We English by Simon Roberts, “Banal Nationalism” in Landscape? is a journal article by Karine Chambefort-Kay, Université Paris-Est Créteil, from the new issue of Journée d’études, entitled “The American and British Nations in Contemporary Landscape Photography” (December 2014)
This paper studies the case of a landscape photography project by British photographer Simon Roberts: We English—the project comprising the book published by Chris Boot in 2009, exhibitions of the large format prints of the photographs, and the artist’s dedicated website with a blog and forum for the public to propose subjects. We address the question of English national identity in Simon Roberts’s photos through the concept of “banal nationalism” coined in 1995 by Michel Billig. The first part draws on Billig’s thesis that the nation is “flagged” in the most banal everyday environment and activities, and discusses whether Simon Roberts’s documentary photographs evidence such subliminal national “flagging”. The second part shows the limits of the concept of “banal nationalism” when studying We English because of the complex, collaborative and reflexive nature of the project. By revealing how personal and intertextual references inform both the photographer’s and the viewer’s perception, the artist documents the dialectical process and negotiations at work in national identification. The third part contends that this dynamic approach of Englishness allows Roberts to propose his own re-imagining of the homeland.
On writing about my working practice for the project, Chambefort-Kay comments:
“A vast framework of references is the backbone of the whole project, and it is made visible through various devices. Simon Roberts opts for transparency on the genealogy of his pictures and on his authorial choices. He questions himself and his audience on the cultural filters and the modes of perception that inform their understanding of landscape. Therefore it is crucial to take into account the whole project, that is, to include both the blog and the pictures in our analysis to appreciate the full scope and impact of We English. Beyond merely documenting the English outdoors, Simon Roberts reveals the different ways in which people connect with the landscape both in nature and in pictures. He offers an insight into the mechanisms through which the national community is constantly re-created in landscape, showing that everything is negotiated individually and collectively.”
And in conclusion, writes:
“We English offers a renewed vision of England. New forms of cohesion and belonging are evidenced, but they are not exclusively found in urban areas. Simon Roberts does not reject the national frame, but reinvents it, by revealing the interactions and relations involved in national identification. The photographs of We English and the whole project actually display the openness of conviviality, which “makes a nonsense of closed, fixed and reified identity and turns attention toward the always unpredictable mechanisms of identification” (Gilroy, 2005, xvi). The nation is re-imagined through a new, dynamic, open vision of England.”
Over the life of the We English blog I’ve attempted to add references to other photographic works which have explored notions of the English landscape and Englishness. You can see several of them on my Photographic Timeline and under Other Studies. Of course this is by no means an exhaustive list, rather an organic one which I rely on others to assist in building. I was therefore delighted to receive an email from a reader of the blog, Peter Hamilton, who was kind enough to suggest several books I’d missed. I’ve published the email below and added web links.
Please do email me with any more suggestions, or post them on the blog below. Thanks!
“I was very glad to see you have discovered Edwin Smith. Smith is important to mention because his books (for instance English Parish Churches, first pub 1952) conform to an earlier, broader and essentially illustrative photographic literature that is also about English landscape and thus Englishness – the modern form of “monographic” or “survey” work on particular places, communities, localities, etc being a far more recent thing, apart from some rare earlier and notable examples (cf. PH Emerson‘s work on East Anglia from the 1880s). Nonetheless, detailed photographic inventories of specific locales certainly existed in the 19th century as the source material for a market in postcards and prints for commercial sale.
As you will know, most of Smith’s work (apart from the didactic but fascinating volumes he wrote and illustrated for Focal Press) was done under commission from publishers to illustrate books on a particular topic, usually with a “known” writer (what the French term a “locomotive littéraire”). During his career there really was hardly any scope (or more properly market) for what we would call a photobook in the sense that it has come to have in recent years, and which is now in many ways a somewhat distorting lens for seeing the history of photography (though of course it does describe one contemporary paradigm for photographic publication).
It could be argued that historically-speaking the majority of the most influential photographic books have probably not been “photobooks” as defined in the Parr et al sense. In terms of launching public interest in photography for instance, the impact of the “Family of Man” book from 1955 was probably immensely greater than that of Frank’s “Americans“, which itself was far outdistanced even within the smaller circles of enthusiast photographers by HC-B’s “Decisive Moment/Images à la sauvette” of 1951. There are generational aspects to this question, of course.
But my main point was to offer a couple of other practical suggestions/corrections on the Photographic Timeline re Ravilious and others.
Firstly, on James Ravilious.
