Photocanopy: Three Photographers in the National Forest (2014)
You might expect the boundary of a forest to be clearly visible, marked by the point where trees thin out into grass and open ground, but in the case of the National Forest, which occupies an area of around 200 square miles and spans the counties of Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Staffordshire, you’d be mistaken. Of course, a boundary can be marked in many ways, and those made by physical and natural transitions – between coastline and sea, mountain ranges and valleys – are in a minority. Most boundaries are imaginary constructions, administrative markers, lines on maps that refuse to reveal themselves in the landscape when we stand where the lines are, if our maps are to be believed.
Tracing the edge of the National Forest is a question of continually crossing and re-crossing an invisible line. It fluctuates under our car’s wheels as we drive from Burton-upon-Trent, with its futuristic silver brewery towers and red brick buildings, between the scattershot clutter of disposable architecture making up supermarket retail parks and industrial estates, bends itself around traffic islands and dual carriageways, weaves a path on which we encounter villages and fields of rare breed cattle, low stone bridges and reservoirs, reclaimed coalfields and ancient agricultural settlements. This KFC lies outside the boundary; that carpet warehouse or tyre workshop fits snugly inside. We see few trees in this part of the forest.
This is because the National Forest was not designated, or its boundaries drawn, to map a feature that already existed, but rather to mark out a space where a forest was envisioned. The area on the map that was chosen to become the National Forest in 1990 was selected precisely because its landscape, with former coalfield towns like Ashby-de-la-Zouch and Swadlincote at its heart, had only 6% of its total area covered by woodland, making the sustainable development of further tree cover both possible and desirable. That 6% had risen to 18% by 2009 and the proportion of actual forest to imaginary forest increases a little more each year, dependent on funding, weather and permissions to utilise land for the purpose.
Jill Cole’s photographs, shown under their collective title, Transition II, seem to reflect this sense of the forest as a kind of projective mirage, an idea slowly coming into existence, by layering images of present trees and woodland with textures drawn from elsewhere: images of leaves suspended as though floating on water, white lines painted on a tarmac road, crumbled concrete or clay rubble, stream-beds and saplings, gnarled solitary boughs occupied by birds, open skies seemingly made from cracked mud or building sand. These layers exist simultaneously in the present and at other points in time, making Cole’s images deeply suggestive. Her forest floats into view as an unreal space generated from its own very particular local textures. As the photographer notes herself: “The forest is incomplete, the vision not yet visible, as time plays its role in the transition taking place. The fences and paths of today will one day be hidden by the managed growth of tomorrow.”
If Jill Cole’s version of the National Forest is an act of projective imagination, a kind of hallucination or mirage in the process of realisation, Brian Griffin’s very different images of staff and students at Burton College ask who the denizens of this emergent forest might be. The town of Burton-upon-Trent, with its long history of brewing and its past reliance on oak barrels, shipped in from St Petersburg, sits on the northern edge of the National Forest’s boundary, which accident of geography makes those attending its local college literal forest-dwellers, a fact that gives Griffin’s strangely ritualistic portraits a kind of folkloric charge, as though these portraits imagine an ethnography for a forest community that is still coming into being.
Griffin’s iconic and often disconcerting 1980s images of the business world, or those made for LP covers by New Romantic bands like Spandau Ballet and Depeche Mode, his Eastern European-flavoured portraits of Kate Bush, connect these new theatrically staged portraits with a lineage of image-making in which artifice and nature, the everyday and the ritualistic coincide. Griffin’s Burton College series builds a very purposeful connection between the re-invention of a landscape and the very British mutations of his own origins, as a young Black Country factory worker re-inventing himself as one of the most influential photographers of the 1980s.
Griffin’s links to the formative years of New Romanticism seem revealing here. This was a cultural moment driven by the self-transformation of working class, regional and suburban kids into dandies and icons by sleight of hand, with make-up, clothes, a Germanic and Central European sensibility, electronic music and the cultural detritus of Modernism, all deployed to Remake/Remodel, as Roxy Music had succinctly ordered on the opening salvo of their 1971 debut LP. Griffin’s photographs of people working, living and studying inside the sustainably re-defined landscape of the National Forest echo those 1980s portraits of musicians and business executives in their use of props, lighting and positioning to transformative effect.
If Griffin’s Beauty Students are poised like mannequins, complete with masks suggestive of a forest-tribe’s face-paint, or Vaughan IT appears to be conducting an opaque ritual centred on a house brick, both might, like Cole’s layered hallucinations, be proposing some glimpse of a future contained within and emerging from the recognisable, everyday realities of the present. The resulting photographic sequence colludes with its subjects to stage a series of willed reinventions, bringing documentary material into collision with obliquely symbolic meanings and codes.
Where Cole’s Transition II resolves different perspectives within the National Forest boundary into single images, and Griffin focuses on Burton College, as one specific location inside the National Forest, the third commission, by Julian Hughes, traces the border itself, documenting and constructing narratives along a line that is sometimes coherent on the ground, at others slices through streets and rows of shops, or separates a pub, which lies inside the boundary, from the view out of its own window, which lies outside.
Walking the streets of Melbourne, Derbyshire, where a chip shop, butcher’s and newsagents are all cut through by the boundary, we find that Hughes’ portraits of the shopkeepers and bar staff might be themselves taken half inside, half outside the National Forest. A rosy-cheeked butcher’s son stands behind his glass counter, chalk-boards behind him, straddling the divide between forest and not-forest with the same precision as a pair of navigators’ compasses on an Ordinance Survey map. Elsewhere, a young woman with blonde hair, invited to stand on a busy street-corner outside the bar she works in, approximately marks the point of a turn in the boundary line.
Like Cole’s, Hughes’ project utilises layering to complicate its relationship with the landscape and people encountered, with still images set within a larger narrative of documented collaborative walks, performative actions on the forest’s varied edges, found materials and digital video, allowing a range of approaches to the territory. This sense of layering has been compounded further by Hughes’ invitations to other artists to contribute to and help document his activities, not only staff and students from Burton College, but also performers, writers, film-makers and photographers. As Marie Summerfield, Mark Davies, David Severn and Ollie Smith make their own responses to Hughes’ explorations of that elusive National Forest boundary, their interventions seem intended to blur the wider boundaries of authorship and ownership around Hughes’ project.
Like the National Forest itself, a potential future landscape contained within the administrative border marking out the forest as it presently exists, the three bodies of work made in response to its circumscribed terrain seem concerned with the implicit potential of a sustainable forest emerging in a landscape that was originally only 6% covered by trees. Through their own acts of imagination and suggestion, Cole, Griffin, Hughes and their collaborators align their photographic projects with the forest as it is. They document the people and forces shaping it, the textures and features visible within it, but each also brings a fresh perspective to a place whose own origins lie in an idea that was first projected into a particular landscape 25 years ago and ever since has slowly, sustainably, been finding its way into reality.