It's not often I shed a few tears when opening the post, not even for those unexpected bills that seem to haunt me, writhing spectral like in the mists of half memory. Opening Joe Wright's book The Floods was a different matter. Even the packaging for this handmade book showed great care, attention to detail and the all-important personal touch. It could do little but set me wondering what lay within.
In truth I knew a great deal of the photography already, having followed his project from its inception, on social media and via email, right through to the bookmaking process itself. It didn't spoil the surprise so much as give me a feeling of personal investment, all part of Joe’s careful use of the crowdfunding technique that he set up to cover the costs. That's just the physical costs of course, in no way could they cover the investment of time, effort and inspiration which resulted in the beautifully finished book.
All this of course means nothing if the content within doesn't maintain the momentum. Design is lovely, but it's icing on the cake. The meat on the bones (to mix my metaphors into a thoroughly disgusting recipe) is the photography itself. Having said that, the design here adds to the pleasure of consuming the photography. As soon as I opened the cover to find a translucent page through which I first glimpsed the imagery, and on which are printed the words “Nature has its own order.” I knew I was in for a treat.
If you know me, you'll know I despair of photographs of misty trees. It's become a terrible cliché, often pursued to the exclusion of all else. It's come to symbolise that popular strand of landscape photography which is more about impressing others; and conformity to the tired visual language of the crowd than any real personal exploration of the landscape. It's landscape photography as big game hunting, and is as empty as any trophy hunter hanging the heads of his prey on the wall. Fortunately Joe’s book transcends this cliché despite the subject matter, or maybe because the subject matter isn't actually misty trees at all. Because this is an exploration of Joe’s metaphorical backyard, the ’edgeland’ near his home. And no subject is ever a cliché in itself, it's our approach to it that makes it a cliché, in this case he transcends the cliché to produce something fresh, vibrant and new.
Edgelands as Robbie Cowen reminds us in the forward (which is an excerpt from his wonderful book Common Ground) are those places that surround us in our predominantly urban lives. They are places “where human and nature collide...These spaces reassert a vital truth, nature isn't just some remote mountain or protected park. It is all around us. It is in us. It is us.”
They are places frequented by dog walkers, joggers and cyclists, not the photographic big game hunters of the reserves. I believe that is important, these places aren't the natural home of the landscape cliché or even acknowledged beauty spots for the most part. Indeed they are often used and abused in equal measure by the humans that frequent them. Fly tipping, vandalism and other such antisocial activities aren't rare, yet nature finds a way, somehow despite the abuse, to reassert its vitality. They're ironically often more wild than the monocultural agricultural land they often abut, more so frequently than the national parks that are so carefully ’managed’ to set them in some form of idealised man made past, that so often neglects the nature they claim to protect.
This ’wildness’ is often simply seen as an impenetrable thicket, a confusing tangle of branches and leaves, plants and animals. We are so used to the idea of the managed ’parkland’ that it can come as something of a shock. It is overwhelming, dense and detailed. And that's a tough job for any landscape photographer to express in conventional forms of visual representation. As Joe says this “represents the antithesis of the idealistic English landscape.”
He takes us deep into the tangle, but mitigates this, both through mist and the reflections at the tree’s roots, it becomes about pattern. As the patterns are mirrored in the reflection and as pages are turned and patterns repeated, that feeling of being overwhelmed is converted into something akin to the hypnotic.
Snapping my fingers to wake, and lend a conscious critical eye, which is not that easy to accomplish after such a spell has been cast. But I must for the purposes of a review find things to suggest that may have improved the book. There's not much, I enjoyed the company of the words in the first half which I found lacking in the latter part. I don't know why they stopped, they just did. The guiding hand of those phrases lent an insight and appreciation to the photos.
Counterintuitively, in the second half of the book, as the mist clears we feel more overwhelmed by the detail, deeper into the thicket. I don't just mean as a result of the resolution of his 10x8 negatives, although that helps, but that the land is perhaps revealed in a truer sense. They maybe lack the beauty of the earlier misty images (stop sniggering at the back), but we are drawn deeper into the confusion of the wildness, it is darker, somehow drawing this viewer in deeper. It's a more threatening place perhaps? I think it would have been a good idea to further develop the scope of the images, to focus on details maybe? It might have broken ’the spell’, that hypnotic journey, but it might also have deepened our understanding and appreciation of this place.
These are all minor criticisms and are easily offset by the sheer joy of that final-but-one plate opposite Eddie Emphraum’s end piece. Where another translucent page reveals to us something of the photographic process that Joe used to make these pictures. It mimics the ground-glass plate onto which he would have focused, a wonderful surprise and a wonderful ending.
There's more pics below.
And you can buy it here. I recommend you do!