Close to my parents' house is a pool I still think of as a muddy, overgrown, wet wasteland. It is a place where we used to go to play, build dens, lob rocks and get filthy. These days it has become something of a Rosebud, a touchstone of sodden alders and jumbled sedges that I keep in my mental pocket to rub when the world starts to spin that little bit too fast. It is the sort of place that sentimental conservationists like to think was once commonplace, but which has always been unique for those prepared to look closely.
As children, the place was our private demesne. The mud and undergrowth kept casual adults from disturbing us, and we could play there with our fantasies untainted by dull reality. It is always more fun to hunt wild tigers if no-one present is grown up or unimaginative enough to point out that they are really sheep. Now, as an adult, I still like to imagine myself sneaking down there to hunt fierce beasts, but I have also come to love the sense of continuity represented by the undramatic plants, trees and wildlife. This is countryside, not wilderness, and its structure and interconnected ecology fascinate me because they say as much about the history of the people who live nearby as they do about themselves.
The pool is tidied now, and volunteers come regularly in their green wellies to pull up the ragwort and hack back the roiling brambles. There is less mud, less of an anaerobic stink, and more of the clear, bright chalkstream water for which the area is famous. The official name of the designated preserve is "The Moors", but among locals it still called "The Sand Boils", after the toe-tickling underwater fountains kicked up by spring water rising through the sandy riverbed. Children do still make dens there, but they also come to find the GPS geocache, or dutifully with notebooks to complete a course requirement. The housing boom has nibbled chunks off the margins and a bright, shiny notice board now tells you the official names of the butterflies and orchids. A fence discourages you from paddling among the sand boils.
Unfortunately there is a jarring mismatch between the collective public memory and my own private pastoral: Google informs me that sand boils are almost entirely bad. Page after page of hits lead me to broken levees, the aftermath of earthquakes, and houses subsided into liquefied ground. These sand boils are portents of doom - you barely have time to run - or fingerprints left by groundwater at the scene of catastrophic failure. At Google a sand boil is an open invitation for the Army Corps of Engineers to start mixing concrete. You have to click your way past a host of raucous disasters before you hear the soft bubbling of The Moors' shallowwater sand. There you will find no sudden collapse, just a continuing quiet process that for the last few thousand years has seen the underlying impervious clay gently nudging the chalk bed aquifer up and into the headwater of one of England's smaller and more picturesque rivers.
So it is perhaps a good thing that sand boils are impossible to photograph - or, if not wholly impossible, defiant of the established typologies of successful photography. They do not interest collectors of spectacle, being not much to look at, even when you do succeed in making them out through the upwelling water's creased and re-folding surface. Neither do they attract conceptualists: as a definable, concrete phenomenon they are far too factual and didactic to interest the contemporary school of the ineffable vague. So, like many workaday natural processes in the modern world they are left to themselves, largely unobserved and mostly undisturbed.
This bothers me, because as someone who thinks in pictures I would like to take a meaningful photograph that shows how I feel when I think about the sand boils. I would like to show what I see in them, and not just what they look like. In particular, I want to lay bare the forensic clues that illustrate the layering and overlayering of settlement, clearance, drainage, refill, neglect and regeneration which have repeatedly spread themselves across this small patch of wetland. Also, the sand boils’ modern progress from tangled sump to catalogued, well-cared-for living anachronism matches the development of my own feelings towards the places where I lived as a boy, and I want to convey my niggling unease at the way my childhood has so rapidly been incorporated into the national heritage industry.
Photography and nostalgia have a long mutual history. Our critical faculties indulge and coddle memories from an iconic carefree childhood because to analyse them would risk undermining who we have come to think that we are. Old photographs are invariably fascinating - especially if they include people - because the mix of familiar and odd that so often helps a photograph lodge in our brains is supplied for free by the passage of time. The desire to record things before they disappear is often cited as a motivation for making photographs, as is the plain, honest documentary urge, and we all tolerate a certain amount of worthy dullness today because we know that tomorrow we will look on the same images with cosy affection.
However, indulging a personal nostalgia is not my goal when I say I want to make a meaningful photograph of the sand boils. Instead, I am interested in using poetic forms of photography to illustrate the mixture of memories and feelings this place invokes as part of the life of the present, as well as its continuing relationship with the cultural landscape in which it is embedded. I want to show the competing and contradictory aspects of the area, all together, and all at the same time, so they can be absorbed together as a complete, nuanced description. In written poetry, close reading and an informed, receptive mind are often needed to appreciate suggested references and ambiguities that are otherwise easily dismissed as vagueness or verbal tics, but one great advantage of the visual is that an equally multifaceted photograph can be assimilated quickly and intuitively. There is no need to instruct when showing will suffice, and photography can gently imply multiple meanings without having to strive to establish an impression of authority.
