Paul Gaffney / We Make The Path By Walking
March 2014 Interviewed by Walter Lewis
The last twelve months have seen walker and photogapher, Paul Gaffney, gain substantial recognition for his work. An exhibition at Flowers Gallery, a lengthier show in Dublin as part of the PhotoIreland festival in 2013, and the recent show at ffotogallery in Cardiff have been accompanied by publication of a book, We Make The Path By Walking, which has received numerous reviews and recommendations. Walter Lewis caught up with him to discuss the practice and philosophies of a man who is happy to be called a ‘contemporary landscape photographer’.
Walter Lewis: First of all, Paul, a massive thanks for agreeing to this interview and finding the time in a hectic schedule – you are certainly one of men of the moment, many congratulations. Having positioned yourself firmly as a landscape photographer, your success fascinates me in the context of having set myself the task of exploring 21st century landscape photography – the genre of contemporary fine art that many believe to be ‘worked out’ – to discover whether there is any sort of resurgence in the new millennium, arising, say for example, in response to environmental issues.
So I guess the first question is one of trying to understand what you believe it is that is going on within your work. You are clearly involved in some substantial journeys, and there is meditation whilst you are walking, but were there specific conceptual or philosophical issues which you hoped to resolve through such processes?
Paul Gaffney: I think rather than being overly intellectual, my process has been about trying to immerse myself in nature and get across this idea of how long distance walking can become quite a personal journey. Walking is, by its nature, both rhythmic and physical, and the slow pace helps to calm the mind and allows you to be more aware of your surroundings, which are qualities which are quite close to meditation. So really the goal was as much about feeling that connection with what is around you, and with yourself, as it was about the photography.
WL: Could you just expand a little bit about the practicality of your walking and photography. By my reckoning the book represents a photograph every 60 miles, so clearly not taking photos every minute?
PG: Over the period of walking I changed things quite a bit. At the start I was conscious of trying to figure out what I was doing as much as anything. I was taking photographs to see how things worked and almost every time looking at the back of the camera. Over time my rate of picture taking decreased, I began to stop less often, and I was also perhaps taking more time over each frame. Which is not to say that there weren’t times when I would actually be quite intuitive and just turn around and ‘click’, then move on….in fact most of the photos in the book were taken with quite a shallow depth of field and were hand held. I’d say I only used the tripod about 10% of the time, but I ended up carrying it the whole of the way! But yes, from a photographic point of view, it is of course, very heavily edited and sequenced.
WL: I can’t imagine for one minute that you only literally took one photograph every 60 miles, but I guess what intrigues me is the level to which it was a series of walks in order to take photographs or how much the walking itself was a performative art form in its own right?
PG: There is this performative aspect to it I guess, but I wasn’t setting out to make a performative piece. I suppose that happens as you become part of the project – I guess it comes with the distance and the amount of time spent walking. But I think it was as much about the process of walking for me and being out there doing it, as it was about being a photographer. I think there is that kind of real simplicity to walking for weeks on end just carrying everything you need on your back. You are just getting up on the day, deciding to walk in that particular direction and you don’t really have anything else to decide except where you want to stop and how far you need to go to find food and shelter. It’s that sort of pared back existence that really allows space for other things to happen, for it to become a personal journey…. Being immersed in the process, really just concentrating on what I was doing….and just kind of ‘being there’.
WL: One of the interesting things from my research is that there appears to be various models through which creativity is linked to walking. There is walking and there is walking so to speak. I was talking with the poet, Tony Williams, the other day and he was saying how he has detected these two camps amongst walking poets. For some walking is something in its own right, giving a direct inspiration, and to actually create an artwork whilst walking is, to them, an interference, whereas for others, the purpose of the walking is to trigger a move into a creative mode during the walk which in turn almost becomes on auto-pilot whilst they compose.
PG: I think that movement into creative mode happens as you quieten your mind. I don’t think all creativity stems from thought, it’s more in the gaps between thought, and if you are trying to increase those gaps then you are talking real creativity. So yes, I would definitely see it as a move into a more creative mode.
WL: Were you camping, literally carrying everything that you needed?
