A Walk Through The Alps: Mountain Photography And Manipulation Tuesday December 10, 2013

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit – Edward Abbey

Everything’s choreographed now, it’s fucking rubbish – Noel Gallagher

We will teach our twisted speech to the young believers – Joe Strummer

To conclude my reflections on the topic of photography and manipulation I’ll refer to the work of a former colleague. I’ll consider the term manipulation in more subtle and complex terms which are not confined to photography technique, but I use that as my starting point.

I studied photography with artist Mishka Henner who has a documentary background. One of his MA projects portrayed an alternative community in Wales which I found interesting. My project at that moment was a collection of photographs from the Alps. We gave our respective presentations then a tutor commented. He was a photojournalist and showed us his work in Africa. “You have to be engaged” he said to Mishka, “not sit back and grow flowers” which was an amusing remark. The Welsh community live to some extent separate from the contemporary world and he didn’t like that nor thought it was a worthy photographic project. His work pursued social and political trend like it was this seasons colours. It was all about fashion.

Mishka once suggested photography is the same thing as sociology which I found illuminating and perceptive: not because I agreed but because it accurately described the photography we were supposed to pursue on the MA and such as you find in newspapers and magazines. Mishka had completed an MA in sociology at Goldsmiths University and was committed to social documentary work: he liked Lewis Hine. More recently he stated he no longer believes in it. In some respects we have similar ideas about contemporary photography but the work we do is different.

Regarding my project, the tutor said I was “just taking him on a walk through the Alps.” I knew it wasn’t going to be easily accepted because of an apparent paucity of meaning. Another colleague undertook a project documenting a mentally disabled person and how photography facilitated communication. Another project was about so called dark tourism and work undertaken in North Korea. Mishka commented that my Alps photography was investigating the topic of the Sublime. It was one way of describing it but not entirely accurate because the Sublime consists of antiquated and merely romantic ideas.

We had good discussions on the MA as we considered ethics, war, art, the media, politics, and imagery. One chap was a photographer working for the MOD and he stated American forces liked to humiliate the enemy in a war zone whereas British forces were more restrained. It was a robust educational experience and when another colleague referred to photographic “truth” I effectively told him he was wrong. I suggested the moment he picked up a camera he was “operating through a series of filters which are partly technical and partly psychological and sociological.” When I gave another presentation I posed the question to my colleagues “are you being asked to think or are you being asked to reproduce?” I wasn’t comfortable with the ethos we were supposed to adopt. I found it narrow, constraining, and unthinking.

We were asked to illustrate the concept of “passion” for one exercise and a colleague took a photograph of a screaming Muslim protestor upset about Danish cartoons. I don’t think “passion” was an accurate description and stated as such. The topic was psychological requiring terms such as “hysteria” and “irrational”. Referring to such an image as “passion” is to accept a collection of unexamined assumptions and questionable ideas. I acknowledged the image could be used to represent “passion” in a newspaper but testifying thereby to the shallowness of the media. I had a similar struggle with my Alps photography because it was not, contrary to the tutor’s remarks, a mere pictorial exercise. The subtlety lay with my ideas describing it – what it signified – and not with the simple representation. Documentary photography reproduces media and political issues. The tutor said we had to be engaged – but engaged with what ??

Mishka developed a cynicism similar to mine in regard to documentary photography stating he no longer believes in it, but his practice is different. He produced a series of conceptual books devoid of content – blank pages – where the meaning lies with size, dimensions, and how that corresponds to astronomical scales. If you consider all art traces back to a set of ideas of one form or another you may regard this as an interesting project. In the market place art is a commodity like any other. You buy a Renoir because of shared values concerning “art” in which you find ideas concerning craft, emotional representation, aesthetics, narrative, history, and so on. These are contingent ideas. What I find problematic is how a mere concept becomes the item for sale: more famously that might be Tracy Emin’s unmade bed. I understand the concept in a second and don’t need to spend money and visit a gallery to “see” it.

Emin and her contemporaries were supported and launched by advertising mogul Charles Saatchi. Advertising and marketing is the manipulation and selling of ideas. In the commercial sector the sole purpose of doing so is to make money. In the political sector campaigns operate with similar effect: the sole purpose to win an election. In both cases you are encouraged to accept an opinion or outlook from other people and not generate your own. One of the Thatcher campaigns advised there was no choice and you had to vote Conservative. Barack Obama encouraged people to think if not to say “yes we can!” Both of these were examples of crass public manipulation: the closing down of debate, the denial of options and alternatives, the come on board Spice Girls ethos herding individual agency into collective force: I’ll tell you what I want, what I really, really, want, if you want to be my lover, you gotta get with my friends!

