Exercise 3-6: Documentary, identity and place

Read the article on ‘We English’ in Eight magazine (issue 25, summer 2009)

Download Stephen Daniels’ introductory essay to ‘We English’ and the relevant contact sheets from: https://www.simoncroberts.com/work/we-english/

Write a short reflective commentary.

My first impression of Simon Roberts’ 2008 project ‘We English’ was a sense of being underwhelmed. As I researched the project and learned of Roberts’ strategy and aims my appreciation for the work grew, to the point that this post could easily become something more extensive than the brief calls for. The largest inspiration I have gained from this series is the insight Roberts gives into the practicalities of funding a major project and the way he has underpinned ‘We English’ both conceptually and through influences in a way that does not alienate the casual viewer yet provides deeper substance for those who look for it. Refreshingly, Roberts also makes his work accessible through both his website and the specific ‘We English’ website that accompanied the development of the work – this means I feel able to fully assess the project rather than having only partial access as has often been the case when researching other photographers for this course.

Background:

‘We English’ is Roberts second major photographic project following ‘Motherland’ (2007) which was an outsiders photographic exploration of Russia. The success of ‘Motherland’, which was entirely self funded by Roberts, opened doors for him when conceiving ‘We English’. He started with a publishing deal with Chris Boot who he had built a relationship with as the publisher of the previous work and successfully gained funding from the Arts Council, The National Media Museum and the John Korbal Foundation. This practical aspect of raising funds in order to be able to undertake a project is referenced in a candid and refreshing way by Roberts – I find that romantic notions of how artists’ conduct their work are often foregrounded with the practical realities of achieving funds either ignored or side-lined. Roberts dispels the myth of the artist who only creates, the work then meeting admiration in the wider world through his openness to his working methods. He likens himself to a juggler trying to keep multiple balls in the air, always looking for ways to create revenue and fund the next project. As he tells Max Houghton (2009):

“20 per cent of your time is taking pictures and 80 per cent is banging your head against a wall trying to make things happen.”

One of the themes Roberts explored in ‘Motherland’ was the relationship and attachment of the Russian people he photographed to their homeland – something he found “somewhat mysterious – simultaneously profound and banal”. (Roberts, 2009) ‘We English’ grew from this as Roberts began to consider his own attachment with England and notions of belonging, memory, identity and place.

Approach:

The photographs for ‘We English’ were made over 5 months in 2008. Roberts lived in a motorhome throughout the project, travelling each day to a new destination and photographing there. A weekly column in The Sunday Times acted as weekly dispatch, both promoting the project and asking for collaboration from the readers.  Roberts invited readers to suggest places or events he could visit and photograph over the following week – a key aim for Roberts was to make work that was relevant to the people portrayed. The ‘We English’ website also served this function as well as playing a central role in building an audience for the project – by the end of the 5 months Roberts had 3000 subscribers. The interactive nature of the website also had the more practical element of being favoured by funding bodies, but, more importantly, Roberts sees the continued existence of the site as intrinsic in itself: “a trail of ideas and inspiration, saved for electronic posterity.” (Houghton, 2009)

The question Roberts asks through ‘We English’ is whether elements of English identity can be found in landscape and people’s outdoor leisure activities. His approach is informed by his training as a cultural geographer and belief in the idea that landscapes need to be decoded. Rather than photographing individuals, Roberts engaged in the idea of the collective and how groups of people populate the landscape. The unifying theme throughout the series is the inclusion of natural boundaries that occur in the landscape, for example between sky and sea, path and field, and a sense of Englishness in the manufactured landscape.

Aesthetics:

Roberts used a 5×4 large format camera for the photographs for ‘We English’, a format that informed the project both in terms of look and practicality. It was important to Roberts that he captured full, detailed scenes – something the large format naturally lent itself to. He often set up the camera on top of the motorhome which enabled an elevated viewpoint, he also found that by the time he had set up the camera and tripod any curious onlookers had lost interest and looked away which enabled the scene to be captured naturally. The painterly quality to the scenes is deliberate and influenced by 19th century art which depicts England in a Romantic and picturesque tableaux style. This was not only restricted to unpopulated rural scenes and rendering of beauty spots, but also, paintings that were full of crowds and theatrical in nature showing “the landscape [as] an arena of performance and narrative.” For example, William Powell Frith’s paintings of crowds such as The Derby Day’ (1856-8) which Roberts acknowledges is an influence on his own picture Ladies Day, Aintree Racecourse, Merseyside, 4th April 2008.’

Influences:

Roberts acknowledges a number of photographic influences on his series which helps to understand the intertextual nature of the work. English photographers such as Tony Ray-Jones, Martin Parr and John Davies are cited as precursors with Ray-Jones being a particular influence and with Roberts studying his diaries written during his 1965 England project which are kept in the National Media Museum archive. The combination of road trip and large format is reminiscent of similar work in the US by Stephen Shore and Joel Sternfeld, although Roberts was conscious not to show this overtly, rejecting some images that bear too close a resemblance to their aesthetic.