PG: No I wasn’t camping at all. I chose particular long distance routes where there are places to stay every 30 or 40 kilometres. I was carrying maybe 12 kilos, plus food and water, which is about 20% of my body weight. So if it was much more than that it wouldn’t have been practical to be walking long distance, your body wouldn’t take it. Most people would say that you should only carry 10% of your body weight for those kind of distances, so I decided against camping for that reason. I was already carrying like five and a half kilos of camera equipment – that’s just like a camera, tripod, one lens, recorder, batteries, charger, and a waterproof bag for the camera, you know that’s just like the minimum, plus some clothes and weatherproofs.
WL: You have already indicated that you were working digitally, so compared to a 10×8, still using a light weight camera, but compared to most film cameras, a digital camera is a pretty heavy piece of equipment. Did the weight limit your gear by choosing digital?
PG: I purposely wanted to limit myself in gear no matter what. I didn’t want to take my extra lenses and stuff. I kind of knew exactly what I was going to use a year before I started the project, and I wanted to keep it light and simple. The last thing you want is to be fumbling about with your gear when you are in the process of taking photographs.
WL: So was each stage planned in advance or were you stopping at places you were making it up as you went along?
PG: It was to a degree. I would often decide based on how I felt on the day, though it usually depended on practical considerations like overnight accommodation possibilities. Sometimes I would have to stop because it was the only option I really had. For example you have to walk 15 kilometres, or you walk 30 kilometres or you walk 60 kilometres, so the degree of flexibility depended on the options available. Usually I would walk 30 to 35 kilometres a day, sometimes pushing up to 45, and the longest day I walked was 53 kilometres. The shortest one was 15 or something like that …..though it kind of depended on the route, and I liked to leave things open wherever possible.
WL: It’s all adding up to a sensory immersion of yourself into the landscape?
PG: I think immersion is an important part of it – I didn’t have to spend time making decisions all day long about which way I was going to go and it’s not like I was constantly with my head stuck in maps…..actually as things went on I took less and less information with me. Towards the end I was just carrying a piece of paperwork with distances between possible stopping off points, just scribbled down in pen. Every time I did a walk, I ended up taking stuff out of my bag and travelling lighter and lighter, so there was that kind of process going on as I refined just what to take, which is quite freeing in its own way. There were times when I might stray a little bit from the path but I was never on the same path twice so I never knew what was going to be ahead of me.
WL: One of the things that struck me when I saw your book was that you are not averse to putting in things that at times are approaching quite a conventional beauty. Have you got any particular approach or are you even conscious of that? Some of your images are quite enchanting to my way of thinking. How do you balance out critically engaging photography with beautiful photography images?
PG: I suppose I wasn’t being overly calculating about that. I remember showing drafts to a couple of people – such as tutors – and they were like ‘oh this image is too beautiful’. But I didn’t really worry about that so much – it was more of a case of what worked together as images and attempting to generate a narrative….trying to use images in different ways to bring you along this journey. For other images it was more an awareness of the particular image being of the particular moment, or creating a pause. Rather than trying to be even handed between, say, beautiful and man-made or whatever, it was more a case of trying to find a way that flowed and made sense to me. Every time I came back from a walk, I printed out maybe like 100 small prints and would go through piles and make little sequences…..interestingly it ended up that a lot of the sequences held through to the end. The whole project is about trying to be aware of your surroundings, whether that is beautiful or ugly, and that was the guiding principle. And also, I’m not sure if there’s a rule to say that beautiful images cannot be critically engaging, I think there can be some room for overlap at times.
WL: In that sense the overarching feeling from the work is a positive one, certainly not just a replaying of how bad the world around us is. You have the odd picture that shows a bit a nastiness, but by and large you look at the book and it’s uplifting. Is that representing a view that came out during the walk or is that something you imposed on it, either during the photo making or through the editing?