His first book which I think should figure on your list was (1980) The Heart of the Country, with Robin Ravilious, London, Scolar Press. This displayed the first fruits of his work for Beaford Trust on North Devon land and people from c.1972.
Can I also suggest you refer to An English Eye in its first edition (1998, Devon Books, Tiverton but printed quite well by Jackson Wilson in Leeds). The 2007 volume published by The Bardwell Press and printed by EBS in Verona is the 2nd edition, better printed though hardly changed except for the bibliography and couple of minor corrections.
In 2000 Down the Deep Lanes was published, with a text by Peter Beacham. This was a thematic book about characteristic aspects of the South-West’s landscape, vernacular architecture and rural communities using some photographs from the Beaford project, but mainly others specially made for it in Devon and Cornwall up to 1999, the year of Ravilious’s death. It was re-published in 2008 in a slightly revised second edition, again by The Bardwell Press.
“Lawrence’s vision of England going to the dogs rings true today precisely because neither he nor anyone else was able to do anyting to prevent it. Lawrence realised that the colossal ugliness of industrialisation owas being succeeded by a different kind of blight: the spread of ‘red bricked semi-detached villas in new streets’. This had only just got under way but Lawrence saw it as evidence of the way ‘one England blots out another’.” Dyer on D.H Lawrence
Philip Larkin laments in ‘Going, Going‘ (1972) that the hole country will be ‘bricked-in':
“And that will be England gone,
The shadows, the meadows, the lanes,
The guildhalls, the carved choirs.
There’ll be books; it will linger on
In galleries; but all that remains
For us will be concrete and tyres.”
“Lawrence’s and Larkin’s worst fears have been miserably realised. Contemporary England may seem far removed from the hideous industrialised Victorian image of Dickens’ Coketown, but what might be termed a ‘Swindonisation’ has taken place whereby every town looks exactly like every other. A journey through the vast bulk of England is now a journey through the almost unrelieved ugliness of post-industrial homotgenisation.” Geoff Dyer.
Of Strong’s confession to being “baffled” by the charge that English nationalism is often chauvinistic, Cruickshank writes: “He has no business being baffled about the way English patriots are perceived.” Sinclair’s “view of England and immigration,” Cruickshank goes on, “is a corrective to Strong’s assertion that a rural idyll ‘offers an answer to the present crisis of English identity'”.
You can read an interview with Iain Sinclair about Ghost Milk here.
You can read a review of Roy Strong’s book in the Guardian here.
As part of one of my upcoming exhibition of We English photographs at the National Media Museum (12th March – 8th September), and as discussed previously on the blog, we will be including photographs from the Museum’s own collection, introducing the English at leisure from a historical perspective.
Since September last year I’ve been working closely with Ruth Kitchin, Collections Assistant, on the selection and curation of works for the exhibition. Also involved was Stephen Daniels (Professor of Cultural Geography at Nottingham Trent University and author of the essay ‘The English Outdoors’ from We English) who was invited to the Museum to discuss the development of the selection. Here is a short film, shot in the Museum archives on 24th November last year, when we all came together to discuss some of the considerations for the selection.
Writing in the latter, Daniels describes landscape imagery “as not merely a reflection of, or distraction from, more pressing social, economic, or political issues; it is often a powerful mode of knowledge and social engagement. As exemplars of moral order and aesthetic harmony, particular landscapes achieve the status of national icons, and imperialists, almost by definition, have annexed the homelands of others in their identity myths, projecting on ‘foreigners’ pictorial codes that express both an affinity with the colonizing country and an estrangement from it.” In the book Daniels shows how various artists–including painters, landscape designers, and architects–have articulated national identities in England and the United States from the later eighteenth century to the present day.
You can download Daniel’s essay ‘The English Outdoors’ from We English, here.
As I mentioned in a previous post, it’s 75 years since Bradford-born JB Priestley wrote his classic English Journey, a snapshot of his travels around the country chronicling the thoughts of ordinary people. What did it mean to be English?
