Thoughts on the cultural significance of landscape

Posted on January 14, 2013


I have yet to enrol for Photography Your Own Portfolio which would be my last module on the OCA degree course. I expect to do so in a few months time and hope to complete the course by the middle of next year. Through research and reading I’ve been gathering ideas which could be of relevance to my future work. I thought it might be a good idea to set down some of these for future reference.

I have been considering what would be the nature of the major project for YOP and for some time the idea of making a documentary piece on London’s East End has been at the forefront of this thinking. I have made several previous posts on this here. This work would take the form of urban landscapes and portraiture – the essence of the East End being defined by both place and people. What I have yet to clarify is just what it is that I’m trying to say.

My impressions of the East End are that it has been a place of constant change, with an eclectic and ephemeral population, and a reputation of ‘otherness’ when set against the more respectable areas of London. It is  a place steeped in history and has been the destination for waves of immigrants, the birthplace  of modern socialism, a place of religious and political tolerance, a focal point for philanthropy, London’s industrial heartland and gateway to the empire through its shipbuilding and docks and a mysterious, decadent place in the creative minds of crime and thriller writers and film makers.

I would like my work to be able to convey all of these aspects. To represent the place and its people as it is today but at the same time to refer to its history and mythology. I have lately been looking at Simon Norfolk’s work and he talks a lot about the idea that landscapes can refer to both place and time. He calls this  ‘chronotopia’. This notion is something which I would like to work with.

Norfolk’s photographs are surprisingly beautiful given that the subject matter is the aftermath of war. They are also awe inspiring invoking a sense of what he calls the ‘military sublime’. Norfolk has no concerns about the apparent conflict between the dreadful nature of the subject matter and the aestheticism of his photographs. He believes that this is necessary to grab the attention of the viewer. He refers to the work of 18th century landscape painters such as Poussin whose work is beautiful but at the same time references death. Poussin’s Et In Acadia Ego is a painting which shows and arcadian scene with shepherds gathered around a tombstone engraved with these words which can be interpreted as ‘Even in Arcadia I am here’. This is a reference to death speaking. The work can thus be interpreted as even in the most beautiful of places there is death.

I am attracted to the idea of making my photographs of the East End both aesthetically appealing and multi-layered referencing the history and mythology surrounding the place. In my exploratory work I have been experimenting with this for example in the photograph below:

Dreamland, Wentworth Street

Dreamland, Wentworth Street Whitechapel by Keith Greenough

This brightly coloured newsagent/cafe is on the corner of Wentworth and Gunthorpe Streets. Gunthorpe street was the murder site of Martha Tabram, 7th August 1888. She was thought to be one of Jack the Ripper’s victims. The name ‘Dreamland’ is ironically amusing given the nature of the place and also refers to the mythology surrounding characters such as ‘Jack the Ripper’. The Asian names in the signage also reference the East End’s latest wave of immigrants. These links are clear to me but probably not to the casual viewer, so were I to adopt this approach I would need to think carefully about captioning.

I have also started to think about the cultural significance of landscape. Landscapes have to be so much more than ‘pretty pictures’! The idea that urban landscapes can at the same time be aesthetically appealing, topographically interesting and culturally significant is one which I want to work with explicitly. In my recent researches I came across this quotation from a paper by given by a chap called Ken Taylor at the  General Assembly and International Symposium: ‘Finding the spirit of place – between the tangible and the intangible’, 29 sept – 4 oct 2008, Quebec, Canada.

One of our deepest needs is for a sense of identity and belonging and a common denominator in this is human attachment to landscape and how we find identity in landscape and place. Landscape therefore is not simply what we see, but a way of seeing: we see it with our eye but interpret it with our mind and ascribe values to landscape for intangible – spiritual – reasons. Landscape can therefore be seen as a cultural construct in which our sense of place and memories inhere.

Taylor makes the link between landscape and identity, belonging, symbolism and memory. Ideas that are food for thought for the project. I plan to look again at Liz Wells Land Matters  book and have just ordered Landscape and Memory  by Simon Scharma. I am also reading (slowly at the moment) Jack London’s autobiographical work People of the Abyss  which is his first-hand account of living in the East End at the beginning of the twentieth century. Other avenues to pursue are researching the East End’s history through reading and accessing library and museum resources in Tower Hamlets and Hackney. There is lots to do. I think it is going to be fun!