Justin Bovington was ultimately the catalyst and I owe him a deep debt of gratitude. “How long have you been a photographer?” he asked, as we shared a coffee after my talk at Do Wales 2014. I laughed and thanked him for the flattering response to a few of the randomly selected images that had accompanied my meandering personal reflection on curiosity and the creative process. “Oh I’m not a photographer” I responded, “just someone who likes to make photographs.” But Justin had stoked a fire that had smouldered deep inside for nigh on forty years. Whilst I’d loved art, I was dissuaded from studying it seriously at school in favour of more ‘useful academic subjects.’ It was Latin or Art and Latin got the nod. Which was fine — to this day I recall the vivid pleasure of the absorbing Bernie Robson, my un-reconstituted Marxist classics teacher, passionately extolling the literary significance of Virgil’s Aeneas and his journey through the underworld. I did manage to add art O. level to my repertoire in my lower sixth year but when I’d finished by trousering a humble B grade that was that as far as art went.
Justin’s comment, his seemingly innocent assumption that I was a practitioner of some formality, for want of a better way of putting it, released a creative handbrake. It lead to a reconsideration of what the many thousands of negatives, prints, and colour transparencies that I had produced intermittently over many years, and which were now catalogued away in boxes and stored on dusty shelves, actually signified. It lead to a deep re-appraisal of what I was, coming as it did, at a point in my life where I was galloping through middle age questioning everything that I was doing in my career. Perhaps I was a photographer, after all I was certainly passionate enough about it and I made a lot of work. No that couldn’t be right, it had to be more than that. Firstly photographers make money being commissioned to make and sell photographs and a whole bunch of my stuff was shit and certainly wouldn’t sell. Secondly, no one else had ever seen any of the contents of the row of boxes — my work had never been shown. Thirdly I lacked technical knowledge and had no portfolio. But once the handbrake had been released it refused to be pulled up again and gradually I developed the mental resilience to ignore the loud doubting part of my brain telling me not to be ridiculous. Two months later I was accepted to study on the MA Photography and Urban Cultures course at Goldsmiths College, University of London.
My return to academia was blissful and I will write separately about the joyful significance of learning for learning’s sake in another piece. But for now, having created some context, I want to discuss some of the conclusions that I came to through embracing absolute creative freedom in a two-year critical interrogation of place.
What started as a photographic work — ‘The Forbidden Playground’ — became something much more — a personal attempt to understand a visceral connection with a place of childhood memory. The conceptual idea behind the project was initially inspired by a 1967 essay written by French philosopher Michel Foucault — ‘Des Espaces Autres’ (‘Of Other Spaces’)¹ in which he coins the term ‘heterotopia’ to describe spaces that have multiple layers of meaning and a fundamental and deep relationship to other places which might not be immediately apparent. In a similar vein writing later, Edward Soja describes this as ‘Thirdspace,’ where first space is physical, second space is mental or conceived and ‘Thirdspace’ is the space where:
If one is willing to excavate deeply enough unexpected things occur, some serendipitous, some more challenging, but all fundamentally beneficial as they lead to a more complete understanding of self. My investigation was of a very specific place — one replete with the archaeological remains of redundant bunkers and blast pens that litter the landscape of a former WWII Fighter Command aerodrome. This was our forbidden childhood playground.
The project evolved beyond a photographic study into an excavation of family history, childhood nostalgia and personal identity and was stimulated by a rhythmic and repeated theme of duality that materialised — duration and transition, permanence and impermanence, new growth and decay, optimism and pessimism, playfulness and melancholy. In the act of photographing time and again new contrasts and juxtapositions appeared — space and place, duration and transition, built environment, natural environment, longevity and ephemerality. In particular, the physical interrogation of place started to fuse with a psycho-geographic mental tour of memories and became a metaphor for an interrogation into my own self-identity.
This is why art and the creative process are so important. Engaging in creativity with innate curiosity leads to all sorts of discovery in the adjacent disciplines of art, archaeology, anthropology, geography, psychology and not least philosophy. We are called upon to ask questions of ourselves and by so doing we are invited to reflect on our innermost vulnerabilities.
Better still is to combine the creative process with walking. With its long history of philosophical advocates, Socrates, Nietzsche, Thoreau among them, walking provides the perfect space for contemplation — as de Certeau puts it ‘the walker constitutes, in relation to his position, both a near and a far, a here and a there.’ ³ It is the most direct, immediate and practical way of interacting with nature and has provided artists with abundant opportunity for self-expression, clearly evident in the work of, for example Richard Long and Andy Goldsworthy. Walking allows us to understand and uniquely capture the ambience of place. As Walter Benjamin suggested:
By formulating a creative, artistic practice (whether that is image making, writing, composing music or some other), we can explore how much of the attachment to place that we experience is down to the physical materiality of place, and how much is due to psychological under-currents. For me, where man’s built environment is suffused into a semi-natural or natural landscape, in this case one of grass expanses, greater knapweed, wild carrot, small scabious, and hawkweed ox-tongue, both come together. Oxeye daisy, bush vetch, yellow rattle and nettle infiltrate and envelop concrete, brickwork and steel. The acoustic, tactile and olfactory textures of this particular space are so powerful, heightening its visual enchantment to the point where making photographs becomes a process of escapism and flow. The heady perfume of cow parsley crushed underfoot, and the imagined rumble of Hurricane engines, scrambled to intercept enemy Dornier bombers, provide a most potent sensory ambience and memory of childhood.
And thus the making of a body of photographic images was both cathartic and therapeutic and allowed me to wrangle with some deep-rooted aspects of self. ‘Every photograph is a certificate of presence’ wrote Roland Barthes ⁵. The images that I made are my certificates of presence. Diane Arbus said ‘A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.’ ⁶ The images contain my secrets.
Go in search of creative fulfilment. Don’t accept the noisy voice inside your head urging you to stay safe and sound leading a creatively unexamined life. The fruits of these labours manifest themselves in many different ways, and as a minimum we gain a better understanding of who we are. If we happen to create some art along the way then so much the better, it can be regarded as a fortuitous bonus.
¹ Foucault, M., 1984. Des Espaces Autres. Architecture, Mouvement, Continuité Vol. 5 pp.46–49. (The publication of this text, written in 1967, was authorized by Foucault in 1984).
² Soja, E.W., 1996. Thirdspace. Malden: Blackwell.
³ De Certeau, M., 1988. The Practice of Everyday Life. Translated by S. Rendall. Berkeley: University of California Press.
⁴ Benjamin, W. 1979. One-Way Street. Translated by K. Shorter. London: New Left Books.
⁵ Barthes, R., 2000. Camera Lucida. Translated by R. Howard. London: Vintage Random House.
⁶ Arbus, D., first published in the May 1971 issue of ArtForum called ‘Five Photographs by Diane Arbus,’ A Biography by Patricia Bosworth.
⁷ Adams, R., 1994. Why People Photograph. New York: Aperture.