In last Sunday’s Observer, journalist Sarfraz Manzoor writes about his visit to Bradford – a city transformed by mass immigration, but cited in a recent survey for its essential ‘Englishness’ – and ask what that means today. Here’s a short extract from ‘Bradford reflects on many shades of Englishness':
“My time in Bradford is drawing to an end. What I have found is a more complicated picture than I had expected. The city did feel divided and I can see why some whites could feel that much of Bradford more closely resembles Pakistan than England and are turning to extremist parties. And yet digging deeper I also found signs of hope in places like Saltaire Cricket Club. Things were rarely quite what they appeared. Ed, the chairman of the cricket club, was white but adamant he was not English since he had spent the first seven years of his life in Scotland. Meanwhile his friend Anil had been born in India but said that he felt utterly English. And then there was Husman Khan. He was the one who had been in the throng burning copies of The Satanic Verses, but not long after the book-burning Khan met a girl -a white girl from Halifax, whom he married and with whom he has four children. I met his 16-year-old daughter, Najda, her head covered in a headscarf that she had bought, she told me, “in a hippie clothing shop”. She belongs to a generation whose identity is as much about the music on their digital devices as the heritage of their parents. What does Englishness mean to you, I ask. “It’s about being prim and proper,” suggests Najda. “You either laugh or cry and the English laugh at it all.” ”
“What one man saw, heard, thought and felt on a journey through England” J B Priestly, quoted in English Journey
I was pleased to hear from another British photographer, John Angerson, who is heading out on the road documenting England. Angerson is following in the footsteps of J.B. Priestley who wrote English Journey, a celebrated account of his travels through rural and industrial England in the 1930s. 2009 marks the 75th anniversary of its publication.
Angerson says his project will “highlight– as Priestley did – industry, migration, shifting communities, and citizenship, questions that were as relevant in the 1930s as they are now. Priestley’s English Journey is an example of an individual’s perception of place, and how a place is determined by the particular viewpoint from which it is observed. This is relevant to what we know about the nature of photography. Photographs are subjective- documentary photography can only ever be about the photographer’s perceptions of places, and people they encounter.”
Just before Christmas I attended a talk by Ingrid Pollard at Tate Britain as part of their Conversation Pieces series. It got me thing about my previous post talking about landscapes as contested places and I thought it would be interesting to touch upon the visual relationship between rural England, notions of Englishness and ethnicity.
Pollard first came to public attention in 1987 with Pastoral Interlude, a series of photographs about Black people’s experience of the English countryside, particularly the Lake District. Steeped in the heritage of Wordsworth and the Romantic poets, her photographs explore the beauty of the English landscape and coastline, alongside the memories hidden within England’s history and its relationship to Africa and the Caribbean. Her interest in the layers of history is echoed in her use of 19th century photographic techniques.
As a Black woman, Pollard articulates in her Pastoral Interlude and Wordsworth Heritage series several levels of alienation and otherness. The landscape of the Lake District, which she sees as epitomizing the ‘authentic’ British countryside, confirms the status of the Black woman as an outsider. For instance, in Pastoral Interlude, Pollard captions a photograph of a lone black female figure in the landscape,
“…it’s as if the Black experience is only lived within an urban environment. I though I liked the Lake District where I wandered lonely as a Black face in a sea of white. A visit to the countryside is always accompanied by a feeling of unease, dread….”
The caption indicates what she takes to be the oppressive homogeneity of visitors to the region. Writing about Pastoral Interlude in her book Postcards Home (Chris Boot Ltd, 2004) Pollard says “There was an unconscious selection of the lone figure within the landscape. It became a way of working. The stylized posed figures, the use of historical details about a particular place. Nothing about the scene is really ‘natural’. It’s as manufactured and deliberate as the assumptions and stereotypes about Black people.”
Pollard’s use of surprising, sometimes shocking captions subvert her images which otherwise show someone, who at first glance, looks like they seem to be enjoying themselves in the countryside and appear to be ‘at home’. For instance, another image of herself in the Lake District she captions
“…Searching for sea shells, waves lap my Wellington boots, carrying lost souls of brothers & sisters released over the ship side…”
As John Taylor writes in his book A Dream of England, “despite the commodification of the countryside as a haunt for well-equipped ramblers, following in the footsteps of the Romantics, for Pollard the landscape is disenchanting: the spell it casts as a commodity seeks to discount her as a customer. Her landscapes recall with irony the tradition of eighteenth century British landscape painting, which sought to establish the countryside as the natural domain of the British middle classes.”
Twenty years after her Pastoral Interlude work was made, I wonder whether Pollard would still find the English countryside as insular and racist as she did then?
Another photographer, whose work has challenged our stereotypes and conventional readings of English rural landscapes would be John Kippin. Kippin’s work pays allegiance to the conventions and traditions of pictorial landscape whilst foregrounding issues within contemporary culture and politics. Note particularly his photograph ‘Prayer Meeting, Windemere’ taken from a body of work called Nostalgia for the Future.
