Landscape Stories: What poetry or artist influenced the most your beginnings? Where can the roots of your work be found?
Simon Roberts: My work draws on a range of inspirations, both artistic and academic. In terms of where the roots of my photography can be found, I can trace it back to two American landscape photographers, the first being Ansel Adams. I visited an exhibition of his work whilst on holiday in Yosemite National Park in California with my family aged 14. As an impressionable adolescent I was impressed by the beauty and clarity of his photographs, however, more importantly, I was struck by how these black and white, two – dimensional objects on the wall could be more engaging than the physical landscape I'd spent the past ten days exploring. What I came to understand was that these photographs had managed to unlock details in the landscape that I'd been oblivious to previously – clouds, for instance (an important motif in Adams' work), which I'd never really spent much time looking at. As a result, my reading and awareness of the landscape around Yosemite over the remaining days shifted dramatically after viewing Adams' photographs; it was as if a whole new place had emerged. A couple of years later I came across the work of Stephen Shore in his book Uncommon Places and in particular, the photograph: 'Merced River, Yosemite National Park, August 13, 1979.' In this photograph Shore had chosen a totally opposing stance to Adams' more romantic representation of Yosemite, taken thirty years earlier. Using a distant and elevated viewpoint, he had captured a far more banal scene, presenting the National Park as a place where tourists consume/tame the landscape, whilst revealing the lack of wilderness present. It is partly due to these two starkly contrasting views of the same geographical place, that I am continually inspired to take photographs. Places, events and ideas are continually reframed, redrawn and renegotiated depending on the artistic viewpoint of the individual photographer – we all have our own unique biography and stance, thereby bring a unique perspective to the subject matter we are narrating.
Landscape Stories: How much importance do you attach to the social, economic, or political aspects of what you exhibit?
Simon Roberts: My formal training is not as a photographer but as a cultural geographer (I studied a BA Hons in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield); a grounding which has influenced my work as a photographer. The question of how photographs are important to the construction of our sense of place has informed my approach to Motherland and We English, both of which contain elements of social, economic and political representations of landscape. In these works, I was interested in exploring the idea that landscapes need to be decoded; exploring the layering of social activities and of history, and the different ways in which landscape is used and how it changes over time.
Landscape Stories: Referring to We English project, you set out to travel across England for an extended period of time. Is there any sort of link between Poetry and Prose and the way you've described England?
Simon Roberts: I think all good art manages to balance both poetry and prose. I'd hope my photographs manage to do the same. In terms of my We English work, whilst on the one hand I'm making an interrogation of the landscape and our relationship to it, I'm also drawing on a rich history of artists representing the landscape – from poets and writers to painters and photographers – all of whom have reflected visions of England on the cusp of change. Take that great British painting and national icon: John Constable's The Hay Wain which was painted during a period when England was engaged in bloody war against France, there was turbulence in the countryside and industrial revolution in the cities. As the art historian Sir Roy Strong writes "on the surface it's an image of an idyllic pastoral scene but in its time it was revolutionary. Visitors to the Royal Academy in 1821 were horrified that Constable should exhibit a piece of local landscape on a scale usually reserved for subjects from the Bible or national history. Far from being a succession of chocolate box cliches, the genius of English landscape art is that it affords a sometimes shocking and subversive insight into the country's deepest fears."
What's interesting looking back at the making of We English is that during my journey between August 2007 and September 2008, it was a period of great uncertainty and change with the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the unfolding of the global credit crunch, events that heralded the beginning in a shift in public consciousness about the current financial crisis. Twenty months later for the making of The Election Project, I returned to many of the places I had visited and this time, the landscape were alive not with people at leisure, but with canvassing candidates, political slogans, and echoing with warnings of cutbacks and imminent hardship. My new work, Landscapes of Innocence and Experience attempts to explore the changes that have affected England economically and politically over the last three years. The title is inspired by William Blake's Songs of Innocence and of Experience – these two poetry collections were deliberately positioned and printed alongside one another, so that each was enriched by the reading of the other. Blake was exploring the 'two contrary states of the human soul;' with my series the exploration is applied to a nation: England, and its representation through landscape.
Landscape Stories: Did you do any particular research on the territory while working on this project? How did you choose the locations that you photographed in these images and what motivated you to include people in this series?
Simon Roberts: The choice of locations for We English were part homage (traveling to places and events documented by other British photographers over the years, like Sir Benjamin Stone and Tony Ray Jones), part autobiographical (seeking out places which I associated with my relationship to England), however, I was conscious that We English shouldn't solely be about my perception of my homeland. I wanted to get an English audience to talk about what England means to them, but also to invite me to come and photograph an event or leisure pursuit. I set up a website where people could post their ideas, and I received a few hundred suggestions from the general public (they are available to read on the website. It struck me as a suitably democratic way of working, positioning me as it did alongside my fellow countrymen – a citizen, not just an onlooker – and attempting to involve people, to a certain degree, in their own representation. The ideas that were posted provide an interesting snapshot of England in 2008 in their own right. They illustrate what's important to people and explore people's own ideas on the notion of Englishness. One interesting theme that emerged was the importance of local communities and the strength of attachment that so many people feel to their local area.