This sort of poetics is common in photographs of people, but it is rare in landscapes. Rare, at least, in landscapes made in the last fifty to sixty years, since the sixties sneered off the deadly serious post-war last gasp of modernism. Contemporary photographers will establish tension between their landscapes and their titles, or with concepts expressed in an accompanying essay, but they shy away from putting that tension into the work itself. It is usually easy to tell what we are looking at: the important question is why it is being shown to us, and the answers are given outside the frame in the form of context, venue and reputation.
This is a shame because it locks shut an entire cabinet of photographic tools, and because it reminds us of the role of shabby fashion in determining the favoured art of the moment. Also, I personally fret that when MOMA calls at the apogee of my creative endeavours all I shall have to show them are photographs taken in a supposedly obsolete mode of expression.
Such photographs are unpopular because they are impolite. They demand an informed response - or at least, an openhearted attempt at one - and they actively rebuke those who want simply to consume without engagement or effort. The art and fine-art opposite poles of modern photography don't agree on much, but they do both mostly avoid direct challenges to the personal comfort and self-worth of the viewer. When a photograph does not straightforwardly present information, but instead works by reference - and obliquely at that - it assumes a common body of knowledge between the photographer and the viewer. It prioritises certain sorts of experience, and publicly rewards those that know more than those that don't, which these days is just plain unacceptably rude.
Historically, this reluctance to make distinctions is odd: one of the great roles of photography was to prick complacency with undeniable facts, and to instruct the naive on the depth and consequences of their ignorance. However, these days petty civility has made the only acceptable conflicts the absolute, crushing ones of raw power exercised in parts foreign. Artists dealing with local or personal concerns are expected to keep their elbows off the dinner table, especially if they want a piece of the pudding.
Still, let us say for the sake of argument that I reject easy careerism - always the worst inhibitor of creative freedom - and rip open that toolbox to make the perfect poetic sand boils photograph. Let us say I succeed in expressing everything I think and feel about them and the place where they are found. What comes next? In particular, how do I go about communicating an originality that is deeply personal?
Conventional wisdom says that I have to find my audience, that I have to show my photograph to people who can see the layers of history, culture and personal memory without being distracted by preconceived mental images of floodwater destruction and keening women in black. It has been said that the definition of a cultured person is someone who can hear the William Tell Overture and not think of The Lone Ranger. I need to find the visual equivalents.
The Internet makes it much easier for those with minority interests to meet and converse, and somewhere out there should exist a venue where innocent lovers of obscure little patches of cultural landscape can share ideas and swap photographs. The bulk of the page view stats may regress to the popular mean of naked women, cats on cushions and soft, milky waterfalls, but with a modicum of self-discipline the outliers can happily commune without being infected by the cult of niceness.
But what if, despite the website, the canny tags, the blogrolls, the twitter, the link swaps, the teasing posts to online forums, and all the rest of the e-litter of viral self-promotion, what if - nobody comes? What if the sum total of my carefully gathered and nurtured audience turns out to be myself alone? I am not sure what would be worse, to be crushingly ordinary and ignored, or to be radically, differently original, and ignored. In either case all that results is a slow dribble of polite inattention, a mere fifteen mouse clicks of fame.
The problem is not new, and the questions it raises are central in the making of innovative art. Is it possible, in the face of indifference, to create only for myself? If it is possible, what purpose is filled by so doing? If I dare to work alone, to take the much-trumped road less travelled, am I a uniquely talented genius or an unlovely child mouthing la-la's with my hands over my ears?
I am sure that there do exist people who create photographs in isolation, who never show their pictures to anyone else, and whose archives are dumped unmourned into the landfill. It is traditional to feel pity for such people and to view them as failures, a touch sad and pathetic, and lacking in love. I don't feel that way at all, just as I don't look down on those who play a musical instrument well but who have no desire to perform in front of others. Such people prove that creating only for oneself is both possible and enriching despite being invisible to wider society's cultural radar, and that the answer to my first question is a simple 'yes'. The real problems lie in the latter questions: in particular, to communicate the deep thrills and pleasures of the hermit mode of creativity well enough, and with enough people, that the act of communication becomes worthwhile.
I could pretend not to care. "I photograph only for myself" is a well-used saw with an ancient pedigree and a finely burnished patina. The phrase disables criticism, and conveniently dismisses as a mere personal attack any response that does not meekly accept the creator's own Gnostic gloss. All discussion becomes a lecture, and debate is avoided by skewing it clean off the rails from the very start.
