I was looking at Life in Britain, as suggested by my tutor, and read the part by Kevin Jackson entitled ‘Our back pages’. It led to an essay by George Orwell (1) on the British which I’ve found really helpful in clarifying some ideas about what, for me, is going wrong with British life and what I might be trying to say in my photographs. I have a friend, Nev, who runs a local village pub and was talking to him this morning when he mentioned that since he’s been running the pub – seven years now – people have become less polite and that aggression has become some kind of default. Reading Orwell’s essay, that had a resonance because he mentions those polite aspects of British culture as important. I’m not sure how I would go about representing that in an image though, but it’s an interesting idea that might be worth exploring -the culture of entitlement that now runs through society. Nev puts this down to materialism, that we’re all told to expect more and that we deserve everything we want right now. Perhaps, but I think it’s also about expectations of what we can achieve individually, that we expect each moment to be full, that we’re told our lives are pointless if they are not constantly busy and full of achievements and so we have no time for other people.
Another idea I’ve thought of exploring has been the idea of height and the way people see you and see the world – or perhaps the world that the individual gets to see depending on his place in society varying with height. This has come from a visit to Lacock Abbey; I was thinking about the view and whether or not Fox Talbot had originally wanted to capture the view through the latticed windows, or the windows themselves. Then I thought about the views of the people in the village, and how view now varies with income really. For example, if you’re very rich you get to live in the Penthouse apartment. The richer you are, the higher you go and the higher you are thought of. But to me it seems that the richer you are and the higher you go, the more and more removed you are from nature, from the soil (or dirt), and from the things which ultimately sustain you as well as everyone else. I think this also ties in with ideas of spirituality and how very spiritual people are seen as being higher up than everyone else, the idea of heaven being somewhere above us, a movement upwards, and hell a movement downwards into the soil. Is this ultimately about avoiding our own mortality? Now the super rich want their remains to be blasted into space, seemingly desperate not to end up in the ground, not to be part of the Earth, not to be recycled into another aspect of life, but in the ultimate act of selfishness to be removed from cycles of nature and in their last act to show they can still use up resources, still spend money, still be thought of as above, and still afford to pollute because they’re worth it. Their remains will be forever them and they will never be food for worms or bugs.
The selfishness of some of the older generation is also frustrating me as I am thinking about themes that came up for me in assignment 1 and how I might continue these through into my second assignment. I know it’s a generalisation, but they are a generation that have reaped the benefits of policies like free education for themselves and their grown up children, and of being a part of the European Union, and now they are willing to see the younger generation forgo those benefits and suffer for a fantasy of British life that never really existed in the first place. It was interesting to read Orwell talking about dissenters in the population over WW2. It is always presented as being a time when the nation came together in the face of overwhelming odds etc, but that’s not how Orwell describes life in 1940. Certainly Dunkirk seems a point of national togetherness, but otherwise this idea of an undivided nation is a total fantasy. So maybe we’ve always been more divided than we thought we were? It’s interesting that Orwell says that in Britain, as opposed to other countries, dissent is tolerated and that is what makes our society typically British; we’re not afraid of these dissenting views. How totally at odds to the presentation of Theresa May and her cabinet who now insist that opposition to the fantasy version of Britain is sabotage and unpatriotic, somehow against ‘British values’. Perhaps that is the crux of this for me? That we now have a government that seems to be so totally comprehensively trashing our values and a press that seems happy for them to do that, that I no longer recognise this country as Britain, and the people are picking up on that and either mirror it or feel it is time to bail out and escape to France or Germany while there is still a chance to get back to civilisation.
While I’m on the subject of Britain, Orwell also mentions the British eccentric. I think that’s really important, because when I look at photographs of Britain, it’s often this eccentricity that either predominates or is used as a counterbalance to the mundane.
But back to the images. Because I’ve been thinking about views through windows, from the inside out and maybe now also from the outside in, I’m thinking about views that people have. So for a crowd, what does that look like if you’re homeless and sleeping on the floor? It feels different if you’re in it and a part of it – there is no sense of threat if you are dressed in a suit among a crowd of people in suits – you fit in. But what you probably see if you’re on the floor is shoes and dirt and gum. And if you’re in the crowd you see faces, and if you’re rich you see the crowd through your car window, and if you’re richer still then you see them from your suite of rooms and they turn into views instead of crowds. People cease to be individuals and look and feel like ants. Hence you can separate yourself emotionally.
So that is where I’m thinking of going with this second assignment. Either views and money, or crowds and misfits. I’m thinking either way this will happen in London, because cities are, for me, a better expression of the best and worst of views and crowds and London is my city and I know it well enough to be able to work well there.
However, while I am in London then if I have time I’d also like to look at some work by Alvin Langdon Coburn ‘in the flesh’. I’d really like to be able to take some of the images he took of London; not to get the same views as obviously that is impossible, more like a homage to him really as I’ve looked at some of his work (Google, obviously) and just love it. So I’d like to see it and maybe try and use some of it as inspiration. I’d love to try platinum printing, I don’t think I can do that yet, but perhaps I could find a way to replicate that in Lightroom or Photoshop?
I am trying to think more about why I love some images and am getting to a point of almost detesting others. I’m really at the very beginning of this sort of thinking, but what I have so far is that I don’t like images that are really perfect. I suppose I’m thinking of things I see on Instagram by photographers who have thousands and thousands of followers and who take what seem to be the most beautiful landscapes of stunning places which are probably technically totally perfect. To me, there are so many images like that that they have become ugly in their perfection. I suppose if I think about it in terms of people and beauty, I think it’s really imperfections that make people beautiful. Maybe imperfections in photos make me look at them more carefully. When I see supposedly perfect people, perfectly groomed and made up, surgically enhanced to the current standard of beauty, be that male or female, I personally find it repulsive. I also hate minimalism and frugality and houses that don’t have books, or only have books in sets and people that don’t let their children have pencils because they’re too messy. That idea of presenting perfection and pretending that mess doesn’t exist here, decay doesn’t exist here, and life and death don’t exist here. It’s all just so fucking perfect and here’s the perfect picture to prove it.
That brings me to another set of images I have been thinking of; Poundbury in Dorset. Poundburry is a lovely idea, but my god to me it is so totally devoid of soul and community, despite the best efforts of planners to bring people together. It is so manufactured that it repulses me in a way I cannot begin to explain. Perhaps it’s like a sort of ‘Stepford Wives’ idea. I think it’s horrible, but suddenly it seems to be what people around me aspire to and that scares me.
- http://www.orwell.ru/library/essays/lion/english/e_eye accessed on 1/9/17