Landscape Stories: There always seems to be a sense of narrative in your images, like the start of a never ending story. How much do you explicitly think of a narrative for your photographic work?
Simon Roberts: Narrative is certainly an important consideration in the structure of my photographic series, whether that's in a publication or an exhibition. However, this is normally something linked more to the editing stage rather influencing the production of the work.
Landscape Stories: The lessons learnt from the American masters of colour photography and European landscape painting. What has been the import of these examples on photographic interpretation of landscape and its changes over time and light?
Simon Roberts: Both European painters and American masters of colour photography, the likes of Robert Adams and Stephen Shore, have recorded the natural landscape balancing a depiction of its formal beauty with the desire to document humanity's presence and intervention on the landscape.
When researching for Motherland I had this juxtaposition in mind. On seeing an exhibition of Russian landscape painting at the National Gallery in early 2004, I became particularly fascinated and inspired by how Russia's "modest beauty" had been expressed in 19th century art. In the early 1800s, Russians commonly accepted the European judgment that their land lacked aesthetic value (as a result, Russian landscape painters tended to travel to Italy, where they learnt to capture the brilliant light, or study at the academies of Germany and France). This view of the Russian landscape changed with the outpouring of literary and artistic creativity that followed the century's political upheaval and artists turned to their native land and revealed the power of gray skies, vast open fields, and simple birch forests. There was a move towards greater naturalism with artists enhancing the idea of Russian beauty and grandeur. The movement was led by the likes of Ivan Shishkin who was famous for his scrupulously detailed canvases depicting the Russian countryside, its impenetrable forests and enormous skies; and Isaak Levitan who painted 'mood landscapes', in which he established an overall atmospheric unity. As Christopher Ely argues in his book This Meager Nature: Landscape and National Identity in Imperial Russia - "The articulation of a specifically Russian landscape in art and literature contributed to the construction of Russian national identity. This process entailed learning both to view Russia without European aesthetic filters and to love the very features of Russian land and nature that seemed impoverished by comparison with European landscape conventions. At the turn of the twentieth century, Russia's 'meager nature' and 'humble barrenness' were no longer dull and tedious for Russian viewers, but highly valued, even a 'blessing'. The meagre, humble, barren and suffering land gave birth to the special strengths, endurance, and soul of the 'Russian people'. 'This meager nature' thus became a font of national celebration. Russian's came to embrace their land's modest beauty."
In terms of my photographic approach in We English I embraced a topographic photograph methodology similar to the American landscape photographers, a perspective also common in traditional landscape painting. Photographing from an elevated position would enable me to get a greater sense of people's interaction with the landscape and with one another. I also decided that the figures would be relatively small in the frame, although not always so small that you couldn't make out some facial expressions, what they were wearing and their activities. This way of seeing was also influenced by looking at the work of 16th – century Dutch and Flemish landscape painters – particularly Hendrick Avercamp, Pieter Bruegel and Lucas van Valckenborch, who depicted winter scenes teeming with life. I liked the idea of what appeared to be predominantly pastoral landscapes becoming, on closer inspection, multi – layered canvases, rich in detail and meaning.
Landscape Stories: Do you think that the Web is having a globalizing effect on photography and our access to it? What does a photographic exhibition or publishing a book mean for you, and how in your opinion these displaying and communication forms are going to change, to the spreading of online publications?
Simon Roberts: Of course the internet is enabling a much wider audience access work from regions that were previously difficult to access. With all my projects I've introduced a website element alongside the publishing of a book or curating of an exhibition. Whilst publishing a few thousand copies of the Motherland book, the website has managed to reach a much greater number of people, with comments on the guest book originating from almost every continent. The web has also enabled me to introduce a participatory element to my work with both We English and The Election Project relying heavily on social media and crowd – sourcing. However, I see the internet as a complimentary element to an artists work rather than something that is going to replace the physicality of a print on the wall or sitting with your feet up leafing through a photography book.
Landscape Stories: Tell us your strangest "landscape story"...
Simon Roberts: One of the most surreal experiences I've had was being arrested, along with my wife, by the FSB (the replacement of the infamous KGB) in Murmansk, Northern Russia, where I'd inadvertently been photographing on the edge of an army base. We were held and questioned for a few hours by a young FSB officer on suspicion of being spies. Fortunately we weren't searched as I'd managed to take out the roll of film from my camera undetected and hide it in my underwear! We were released about four hours later when they'd learnt that I'd recently done a shoot in Moscow with a famous Russian actress who they all adored!
Interview by Gianpaolo Arena