PG: I think that you don’t go through something like this without going through a lot of change. Anyone would go through a vast amount of personal change in a year, but when you are doing something like this the change is a lot more obvious to you and I did want to get across that sense of an internal progress. So even with those ones that are perhaps a little less beautiful or a little bit more man-made, I wanted to suggest stuff being unearthed, this sense of internal movement as well as progress through the landscape. It very much is a personal journey, and in the editing of course I have my own personal understanding and memories for each photograph. Where I was standing or the kind of history of each particular day….stuff that is not necessarily important to anyone else.
WL: You also don’t title your images or give any clue as to their location?
PG: When you take away a lot of the descriptive information linked to a photograph it opens up people’s ability to interpret it for themselves and to bring their own experiences to the work……people look at certain images and kind of recount their own experiences of walking. I quite like that aspect, it was quite intentional, I didn’t want to say where the individual places were because to me it was more about the journey.
WL: It’s a journey of a soul, is it not, going through a re-evaluation process? In that sense the negative images almost seem like little eddies that occur every now and again to keep feet on the ground, but what I really admire about it is that overall the drift is so positive and affirmative.
PG: It’s quite possible that I don’t see any negativity in the ones that maybe you do. People will look at things very differently. I remember talking to someone about that and he said that when he was looking at a lot of images, he was imagining in his head about crossing over the land on a mountain bike! I looked at some Stephen Shore work a few years ago in Spain and he was showing images on a big screen of these hillsides. I found that my eye was like tracing the path of least resistance for walking up the hill! So I find it interesting how we each react to images with our own personal filter.
But yes, you’re right, I did want to suggest an internal journey with its own obstacles and ups and downs so to speak, and to be honest it was both physically and mentally very tough at times, though overall the process was very positive…. so I’m glad to hear that that shines through.
WL: How did you deal with, and how far were you aware that, the experience you were having was very much a multi sensual one…sounds, smells, all sorts…… and you are reducing it to a 2D visual thing through the photograph? Was that ever a concern and did you have any particular strategy for dealing with it?
PG: I always wanted the images to evoke rather than describe, and for people to engage with the work and to bring their own experience to it, rather than it just being about my own experiences. I sometimes recorded ambient sounds which I have considered using in an installation, and I was also thinking about recording conversations with people along the way, but it was always going to make things overly complicated and as it becomes complicated, it tends to bring you further away from the experience.
WL: Do you know the writings of Robert Macfarlane?
PG: I haven’t read much of him but I have read some of Wild Places.
WL: Yes that’s him…and ‘The Old Ways’ about his walks on old trails. Reading him and looking at his control and use of language, somewhat obtusely it just struck me as writing having so many more facets than a picture. Quite the opposite to the image being worth a 1000 words…but just altering where the full stop is ….how he constructs a sentence …whether he puts a verb in it ….struck me that compared to this complexity a visual image is relative simple. Caused me to start thinking in terms of my own work not so much in what I am trying to say in total, but what bits that I can best say through an image….which may not necessarily be the majority of the issue because there are better ways to do parts of the message.
PG: I always had in mind that the output would be a series of images and I always knew that I wanted it to be a book. I was always shooting with that in mind, and shooting knowing that different kinds of images would work in different ways and that I would be looking to create a loose narrative. I wanted the design of the book to give the sense that your eye is wandering, and the positioning and pairing of the images and changes in scale etc in some ways act as a kind of punctuation and encourage you to pause on some pages and move through others a little quicker. So rather than being centred on individual pictures, I was looking to tie images together and to create different layers, so that the whole becomes more than the sum of the individual parts.
WL: Do you read much around the theoretical or philosophical side before and during your walking?
PG: To be honest, when I was doing the Masters I actually left most of the theoretical research pretty much to the end as I had decided that I didn’t want to think about theory too much while I was making walks. I didn’t take any books with me. I did a certain amount of my research beforehand around different artists, but just looking for a certain kind of work to see what had already been done before.
WL: Do you know Tim Ingold’s work? He’s an anthropologist up in Aberdeen….published something called ‘Being Alive’. Its about getting engrossed in the environment in which you find yourself.
