Essays:

> The View from Here: New Landscape Photographs by Mark Edwards

Katy Barron / The View from Here: New Landscape Photographs by Mark Edwards

December 2011

Mark Edwards’ new photographs, made around Bath and in East Anglia, have been commissioned to accompany the Gainsborough landscape exhibition that is being shown concurrently at the Holburne Museum. A visit to both exhibitions allows for the opportunity to reflect upon artistic approaches to the depiction of the English landscape over time and also how that landscape has altered, both in reality and as an ideal. At first there appears to be no connection between Mark Edwards’ England –  peppered with litter, over-populated and yet abandoned – and the bucolic perfection of Gainsborough’s compositions. And yet Edwards has always acknowledged his debt to painting, and to Gainsborough and Constable in particular, both of whom began their careers in East Anglia.

These new photographs are an emotional response to Gainsborough’s landscapes rather than any sort of visual imitation or parallel. Perhaps a connection between these artists, who are separated by more than two centuries, begins with their shared love of the vernacular landscape and a desire to be immersed within it. Gainsborough’s preference for painting landscapes over portraits is well documented, and his enduring love of the genre can be seen in parallel with Edwards’ continuous meditation on the landscape of England today. The artificiality of Gainsborough’s painted compositions, sometimes created by candlelight with the help of models made of lumps of coal and broccoli, is in strange contrast to his practice of sketching in the country in Suffolk and around Bath. Many beautiful, spontaneous sketches attest to his abilities as a draughtsman and yet his paintings rarely contain any topographically accurate elements after his early years. In this regard, Edwards’ photographs, made using maps and detailed research, have more in common with Gainsborough’s works on paper than his paintings. Edwards has to discover his subject-matter rather than create it digitally – the contemporary photographer’s equivalent of Gainsborough’s constructed models. The similarities and differences between two such very different approaches to the landscape are partly the result of historical distance but also the fundamental idea of what art should be: Gainsborough chose to imagine his landscapes using a series of elements which he returned to throughout his life whilst Edwards’ is concerned with truth to nature and his emotional response to that reality. Each of Edwards’ landscapes has a great personal significance, which is intimated but never fully revealed, and which is part of an intellectual and emotional journey.

Edwards’ family comes from Liverpool and he feels a strong connection to the city. After having studied at De Montfort University in Leicester, he has spent much of his adult life in East Anglia, a place that is central to his practice. His working method is rigorous and time-consuming, involving hours spent examining maps of the region and scouting the landscape for a place that has resonance. After a number of visits to a location and research into its history, Edwards will set up his equipment – a cumbersome 8” x 10” plate camera which is placed on top of a high ladder so that the view is elevated. The long exposure needed to capture the detail in these photographs requires a completely windless moment and Mark often makes his work just after dawn. Until recently the skies in Mark’s photographs were uniform and grey, which made his work seem forensic and silent. However, these new photographs mark an important visual shift, as the skies have taken on a more painterly character – blue, or cloudy, or just filled with atmospheric mist and light, and it is often possible to guess at the time of day and season.

The six works that make up Mark’s new series represent a year’s worth of research, travel and photography. Although the main premise of this exhibition was to photograph around East Anglia and Bath there was no compunction for Mark to ‘follow in Gainsborough’s footsteps’. This would have been both restrictive and imitative and also Gainsborough’s landscapes were not topographically accurate after his early years. Bath, 2011, taken from the west, locates the viewer within a landscape that will be familiar to many visitors to the Holburne. The classic postcard view of the city, a series of symmetrical golden terraces with hilly gardens and the occasional spire, is subverted. Here, the golden stone of Bath is replaced with yellow brick and the Georgian terraces are supplanted by the sort of bland local housing that is typical of the suburbs of many British cities. This is a familiar picture of England, but one that we wouldn’t normally associate with fine art. Nevertheless this view of Bath, so different from that advertised to tourists, is composed with a Claudean symmetry that viewers will encounter in many of Gainsborough’s pictures. Trees frame the distant city and a scrubby, rocky foreground leads the eye to a dominant middle ground with a misty landscape beyond.

Paddock, Ditchingham, 2011  takes the eighteenth-century picturesque conception further. Here, symmetry has given way to a subtle visual harmony where the piebald horse is balanced by a white plastic bucket and further along, a drinking trough. Late afternoon sunlight casts a long glow across the horse’s patchy coat, the back of the field and the modern buildings beyond. The lower third of the image is nothing but a tangle of wild grasses, which have an energy and graphic quality akin to an Abstract Expressionist painting. There is nothing for the eye to rest on and no visual hierarchy. The motif of the horse is an obvious visual link to Gainsborough, but his farm animals are never depicted within such mundane settings, and it is the revelation of the drama and beauty in quotidian existence that sets Edwards apart from the painter and his world-view.

Gainsborough’s on-going fascination with landscape painting led to his creation of a series of painted glass transparencies of fictitious landscapes that were to be viewed by candlelight in a specially made box. This box, and a few of the transparencies, survive in the Victoria and Albert Museum (but their fragility prevents them being lent to exhibitions). The transparencies were loosely painted and the glass plates appear luminous and richly coloured when viewed in the box. Mark Edwards’ light-box of  River, Bungay, 2011  was made in response to this proto-cinematic device. This is Edwards’ first light-box and it marks a technical departure as well as an aesthetic one for him: the Duratrans[1] revels in atmosphere and luminosity, foregoing some of the deliberately flatter neutrality of the C-prints[2] in the rest of the exhibition. The technological advantages for the contemporary photographer are huge and Mark has the opportunity to digitally ‘clean up’ his negatives before printing. However, he rarely makes any changes and has deliberately left the bright blue plastic bottles floating in the foreground of the river. These man-made inclusions, which can be found in almost all of Edwards’ photographs, are an acknowledgment of man’s intervention in the landscape and the destruction of the environment. They also add jarring punctuations of colour, which attract the eye.

Edwards’ photographs of the English countryside are taken through a camera lens which mediates the space between the photographer’s eye and his subject-matter. Could Gainsborough’s light-box-like painted transparencies be seen as a kind of proto-photographic impulse? As both artists deliberately immerse themselves in nature, their respective artistic processes simultaneously create a remove: a space within which aesthetic and critical contemplation, and personal reinterpretation takes place. It is interesting to consider what Gainsborough might have done if he had access to a camera.

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This text is reproduced with thanks to Katy Barron and The Holburne Museum, Bath and can be read in the exhibition brochure from The View from Here: new landscape photographs by Mark Edwards on view from 24 September, 2011 to 8 January 2012. www.holburne.org 

All images copyright Mark Edwards, 2011 and courtesy The Holburne Museum. 


[1] Duratrans is short for Durable Transparency. It is a translucent film that is printed from a digital file.

[2] C-print. The 8 x 10 inch colour negative is drum scanned.  This creates a digital file which is then printed onto traditional photographic paper through the normal chemical process.  These prints have the archival and tonal benefits of the traditional colour photographic process together with the control of digital printing.