More directly pertinent for photographic thinking is another Mishka Henner project based on Google map imagery. He collected photographs of prostitutes working in remote and international urban locations, citing the fact that photographic imagery is so ubiquitous the use of a camera is superfluous. This is “photography” not photography whereby the traditional medium no longer exists. When people objected to his project they cited traditional values of being “engaged” i.e. having social and sympathetic investment in the pictures you take. Mishka stated he’s not interested in sympathetic photography. This is not because of callous disposition. Rather, it’s a feeling about the culture and medium of photography where we are supposed to be “engaged” as if it makes some difference to the suffering of people and the injustices of the world. His work concerns “photography” rather than the issues as such with a backward glance at traditional “engagement” and the simultaneous question: was that any different? I referred to this when I wrote about the Mass Observation Project More recently critics have used terms such as “shock fatigue” describing the deadening effect when we are exposed to images of atrocity, which links to the Baudrillard notion of simulacrum. Jacques Derrida refers to the “code” of photography implying it operates in a predictable and contingent fashion.

The meaning of my photography consists of several layers varying in emphasis. I love the mountains and want a personal record of where I walk. I’ve developed a substantial collection from Wales, the Peak District, Scotland, Alps, Lake District and Pyrenees. These places have different geographic and aesthetic qualities and I enjoy being sensitised to each. The Peak District does not have the scale and drama of other areas and you have to be attuned to this for walking and photographic reasons. The Alps in particular are so immense that coming from Britain, you don’t immediately grasp their visual scale. Your eye has to adjust, psychologically and optically, opening far beyond the visual parameters which you find even in Scotland.

There’s an ecological dimension to my photographs concerning nature and our place within the world: a sense of wonder, awe, and questioning which corresponds to phenomenological and philosophical ideas. I’ve recently edited Pyrenees photographs from 2013 and when I look at a mountain called Balaitous it presents a silent question: where is our place in this universe? You may feel this or you may not. Structurally it rests on simple ideas concerning scale, mortality, and the soothing and calming experience of a walk: a process I find therapeutic and fascinating because it happens inevitably and automatically. Geographic change facilitates psychological change. This meaning is subtle and intangible compared to the tribal crass concerns of politics, the drama of news entertainment, and that which Daniel Boorstin described as the pseudo event: news which is no news.

I referred earlier to the concept of authenticity which concerns reasonably faithful reproduction – real flowers not a Photoshop layer – and the term further connotes the above. Mountains antidote the simulacrum. They provide a reference point to counter the world of manipulation: the foul lies of politicians, the simpering cant of priests, the delusions of mad mullahs, the nonsensical head stuff of pie in the sky academics and scientists.

Mountains allow you to escape dialectical materialism and from the perspective of Helvellyn the latter makes no sense. As such I propose the notion of anarchist hill walking and anarchist mountain photography which is deliberately disengaged from nonsense. My photographs are not a naïve vision of “reality” because I do not accept the following as expressed by a geography teacher:

People define places because place is a social construct. In order for one to gain a sense of what a place is like, one must build an idea about that place and what it means for people

I gaze at an image of Torridon, the Scafells, Cader Idris, Kinder Scout, Pic du Midi d’Ossau, and wonder what difference it makes whatever “idea” I have about it. The city places in which I habitually live have contingent and relative meaning which partly concerns me and partly concerns millions of other people.

Mountain walking is an anarchist exercise: a sunlit, babbling stream, wind blown, smiling fuck off to a world of liars and fools and cant. A walk through the Alps was precisely what I depicted in my MA photographic project and with considerable significance.

Alps Photography

Here’s some quotations from Edward Abbey with whom I share a similar disposition:

All forms of government are pernicious, including good government

Wilderness begins in the human mind

A patriot must always be ready to defend his country against his government

Society is like a stew. If you don’t stir it up every once in a while then a layer of scum floats to the top

Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell

Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best

One man alone can be pretty dumb sometimes but for real bona fide stupidity, there ain’t nothin’ can beat teamwork

Wilderness is not a luxury but a necessity of the human spirit

Taxation: how the sheep are shorn

You can’t study the darkness by flooding it with light

Belief in the supernatural reflects a failure of the imagination

Grown men do not need leaders

That which today calls itself science gives us more and more information, and indigestible glut of information, and less and less understanding