Thoughts:

Researching specific bodies of work for this is often frustrating as the photobooks cited can be expensive and difficult to get hold of. Work on the photographers website can be incomplete and difficult to assess as a whole. Simon Roberts has gone to great lengths to present his work in a full form online along with links to articles which help contextualise the series. This demonstrates Roberts skilful approach to marketing, as previously mentioned, and it is interesting to note that he clearly sees his website as an important part of his output rather than something that detracts from exhibitions and photobooks. I was also pleased to see he is offering PDF versions of his photobooks on his website for only £2.50 which has meant I can view the work presented and sequenced in the way he intended, the largest benefit of this is seeing some images presented side by side which changes the way they are read when assessed together. The first thing I noticed was that although the images have a visual coherence while also presenting a wide variety of scenes they are sequenced chronologically and also that Roberts journey does not always seem to be straightforward – for example, Aln Boat Club, Alnmouth, Northumberland, 7th September 2008′ is followed by ‘Maidstone Young Bird National Pigeon Race, Maidstone, Kent, 13th September 2008’.

The images vary from the picturesque, such as ‘Devil’s Dyke, South Downs, East Sussex, 6th March 2008’  which presents an almost idealised scene (this is then followed by a snow covered sledging picture shot a month later showing how dramatically the English weather can change in early spring.) To others that focus on the built environment such as ‘Ratcliffe-on-Soar Power Station, Nottinghamshire, 16th June 2008.’ My first reaction to this is that it is a juxtaposition between the natural and industrial landscape before quickly realising that a golf course is as constructed and unnatural as the power station behind it.

Three images particularly resonate with me as they are shot in the North-East of England where I am from and are of places I have direct experience of. The first,

‘Sunderland vs. Liverpool, Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, 16th August, 2008’ is a sight I saw many times when I worked in Sunderland and travelled home down this road leading to the football stadium. I have never been interested in football but I admire the dedication shown by supporters and the way the sport unites communities. Roberts likens the Sunderland fans heading to the match to pilgrims, in the North-East football is truly a religion and way of life for many people so the analogy is quite accurate. He also makes the comparison with the journey that would have been made by miners heading towards the Wearmouth Colliery, on which Sunderland’s Stadium of Light is situated – the erosion of communities in the North-East after the closure of the mines is something that resonates with me and I find Roberts comparison affecting on a personal level. Something that is not immediately apparent in the picture is a young girl pointing straight ahead, apparently at Roberts, while everyone else looks straight ahead unconcerned by his presence. It is a subtle detail which I only noticed after viewing the photograph many times, and the only image in the series in which the presence of the photographer is openly acknowledged. I can only assume that the inclusion is a deliberate acknowledgment of the photographic process by Roberts.

We English
Sunderland vs. Liverpool, Sunderland, Tyne and Wear, 16th August 2008

‘Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland, 2nd September 2008’ and ‘Dunstanburgh Castle, Embleton, Northumberland, 3rd September 2008’ are both of places I know extremely well and have visited many times. The images are presented side by side in the photobook with Roberts camera facing away from the picturesque and focusing on visitors. Roberts talks about the theme of boundary points and how they can be either physical or metaphorical, the striking thing about these two images being the paths created through multiple visitors following the same track – despite large open spaces it seems we are driven to conform to the accepted routes, something Roberts sees as imposing a beauty on the landscape themselves.

We English
Holy Island of Lindisfarne, Northumberland, 2nd September 2008
We English
Dunstanburgh Castle, Embleton, Northumberland, 3rd September 2008

The lasting impression I gain from ‘We English’ is how a photographic project can change and develop through the actual practice of taking the images – Roberts clearly planned his approach and yet it is evident that the photographs themselves threw up unexpected results. This is no attempt to present a definitive view of English leisure activities and there are many readings of the images – these multiply when viewed as a set. The style of the photographs is deceptively neutral and rewards consideration, my opinion of the work has changed significantly looking at them and I continue to see new elements and connections the more I study them.

Bibliography:

Alexander, J.A.P. (2015) Perspectives on place: theory and practice in landscape photography. London: Bloomsbury.

Chambefort-Kay, K. (2014) We English by Simon Roberts, “Banal Nationalism” in Landscape? Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/Karine-CHAMBEFORT-KAY.pdf [accessed 28th March 2018]

Daniels, S. (2010) The English Outdoors. (Introduction to Simon Roberts: We English) Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/work/we-english/ [accessed 28th March 2018]

Daniels, S. et al (2010) Envisioning the English outdoors: Stephen Daniels, Ruth Kitchin and Simon Roberts in conversation. Available at: https://www.simoncroberts.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/In-conversation-We-English.pdf [accessed 28th March 2018]

Houghton, M. (2009) Work in progress: Simon Roberts. Foto8 Issue 25. Available at: https://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/foto825weenglish (Full issue at: https://issuu.com/foto8/docs/issue25) [accessed 18th March 2018]

Roberts, S. (2009) We English book commentary. Available at; https://www.simoncroberts.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/We-English-Commentary.pdf [accessed 28th March 2018]

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