Describing the scene in Creative Camera (quoted from A Dream of England), Paul Wombell writes that the party are “probably from Lancashire and came to work in the mills, and now they are tourists in this heritage England. It turns the idea of British landscape upside down; who goes there, what meanings can people get” (1992). As Taylor notes “although there is a spiritual tradition to English landscape, prayers in this fashion are quite unconnected to the pantheism or Romanticism which is usually associated with it.”
This projection of a dominant culture in the countryside can be seen when we look at the preponderance of white, middle-class, middle-aged members of the National Trust (see this article in The Independent).
It was also recently highlighted in a study by the Commission for Racial Equality (2004), which showed that although ethnic minorities make up 8% of the UK population they represented just 1% of visitors to the countryside. The then chairman of the Commission, Trevor Phillips, suggested that a form of “passive apartheid” existed in the British countryside. His comments certainly sparked quite a debate. However, it was interesting to see how many ethnic minorities disagreed with his analysis (see replies posted on the BBC News Online here) and actually felt quite at home in the countryside.
This summer there was an article in The Guardian where four journalists described their memories of holidays in the UK. British born writer Maya Jaggi described her experiences of childhood holidays in the Lake District in the 1970s.
Maya Jaggi, Lake District
“The ingredients of the ideal holiday were fixed for me as a child on a trip to Windermere. After a day on the lake, messing about in a rowing boat with my family, my aunt Madhur gave me a masterclass in boning fish.” She goes on to say “My parents had taken to borrowing a friend’s cottage in the village of Ulpha near Coniston Water. My mother (Madhur’s eldest sister) was head of English in a London school, and was drawn to the Lake poet associations. She would marshal my two older brothers and me to Dove Cottage and Rydal Mount, pointing out the spot where the Ullswater daffodils sprouted. My brothers learned to fish for brown trout in the River Duddon, the inspiration for 34 Wordsworth sonnets (I was keener then on Swallows and Amazons). The riverbanks near Ulpha bridge are now a popular site for picnickers, but we had them much to ourselves.”
Jaggi makes no reference to her or her family feeling marginalised in the landscape. They seem very much at home. In fact, she goes on to make a connection between the landscape of the Lake District and that of her father’s birthplace of the Punjab-
“For my displaced, cash-strapped parents the Lake District may have been a landscape in which to recreate for us aspects of their own childhoods. My father, whose family lost land in Punjab during Partition, would roll up his trousers and wade gamely into the becks, much to my adolescent embarrassment, while packed lunches on the fells could conceivably stand in for the lavish picnics at Himalayan hill stations that were a mythic part of my mother’s Old Delhi family. After the sisters studied at Delhi University (where my parents met), my mother left for London on her honeymoon, while Madhur, after Rada, settled in Greenwich Village. The English Lakes became a place where a family dispersed across three continents could reassemble.”
In relation to my own journey around England for this project, while I found that much of rural areas in the West Country and Northumbria to be very white, in the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, North Yorkshire Moors and Lake District I was surprised to witness relatively large numbers of ethnic minorities engaging with the countryside (as Wombell alluded to, this would make sense given the proximity of these rural retreats to large towns and cities with substantial ethnic minority populations, like Burnley, Bradford, Leeds and Blackburn), and seemingly not alienated by the environment.
Take for example my photograph below of rock climbers on Stanage Edge in the Peak District. In the foreground a Muslim couple wearing distinct grey robes walk on a footpath through the landscape. Our tendency to ‘read’ this view in terms of traditional English activities is hard to resist and the couple therefore seem to be ‘out of place’. On speaking to them I learned that they were from Leicester on a weeks walking holiday, staying at a B&B in the nearby village of Hathersage. They spoke of feeling completely at ease in the area and described how they often spent their holidays exploring the English countryside.
One organization that is trying to engage more ethnic minority groups with rural England is the Mosaic Partnership. Mosaic is an organization forging links between black and minority ethnic community groups across England and Wales with four National Park Authorities (the Peak District, Yorkshire Dales, Brecon Beacons & North York Moors), the Youth Hostels Association (YHA), and the Campaign for National Parks (CNP; formerly the Council for National Parks). They are attempting to promote National Parks as part of our shared cultural heritage, as well as places offering opportunities for physical recreation and spiritual renewal.
You can read accounts written by several ethnic groups who have taken tours in National Parks on Mosaic’s website here.
It’s worth mentioning that there is also a political dimension to landscapes of rural England. Take for example the reporting and politicised nature of the foot-and-mouth outbreak or the trail of Mohammed Hamid, who was jailed in February 2008 for organising al-Qaida style training camps across Britain (read article in The Guardian here). In relation to ethnicity, this latter event is of interest.
