If it looks good it is good. I was told this by a former academic at a riverside meeting in a well-appointed fishing bothy by the river Tweed. I think he'd been a long time outside of academia because he'd obviously lost the capacity for independent thinking. What he was trying to tell me was that if a landscape looks good, for example one of the well manicured estates of say a very wealthy Borders landowner, then all is well with the management of farm and land. Which of course is utter nonsense and merely serves to embed specific types and patterns of land management into the social consciousness. All of which brings me to a new photographic project.
After several years of hard work, research and experimentation, I found my way gradually into an emerging photographic practice which I think I can sustain and develop with some value in the outcomes. That's as far as it goes for now. More than five years research and a good intention at the end of it. Obviously I don't live in the fast lane when it comes to creative work. Furthermore I don't have the time or the inclination to jump around more than absolutely necessary. With music, which I consider to be my established practice, I spent and wasted a lot of time poking my nose into corners that were best left unpoked.
If we want to put things into boxes I've been working photographically with still life and landscape, both of which carry the potential for complex understandings of ourselves, our deep history and our attitude to the natural environment. Let's leave still life aside because I still have some work to do there. With landscape I had very quickly rejected the idea of making a one-off fantastic competition winning shot (not that I ever seemed able to produce such a thing) and instead delved into a research-based approach to establishing different series of images, made and remade over reasonably long periods. Something verging on the long-term and large-scale, which is how I work with music. I gradually folded this down into a radius of a few miles from where I live simply because this is the most accessible landscape I can find. And a rich seam it has proved to be.
I'm always looking at the work of other photographers, far more so than I do with other musicians. Robert Adams had a substantial impact when I was quite young as did the work of several English landscape photographers, both historical and contemporary. But it was the work of the English landscape photographer Jem Southam who paved the way to an understanding of how I might proceed. Southam works in terms of decades, visiting and revisiting his chosen sites in and around a part of South Devon where he lives, refining his vision and understanding of place. At first I thought his pictures were very good, of course, but then the penny dropped and I began to see the layers of meaning - cultural, poetic, social, historical and so forth, all wrapped up in photographs that are unspectacular from one perspective but undeniably brilliant from another. Pictures which accrue interest the more you look at them and read or listen to his ideas.
I'm currently foraging around the length of the Jed Water, the small river that flows through Jedburgh in the Scottish Borders. I recently followed it upstream to its source and discovered a massive tree felling operation in the forest around the upper reaches of the river, just short of the border uplands at Carter Bar. These ugly sitka spruce matchsticks, underneath which nothing grows, are simply a commodity. The forest, the Dykeraw plantation, is owned by Tillhill Forestry. Some of the documentation on the forest and its management are edifying, especially when they talk about environmental impact. Sitka is ugly when it grows and even uglier when the plantations are clear-felled to leave a scene that resembles a Paul Nash painting of the aftermath of trench warfare. Absolutely no redeeming features. Whatever happened to 'if it looks good it is good'?On entering Scotland from the A68 you see huge tracts of land torn out of the hillsides. Public amenity destroyed for some kind of profit, perhaps subsidised by the public purse (though correct me if I'm wrong). My vision for Borders forestry is based around a 100 year plan by the way but that's for another time.
Nonetheless this is what I have to work with. An intriguing gentle river that starts its journey near the border then courses through the felled forests, gaining some small majesty along its course through wide plains and tight valleys, flanked at times by eroding sandstone scars (including James Hutton's Unconformity no less, just five hundred metres from my house), till it bends around Jedburgh Abbey, past two rugby grounds, finding its way at last into the Teviot and from there to the Tweed and the sea. There's an enormously complex bundle of human and natural history in there. I've had it on my doorstep for two decades and regret that I'm only now beginning to see it as a relevant photographic project.