The first about “sense of place” I explained to my supervisor, had been an area of critical theory that I had studiously avoided through the whole of my MA, in spite of my tutors’ best efforts. I spoke passionately about why I felt that place might be irrelevant to my practice as it has developed beyond the wider landscapes to focusing on micro details, shapes and patterns. But a contradiction in my argument was not lost on me nor my supervisor. My PhD proposal and my photographic practice is all about the essence of Skye, and the Island and its location plays a significant part in my submission. I also refer to the climate, the mystical element, the vulnerability and changeability of this Hebridean Island. I have for so long, been very clear that my work is not about the usual super-saturated images produced by so many working on the Island, it is about getting to the essence, and capturing its ephemeral hiddenness.
The second area of my reflections is based on a question from my supervisor about whether it is possible to capture everything I hope to in a single image. She asked whether I might consider it necessary to record the “before” and “after”. It was a helpful question and my initial reaction was no – the whole point of my work is to capture that glimpse or revelation of the being of Skye.
Sense of Place
Why do I feel so strongly about sense of place? I am not a landscape photographer, in my view, and I feel that pursuing a dialogue about place only reinforces that categorisation. I am seeking to photograph a permanent, yet often withdrawn essence or sense of being in place (reality), rather than the presence of place (experience), through an engagement with the landscape. The ontology of my work suspends space and time and for me, in doing this, dilutes the sense of place in that photographic moment. In the moment I am using micro elements of nature, without contextualisation, to capture the essence of Skye. The images I produce are not seeking to focus on place but on the sense of place. Skye opens up opportunities for me to capture that sense of rather than the place. And, for me, this is where the difference lies. However, I can also see that my wider intent might be perceived as providing revelations of a beautiful, hostile and ever-changing place.
The Single Image
In order to make progress in my thinking I decided to return to Kant for explanation and insight into these linked issues. Kant argues that there are two concepts that are innate and hard wired into us as human beings – the twin concepts of space and time. Without awareness of these we could not exist in the world. Beyond that, according to Kant, we learn by experience and through a process of “subsumption” we can, using the innate ideas of time and space, categorise these experiences for future use. The camera, I would argue, freezes time and attenuates space, and creates a record of a moment in time – and that is the intention of my photographic work and why I initially pushed back against my supervisor’s suggestion of recording the before and after. The camera is a unique instrument in being able to reduce space and foreshorten time and in so doing subvert the experiential process of our minds. It unhinges the mind from its normal conscious processes. Whereas it might be argued that painting, for example, is something captured over time, and in its creation a filtered process through the painter occurs. With a photographic image, there is an opportunity for the viewer to achieve a state of spontaneous awareness of the subject.
I also had concerns about recording the before and after in terms of my photographic process to capture the ephemeral, transient moment. As part of my practice I engage over long periods of time in the landscape – I listen and observe. On some occasions, when I produce my most effective work there comes a point where I too, like the camera, lose connection with space and time and enter a non-conscious state. My camera becomes an extension of me, and my conscious work with it is replaced by intuitive practice without the need to consider the settings, and the instrument of my art. In that moment, the essence of Skye is revealed from behind the veil of presence.
What about the idea of framing this revelation with the “before” and “after”? In this I can see that my supervisor has opened up a valuable area of thinking about my method in practice. The photographic image is subversive in its abandonment of space and time and in the moment, I lose track of space and time too. There is an argument, that providing before and after images might prime the viewer for that subversive moment captured in the image. It might provide a shock of awareness in the viewer. I have used similar techniques in the past in presenting my images. For example, I have used accompanying music, to provide context and to open the viewer to the emotional impact of a series of images. Non-conscious awareness (sense) of being is cue-dependent, and anything that reduces the barrier to this awareness is valuable, I would argue, both in image creation and in its presentation to the viewer. In a similar way to my own loss of conscious awareness in taking the image, the viewer too can enter a non-conscious state that opens up awareness to the photograph – the music or other means can provide cues to assist in this process. In a similar way, the film I made about my work as part of the MA, primed the viewer in terms of my intent and practice, before showing the still images towards the end.
So, lots to think about and I am sure I will return to these ideas and concepts as my thinking develops and also have further conversations with my supervisor. . .