographs of people, especially as, on this particular day there were few visitors. I began to think maybe I should go somewhere else instead and had the idea of re-visiting Sunbury on Thames where I used to live. I did this – again during the continuing bad weather – and wrote about it here .I still felt that pull towards Winchester though and so returned for the third time.
The editing and evaluation process
I used only my Canon 60D camera, mainly with zoom lens but I also used a wide angle Sigma 10-20mm and Canon TS-E 24mm lens – having acquired the latter just before I went to Winchester for the third time. The light in the cathedral was much kinder that that in the two churches I visited for Assignment 3. The problem this time was more in converging verticals and the perspective etc of a tall building – hence the desire to obtain a TS-E lens (shared with my husband so I could convince myself it was cost-effective!)..In total I took 291 photographs (I’m expecting, again, that my tutor will say it wasn’t enough!) From those I selected 110 to process and convert to a mix of jpegs – the Cathedral, its precincts and the City. On looking at these 112 it was the Cathedral and the people inside it that began to weave me a narrative.
I’ve mentioned above my impression of the cathedral as a world within itself, with its different groups and routines. I also became much more aware of how it serves as a monument and memento mori. Despite the welcome I don’t experience it really as a spiritual place – certainly not like St Nicholas Church near to me. The Cathedral is a more masculine place to me – tall, hard, lofty, angular – whereas St Nicholas is small, rounded, enclosing and maternal, more of a mother Church maybe retaining more sense of its earliest beginnings in a different religion and way of looking at the world. The Cathedral appears to me as a monument, certainly to the glory of God but also to the priests who built it, the powerful, and its wealthy patrons. Its tombs and effigies reminded me of the verse
Stop ye travellers as you pass by
As you are now, so once was I
As I am now, soon you shall be –
Prepare yourself to follow me.
I had a discussion with one of the volunteers as to where this originated but neither of us could remember. I researched when I got home and discovered here that it’s an unknown epitaph from Tasmania, Australia. There are two monuments that explicitly represent this because they are cadaver effigies and the one most finely worked is this one of Bishop Richard Fox.
I’m certainly not saying that there is a deadness about the Cathedral. There is a beauty of light, form, glass and glowing wood lovingly carved by expert craftsmen over the centuries.
However, with its contents it is a time machine with a life of its own. It embodies time in its fabric, like the photograph but more so as, together with its people it is a three dimensional object. Anonymous visitors become Everyman as they come face to face with their own mortality and, as they gaze for a long time.,they become like living statues. The crypt of the Cathedral also holds the sculpture Sound II (1986) by Antony Gormley . I hadn’t realised until I watched a TV programme recently, that Gormley uses his own body for his sculptures. He makes himself into monuments of himself, as it were, in many different places and here he is in the cathedral also.
This idea of memento mori and the entranced gaze of visitors is something that stayed with me and informed my selection from the processed jpegs. I also discussed my ideas and shared some of the prints at the OCA Thames Valley Group meeting (link given above). It makes such a difference to have other people look at the physical prints and shuffle them around to form different narratives.
Working towards the final selection
110 jpegs became 52 as I discarded all except those inside the Cathedral. 52 then became 25 as I concentrated on the people; monuments; statues and tokens of remembrance.
The next selection of 12 included volunteers/staff as they worked.
Reasons for exclusion:-
4391, 4662 and 4735 – reluctantly as they were focused on a task as opposed to ‘gazing in stillness’; plus the colour palette was different.
4126 – the close-up of the head and hands seemed more appropriate than the full-length.
4160 – I had to exclude this because it was the only one in portrait format so it stood out as being different, I would have preferred it otherwise to 4111. My tutor had previously commented (Ass 3) where I had just one image in a different format. I could have justified its use because the effigy was gazing down but couldn’t work out how it could fit in the layout I wanted.
4168 – the colour palette was different.
The 6 selected for prints to be submitted
The order above is the order I envisaged for the layout and I have also printed a composite for my tutor to see. The prints are on Epson Premium semi-gloss photo paper. I will also be submitted printed contact sheets of the selections of 25 and 12 images plus some composites I did for the other themes I had discerned regarding the people of Winchester and the staff/volunteers in the Cathedral. These contact sheets have been printed on Permajet Matt Proofing paper – less long-lasting but with the advantage of giving a good representation plus cost-effectiveness. My tutor will also have access to a Dropbox folder containing all of these, plus full-size jpegs of the final 6 and contact sheets of the original 291 RAW images and the initial selection for jpegs.
What I set out to achieve/how I see the essential character of the place
As mentioned earlier it was Peter Marlow’s book on English cathedrals that initially sent me to Winchester. I diverted along the way with a diversion to Sunbury and also a look in Winchester City. Another book I’ve read is ’Townscape with Figures” by Richard Hoggart (1994). The book is actually about Farnham where he lived for some time but, despite the fact that it doesn’t have a Cathedral, Farnham does remind me of Winchester as it has retained old buildings, narrow streets and independent shops. Hoggart refers to writing one more book “which aims, by looking at a particular place and its people, to offer some ‘representative significance’: whilst also recognizing unique characteristics.” and the tricky element of finding the right balance between the two. He continues:
If the book so focused on the special nature of Farnham that it appealed to hardly anyone who did not live there or have a prior interest in the town then it would have failed …….because I had not made the place seem interesting, in its own right, to people who had not heard of it until they began to read” (1994 Introduction xvii)
I think it’s easier with photographs, perhaps because photographs capture people’s attention in a different way, but this is what I’ve struggled with. If I had been taking photographs with no end result in mind I think I would have been inclined to concentrate on the interior of the cathedral but not the people inside it. This is why this particular assignment has been another learning experience for me. I became more interested in the interactions and reactions of the people there. The visitors behaved in such a different way. I could see how they were being drawn into the atmosphere of this beautiful cathedral and behaving in similar ways. In this sense I hope I have captured some ‘representative significance’ within the unique building that is this cathedral. I actually used a variety of focal lengths when I was photographing but notice that the six I’ve chosen are fairly similar. I used a tripod for the first 4 with a lower ISO. The selected photographs are also in landscape format – to me this seemed better suited to a wider view of People in Place. I have written about the layout I envisaged above. If I had had more confidence I would have devised a more complicated slideshow where I could juxtapose the gazing visitors with images of the effigies as they faded in and out. I intend to practise slideshow creation and, hopefully, do some work along these lines for Assignment 5.
It was hard to let go of some of the photographs of staff/volunteers etc in my final selection but they didn’t fit my emerging awareness of a theme that seemed important – that everyone who visits there is surrounded by reminders of their own mortality.
13th May 2013
Hoggart, R (1994) Townscape with Figures, Chatto & Windus, London
Knappett, G (ed) (2012) Winchester Cathedral, Pitkin Publishing, Andover.
Knorr, K (2002) Genii Loci, Black Dog Publishing Ltd, London
Marlow, P (2012) The English Cathedral, Merrell, UK
Smith, J (2011 )Tthe Life and Death of Buildings” On Photograph and Time, Yale University Press