Sunday, October 17, 2010

Photo Shoot: Oxfordshire Landscape

Last weekend I traveled to my family home in Oxfordshire, probably for the last time.  My father died two years ago following complications in what should have been routine surgery.  He was a physicist, turned artist in retirement and my influence in many aspects of my life.  The fact I embarked on this course is, I believe, largely a reaction to his early death and my desire to do something more with my life.  Mortality makes one think.  Since his death my Mother has continued to live in the house our family has called home for the past 32 years.  We moved there when I was 14 and since then this 300 year old Cotswald stone cottage has been a sanctuary and comfortable place to escape from the pressures of work.  

However, it is far to large for a single person and some of the spirit departed when Dad died.  Subsequently Mum placed it on the market and sold it in a couple of days.  She has bought a two bedroom flat in Oxford, much smaller and right in the heart of this beautiful old city.  I went home to sort through my Dads books, dividing them into piles for recycling, Oxfam donation, Mum to keep, and me to keep.  This was hard, especially throwing away books that had sat on shelves for 30 years, books carry much of the personality of a lived in space.  But, old textbooks are of no use and better to recycle into new books than to carry around as a dead weight. I also found a few very interesting art and photography books, some of which will be used in this course.

At times it was all too much and I needed to get out for a breather, so I used my time there and the excellent weather as an opportunity to do some photographic exploration.  The house is in a small village nestling in a shallow valley, surrounded by fields and containing some 12/13th century buildings that were formally part of a monastery, so potentially good subject matter. I also wanted to try my hand at a little landscape work, not my usual chosen subject, but one I may have to deal with at some stage during the course.  First of all this is the view from what was once my teenage bedroom, a 180 degree panorama rather badly stitched from 4 handheld portrait shots:

Notice how the cables do not join up, however, it is a good illustration of the village environment and a view I have enjoyed for 32 years.  The road in front of the house should be a straight line, this is a very distorted view!

Rather than present individual photographs I have organized the images created into themed contact sheets each with 9 images.  The photographs were taken using a Canon 7D and either a 10-22mm wide angle zoom or a 17-55mm f/2.8 image stabilized zoom.

My first study concerns the placement of the horizon within the frame and the different textures of the fields that form the foreground.  I also found the starkness of the wire fences contrasting with the sky quite interesting.  The emptiness of much of the landscape was quite striking, although the angle of the camera and my own placement could quite easily transform a shot from a pastoral study of the folds of hills and tree lines into a bleak desert.

Another feature of this landscape was the recently plowed fields creating a strong contrast between the brown earth and the green of the surrounding field edge, left unplowed to act as a footpath.  The different shapes that this created form my next study.  Once again the placement of the horizon is a key feature, but in these images it is the curve of the field edge that is the dominating structure.

Within the complex of the fields are a large number of areas that can best be described as heathland, containing long grass and scrubby trees.  The next study focuses on the trees and the hedge lines that divide the fields.

The dominant structure in the village is a huge medieval Tithe Barn, built around the 13th century and the main reason anyone comes to the village.  As kids we used to play here, nowadays I use it as a photographic playground.  Weather is critical for photographing the barn as the  stone really glows in the sun and it is important to balance the barn with the sky.  This time the weather was kind and the light reflecting from the barn was well balanced with the sky enabling a good balance. In these images I have tried to emphasize the triangular forms created by different perspectives and how the barn sits inside its own local landscape.

My final panel deals with multiple subjects and is a catch all with a few images of the village from inside and outside the family home.  Danes Cottage - our home is the house covered in the red Virginia creeper in the top middle. The bottom row has a few more "landscapy" shots, badly done and not at the best time of day for such things:

As well as creating the contact prints I also took a more detailed look at three frames.  The first is a close up of a hedge row, a complex matrix of interlocking branches.  I had seen some images of this nature by Lee Friedlander and wanted to attempt something similar:

In a rare departure from colour I also processed this image into monochrome, enabling me to push the contrast far further than with the softer colour image.  I still do not like black and white imagery, especially digital B&W, processing a colour image as black and white for some kind of artistic effect bothers me.  However, in this case I prove myself wrong as the B&W image is much stronger, it places focus on the structure of the content rather than the colour.  Maybe I will one day cross over to the dark side, although if I do, I want to do it with film and pull out my underutilized EOS 3.

Another image that really struck me at the time of taking is the following landscape, taken looking up a hill.  This is very reminiscent of the recent photographs taken of the surface of Mars.

My last image is a conceit, I found just 3 poppies in a day of wandering.  They sat in some long grass on a gentle slope.  Placing my camera on the ground and pointing upwards:

I like it, but it is a little picture postcardy!

So, landscape photography?  I enjoyed taking these image, walking through the fields and taking pictures actually made me look closer at the fields than I have ever done before.  My approach and the images taken are very structured almost geometrical, straight lines and strong shapes, or are very busy such as the hedge rows or trees.  In the image set I find myself drawn to structure and form, looking for detail.  I am almost repelled by the "painterly" approach, the creation of misty landscapes holds no interest.  I enjoy looking at such images, but am not drawn to make them.  This is the first time I have purposely gone out to photograph the landscape, rather than simply shooting interesting things that might include a landscape element.  Do I want to do the landscape course, MAYBE?

Finally this was also an exercise in irony coupled with a deep melancholy and sadness.  I suspect that this is the last time I will ever visit my family home and walk through these fields or visit the Tithe Barn.  Strange that this is also the first time I have made anything like a serious photographic study of the surrounding countryside, finding great interest in what lay within this small patch of countryside.

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