Photographs taken by two surveillance officers from Scotland Yard (above) showed Hamid, and several other Muslim men in a group of 23 others, on exercises at a farm in the Elterwater area of the Lake District. In the trial Hamid claimed these were bonding sessions to bring together Muslim men who felt vulnerable after 9/11. But police said he was trying to recruit and train young men for violent jihad. Hamid organised two more camps in the Lakes. The last on 17 August 2004 included 21/7 ringleader Muktar Ibrahim. MI5 officers covertly filmed this gathering. Hamid later organized excercises in secluded sites in the New Forest and paintballing centres in south-east England.
The widespread reporting and publication of these photographs provoked headlines around the world linking rural England with terrorism-
“Training camps for terrorists in UK parks”The Guardian, 14th August 2006
“Holiday trip, or a ‘bomber’ training camp?”Daily Telegraph, 19th January 2007
“Al Qaeda terrorist who took part in Lake District training camp sentenced to six years in prison”Daily Mail, 22nd November 2007
“Network of terrorist camps in rural England – Convictions of 7 militants revealed terror activities in idyllic rural settings” MSNBC, 26th February 2008
“Trial exposes network of UK terror camps”Zee News, 27th February 2008
I’m currently reading an interesting book by Michael Billing called Banal Nationalism (Sage Publications, 1995). The thesis of banal nationalism suggests that nationhood is near the surface of contemporary life and makes a claim that nationalism is all too easily bracketed off as something extreme and irrational. Banal nationalism refers to the everyday representations of the nation which build an imagined sense of national solidarity and belonging amongst humans.
Billig suggests that nationalism is more than just a set of ideas expressed of separatists. Instead, nationalism is omnipresent – often unexpressed, but always ready to be mobilized in the wake of catalytic events. He writes: “A nation is more than an imagined community of people, for a place – -a homeland – also has to be imagined….The imagining of a ‘country’ involves the imagining of a bounded totality beyond immediate experience of place. The imaginery of the national place is similar to the imagining of the national community. As Benedict Anderson stressed, the community has to be imagined because it is conceived to stretch beyond immediate experience; it embraces far more people than those with which citizens are personally acquainted. The citizens of the nation state might themselves have only visited a small part of the national territory. They can even be tourists in parts of ‘their’ own land; yet it is still ‘their land’. The unity of the national territory has to be imagined rather than directly apprehended.”
He cites examples of banal nationalism as the use of flags in everyday contexts, sporting events, national songs, symbols on money, popular expressions and turns of phrase, patriotic clubs, the use of implied togetherness in the national press, for example, the use of terms such as the prime minister, ur team, and divisions into “domestic” and “international” news, and even the weather. Many of these symbols are most effective because of their constant repetition, and almost subliminal nature.
Billig argues that the academic and journalistic focus on extreme nationalists, separatist movements, and xenophobes in the 1980s and 90s obscured the modern strength of nationalism, by implying that it was a fringe ideology. He notes the almost unspoken assumption of the utmost importance of the nation in political discourse of the time, for example in the calls to protect Kuwait during the 1991 Gulf War, or the Falkland Islands in 1982. He argues that the “hidden” nature of modern nationalism makes it a very powerful ideology, partially because it remains largely unexamined and unchallenged, yet remains the basis for powerful political movements, and most political violence in the world today. However, in earlier times calls to the “nation” were not as important, when religion, loyalty, or family might have been invoked more successfully to mobilize action.
To find out more about various academic studies on the topic of nationalism, visit the The Nationalism Project website here.
I’m currently reading a book called Landscape and Power, edited by By W. J. Thomas Mitchell. The book, originally published in 1994, reshapes the direction of landscape studies by considering landscape not simply as an object to be seen or a text to be read, but as an instrument of cultural force, a central tool in the creation of national and social identity.
As Mitchell writes in his introduction- “Landscapes need to be decoded, they don’t merely signify or symbolise power relations; it is an instrument of cultural power. Landscape is a dynamic medium, in which we live and move and have our being, but also a medium that is itself in motion from one place of time to another…Landscape circulates as a medium of exchange, a site of visual appropriation, a focus for the formation of identity.”
In reference to my last post on Dutch painting, there’s a fascinating essay by Ann Jensen Adams called ‘Competing Communities in the Great Bog of Europe: Identity and Seventeenth-Century Dutch Landscape Painting’. You can read it on google books here.
As Adams identifies, historically the Dutch have maintained a unique and tangible relationship with their land. According to a popular Dutch saying- God created the world, but the Dutch created Holland, referring to the largest land reclamation project attempted in the history of the world, which took place in the 16th Century.