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  • Mark Wylie

Constructed landscapes

When I first started photography, my main interest was in landscape photography. Living in Cornwall at the time, it was typically seascapes and moorland locations, complemented with frequent trips to the Lake District. I still take great pleasure out of landscape photography, each month an outdoor photography magazine lands on my hallway carpet for me to read.

Whilst my interests in photography changed over time, moving from the landscape to people. In the last few years my interest in the landscape has returned. The pandemic and the necessity for social distancing along with limited opportunities to leave the home through repeated lockdowns further enhanced my desire to get back to the landscape as a place of refuge and healing from the strains of living with a young family in lockdown.

Over the last few years, the shots that I have taken of the landscape have left me feeling that something is lacking within them. They don't feel quite right to me. They are pretty landscapes, in the classic romantic / picturesque style, but therein lies the problem.

Such beatific conceptualisations of the landscape seem out of place with the reality of the social and physical landscapes of today. The images seem alluring, but dishonest. They tell of an idea of the landscape, not the actual landscape. A picture of trees gives a sense of an endless expanse of pristine woodland, when in reality it is a few yards from a carefully excluded path that is the route of logging vehicles.

The word landscape can apply to both the physical as well as social domains. When we think of landscape photography, we are typically looking at the physical domain, predominantly through the 'golden hour' tinted lens. Robert Adams other photographers of the New Topographics movement in the 1970s sought to reduce societal reliance on such a limited lens.

Any such viewing of an image by a person is through their mind which inherently brings in ideas about the psychological landscapes. This is where people talk about things like 'political landscapes' and 'emotional landscapes'. Naturally, these don't refer to a physical place but to the murkier concepts of social domains.

Whilst I am not going to get into the climate debate, such classic photographic landscape images appear to portray the impression that 'everything is OK' when perhaps in reality, things are really not OK. When I look through my monthly magazine about outdoor photography, the words point to climate change and environmental degradation, but the images themselves point to an enduring and seemingly everlasting beauty. It makes for a strange disconnect. The images that I see now in these types of magazines are the same that I saw over 20 years ago when I first picked up a camera. There is an overall feeling that nothing has changed.

Of course, in reality the British landscape has been used and abused for milennia by people. Where I live in Wiltshire, the signs of previous occupants lives remain strong throughout the county, most famously in the guise of Stonehenge, but less obviously in the form of the numerous tumuli that scatter the landscape. As humans we have a long history of discarding the past and leaving it for others to address. Handy in the case of Stonehenge, but less so in the case of spent nuclear fuel rods which can remain radioactive for up to 100,000 years. The safe storage of these for such a long period of time has led to numerous headaches about how to inform future people of their danger thousands of years in the future. Given that much of the human cultures we know now will likely be incredibly different, can we realistically even imagine the human race this far into the future?

British identity to me seems to be in a state of anxiety and uncertainty. The fantasy that is Brexit against a backdrop of increasing divisions between different facets of British society has led to a lot of national introspection about what is means to be 'British'. There is no fixed meaning inherent in the word, but a series of understandings that are generally shared and agreed upon. School children are now taught a patriotic song 'Strong Britain, Great Nation' in an ideological attempt to unify a tormented and split nation.

The fact that Britain is an island nation created both a physical and psychological barrier to mainland Europe (at least until the construction of the channel tunnel in the 1990s). Living on an island gave the British the will to explore and escape the confines of a small region, but it also created a mentality that remained firmly locked within its shores.

In my recent photography, I have moved from shooting straight street photography to more of an allegorical stance about how people engage with the landscape. This might be for recreational reasons or work reasons. My projects are progressively getting longer, but the role of people as a direct point of focus is seemingly reducing over time. The projects seem to be becoming as much about the place as the people that frequent them. I am getting more interested in the reciprocal relationship between people and land, firstly in terms of how we change and create landscapes to suit our needs but also, secondly, how landscapes create and shape our sense of identity.

The nascent project on Hayling Island attracted me due to the potential it holds in terms of the physical and psychological landscapes. It's not a rich or popular area by any means from a national viewpoint, but it does make me ask questions like: Who comes here for tourism? What draws them here? What does this place tell me about living in Britain in the 21st century? Who lives here? What do they value about this place?

I am still very much forming my ideas about where I am going to take my photography in the future, but it is becoming ever more apparent to me that even a simple photograph is anything but a simple photograph.

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