History has no truck with such rubbish, since no future feels obliged to be polite to the art of the past. But I am not interested in photographing for history either: my true desire is to make history secondary; to connect with the present to a sufficient extent that history has no choice but to care about me. So the documentary gambit, the idea that my boring photographs will be interesting in a hundred years time simply because of their age, doesn't help. Betting on the off chance that people not yet born will love my work seems only to pile isolation on isolation. At least the people who don't like my photographs today can tell me so to my face.
The key fact then is that my lack of ambition does not extend to the logical end station that is acceptance of complete isolation. I want to communicate, and I want that communication to work in two directions. The hermit likes a visit now and then, especially if the visitors bring cake. That is why even ignorant distain has a sting, and why I rejoice when I see the same things in other people's photographs that I value in my own.
The problem is not my work: it is my desire to see that work received in a particular way. Why else should I call myself a photographer and not some other word, or even no title at all? The name, the process, works as a form of stage dressing. By my choice of a particular medium and the conventions of its presentation I define a path by which I expect people to approach my creativity, even as I struggle against the necessary restrictions of that approach.
There is a way out of the impasse, but it involves an act of humility and a redefinition of the self. That shouldn't be such a surprise in a situation created by the illogical ambition not to be ambitious, but sometimes the thing that is obvious is hardest to spot. The point is to admit that I am not as original - or isolated - as I would like to think I am, and to recognise that my concerns are not automatically privileged just because they happen to involve the creation of photographs.
Those wellied conservationists to whom I was so keen to condescend in my opening paragraphs are motivated by feelings just as strong as mine, if not stronger. Moreover, they are actually doing something of practical use, encouraging other people to see what they value and love, and ensuring that it will be there for future generations to experience for themselves. The difference is that their appreciation is not explicitly an aesthetic one, or at least, they do not see sand boils principally as the raw material of visual art.
At this point the photojournalists can hold back the sniggers no longer, and some even start involuntarily to snort their beer through their noses. They should be allowed their mirth at the sight of an artist finally waking up from sleepy contemplation of his own navel, but let us not forget which group among photographers is quickest to award themselves moral and material privileges via the simple fact of owning a camera. Photojournalists spend their careers pretending that they and their cameras were never present: theirs is the ultimate unexamined life. Contemplative visual art, like contemplative writing, needs to have an explicit sense of self, if only as temporary scaffolding during the construction of meaning. The peanut gallery does however have a point: unless a photograph is intended solely as a reflection of its author, that sense of self should be used as a tool, and not simply indulged as a worthwhile object in its own right.
The true audience for any Platonically perfect sand boils photograph is not to be found among the lovers of photographs, but among the lovers of sand boils. I need to stop thinking of myself as blessed among photographers because I am lucky enough to have identified a new theme for a project, but instead recognise and make use of my particularity among those that love The Moors. I am not globally unique, but I am unique enough to be a useful member of the diverse community of sand boilers.
So the lessons I am currently trying to draw from poetry are not just the mundane technical ones of layering meaning and finding ways to speak at an angle to my main concerns, but also the trick of combining accessibility with complexity, and of not restricting my audience unless I absolutely have no choice. Most of all, just as the words that go into poems acquire their force and meaning from everyday utilitarian usage, I want the visual elements that end up in my photographs to be drawn from a wider pool than the established canon of photography. Whether this cross fertilisation results in hybrid vigour or chimerical sterility remains to be seen, but the attempt - the journey - seems well worth the effort.
Notes on the Photographs
When the children were small I would take them every day on a sleeping perambulation though the scrublands and half-neglected patches of idle land on the outskirts of our town. In these areas nurture is constrained by the limitations of the park service budget and nature has more of a chance to assert itself between visits from the municipal gardeners. The result is a structured untidiness of more-or-less accessible thickets, where an imposed formal order wages continual quiet war against the undergrowth's straggling vitality.
These particular photographs were taken while pushing our youngest son, who was less tolerant of halts than his siblings and who would wake up and protest loudly if the pram was stationary for more than a few minutes. There was rarely time for leisurely contemplation of the scene in the viewfinder, but I was able to look closely and repeatedly at the same things, to follow minutely the slow accumulation of details that makes up the cycle of seasons, and to wait for the appropriate light to invest a scene with meaning. There was also time for my own slow consciousness to catch up with the niggling sense that there were photographs here waiting to be discovered, if only I could see them.
Images and text copyright © Struan Gray 2003–2016. All rights reserved.