As I prepare to write my critical review of practice I am giving a lot of thought to the positioning of my own practice. I want my work to make people look deeper and to feel something. I photograph subjects that give rise to a big emotional response in me. The intent of my work is to have my viewers experience a similar level of intensity when they look at it. Their emotion may be different to mine and relevant to their own context but the aim is that they experience a similar level of intensity.
My journey through the MA has been like a kid in a sweetie shop. A shop full of different flavours, textures, wrappings and colours. I try out and discover new favourites and learn there is no limit to the magic of taste. In photography I am discovering there is no limit to what I can see. The more I look the more I see. The more I look through the eyes of those who see the more is revealed to me.
A long intro to Andy Sewell but he has become a favourite of mine through looking, seeing, looking again, feeling and again looking. The above images were on show at Arles last year. Before the MA I would have found it difficult to engage with these images. Now I can’t get enough of them. What has changed for me?
In the past I may have seen each of these images as an uninteresting mundane picture of an every day scene in a kitchen. Now they evoke emotions within me about the people in these houses. The people cannot be seen but they are fully present within the images. The one on the right is tidier and more modern. Everything is geometrically in its place on the right. On the left objects are out of line with the open fairy liquid bottle and bags and knife left out. The one on the right has replaced the windows with more modern frames and handles.
I know I am projecting and it is equally possible to say the one on the left is in the action of producing something and the one on the right has packed up and finished. Who knows? What is important is the story it now tells me that I did not see before and the emotional response I now have.
How this relates to my practice is that it evokes an emotion in me and it tells a story about people without people being seen. For my project this is something I have tried to do with images of places or objects contingent on my own experience that can evoke some similar intensity of emotion in the viewer.
Andy brings in people too.
Now the story gets interesting. Is this one of the kitchens in the earlier images? No because the surfaces don’t match. Is that plant on the window sill something Andy has taken from house to house or is it just one everyone in that area goes for? I can project on to this image something about the woman from her body shape, clothes, the tv being on and the furniture around her. There is enough here to write a good novel about this woman and her life.
I am now interested in the connection between this image and the kitchens with no people in them. There is a story in each image but as I layer them one on another and understand how they feed in to each other I begin to have the idea of ‘something like a nest.’
I have grown to love Andy’s work and in the sweet shop it is now one of the first shelves I go to. To make my work interesting I am learning not to be too literal, not to explain my work and not to be cliched. Put with a positive spin I want to make my work to be poetic, to evoke in the viewer an intensity of feeling and push at boundaries of interpretation.
I bring people, including myself, in to my work.
My understanding of photography and what it can do has matured over the last two years. I can describe the evolution from a simplistic separation of photography in to the descriptive and the aesthetic to a deeper idea of the poetic and the sublime. I wince a little as I say this as it sounds pretentious. But I have changed in a significant way. In the works above the kitchen sink becomes poetic in my mind. Each viewer will make their own interpretation relating to their own life and it will say something to them if they look hard. The images of the daffodils and the little cardboard garden touch on the sublime in their beauty. Put in my own words the images in this work make me think about my own life and relationship to kitchens and homes and sparks something subliminal as it touches my unconscious.
The Heath has taken me from the aesthetically pleasing images of landscapes that I still like taking to the fuller potential of what is available. I sometimes say to people I am with that it is not possible to capture this moment in a photograph. The smells, the conversation we have had, the changing light and the noises sometimes make up our experience. Somehow Andy manages to capture some of these moments.
Andy says that ‘I go to the Heath to be somewhere that feels natural but I know this is no pathless wood. The Heath is as managed as any other part of London but managed to feel wild….this book is about the perception of what is natural but it’s also an attempt to explore what E.O. Wilson called the human condition of ‘biophilia’ being drawn to somewhere that feels natural without knowing why.’ (Sewell)
As Sean O Hagan writes ‘It was on one of its winding paths that the narrator of Wilkie Collins’s classic novel The Woman in White meets the spectral Anne Catherick skulking in the shadows. Collins captures the Heath, a countryside in the heart of the city, in all its inbetweeness: “The evening, I remember, was still and cloudy; the London air was at its heaviest; the distant hum of the street-traffic was at its faintest; the small pulse of the life within me, and the great heart of the city around me, seemed to be sinking in unison, languidly and more languidly, with the sinking sun.”
You can sense that feeling of calm and sanctuary, of the city receding, in Sewell’s photographs. He spent five years prowling the Heath with his camera, much of that time spent waiting patiently. He has an eye for evocative detail: a crimson net of peanuts dangling from a branch on which an expectant blue tit waits; an ominous cross carved into the bark of a tree; a small mound of sand amid branches and bracken that looks like a burial mound. This is the Heath as a living landscape but also as a mood and an atmosphere. Two crows perch on a bench, surrounded by burnished grass, the city lurking in the misty distance like a faraway place.’ (Hagan, 2011)
In his work Andy is working on the emotions with all of us that want to get away from it all to something primeval in us. The land here is only two square miles and can convince it us it is some kind of wild but in reality is a managed piece of land in the same way a zoo is.
The spotlight on the line here drawing my eye to the path often taken. In many of his images the eye is drawn to a subject in the centre. Be that a piece of worn out land, a fern or as in this instance a path.
For me this fallen tree conjures up all the images we might see from a fallen elephant after a long and challenging life. He uses light so well and aperture to pick out the detail.
Martin Parr says ‘For the last five years Andy Sewell has been tramping Hampstead Heath with his camera and has accumulated a stunning set of photographs… I urge you to support this emerging talent and order this book before it is acknowledged as a classic contribution to our photographic culture.” (Sewell).
Robert Adams says ‘At seventy-five and with the world the way that it is, I sometimes come close to losing heart, but when I see work like this I’m back in the game. The Heath is a beautiful job. Honest about mixed evidence… open to both joy and sorrow.’ (Sewell)
The Heath and Something Like a Nest each took five years of effort to make by Andy. The two years I have put in to my work so far feel like a beginning in contrast.
- Be patient.
- Keep looking.
- Something that is apparently wild is not but somehow still feels as if it is. We can be fooled in a good way in reality and through Andy’s lens.
- The images relate to each other. The show changing seasons as the same place. Similar shapes and lines are distributed through the images.
- The powerful impact of a little bit of colour amidst a lot of green and brown.
Sewell, A. 2012 & 2014. Something Like a Nest & The Heath Available online at http://www.andysewell.com/ (Accessed on Oct 14th, 2020).
O Hagan, S. 2011. The Heath by Andy Sewell – review Available online at https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/jul/17/andy-sewell-hampstead-heath-photography [Accessed Oct 14th, 2020]