PG: I’ll have to check that out. To be honest what happened is that I ended up doing all the walking and then having to do my Masters dissertation at the end. I wrote the dissertation in very little time, but I had been reading quite a lot over the previous couple of months. It was through writing the dissertation that I realised that I was just scratching the surface of something much bigger as regards where I wanted to go with both practice and theory, and it was because of that, that I applied for the PhD. I didn’t actually have any intention of such a thing until I was putting together the conclusions to my Masters….. which as it turned out was actually the night before it was due in!
I think that’s the way I work best, I kind of just absorb all the information as I go along and the ideas slowly form in the back of my mind. Some of the information which I absorbed right at the end was some of the most critical! If I had started writing earlier I would have ended up having to re-write everything in the light of those pieces of information, or would have been forced to leave them out…that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!
WL: Where did the Antonio Machado poem come in? Was that something that you knew before you started walking or was its something you picked up on the way?
PG: I had heard that phrase caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al ander – wanderer there is no path, the path is made by walking – quite a lot in Spain while out walking, then in July someone I was chatting to told me that it was from quite a famous poem. I still didn’t actually read the poem for about another month or so, and it was just before I was heading back after the summer to Belfast, that I saw it. It was like ‘this is exactly what is going on!’ It conveyed so many of the ideas I had been working with in a very simple yet eloquent way, and I just knew that I had to include it.
WL: Equally it doesn’t give any indication of what the journey should be about – its just simply talking about the ephemerality of walking?
PG: I kind of like the idea of paths literally being made by walking ….if no-one is going to walk them, even for a short time, they would soon become overgrown. They are there because every person who passes that way is making the path, and making it for the person behind them. You can go off and make your own detours, but if no-one follows you the path will very quickly disappear. For me it’s not really important whether many people have walked it the same day or not, it’s that mystical thing that only you have seen it at that particular time you were there…. our individual paths are indeed ephemeral and unique.
WL: Macfarlane…. again….. quotes a guy called John Muir who I think was an Irishman of the 19th century. Muir talks about going out for a walk but then having stayed out til sundown because ‘for going out, I found, was really going in’. Wonderful way of describing what walking can do?
PG: Yes I think that when it comes down to it, what it teaches really is to actually be aware of how your own body and mind work and interact.
WL: One of the things that I couldn’t ignore in my looking at the book is that many of the paths that you photograph are actually made by vehicles rather than feet. How did you rationalise that?
PG: A lot of the images are not actually of the paths that I walked – they are paths or tracks which branch off. It wasn’t so important for me to actually walk the paths in the images. More a question of whether overall I could get across the essence of the journey.
WL: In terms of influences and inspirations, you mentioned before we started the interview that John Gossage was somebody that you greatly admired. Have there been others that have helped you pull it all together?
PG: I think that the influences are quite varied, and many of them have nothing to do with landscape. I just may like somebody’s approach and how it says something different about photography or how they push ideas which are quite radical. We’re all feeding off all the imagery that we’ve seen before and while I don’t know if I have that many very obvious photography influences, I definitely respond to John Gossage’s work – others, well Jem Southam is great, I also really like Ron Jude’s Lick Creek Line and Adam Jeppessen’s Wake, for example. It also depends on the stage of the project, for example when I was putting together the book I was also looking for books which had an interesting design or binding, but which had nothing to do with photography.
WL: Yes but do you not think that they have all got that ‘opening up’ aspect to their work…..which you also have?
PG: Ultimately the stuff that I really respond to is that which doesn’t give everything away all at once. I prefer work which reveals its layers slowly and improves upon continued viewing, without being overly complex or clever just for the sake of it.
I also don’t particularly like it if the work needs a complicated or verbose artist statement …to me it has to be seen in the work first and foremost, though it’s great to be able to engage with the work on the visual level and then read something about it later so that you are able to go back and enjoy it again in a different way. That’s the type of work which interests me, and which I find inspiring.
WL: That’s quite fundamentally different to the New Topographics style where it has been about trying to show particular problems or development of problems. What you are talking about is stuff that inspires you to just look at the world differently – almost ‘to be’ in it differently?
PG: Yes I’d agree with that, I’m certainly not trying to impose my world view on others or highlight particular issues within the landscape. I feel more of a connection to work which somehow immerses me in its space and which encourages me to engage with it in a different way.
WL: Can we say that you are using the landscape in a much more, well, Romantic way…..with a big R?
PG: I was at an event recently which had like 50 artists from lots of different disciplines with everyone showing their work and talking about it. There was just a couple of photographers there so it was nice to also hear from people of very varied backgrounds. The overarching thing that I came away from it with is that an awful lot of people are doing what they are doing to be able to connect with themselves and in doing so connect with their surroundings and to connect with others. That really is what it is about for me. It’s not really so much about the final product as it is about the process and what you get out of the process and to hope to encourage the viewer to take a pause and connect in their own way.
The main goal behind the PhD is to experiment with different approaches to making landscape images in order to find a working process which is more intuitive and which can convey the experience of landscape through the photographic image. I have a few ideas for where I want to take it but have no clue as to how it will look in the end, though I am hoping to develop a method which not only works for me but which can also be applied by others. Is it possible? It’s something I am looking forward to spending a few years figuring it out!
WL: Can’t remember the exact title of your PhD but its full of terms derived from Romanticism is it not? Sublime, picturesque etc.?
PG: Yes you’re right. The title is Reconsidering Landscape in Contemporary Photography: Explorations into the Sublime and Picturesque Movements in Romantic Landscape Painting, though the title is not one which I authored myself, and is likely to change. I’m interested in the fact that the typical Western attitude towards landscape is enshrined in these eighteenth-century aesthetic theories of perceptual experience, in which a small part of the natural world is selected from the expanse and is objectified, represented, and experienced both statically and visually and becomes but a fragmented, framed piece of nature. This traditional approach is so pervading yet it in no way fits with my own personal experiences of viewing art or making work in the landscape, so I have begun to look to other theories of landscape and aesthetics for methods and tools which I could apply to my own practice in order to find a more intuitive way of working with the landscape.
WL: Would you describe your work as radical? I know that the question begs a further question of what do we mean by radical, so feel free to define it as you choose in your answer!
PG: I don’t know if I’d say that walking and taking photos is by any means radical!! I think that what I have tried to do that might be slightly different from what a lot of landscape photographers do is using images specifically in a sequence and trying to use that sequence to suggest the idea of a journey. But I mentioned The Pond by John Gossage, that was made nearly thirty years ago. So from that point of view my approach is not new, though I think it is trying to do something slightly different, or rather to do something in a slightly different way. I think The Pond was very much radical and was definitely ahead of its time. But if you go out and make work that is meaningful to you then hopefully it will be meaningful to other people, and that’s probably more of a basis for being radical, rather than being radical for the sake of being radical!
WL: So….ultimately, how would you like your photography to be remembered?
PG: Well I’m not expecting my work to cause massive changes in someone’s approach to life but just to create, in the process of looking through the book or exhibition, a peaceful, meditative experience for someone… that for me is success. You have only so much control over what will be remembered or exactly how many people will actually see it. I think a lot of the time as photographers our main audience is other photographers. It would be nice if it reached a wider audience. That would be great. I think it can have a wider appeal and the universality of the topic means that it’s perhaps possible. It’s just whether I have done it in a way that will allow others to tap into it. I don’t know, wait and see.
WL: But you are not driven by some sort of evangelical conscientiousness – you are doing it because you are finding some expression for yourself?
PG: Ultimately if you want to change the world, then start with yourself, and I certainly learned a lot in the making of this project. If what you go through can inspire a couple of other people to go and do something similar for themselves, then that’s great. I don’t have this driving need to change the world as such, though of course it would be great if the work made a positive impact on others, or if it encouraged others to take a few steps on their own path. I’m very much aware that if you want to make a big change it kind of tends to happen in small increments…….lots of small steps that often later appear to be one big step. Sorry, that’s probably a bit of navel gazing!
WL: A good place to come to an end though. Massive thanks Paul, and good luck with that PhD!
For Paul’s website and details of a special edition of We Make The Path By Walking – click here.
We Make The Path By Walking will be included in a solo show at Oliver Sears Gallery in Dublin from 3rd to 31st July 2014